Where next for The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission? - RSA

Where next for The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission?

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  • Picture of Sue Pritchard
    Sue Pritchard
    Director - Food, Farming and Countryside Commission
  • Communities
  • Health & wellbeing

Food, farming and the environment are having a place in the policy sun that was unthinkable just a few short years ago. This is extraordinary, overdue and most welcome. The voices joining the debate are more diverse than ever; it really does feel as if there has been a step change in the conversations taking place around these critical topics.

Welcome as it is, it also posed a challenge for the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission. On the face of it, much of what the Commission was set up to do seems already to be in hand.

Launched in November 2017, supported by a substantial grant from Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Commission has an ambitious mandate and high aspirations. In brief, this is to:

  • Grow a compelling mandate for change across the food system, farming sector and in rural communities.
  • Shape a long-term vision for the future that’s fairer, stands the test of time and aligns more closely with changing public values and expectations, and involving people and communities in shaping that future.
  • Propose solutions to achieve the vision, identifying where communities and businesses can take a lead and where a national policy framework is required.

Perhaps most importantly, in these times of rapid, turbulent and disruptive change, and when the Brexit debates feel far from over, the Commission asks what’s our place in the world. What do we really care about? What kind of country do we want to be?

Even in the months since we launched, aspects of that compelling ‘mandate for change’ have been voiced loud and clear, not least by Michael Gove, the Defra Secretary of State. He has brought industry and environmental groups closer together on issues of shared concern. His department has run an enormous consultation on the future of farming, impressive in its scale and depth. Government, industry and NGOs have been prolific in proposing solutions.

This has both excited and worried stakeholders across the food, farming and countryside sectors, perhaps in equal measure. Where does it leave our Commission?

Amidst all this activity, and as our work has developed, two clear needs have crystallised. The first is to join up efforts horizontally, between issues, sectors and departments. Defra’s ‘Health and Harmony’ farming consultation paper has been criticised for its silence on health, past the title page. There are also serious, neglected dependencies between food, farming and housing, training, work and trade with future relationships yet to be defined.

The second is to join up vertically — to link policies with the practicalities of implementation and people’s lives. This is not only right but also realpolitik. Beyond a community of experts, advocates and their supporters, that ‘mandate for change’ looks fragile — MPs, for example, are worried how shifting farm payments towards environmental benefits will affect their communities and constituents. If we are going to do things differently, and better, the solutions need to strike a chord on the ground, and actually work.

These are old chestnuts of course, for governments of all stripes, with ambitious policy intentions, even without the unique challenges of Brexit. They are endemic in the way we do government in the UK. That is not to pass judgement — things are as they are, often for very good reasons — but they nonetheless present their own obstacles, which continue to surprise and trip up successive governments. But these systemic patterns have been greatly amplified, with the increased secrecy, competition and political turbulence accompanying the Brexit negotiations.

Luckily, governments, commentators and academics have also identified a remedy; think and act with the ‘whole system’ in mind. But this proves easier said than done…

How we see the world determines what we find. What we include in a definition of the ‘system’ determines the questions we ask, and the evidence we take into account. Policy makers almost inevitably see the world in their departmental or professional image. We also know that some of the most ingenious and practical solutions to difficult problems come not only from innovation, but from putting familiar things together in new and creative ways. This means bringing people with different experience and diverse perspectives together, to reveal the assumptions we take for granted, injecting fresh thinking into otherwise intractable problems.

Drawing on the diverse, rich and varied knowledge and experience of our Commissioners, we have been developing a work programme that takes a ‘whole system’ approach, to try and meet those needs for better integration. We’ve reviewed the policy landscape to see who’s saying what, to understand where there is a growing consensus, where there are gaps, and whose voices are not yet heard, inviting first responses through our ‘call for ideas’ . We’ve embarked on an ambitious and extensive public involvement programme, travelling the UK to meet people in all parts of the country, joining hundreds of conversations in high streets, schools and community centres, on large and small farms, in community gardens and growing spaces, in livestock markets, farmers markets and supermarkets. And we’ve developed longer programmes of inquiry in the devolved nations and three counties in England, to work systematically through the most pressing and important issues they’ve identified.

These conversations are ongoing. From our work so far, however, the Commissioners have identified five core lines of inquiry, which we will explore in more depth and detail over coming weeks. They cover important themes that we see falling into the gaps between policy discussions, and begin to reframe them, to help make progress.

Our place in the world

Many questions arise not just from Brexit, but also because the country has long term interests in, and commitments to, big global challenges — the problems posed by climate change, including mass migrations; shifts in international balances of power and the impact of global conflicts, not to mention the many inter-government and agency co-operations, like the Sustainable Development Goals, to which we are already signatories. The practical impacts of these global grand challenges show up in sharp relief on questions on the future of Britain’s trade arrangements. It has been the proverbial elephant in the room during much debate on food, farming and the countryside. At the time of writing, it looks like pro-Brexit cabinet colleagues are on a collision course. Gove is on record as saying that food standards will fall “over my dead body”, whilst US trade negotiators have made it clear that future trade deals with the US must include improved access for US food exports, including GM. The Irish border question is no closer to being solved.

How do we navigate such apparently contradictory ambitions? Is there a synthesizing position? Whatever EU exit or transitional arrangements come to be agreed, the UK needs a principled and progressive position for its place in the world, which recognises that any progress on pressing global challenges is deeply interconnected to UK interests. This is not just about agriculture or how to govern trade discussions, but also other international relationships and commitments. How would different trade deals affect our food, farming and countryside? Do the public care enough — or could they care enough — to bring their voices to bear on the outcomes?

The future of land use

The UK is unusual for having no overarching land use strategy (although Scotland and Wales have their own developing positions on this). From the food we grow here, in a post CAP world, and the urgent need to regenerate depleted natural resources — soil, water, biodiversity — to space for affordable houses in rural communities, and fair access to the countryside for all, for leisure, health and wellbeing; all these issues bring competing and contested pressures to our land and our landscapes. If we took a ‘whole systems’ view of land in the UK, what would we do differently? Do we prioritise food production and, if so, what and where? Do we need to take a fresh look at the land we allocate for our energy needs? Where should we put the houses we need? What would encourage multiple uses — homes and work, farming and forestry, food and fun — from the same patch of land?

What drivers and levers — planning policy, tax changes and others — influence land use, and how are they most appropriately governed? The ‘public money for public goods’ debate has focussed on natural capital improvement and proposes catchment-based systems to manage this. How would catchment-scale governance overlay our existing UK jurisdictions: the devolved authorities; county and district councils; LEPs and other administrative units; the geography of labour markets and housing markets; not to mention the dynamic and subconscious mental maps communities have to identify and define themselves? We already know that these different maps — and how they’re used to convene citizens or distribute resources — can feel fragmented and disconnected, with contradictions and unintended consequences. So what arrangements can best illuminate and integrate these multiple maps, for better resource utilisation in light of today’s challenges?

The future of work in sustainable rural economies

The future of rural work, and of food and farming sector employment, presents a similar mix of the urgent and strategic, structural questions. These sectors face the immediate challenge of filling perhaps more than100,000 jobs, to meet the loss of European labour — from picking in the fields, through to packing in food processing units, to cooking and serving in the catering and hospitality sectors. Meanwhile the long-term challenges posed by the average age of farmers (60 and rising), the impact of technologies on a diverse and dispersed sector, the changing nature of work and employment, have particular and different impacts in rural communities. Some commentators point to the simplistic equation that the number of jobs becoming vacant could easily be met by the number of unemployed in the UK. Yet that unemployment is not evenly distributed; the appropriate skills are not necessarily widely shared; and people have their own and different views about what constitutes decent and meaningful work. And we don’t yet know what the impact of removing CAP payments from farm incomes will be to the sector, and where displaced farming families will go, or what they’ll do.

Millennials have very different aspirations for work and life balance. In general, autonomy, affiliation and contribution are more important to them than chasing the high status and high salary jobs — quality of life is important. It has been characteristic of the last thirty years that we cannot imagine the jobs people will be doing in the next twenty years: but it’s safe to surmise that a shift towards different patterns of farming and growing (both more artisanal and high tech), and more expertise in ecosystems sectors, will prompt the emergence of new jobs and new opportunities. We also know that rapid change can lead to unintended consequences for whole communities. Where will the safety nets be? What will help those people most affected through these transitions? What adaptions to welfare and benefits may be appropriate? Who reaps the rewards and who bears the costs of changes in work? What’s needed for a systematic and strategic view across policies on education, skills and training, local and regional industrial strategies, immigration, work and benefits, for the flourishing rural communities where people want to live and work?

 Food, health and wellbeing

While farming and the countryside might seem distant, even irrelevant, to some urban dwellers, we all eat food. It has become one of the most problematic and contested topics of modern times. What we eat, how we eat it and where it comes from generates heated debate and column inches. Yet food — and eating together — continues to be central to the way we mark our rites of passage, our celebrations, our communal life — a source of comfort and pleasure. At its heart is the tricky and contentious matter of the relationship between the food we buy and eat, and the nation’s health. New diets and food trends abound; cooking programmes are some of the most popular on TV; Instagram is awash with appealing images of delicious meals. But for the first time in our history, the food we eat has a demonstrable link with shortening life expectancy and increased morbidity — heart disease, diabetes, obesity related illnesses — and these illnesses are unequally distributed through society. If you’re poor you are more likely to suffer from these conditions. In the UK (and other parts of the western world) diet-related poor health comes about often because people over-consume unhealthy calories; whilst in the global south, diseases and conditions caused by hunger and under-nourishment are still rife. That is not to say that hunger and food poverty in the UK is absent: the rise of food banks in the UK in the last five years should be a cause for shame in the sixth richest country in the world. Meanwhile, for every two kilos of food we eat, another kilo of food is wasted across the supply chain.

Moreover, the emerging science about what constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet is changing; this challenges prevailing wisdom, in turn, about what constitutes efficient and sustainable food production, not to mention socially responsible retailing. Couple this with the emerging research on the effects of micro-nutrients on the micro-biome and micropollutants in the environment, and the far-reaching impacts of market failures in the whole food system become apparent.

But who is responsible — indeed capable — of addressing these failures? Should we be focussing on education and behavioural science, to nudge consumers towards more healthy choices? Or is it time for governments (as indeed they are in some parts of the UK) to consider bolder moves in service of rapid improvements in health outcomes? What are the mechanisms — for government, business and civic society — to unpack the complex, contested issues and to make very practical progress, which will reverse current trends and improve the public’s health, in the context of a safe and sustainable food system?

The whole resource

Public money for public goods has become something of a mantra in the last couple of years, with much of the debate focussed on what constitutes ‘public goods,’ and the mechanisms for allocating post-CAP payments. But what if we widen the discussion on what constitutes ‘public money?’ What else is in the public purse to support those public goods already identified — air and water quality, soil, biodiversity? What if we look a little closer at all the ways in which the whole public resource could be applied, to create and support public value — such as public procurement of food for a healthy ‘public plate’, in schools, hospitals and other government institutions? Or social prescribing of ‘greencare’ for health and wellbeing?

Widening our view further, what about the money spent by business and industry — the private resource — which affects public value? We might consider the contracts between producers, processers and food retailers and how they can be used to encourage sustainable changes in the food supply chain, with fair and long term contracts to help producers make the investments needed towards different growing systems. Or we might ask who pays the real costs of the short and long-term impacts of pollution, and is this fair? At the micro level, we might ask more questions of ourselves about the impacts of where we each spend our money and what we choose to buy.

And then there’s yet another dimension of resource — what we might call the hidden resource. So much of civic life is dependent on social processes; practical things like unpaid care, community co-operation, problem solving, local innovation, and also more ephemeral ideas, like our sense of belonging and community, or sense of place, where we find beauty, solace and meaning — all of which contribute to individual health and wellbeing, and flourishing communities. We know these things are important to people — what they say they value. But our capacity to notice, name and valorise them means they are often simply discounted, with significant consequences. So, how we can align all the resources available to us — public, private and less tangible — to create and enhance real public value?


Yes — we recognise that these are all big complex questions. In the next few weeks we’ll publish more detail on each of them. Through a summer series of themed roundtables, locally-led inquiries and public engagement we want to test and explore these topics, bringing people together with different views, experiences and ideas. People who have been thinking about these things for some time — technical and specialist experts — and those who will have to implement policy changes, or make them work on the ground. This will help make those horizontal links between different areas of policy and activity, as well as the vertical links between policy-making and its practice on the ground. The strength and resilience of those links may be the best test of how far the changes to come yield lasting, widespread benefits.

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  • Excellent piece Sue. You touched on behavioural economics and this must be part of the solution as we work with embedded 'norms' both learned and deeply embedded as part of our DNA with biases and filters in full deployment. We are creatures of habit after all but habits can be changed. I have been especially impressed with the eEstonia project where all citizens have agreed to behave in a certain way for the good of the whole of society. Lots to do and fast! 

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