Never give Up! Reflections on the FRC and the state of UK food policy

Never give Up! Reflections on the FRC and the state of UK food policy

Field Notes

Never give Up! Reflections on the FRC and the state of UK food policy

Professor Tim Lang

Wednesday 31st May 2023

In the decade of the Food Research Collaboration’s (FRC) existence, I have sometimes wondered why we seem to go round in circles in the UK.

The FRC began three years after what seemed like a great step forward for progressive food policy in the UK. In 2010 we had gained an integrated food policy (the Food 2030 strategy) after three years of policy fights, and driven by the shock to food prices from the oil/commodity crisis. After the hard-won Food 2030 was jettisoned by a change of government, the FRC represented a way to rebuild arguments and strength. This needed collaboration across thought silos. A decade later, we’ve seen another attempt to create better food policy, the National Food Strategy (now even more urgently needed due to Brexit chaos), junked brutally by the Prime Minister of the day, who in theory had wanted it. Do we give up? No.

In Brussels, where I have just been, the even longer fight for the comprehensive Farm to Fork Strategy, won by 2020, is now under attack from the business-as-usual brigade (Big Food, Big Farm, Agri-tech, neoliberals stressing the need for cheap food), which is arguing that Europe should not reverse from agri-intensification and should ignore environmental or health arguments. We must watch that tussle closely.

It’s not all bad news. The public interest in food matters grows. New research and ideas pour out. Scotland has won the Good Food Nation Act, and Wales is in the process of agreeing a Good Food Wales Bill.

One of the lessons we’ve learned in the FRC decade is never to lose heart. Keep plugging away with data, arguments, listening, summarizing, explaining, winning friends, engaging with realities. There is no shortage of deep, powerful opponents, but never give up. It’s a truism of public policy never to waste a crisis. In a crisis, normality is in flux; so if normality is your problem, seize the moment. Easier said than done, I hear you say.

Actually, what happens in crises is that positions that have patiently been building up, gathering evidence, trading arguments, influencing potential influencers, can suddenly gain legitimacy. Can, but not necessarily will. Timing matters, as does the building of alliances. We got the chance to build Food 2030 because of tenacious political work by thousands of people, and there was a government which, while not previously particularly interested in food, realized it had come to the end of its attempts to ‘tweak’ policy. Something bigger was needed. Political support.

A difficulty for the FRC is that it’s had unremittingly hostile governments, and worse, the loss of the EU as potential critical friend. As the so-called Downing Street Farm to Fork Summit on May 16 showed, even when the sitting Prime Minister apparently wanted a pow-wow, it was a waste of time if he actually wanted simply to be seen to nod in the direction of food crises rather than resolve them. A neo-liberal, super-wealthy, pro-Brexit, technocratic, managerial PM ain’t a natural ally. But never give up.

The legacy of the FRC may actually be its contribution to building a consensus within alternative policy views. It has sought and published evidence on the threats to food standards from post-Brexit trade deals, alarming food welfare failure, the need for an agricultural transition, the opportunities and limitations of the Dimbleby National Food Strategy, the lock-in of Big Food, the inherent weakness and unfairness of the supermarket business model (so much deferred to by government), and the need to rebuild more regional food infrastructure and food hubs.

We must remember that the FRC has actually been a project. As a critic of how food policy thinking (and much wider politics) is held back by ‘projectitis’ – short-term interventions which end barely before they’ve got going – I salute the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation (EFF) for its long support. We approached it to see if it ‘read’ the state of policy as we did – great progress since the dire days of the old Ministry of Agriculture, a flowering of NGOs as a food movement, less reduction of food policy to farm level (important though that is) … but still a mismatch of policy actors, a failure to win over the mainstream of policy reform, no strong legal frameworks linking health, environment and citizenship.

We asked EFF for three years’ funding and have ended up with three rounds. This enabled continuity and allowed for flexibility: from anticipating Brexit (we held the only conference to look at food before the vote), we could shift to a focus on food hubs and whether localism and regionalism can counter corporatism or are inevitably marginal. The range of voices contributing to the FRC has been a testament to the team’s hard work and networking. It’s given many young researchers a taste of the value of engaging with the tricky matter of the public interest, as well as this older one the chance to muse out loud in this column.

In the decade since I approached EFF, the plan for the FRC has been able to germinate. The plan was simple – to encourage academics across the disciplines to engage more with civil society; to listen to them and be their ‘critical friends’. The FRC cannot claim sole impact in this; of course not. But everywhere in the UK I now see routine university-NGO collaboration. And not just for mercenary (REF impact) reasons. Any food system analyst knows that the complexity of today’s challenges gives no-one the right to claim the core truth. Even the most arrogant ‘inside-track’ academic advisor to government or business needs to keep a firm eye on thinking from civil society.

This must grow, especially as there is such paucity of thinking from the mainstream policy world. As the fig-leaf Downing Street Farm to Fork Summit showed, the reality is that the government isn’t very interested in food policy. Damage limitation perhaps, but no great leap forward or desire to create a viable framework. There wasn’t even a food plan for Brexit; there still isn’t. But never give up on trying to gain some rationality out of conflicts and messes, I say. So we simply work hard to clarify those messes and suggest where and how they might be addressed.

And this was the Centre for Food Policy’s second motive – a desire to help build the food movements as progressive, decent social forces. The early 2010s were nothing like as poisonous as politics have become – think only of the binary Brexit politics – but even then, the deliberate imposition of austerity presaged worsening trends. Key among these were food inequalities, the dominance of powerful commercial interests in the marketplace, and a reluctance to engage with the realities of food policy.

So where are we now?

The need for forensic, socially conscious analysis has not gone away. The case for restructuring the food system at local, regional and national levels has grown, not diminished. But policy thinking lags woefully. There isn’t even the weakest of policy interventions on consumer guidance for sustainable diets. The eating public is left spinning between competing claims. Worse, the understandable focus on the local is held back by lack of legal powers, let alone infrastructural support.

I’m suggesting, hoping, a bit like Hotel California, that while the FRC checks out at the end of May 2023 its presence on the web means it’s unlikely ever to leave! It’ll become a period, a moment, ultimately a blip but its lessons will ripple on. What a great coalition of people, thoughts and data it has given us. Thanks to all for that! The FRC legacy is to keep sharing, pooling, collaborating. Food is a collective not private challenge. With 1.5oC being breached, obesity still runaway, and food inequalities rampant, the age of poly-crises means we cannot rest …

Tim Lang founded the Food Research Collaboration before becoming its Senior Advisor.

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