The potential of a sustainable food and farming to aid economic recovery and become central to a green new deal through jobs and resilient economies is being missed, according to a panel debate this week.
Held at the annual conference of Sustain, the alliance of sustainable food and farming groups, speakers on the panel discussed the potential for jobs, land access and accountable ethical businesses to spark a “food revolution”.
The panel was chaired by Sheila Dillon, host of Radio 4’s The Food Programme, who said: “The practicalities of a food revolution when power and vested interests are against so much of what would improve our lives and our economy. So what do we do?”
Fatima Ibrahim, co-executive director of Green New Deal UK, said: “Food doesn’t seem to be at the centre of campaigning on climate and nature, and particular on the Green New Deal. Farming is a place we could be generating new good jobs.”
She said the pandemic has led to a series of “aha” moments for the public, who have begun to question what they consume and where it comes from. “We need to show the public that normal wasn’t working, and we don’t want to back there.
“We need more people who look like me, and lead campaigns on climate and green recovery, to engage with this community," she said.
Author and food visionary Carolyn Steel said a transition to sustainable food is “perfectably doable, it’s just a question of political will.” “The first thing to do is to internalise the true cost of food. Frankly, it would make industrial agriculture unaffordable, because it already is," she said.
“The other thing is land – in order to flourish, we need access to land. We need far more farmers than we currently have,” she said, suggesting that ideas like a ‘land value tax’ could see land owners pay a tax to communities for the privilege of having sole land use. “We need more people in farming because we need a much more local, regional model,” she added.
Also on the panel was organic entrepreneur and founder of The Bull Inn in Totnes, Geetie Singh-Watson, who pointed to the role of independents in proving that ethical business can be commercially successful.
“I used to talk about minimising my environmental impact; now I talk about having a positive environmental impact," she said. "There is an opportunity to support radical, brave, independent businesses and not send our money out to supermarkets.”
Identifying and banning greenwash will be central to any sustainable movement, said Singh-Watson, adding that “if we allow greenwash to rule us, we’re completely lost. “We need certification, otherwise we’re relying on people’s claims,” she said.
Elsewhere in the conference, a quickfire of pitches for a better food and farming system included how agro forestry could replace imports; the potential for innovative regionalised finance; community and social food models; and how public sector procurement could be adapted to buy local.
Representing politics on the panel was shadow minister for Defra, Labour MP Luke Pollard, who said he wished he could “bottle this debate and share with colleagues”. “I think food should be more political – not party political – but it is political. We are missing the energy around food in Westminster.”
Pollard said that since farming has become a devolved competency after the Brexit vote, there is a lag in understanding of the sector by British MPs. “We need to upskill our Westminster politicians,” he said.
Defra minister Victoria Prentis dropped out of her slot on the conference programme, providing pre-recorded answers to questions on the government’s policy for environmental land management, fishing and food waste after Brexit.