Is public health the ultimate public good? That was the question from Sir Ian Cheshire at the launch of the progress report 'Our Common Ground' from The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.
The challenge to policymakers and business should be to connect food, farming and public health and to start halting and reversing diet-related illnesses, said Sir Ian.
Launched in November 2017, The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is a two-year independent inquiry, funded by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. It was established to consider how we can achieve a safe, secure, inclusive food and farming system for the UK, a flourishing rural economy and a sustainable and accessible countryside.
It has included a UK-wide bike tour, a call for ideas, inquiries in Cumbria, Devon and Lincolnshire, and devolved inquiries in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Proof, said Sir Ian, that “we have tried to get out of the Westminster bubble and on-the-ground”.
Sir Ian called for ambitious targets for a sustainable food and farming system and tackling diet-related illnesses. Type 2 diabetes is estimated to have doubled since 2000 to 4 million people and is largely diet-related. It costs the NHS and employers more than £20bn a year in absenteeism, early retirement and benefits.
“As the NHS sinks under the weight of dietary ill-health and the threat of resistance to antibiotics grows more severe, this is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss - people’s health, as well as the health of our countryside, depends on it.
“We must invest in the changes we need for a new food and farming system within the next ten years. There is an urgent need and opportunity to change policy, ensuring we’re farming in ways that benefit human health and the environment.”
Speaking at the launch event, FFC Commissioner Dr David Pencheon, Honorary Professor, University of Exeter, said the public deserved better and that “we can do things differently”. He cited the story of John, a procurement manager in the NHS in Nottingham who had instigated a switch to 75% locally-sourced food, bringing £2m to the local economy and producers, without any additional cost to the public purse.
The report has made a number of other draft proposals. These include: kick starting a debate on incentivising farming for health; enforcing sustainable public procurement policies; nudging supermarkets and processors towards taking more responsibility for their impact on public health; decentralising decision-making and empowering local communities to ‘take back control’; and making resource flows into and out of food, farming and rural communities more visible.
But debating what is or isn’t a public good is ultimately a stagnant debate, said FFCC director Sue Pritchard. A more promising and useful task is to focus on public value and how all the resource flows – from government, business or civic society – work together effectively to get better outcomes for citizens and communities. Forensically mapping and evaluating all these resources, that create (or indeed deplete) public value, would give us a clearer idea of how they work presently and how they might be redirected in the future, such as tackling not worsening the health of people and the planet.