I was at an horizon scanning workshop organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics last week to discuss the future of food sustainability in the UK. It was run under the Chatham House rule, which means you can say things about what was said but not who said it. In a summing up at the end of the day for Nuffield, it was felt that they may be able to help to recognise and integrate the moral claims on food sustainability especially around research and technology. There were a range of principles that were quite widely shared among the broad group of participants. One was that a holistic food system approach was needed with interdisciplinary research including the integration of social sciences at the outset. A multilevel approach in policy was also needed from local to global to landscape. A big question was how diets could be changed and who are the duty bearers to do so. There was an emphasis on recognising the need for nutrition security not just food security, in other words it’s not enough simply to think about calories but how well the diet gives nourishment to those consuming it. The need for equity of access to food linked to climate and social justice was also emphasised.
There were questions on what research was for, what is its focus, who pays and who gets the benefits from it. Where does the money come from for research, what is the institutional structure that makes the most sense in whose interests and what are the opportunity costs of doing research in some areas and neglecting others, such as agro-ecology. There is also a need to recognise that there different ways of dealing with problems that may or may not include technology and, in fact, is there too much focus on increasing production, too few interdisciplinary approaches raising questions about what the appropriate balance is between high-tech and social, economic, political and cultural approaches. Others pointed out the need for a clear appreciation of a range of externalities involved in our food system.
The day began with a presentation that outlined seven areas that had to be addressed. The first was that a great transformation was needed and the enormity of what had to happen is now clear from changing the way we use animals to plants to the ecosystem. The need to deal with biodiversity loss by moving to plant-based diets was understood and the social dimensions of sustainability, which are often underplayed. Food culture is often missing. The UK was not narrowing the evidence gap and is off-shoring its greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption. It needs a one nation approach looking at the whole population in terms of health, social values, quality, quantity, environment, economics and governance. Secondly, food is a key driver of unsustainability of our present system and Brexit illustrates the just-in-time food system we have in the UK. According to report today (see below) the government is planning to suspend all food regulations in the event of a no deal Brexit. The third point was the need for multilevel policy initiatives not just in the UK. Here the sustainable development goals were a useful framework but we need to realise that Britain is in the heartlands of where world food power and capital lie. A fourth point was recognising that companies are very interested in these issues. They are looking long term, seeing Armageddon ahead and working out how to deal with it. However, this tends to be the larger ones and it is not being dealt with by small and medium enterprises.
A fifth point was the need for civil society organisations to take on this broad view and understanding of the food system challenges and how they connect together to deal with them. A sixth point was that three lessons could be drawn from all this. These are that there are three kinds of policy approaches at the moment – first, is sticking to simple points and not trying to deal with the complexity as people find it too challenging. Second is choice editing and the third one was targeting meat and hoping everything else would fall into place. The final point was that we do not have a great food transition the UK but there are throughout the country different interesting democratic experiments going on. While the circular economy was a useful material approach to reduce waste the question was what drives waste. It was not the answer to sustainability. Brexit makes everything harder as the UK is embedded in a Europeanised food system from which 41% of its food comes.
Interestingly, a paper published today Feeding Britain: Food Security after Brexit from the Food Research Collaboration’s Food Brexit Briefings, calls upon the UK government to “Maintain a clear and explicit focus on the potential adverse effects of Brexit on food security in the UK, while negotiating the UK’s future trading relationships with the EU and other jurisdictions” as well as publish “Brexit impact studies on the UK’s agricultural and food system” amongst other things. It also calls for a rethink of the Food Standards Agencies Regulating Our Future programme plans for changing the way food is regulated in the UK.
It is also interesting to see that there is much more discussion in the EU about taking a more food system change approach to rethinking food and farming as shown by the recent publication from the FOOD 2030 Expert Group “Recipe for Change: An agenda for a climate-smart and sustainable food system for a healthy Europe”
Many of the issues around research in food and farming are discussed in For whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda, a Food Ethics Council Publication with a collection of articles addressing key questions about how the research agenda is set in food and farming, the dominant research paradigm, and inclusive alternatives to deliver public good.