Scotland: time for a National Food Service?

| 15th October 2014
Who needs vegetables when there's deep-fried Mars Bars to eat? Photo: karendesuyo via Flickr.
Who needs vegetables when there's deep-fried Mars Bars to eat? Photo: karendesuyo via Flickr.

Who needs vegetables when there's deep-fried Mars Bars to eat? Photo: karendesuyo via Flickr (in Edinburgh).

The Scottish diet is famous for being the worst in Europe, write Pete Ritchie and Miriam Ross. Yet the country has rich land and sea resources, and exports large quantities of high quality food. By treating food as a common good instead of leaving the market to provide, Scots can start to transform their food future.
Food sustains and nourishes not just individuals but also families, communities and our whole society. It's too important to be left to the market.

Scotland's brief period at the top of the international news agenda last month is over, for now. But the debate leading up to the independence referendum revealed a huge desire to make Scotland a better place.

Since the referendum, thousands of Scots have joined political parties for the first times in their lives, and the networks formed during the campaign are busy planning for the future. Conversations about change are continuing.

This Thursday and Friday in Glasgow, farmers from Scotland, India, Malawi and Trinidad and Tobago and campaigners from Canada and California will join nutritionists, climate scientists and experts on food poverty and food banks at the Nourish Scotland conference to discuss how to make food in Scotland better, fairer, healthier and more sustainable.

Only one in five Scots get their 'five a day'

It's a formidable challenge. More than a quarter of people in Scotland are obese. Only one in five adults eats five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, and Scots eat less fruit, vegetables and fish than their English neighbours.

There is a huge and growing inequality of diet between rich and poor, and the number of people using food banks has risen sharply in the past two years. Supermarkets dominate food retail, and highly processed food features prominently in many people's diets.

Industrial farming methods are harming soil quality and biodiversity. Meanwhile 40% of Scotland's food is imported, with serious implications for our carbon footprint and for our impact on the lives of others.

But the resources available are also impressive. Despite its high rate of imports, Scotland is a net exporter of food, producing far more than it eats. The seas around Scotland are rich in fish and seafood. There is plenty of arable land - around the same area per person as in India, which produces almost all of its own food.

To grow enough vegetables for everyone in Scotland to eat the recommended quantity would require an area of land smaller than that taken up by Scotland's urban gardens.

A more holistic food policy

Change is required on many different levels if we are to make sure everyone in Scotland can eat well, as well as playing our part in ensuring everyone in the world can eat well, without trashing the planet.

Crucially, we need to look at our food system as a whole. For many years, government policy on food production in Scotland has been all about profit and export - and the food industry has been allowed to pursue ever greater profit regardless of the social, environmental and health impact in Scotland and beyond.

Nutrition has been seen largely as the responsibility of individuals, with government providing dietary advice but making little attempt to make healthy food more available and affordable.

The Scottish government has started to take small steps towards a more holistic food policy. For example, it has committed to extending the provision of free school meals, and improving the quality of food in schools and hospitals.

Food, and the land that produces it, as common goods?

Land - intimately bound up with food - is also receiving some long overdue attention.

Distribution of land in Scotland is more unequal than anywhere else in Europe, with fewer than one thousand people owning half of all land. Many landowners use their land for recreational hunting, shooting and fishing, rather than for food production.

The Scottish government has promised to make land distribution fairer, and a recent government study recommended limiting the size of landholdings and giving tenant farmers the right to buy the land they farm.

Legislation introduced in 2003 to help communities acquire land has already allowed 500,000 acres of land to come under community ownership, and a target of a million acres has been set for 2020.

A new strategy published for consultation this year, entitled ‘Becoming a Good Food Nation', sets out aspirations for government policy to focus on health, particularly for children, and to support the production and sale of locally grown food, including through public sector food buying.

These are steps in the right direction, and the impetus towards a fairer, more sustainable food system is being driven forward by a diverse movement of small farmers and food businesses, community gardens, and networks established to increase access to affordable, healthy, local food.

However, the reality is that food remains overwhelmingly dominated by big, global businesses, which focus on profit, not on feeding people well or on preserving the planet for future generations.

There are, to be sure, positive initiatives by big business, for example to reduce salt content in foods and to use less packaging. But with food being primarily driven by profit, such voluntary programmes cannot bring about the huge changes we need.

If we started treating food as a common good, and farming and food production as services delivering good nutrition, good work, strong communities and healthy, biodiverse, resilient environments, we could create the potential for profound positive transformation.

Vegetables on prescription?

In Scotland, this could lead to farmers having a similar role as GPs ('general practitioners' - family doctors) do in the National Health Service: GPs are public servants at the same time as being small to medium enterprises. Vegetables could be available on prescription, and subsidised for low-income families.

It could mean people sharing responsibility for food production, as citizens not just consumers, with much more of our food coming from allotments, community gardens and farms in and around cities.

Government could adopt a zero-tolerance approach to hunger in Scotland, monitoring it, measuring it, and finding a better long-term solution than food banks.

Small-scale, organic, sustainable farming could be supported through public subsidies, and food policy focused on production for local people rather than for export. Trees could be planted on pasture, reducing the risks of soil erosion and flooding.

We could introduce rules to help ensure the food we do import is produced to high social and environmental standards.

These are just a few of the many, many things we could do to radically reshape food in Scotland for the better. Food sustains and nourishes not just individuals but also families, communities and our whole society. It's too important to be left to the market.



The conference: Nourish Scotland takes place in Glasgow this week on 16th and 17th October 2014.

Pete Ritchie is the director of Nourish Scotland. Nourish aims to reshape the way food works in Scotland into a system that's fair, healthy, affordable and sustainable.

Miriam Ross is a freelance writer and researcher.