Do Foxes eat chlorinated chickens? Food policy in Brexit Britain.

Tom Carman recently joined Ethex having spent a career in the progressive food movement. His blog looks at the role that positive investing has played in making structural changes to an important, but often invisible part of our lives – food systems and how it can continue to play an important role in a post Brexit world.

A few years ago I met a friend at a food-sector conference who had taken a break from the sector. The conference was her first entrance back to the world of food, and after an hour had passed she turned to me and said “I’m so relieved I’ve not been missing out on anything … the discussions are just the same as two years ago!” Although food has been my personal focus, I have also explored other sectors including woodlands, rural services, pubs and I am now exploring the world of ethical or positive investing. My feeling from observing these other sectors is that this same quote can also be universally applied – that the ongoing conversations and discourse can seem very static to those involved in them!

Several weeks ago, a new report was published entitled A Food Brexit: time to get real, which highlighted a number of failures in the UK relating to food and Brexit. The report raises a number of of important points … one of the more significant being around food quality standards and the concern that many citizens rightly have about the potential relaxation of food standards that could lead to poorer diets and worsening public health, particularly in relation to a replacement trade deal with the US. There was a whole debate on this topic itself which was asking Liam Fox to eat a chlorinated chicken on TV, and is the content through which the Food Brexit report made a bit of a splash in the press. However, in my opinion the most important issue that this report raises is one that has been part of the progressive food sector discourse for as long as I can remember – What is the vision for the UK’s food system; what are our food systems goals and how will it address sustainability challenges on ecosystems, social equality and public health?

The lack of discussion around food has been particularly alarming given the weight food and farming has within EU – the Common Agricultural Policy is 40% of EU spend for instance – so for me, whilst the report mentioned above highlighted all the things that those of us working in the progressive food sector have been discussing for ages, it also showed me that Brexit has provided a platform to highlight that systems change, and especially progressive systems change is so slow, particularly without the provision of adequate resources. That’s unfortunately why we’ve been talking about this in the food sector for so long..

 

 

 

 

From my perspective, one of the largest food policy failures in the UK and the world is evident through the paradox of some populations experiencing an obesity crisis whilst, simultaniously, others are experiencing extreme food poverty. A sobering but eventually positive point is made by this insightful video from the Real Farming Trust on the ‘production focused policies’ of conventional farming – we make enough food already, we just need to distribute it more ethically. A response to the bad policy in food, drawing on the current on-trend topic of ‘food waste’ has been the development of the food-bank-plus market. There is a busy space of initiatives out there – for example FoodCycle, Plan Zheroes, Company Shop, Trussel Trust, Feeding the 5000 are all attempting to address the better distribution of food, but despite the truly excellent and inspiring efforts by all those involved, there hasn’t been the overhaul of food systems that is needed to deliver the public benefits that we know the food system can deliver.

A normal response from policy failure is to say that the market will step in, however the trend in food waste has been for supermarkets focus on individual responsibility i.e. “it’s your fault, consumer!”. The British Retail Consortium has commissioned a series of reports for the last few years, which show that the majority of food waste occurs in the home (70%) with very little occurring in retail (2%). Whilst these reports are independent, having been prepared by the very excellent WRAP, the tactic from conventional industry is clear – to support and promote reports and research which take the discussion away from industry practices that contribute to the problem - these include; not issuing farmers contracts to guarantee their supply; discretionary and subjective standards on quality of food they are willing to accept from producers; and sale strategies that incentivise over purchasing (think buy-one-get-one-free) but not consumption. This is hardly surprising though - we’ve seen businesses successfully ignore and shift their responsibility before - take car manufacturing or the tobacco industryfor instance. Policy-based-evidence making, rather than evidence-based-policy-making, has likely affected lots of sectors, but the point is this though – it’s not all your fault!

This is where the enterprise and positive investment can start to make a difference, by delivering activity that addresses failures by policy to address food system structures. Positive investing can help make the difference by letting your money (and therefore resources) bypass conventional banks who invest in conventional food businesses - Spare Fruit for instance, is an interesting example of how the ‘invisible hand’ has needed to step in where a combination of weak policy and poor conventional business practices, has resulted in development of the food-bank-plus market. A lesson here – lets resource and invest in the cool stuff we want - Spare Fruit has been invested in, and this will enable it to redirect food waste to actual consumption, and support farming livelihoods, whilst at the same time taking responsibility for conventional industry activity I hope if I return to the world of positive food in the next few years, that food waste is a solved issue that no longer needs discussing!

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