How might we have a genuine national conversation about the future of food?

“We need a national conversation about this.” So say politicians and pundits about just about every major issue of our time; but if any subject at any time really does demand a massive open exchange of civic views, it’s the future of our food system (from land use to trade to farming to retail right through to the food on our plates), right now, for three reasons.

First, every single one of us has a stake in the food system, every single day.

Second, it’s not in great shape, with a recent report by the Food Ethics Council finding that “by most indicators, the challenges facing our food system are getting worse.”

And third, the way it works is genuinely up in the air, with Brexit bringing to an end the decades-long reign of the Common Agricultural Policy as our food production framework.

In a nation where trust in institutions is at an all-time low, huge decisions will soon be made that will affect every citizen, every day. If these are to be made in a way that has any degree of public legitimacy, and which (more importantly) draws on the full potential of the British public as a source of ideas and input, there is a deep need for a mass-scale participatory process to influence and shape those decisions. Simply inferring what we as the British public want and need from what we buy is simply not enough, as this recent blog from the RSA reflects.

So much for the need; now to the more difficult challenge of the method. For all the idle talk of national conversations, successful projects that deliver meaningful and influential outputs are extremely rare, so there is no real template we can copy and paste… but there are beginning to be some very interesting approaches to draw on, from Mexico City crowdsourcing a new constitution to the development of long-form participatory processes in Canada and Australia to the increasingly scientific approach to prize-based innovation challenges and much more besides.

At the New Citizenship Project, coming off the back of our pioneering Food Citizenship collaborative innovation project, we believe food is the subject and this the moment for Britain — with our deep history of democratic innovation, from the Levellers to the Glorious Revolution to the suffragettes — to get in on the act. With huge thanks to the representatives of over 20 organisations from across the food system who came together to help us think about this, here’s our first idea of how we might do it (if you want to see the full write-up of that session, you can download it here).

First, we need to set a time period. Looking out at the best practice from a wide range of examples, both political and not, six months seems about the mark — long enough for a conversation to build and evolve and shift, short enough to maintain momentum and interest.

Next, we need a convening meme, a simple piece of language that can hold the conversation together, give it a constructive civic framing, and work across many touchpoints and in many channels, both on- and offline. Try #OurFoodFuture, the hashtag first used by the Food Standards Agency for their pioneering public conference in 2016.

Then we need a set of mechanics, through which we might hope to harness both the ideas and energy of the interested and predisposed — all of them — that could make our food system better; but also ensure a representative view is brought to bear which encompasses the full diversity of our culturally rich but also deeply unequal nation. No one mechanic can encompass both these objectives, but how about we bring together three different approaches under our umbrella?

  1. Citizen’s Council — harnessing the learning drawn from the research of democracy scholars like Claudia Chlawisz and the experience of projects like the RSA’s Citizen’s Economic Council, let’s use a process of sortition to bring together a representative group of — say — 50 citizens for several meetings over the period of the project, calling expert witnesses to provide input, and ultimately developing a set of recommendations as to the principles on which a new framework for our food system might be designed.
  2. Idea Platform — perhaps one of the most exciting civic innovations of recent years is the beautifully simple Better Reykjavik, an online platform through which any citizen of Reykjavik can propose an idea for how the city could be made better, and up- or down-vote the ideas of their fellow citizens. As a result of a clear and meaningful contract with the city administration, 70% of Reykjavik’s citizens have gotten involved. If we can show the same commitment to meaningful influence on Britain’s food future, what’s to stop us achieving the same proportion?
  3. Everyday Cues — one answer to that last question might be lack of awareness — so jumping from the narrow-and-deep to the broad-and-light, let’s work with retailers, restaurants, markets, hospitals, pubs and more to create light-touch input points in the places where the vast majority of the population are interacting with food on a day-to-day basis. These could be informal polls on key issues run through mechanics like that Waitrose uses to allocate its local charitable donations, or simply prompts and communication of other opportunities to contribute. Think coffee cups, pub coasters, table napkins, bills, supermarket check out machines, menus, online shopping check out, NHS waiting rooms… the list could go on…

Timeline, meme, mechanics… now all we need are some questions to stimulate the conversation, and help it evolve over time. These need to be open and accessible enough for everyone to feel able to contribute, and interesting enough to open up the path to meaningful insight. The future of the food system is a big topic that gets complicated fast, so our critical concern here needs to be to define question that start where people are, keep it simple, but can open up big conversations. As a first thought, maybe we could break the conversation down into three phases…

  1. What does good food mean to you?
  2. What does good food mean where you live?
  3. What might better food mean?

Of course, this isn’t the perfect answer, and there’s much more you could build in. The second question in particular lends itself to further localised mechanics, perhaps taking inspiration from the series of Kitchen Table Conversations that went into creating the mandate for Canada’s National Food Policy, right through to tie-ins with nationwide events like Open Farm Sunday. You could be talking about TV shows or other media partnerships. And much more besides.

It’s also not cheap. To do the above well would require a seven figure budget. But think for a moment how much is spent each year on communicating at people about food in the role of consumers, through the medium of advertising (including by the government). People aren’t just buying machines, and there is plenty more citizens could contribute to this system if we can find ways to invest in harvesting their input.

This blog is not a formal proposal. But what we at the New Citizenship Project believe this, the product of a morning’s work by a group of willing volunteers, does start to show is that if the will is there, a national conversation about the future of our food system is perfectly possible. And after all, we all — from government to brands to open-minded individuals — have an interest in making sure we have a legitimate, constructive framework for our food system. If you’d like to help us make something like this happen, please do get in touch at info@newcitizenship.org.uk