The new RSA Food Farming & Countryside Commission aims to engage citizens and communities as well as expert food, farming, countryside organisations, in different kinds of conversation, which recognise that we all have a stake in the big questions that need attention.
As the commission embarks on this two year independent inquiry, our first question must be to ask ourselves what can we add to these critically important debates. What is our particular contribution? And will the way it’s funded and established shape how we go about our mission? How will it make an impact?
Twelve months in to the countdown to exiting the European Union, the questions that need addressing are becoming more complex and more pressing.
The intricate interconnections in our food, farming and countryside systems are increasingly clear, along with the labyrinthine regulations and frameworks that govern them. Many experts – for whom we are rediscovering affection – fortunately have extensive knowledge and experience to contribute. So that’s good. But, unsurprisingly, experts don’t always agree…. So how do we decide which of these perspectives and opinions we choose to rely on? What’s more, beyond the already extensive territory of food, farming and the countryside lies the overlapping and interconnected worlds of - for example - the public’s health and wellbeing, economics, international relations and development, leisure and tourism, transport and infrastructure, and community cohesion.
And what of the public? What of the citizens who have fundamental interests in these questions? (So that’s all of us). Different groups and sector representatives are working hard to express their concerns and pitch their solutions; communities of interest have their lobbying arrangements well established. No change there, then. But these complex issues are no longer amenable to single sector solutions – if indeed they ever were.
We have more food choices available to us now than at any point in our human history – but diet-related illnesses and obesity is making us unhealthier, stretching the NHS.
The UK is the fifth biggest economy in the world – and yet food poverty and food bank use is on the rise.
Food is getting cheaper on the shop shelf, but this doesn’t reflect the true cost of producing it, which has to be picked up elsewhere, in environmental or health impacts.
As a nation, we say we love our countryside, but competing pressures on the landscape are having a significant impact on biodiversity loss.
So how can citizens express their voice? How can we ask our questions, explore the complicated choices we will need to make – and let people know what we think, not just as ‘consumers’ but as citizens with real skin in the game, in what happens to our food, the farms that produce it and the land we inhabit?
These are big and serious questions, which needed attention whether or not we were in the EU – and now risk languishing on the back burner while we consider (quite rightly) how we’ll get milk across the border in Ireland; or how fruit will be picked in Kent; or lamb will be traded from Wales.
That’s the intent of the Commission. To engage the voices of citizens and communities, alongside those of the experts and interest groups. We can only take citizens’ views into accounts if we know what they are and if people have had a real and meaningful opportunity to define and explore the issues, give voice to their concerns, understand the implications of the decisions we make and come to terms with the choices required.
Whose voice counts? This is a critical question for policy makers in these turbulent times. With such disruptive change on the horizon, even in the best case scenarios, it is essential to navigate such complex territory with caution and sensitivity, taking all perspectives into account. No single group or person can ever understand the intricacies and relationships in a complex system – a thing certain kinds of hero leaders may need to remember. Premature decisions lead to many unintended consequences. No, the real leadership comes when we have the courage to bring the diversity into the room, share these multiple perspectives with each other, appreciatively and respectfully - even when we disagree - and craft new possibilities collectively, negotiating those decisions and choices, transparently and honestly.
Through facilitating different kinds of conversations, we will be working with experts, in a multi-discipline academic advisory panel, who bring their deep knowledge to the table; with the groups making cases for the perspectives they represent; and those whose voices which are not typically heard, through a comprehensive programme of engagement, enquiry and experimentation. Here’s how you can get involved.
The Commission will travel the UK. Look out for the journey timetable and where to find us.
Write to us by email firstname.lastname@example.org or post:
Food, Farming & Countryside Commission
The RSA 8 John Adam Street, London, WC2N 6EZ
Phone 020 7451 6966