A broad and distinguished group of people from academia, the world of campaigning, farmers and people who rescue food otherwise headed for landfill gathered at City University recently to debate what a food strategy for England should look like.
We learnt how Scotland has already been through several iterations of a written food strategy, and how public interest in the strategy has grown exponentially in recent years, with 214 responses to a consultation in 2014, and 1,400 to a similar call in 2019.
We heard an inspiring account from Brighton and Hove of how a city food strategy there is making real progress in delivering “healthy, sustainable, fair food for all”. And we learnt how the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte started as a global pioneer with a food strategy in 1993, with results that continue to be admired.
This all makes England - which has no such plan - apparently very late to this particular dinner.
This is one more case of where an absence of declaration of intent doesn’t mean an absence of decision-making.
We have had a food strategy for decades, just not one that has been written down.
That strategy is to let the supermarkets and multinational food manufacturers decide what we eat, what farmers grow and often how they grow it. It is a strategy with one goal: maximising profits.
The results are terrible for the health of English people, for the state of our nature, and for the income and security of farmers. It is also terrible for 0ur food security, as the New Economics Foundation reported back in 2008 in its telling report Nine Meals from Anarchy.
Ruth Davis, from the RSPB and Defra, summed it up well: "No one rocks up to supermarket intending to buy their child an unhealthy diet. But then they encounter the behaviour change techniques. If you buy biscuits at ‘two for the price of one’ they don't last two weeks. This leads to poor families spending more."
Our unwritten “food strategy” has contributed to a society that has an obesity crisis, an explosion of Type 2 diabetes, massive overconsumption of ultra-processed food, and pitiful underconsumption of fruit and vegetables.
It's one where farmers receive only 6 percent of the value in the food chain, as the National Farmers’ Union Minette Batters reminded the City University Symposium, while many smaller, more environmentally friendly operations, like family dairy farms, are forced out of business in favour of mega-factory farms.
It's one where the state of nature has become truly parlous, as supermarket price-squeezing pushes unsustainable practices.
We learnt that some of these impacts can be counteracted with clever, solid effort, in the case of the HENRY project in Leeds, and innovative, adventurous companies like Hodmedods, which sells beans and pulses grown in the UK as an affordable alternative to factory-farmed meat.
But these initiatives have to fight the government policy of “Supermarket First” every step of the way.
Insisting that there already is a food strategy, even if not written down, is not just a piece of sophistry. It makes a crucial point that the way things are now is not inevitable.
Choices have been made in the past – whether to take away any government responsibility for food security (storage warehouses were emptied and closed in the 1970s), or to end the former Labour Party policy of forcing out-of-town shopping centres to charge for parking, as do town centres where small independent shops cluster (something else to blame Tony Blair for).
An inadequate minimum wage, inadequately enforced, has left many of the one in eight workers employed in the food industry at risk of going hungry. As one speaker commented: it's a profound policy failure that supermarket workers are having to go to food banks to feed themselves.
We ate a delicious vegan lunch at the symposium - top marks to the organisers for modelling the change to the fruit and vegetable-packed diet the nutritionists and climate-scientists tell us we need, although still with a lot of work to do on ending single-use plastics). Before that, participants were polled on what they thought was the primary barrier to healthy food system.
I was pleased, but not surprised, that “power differentials in politics” received by far the highest number of votes (above “siloed government” and “different world views”).
People want to feed themselves and their children well, but letting the decisions about our food system be made by a handful of companies – supermarkets and manufacturers – is not allowing them that outcome. (And long working hours and distant, slow, horrible commutes are making it even more unlikely.)
A thoughtful, constructive food system - of the kind the symposium hoped to be a stepping stone towards - can only come when communities are empowered to make decisions for themselves.
Our communities need access to the resources to implement these decisions, be it access to land, funding or forcing the supermarkets to bear the externalised costs of their model - whether that be pesticide-soaked waters and voluminous, inevitable food waste, or the disappearance of wildlife and childhood obesity and rampant diabetes.
Bearing that cost would almost certainly put the supermarkets out of business, and let small independent producers flourish.
That’s a food strategy worth writing down.
Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.