Commissions like this one often follow a familiar formula: analyse the problem, add evidence and discuss, then make recommendations. Yet, for an inquiry into food, farming and the countryside, this approach is fraught with difficulty.
The complexity of these systems defies straightforward analysis. Generating further heated debates about the nature of what’s wrong stifles the imagination of what could be done differently. How many reports and studies are thick with analysis and insight, but thin on truly workable ideas or examples of how to do things better?
The RSA’s Food, Farming & Countryside Commission is approaching the evidence differently. We’re starting with what could be done, not only in action research around the UK, but also in our initial call for ideas. We hope to cut through some of the complexity and controversy by focusing on practical proposals and their potential effects.
Today we are launching a call for your ideas. We don’t want to waste your time on long lists of recommendations you’ve made before, or rehashing what you’re already telling Government. We want to know the key ideas that might get missed because they don’t fit neatly in one department or sector, because they seem too difficult, or because the people they’d benefit don’t have a voice.
To set the scene we’ve reviewed 1,000 proposals from 160 reports, speeches, consultation responses and other documents, all published since 2015. Most (55%) were from the third sector, mainly NGOs and think tanks. The next largest number were from the public sector (29%). There were fewer from the private sector (8%).
1. Proposals are mostly in policy silos
The proposals were mostly in silos, focused on single issues rather than linking them up.
Of those with a strong focus on environment, for example, only 1 in 4 also focused strongly on social benefits, and just 1 in 20 on the economy. Fewer than 1 in 10 of proposals with a strong focus on rural services promised even mild environmental benefits. And of the 130 proposals strongly focused on health and wellbeing only 6 had a strong focus on farming and only 3 had a strong focus on rural services, whereas 37 had a strong focus on food.
Yet so many of these issues are clearly connected. Where are the biggest opportunities to cut across these silos, say by improving health through farming, or benefitting nature through rural development beyond the farm gate?
How can we make better connections between policy or organisation silos so that we get multiple and reinforcing benefits - social, economic and environmental. Or indeed, avoid the risk that policy intentions in one sector are undermined by work in another?
2. Public money for public goods is a common theme
We found a striking focus from all sectors, but especially Government, on payments for public goods. Despite being one of the most specific categories we used to describe proposals, it accounted for almost 1 in 10 of those from the public sector.
This theme dominates Government’s policy proposals on finance relating to farming and the environment.
When it came to wider rural economy and services, not only were there fewer proposals but the type of financial intervention was different. Instead of public payments for public goods, the focus was on infrastructure.
This makes intuitive sense - public goods like clean water need maintaining while rural broadband takes investment. But this also reflects fashions in different areas of policy, and may miss opportunities. For example, where would investing in farming infrastructure make it cheaper to deliver public goods long term? What about innovative forms of finance like a rural basic income - could such ideas help farming communities’ transition from CAP payments? And can we understand and reposition where public money is already spent (through procurement, for example) to get better outcomes?
How can the principle of public money paying for public goods extend beyond ‘ecosystem services’?
3. Wildlife trumps climate change
Among proposals that focused strongly on environmental benefits, the greatest number aimed to protect or promote biodiversity.
Fewer focused on climate change or water management (e.g. flooding, water quality), and under a dozen strongly on energy or renewables. Among proposals on water, very few touched on issues of micropollution. Perhaps surprisingly, NGOs and think tanks were less likely to propose action on climate change than the public sector.
Farming, food and the countryside are bigger influences on wildlife than on emissions. Yet they are still important to climate change and on the sharp end of it. Should there be more focus on the practices that halt and mitigate climate change, or is it getting the attention it needs?
How can we encourage policymakers, businesses and citizens to prioritise systemic and global challenges, as well as what’s currently most visible or popular?
4. Calls for action by government are widespread
While our review covered all kinds of proposals, not just policy, 9 in 10 of those we found were for action by the public sector, mostly UK Government.
Many of these proposals fall squarely in remit for Defra, and are within the scope of its current consultation on the Agriculture Bill and the 25 Year Environment Plan. Yet plenty of others require leadership which spans Whitehall departments, and far beyond.
Some proposals with potentially far-reaching consequences for Defra’s agenda are outside its policy-making powers. These include changes to import duty, inheritance tax reforms that could affect land values, social prescribing, investing in rural transport or enabling affordable housing in the countryside. The devolved Governments are grappling with several of these, but others demand action from Westminster.
How does government decide what it can uniquely do? And how can others - businesses, civil society organisations, citizens - discern what they can do independent of government? To the extent such proposals need cross-governmental and UK-wide action, who should lead efforts to test and potentially develop them?
How can we support effective leadership practices that span government departments and agencies, and across public, private organisations and civic society?
5. Many proposals are vague about how and where changes will happen
Although many proposals say where responsibility for making change lies, they often seem tragically vague about how. For example, they may talk about “supporting farmers”, “examining potential”, “better integrating policy” or “co-ordinating groups”.
We also found that many of the proposals are for more proposals - in effect, delayed action. These are more common from the public and private sector than from NGOs and think tanks. Proposals for plans or strategies, together with research and calls for collaboration, account for over a quarter of all proposals.
It’s tempting to see this vagueness and delay as a problem, diluting accountability by deferring decisions. Alternatively, we can see it as an opportunity to develop how ideas would actually work hand-in-hand with the people affected.
How can we develop a better awareness of how policy implementation actually happens and how best to harness the energy for change throughout the system?
Time to add your voice...
What do you see as the greatest opportunities to make practical changes that could improve the ways we eat and farm, and regenerate our environment and countryside communities? Where are these working already and who is involved? Where are the biggest gaps and risks in current debate, and who is being left out?
Please tell us what you think and where you feel our Commission should focus its effort.
If you want to suggest changes to the assessment we made in our review, you can download the full table of proposals, make your own comments against it, and email your version to us at email@example.com
New poll by FFCC and the Food Foundation finds 85% of people want to see some of the personal or social changes they have experienced during Covid-19 continue afterwards, whilst just 9% want everything to go back to how it was before the pandemic.
We’re starting to gather evidence on community responses to the pandemic, to help shape post-crisis policy. If you are too, let’s team up.