In this guest opinion piece by Sue Pritchard, Director of the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, we find out more about the commission’s recent reports and Sue argues why now, more than ever, we must find common ground.
We are living in extraordinary, stormy times. In the political sphere, a sixteen-year-old girl speaks truth to powerful global leaders in New York; in the UK, the Supreme Court finds our Government has acted unlawfully in the proroguing of Parliament. In spite of all the promises and declarations, the planet is still set for 3 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels, sending us more rapidly towards the tipping point for our climate and all life on earth. We are travelling through unchartered territories. Tribal and polarised politics shape the public discourse. It can feel profoundly unsettling. Where on earth is the solid ground from which we can find common purpose and make the urgent progress we need on the really critical issues facing us?
In July 2019, The RSA Food Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) published a series of important reports. Funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, this two-year independent inquiry helped to shape a new vision for safe, secure and sustainable food and farming systems and a flourishing countryside. Initially focussed on matters raised by the Brexit vote, the inquiry quickly turned its attention to the urgent issues that transcend Brexit: the crises in climate and nature, health and wellbeing and rural communities. For eighteen months, we worked with business leaders and academics across different sectors, and with citizens in their communities around the UK, to arrive at the recommendations in our report, Our Future in the Land. The report garnered widespread – and cross-party – backing, both for our recommendations and for the process by which we arrived at them. We were determined that the many and diverse perspectives we’d heard through our inquiry were respected, and that everyone who’d given their time, experience and expertise to us so generously would see their voices in our reports. And make no mistake: this is contested territory. Even when people agree on the problems to be solved, there are very different versions of what is needed to solve them. How should we use our land – should we rewild parts of the UK and intensify food production in smaller areas; or should we layer regenerative practices across all land? What constitutes a truly sustainable diet – more plant-based foods and white meats, or meat and dairy from pasture-fed ruminants? Should we go all out for technological solutions like gene-editing? Or should we scale down consumption ready for a post-growth economy?
We looked at evidence across the whole system, balancing the data about healthy diets and sustainable land management, with climate and nature-friendly solutions, and the needs of rural communities. Our recommendations are radical and practical, around which we hope many people, organisations and businesses can convene.
- Healthy food is everybody’s business – we have to level the playing field for a fair food system.
- Farming must be a force for change – with farmers and land managers fully involved in shaping a just transition to regenerative farming by 2030.
- The countryside must work for all – balancing multiple needs and a vibrant place to live and work.
But it’s the second of our reports, The Field Guide for the Future, which is our antidote to the continuing turbulence and uncertainty. In it, are the stories of people already doing incredible things across the whole country, experimenting with regenerative approaches, reconnecting communities, working together, sharing knowledge and learning. Their stories helped us shape a version of a more sustainable future, already coming to life.
In policy terms, many of the issues we deal with are devolved matters – with different aspirations and directions of travel in the four countries of the UK – so we established separate inquiries in each. This week, we presented the Northern Ireland chapter of our reports, The Lay of the Land. Exiting the European Union has enormous ramifications for this part of the country, but more challenging still, their Assembly is suspended, and half of their MPs do not take up their seats at Westminster. Thus, from the outset, and in the absence of working democratic institutions, the FFCC NI leadership group was determined to ensure that citizens’ voices would be heard. Their work for the Commission was organised around a series of meetings carefully designed to bring people together in communities across the region. At the launch in Hillsborough, over dinner produced from local suppliers, a packed room heard speaker after speaker emphasise how important it is to create the right conditions for respectful dialogue, to help us navigate our way through difficult and complicated issues. They know about these things, there.
Meanwhile, whilst I was in Northern Ireland, the Commission’s reports were travelling further afield, being featured at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, in the global Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) report, Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use, and showcased as leading practice from the UK. Like the FOLU report, we call for a ten-year transition towards regenerative agriculture, which, we argue, is inextricably interlinked with revitalising rural communities – how local food and farming systems can be reimagined and redesigned, to rebuild and sustain flourishing rural economies. The FOLU report identifies “delivering stronger rural livelihoods” as one of their ten transitions, sharing stories from Sub-Saharan Africa for this case study. There is much to learn from farmers and growers there about how food and farming can regenerate ecosystems and communities.
But here’s the thing; in these polarising times in the UK, farmers, food and environment activists have become pitted against each other, so that the fundamental connections between how we farm and the food we eat, our health and wellbeing and the countryside around us have become fractured.
We often talk about how important it is to see the ‘whole system’ – to understand more fully the relationships and interdependencies in the world. Our own work – across food, farming and countryside, public health and wellbeing, economics and rural development – seeks to illuminate the links. The shadow side of working with whole systems is that it can become an overwhelming undertaking. And so, we set ourselves imaginary boundaries in an attempt to make complex issues more manageable – except, it’s in how we construct those boundaries that the risks arise.
The remedy for this is to look carefully at the limits we set for our discussions and ask ourselves some critical questions. Who decides the scope of the debate and the data we take into account? Whose evidence counts? Who speaks for the those without a voice, and for generations yet to come? Who is taking the risks? Who is reaping the benefits?
And then we need to construct the spaces and convene the conversations, which bring the broadest range of evidence to the table, where people can come together and work through the difficult, messy, complex issues, finding ‘good enough’ common ground, and focussing relentlessly on actions we can take to make urgent progress. It was an underpinning principle in our inquiry, strengthened by our work in communities around the UK, and it is at the heart of our mission to come. Finding common ground, judging by the acrimony in our public discourse at the moment, is more important than ever.
Photograph: Jim Roberts