How can organisations come together to start a big public conversation about the future of food?
Our food system is about to become untethered from the rules and regulations that have governed it for more than 40 years. The decisions we make on what we produce and how we produce it, what we import and what we export, what we sell and how we sell it will have mighty ripples. Ripples we’ll see in the nature of the food in our shops, schools and hospitals; in our livestock and livelihoods, and in the diversity and stability of our countryside. The decisions we take now will affect us all, so how can we have more voices meaningfully shaping our food future?
This is not a new idea, many organisations from public institutions to producers, charities to trade unions are responding to the context and launching forms of public engagement. And yet, if the recognition of the moment is universal, the response is often disparate. The risk is organisations creating their own conversations, with their own audiences: picking off a piece of the puzzle but not building the whole. We need to move from the disparate to the collective: from individual organisations fighting for their own agendas, to a network with the combined weight to shape a system.
And we need to go further still. Engagement is not only restricted by our organisational boundaries, but by how we think of the public. The default logic is to think of the public as Consumers; the extent of their agency is to choose between products and services. To some extent, that’s understandable: the most basic interaction we all have with food is to consume it. But the framing matters. It carries unspoken values and norms which shape our behaviour as individuals, and which add up to mindsets that shape entire systems.
When we think of people as Consumers, public engagement is kept to informing and influencing what people buy; to always asking the question — what does the Consumer want? Given that the Consumer framing is proven to increase self-interest and short termism, we risk creating a food future that’s driven by a narrow version of ourselves, by what suits our immediate interests.
So if we are going to seize the moment to meaningfully shape our food future, we need to change the frame and nature of how we engage with people. The work we’ve done on Food Citizenship offers a new lens on an old chestnut. It starts from seeing people and organisations as more than Consumers. By seeing ourselves as Citizens, who when given the opportunity can and want to meaningfully shape what our options are, seeking the best outcome for all (not just ourselves), we can open up a whole different world.
This is already taking form outside the food system. The nature of public conversation is changing: initiatives like Better Reykjavik create the space and mechanisms for Citizens to generate initiatives to be democratically debated and acted on. What’s more, organisational roles and boundaries are changing through initiatives like the B-Corps movement whose members see their organisations as purpose-focused corporate Citizens, not just profit-maximising Consumers of their supply chains. The RSA’s recent work on Inclusive Growth makes the case for why this new approach is so important, arguing that the new models and ways of working we need to deliver different results will only be possible if Citizens have a role in shaping them. The way to create inclusivity and sustainable growth is by recognising the value of civic participation in decision making. Participation done well is a more successful way of creating an informed public — achieving the goals of traditional public engagement and a lot more besides.
So, what does this lens mean for a meaningful, public conversation on the future of food? It means moving away from siloes and individual consultations to a collective network, with a shared mission to shape our food future; and it means inviting people — the public — into this network as Citizens, not just as Consumers.
Imagine a conversation that isn’t restricted to the corridors of Whitehall and consultation papers, but that takes place in our streets and public spaces, in shops and restaurants, online and off. In order to take the #foodcitizenship conversation to the next level, we’re bringing a group together to imagine and explore just that; building upon ideas that are already underway and creating new ones.
The decisions we take on the future of food and farming will have profound consequences; if you want to see a balanced and inclusive future for food and farming, come and join us in creating a different kind of conversation — one that’s magnitude matches the moment.
Come shape the conversation at The Big Conversation Hack on Friday 15th September.