The future of the United Kingdom’s food system is currently up in the air. Policy analysts and academics have warned that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) will have considerable impact on its food system. In recent years, a number of food reports and manifestos have been developed, calling for new visions and policies that ensure the future of food and farming move in a sustainable direction. The Brexit vote has stepped up these calls, resulting in a broad list of policy aspirations and recommendations from actors across the entire food system, including farmers, researchers and NGOs. While these frameworks are an important first step in generating discussion and debate, their potential effect on UK food legislation remains to be seen.
What Brexit brings
Brexit will entail a highly complex and serious renegotiation of over 40 years of EU legislation covering issues from food standards, safety and labelling, to farm subsidies, trade and labour agreements, and numerous policies on environmental, waste and water quality, biodiversity and animal welfare standards. To leave the EU would sever the UK from one of its largest export markets and labour pools, disconnect farmers from £3bn a year in agricultural subsidies from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and cut off access to many advisory bodies, research programmes and regulatory agencies, which underpin and inform food production. One estimate is that over 4,000 pieces of food regulation and legislation will need to be addressed and transferred to UK law. The UK government’s planned Great Repeal Bill, will transfer thousands of pieces of current EU legislation into UK law and then “amend, repeal and improve” the laws as deemed necessary. This could lead to a weakening of environmental protections, animal welfare, food safety or other standards and regulations – what The Guardian has described as a potential “bonfire of regulation for farmers.”
Food and farming have not been high on the Brexit agenda to date, with a recent report arguing that “the silence about the future of UK food since the Brexit referendum is an astonishing act of political irresponsibility.” Researchers, civil society groups and NGOs are calling for an urgent debate on the future of UK food and agriculture, given that it is a sector critical to future employment and trade, public health, environmental and cultural heritage and social justice. As a result of government silence and inaction on the issue, a spate of food policy reports and manifestos have emerged across the UK, presenting new visions and policy recommendations for a more democratic, sustainable and healthy food system. Many of these reports have a single-country focus (Wales, Scotland, England), and are produced by different groups of stakeholders (NGOs and grassroots organisations, think-tanks, industry or academics). The question remains as to whether these groups and policies can work together to inform a wider, united UK food policy: are they complementary or conflicting in their goal of building a better food system?
Wales has one of the most powerful legal commitments to sustainability in the UK: the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act passed by the Welsh Assembly Government in 2016. The Act is made up of several aspirational goals designed to improve the social, environmental, economic and cultural well-being of Wales, ensuring that the principles of sustainable development are embedded into the activities of all public sector bodies. While some goals touch upon food and diet, there is no explicit commitment to ensuring sustainability is built into the Welsh food system.
Generated independently of the Welsh Assembly Government, the Food Manifesto Wales (currently in draft) is calling for more progressive food policy across Wales. While the specific details and policy recommendations of the manifesto are yet to be published, the manifesto infographic offers a blueprint and builds on some encouraging national and international developments. These include the aforementioned Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Right to Food, enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Food Manifesto website has been in operation for a few years, gathering blog posts and followers, and aims to be a space to facilitate conversations and ideas among interest groups across the food system. Its future, however, is contingent upon attracting enough support, with the hope that it will be recognised by the general public and adopted by Welsh governmental and non-governmental organisations. As described in this blog post, “it [currently] is an act of faith.”
At the government level, the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee are carrying out an inquiry into food and drink policy in Wales. The consultation phase has recently closed, with close to 40 submissions from individuals, universities, farmer associations, government bodies and food and farming NGOs. These will be used to inform the drafting of a report that outlines a vision for the future of food in Wales focused on enhancing the food and drink sector and the Welsh population’s relationship with food.
The Scottish Food Coalition’s report Plenty: Food, Farming and Health in a New Scotlandarticulates a new vision for Scotland’s food future, founded on the principles of social and environmental justice. Across four key sections – People matter, The environment matters, It’s about more than food, and Short supply chains go further – the report highlights the need for greater public participation in food policy, prioritising sustainability throughout the food supply chain, and support for regional food economies and community food initiatives. To drive this forward, Plenty calls for primary legislation that enshrines the Right to Food in Scottish law, promotes agroecology as the farming method of the future and creates a statutory Food Commission to provide oversight of Scotland’s food system. It stresses that a joined up approach across multiple policy areas – including health, agriculture, public procurement, welfare, education and others – is the only way to address the food system’s social and environmental challenges effectively in the long-term.
Partly in response to the Plenty report, the Scottish National Party, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens made manifesto commitments to a Bill that would impact across food, farming, health and other issues. Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Government’s food and farming Minister, confirmed in May that preparations have begun for the development of a Good Food Nation Bill. While the scope of the legislation remains unclear, Ewing stated that the Bill would be cross-cutting and “will involve colleagues and stakeholders in a number of areas across Government, including health, food standards, waste, social justice, agriculture, education and procurement.” This in itself is a groundbreaking achievement, and the Bill is the first to work across so many government departments.
To maintain momentum and political commitment, the Scottish Food Coalition organised a series of Parliamentary events to engage civil servants and politicians and outline key issues and opportunities for the forthcoming legislation. Nourish Scotland will also be running a campaign to pressure Parliament to be ambitious in drafting the Good Food Nation Bill. Due to the highly-organised work of these civil society groups, the Scottish Government is the first in the UK to commit to cross-cutting legislation that addresses its food system both now and in the future.
Similar to the Plenty report but broader in scope, A People’s Food Policy is an extensive report with nine thematic chapters covering food governance, food production, health, land, labour, environment, knowledge and skills, trade and finance. Launched in June 2017, the report draws on 18 months of nation-wide consultations with more than 150 food and farming initiatives, grassroots organisations, NGOs, trade unions, community projects and individuals. Drawing on both the Right to Food and Food Sovereignty frameworks, the report outlines more than fifty policy proposals and a vision for change rooted in democratic reform, health, ecological regeneration and social justice. The principle aim of the report is to lay out interconnected policy proposals that span multiple government departments, with the hopes that they will serve as a blueprint for politicians in building progressive national food policy.
According to the report, the publication of A People’s Food Policy marks the start of a wider process of strategising which policy proposals need urgent implementation and how to facilitate the roll-out of other proposals . It also states, however, that there is a need to secure financial support in order to disseminate the document and facilitate connections amongst civil society, policy-makers and researchers to develop a campaign strategy. Failure to secure the funds, resources and time to build upon the report’s vision, however, may result in its policy proposals going unnoticed and undetected by society and the government.
Conflicting or Complementary?
There are a number of similarities between each manifesto: they are all calling for more democratic food governance that includes the active participation of civil society; that the development of a food bill be enshrined in the right to food; that agroecology is actively promoted; and that the development of food policy span all relevant government departments. Each report argues that the many food system issues they highlight, require coordinated policies to bring about change across the whole food system and have a systematic impact.
At the same time, each of these aspirational documents highlight that the current food policy community is fragmented and divided: the UK has no collective food policy. Besides working across government departments, policy-makers must also work across borders to make the entire UK food system more sustainable. This will require a more collaborative policy platform that ensures inclusive representation from the academic, business, civic, community, government and public service sectors. As writer and activist Jane Powell encourages, “rather than seeing the complexity and rival agendas of the food system as a problem, we could see them as a sign of unrealized potential. What new connections could [be made]?”
Brexit represents an opportunity to create an inclusive, informed and accountable debate about the direction in which UK agriculture and its food system should evolve. The question is, can the voices of those fighting for food system reform – whatever their occupation or region – unite to ensure that their voices are heard and the UK food system is transformed?
Photograph: Steve Wilde