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Climate change, health and hunger. We have so much that needs to be won

Sustain's chief executive Kath Dalmeny reflects on the need for national food policy that steps up to the challenges of climate change, health and hunger.

Sustain staff display the alliance's key achievements in the year 2017 to 2018, at the Sustain AGM held on 12th December 2018

Sustain staff display the alliance's key achievements in the year 2017 to 2018, at the Sustain AGM held on 12th December 2018

This talk was given on 12th December 2018 at the Sustain AGM and Annual Gathering. It was delivered by Sustain's Vicki Hird and Ben Reynolds, on behalf of Chief Executive Kath Dalmeny.

The Sustain AGM and Annual Gathering gives us time to reflect – away from the increasing craziness of the political scene – both in the UK and internationally. Food, farming, fishing, working conditions in the food supply chain, public health, animal welfare, trade – all these and more are at the core of the work of the Sustain alliance. And all of them have never been more politically relevant.

On the day of Sustain’s AGM the parliamentary ‘meaningful vote’ on the UK’s proposed relationship with the EU has been postponed, and the Prime Minister faces a challenge from back-bench MPs keen to dethrone her and the Chequers Brexit deal. Meanwhile, Paris has been alight with riots and burning cars, partly triggered by a fuel tax to combat climate change, whilst world leaders meet in Katowice in Poland, to try and work out how we can reduce carbon emissions by at least half over the next 12 short years. What on earth is going on? 

What on earth is going on? Last year at the AGM, we talked a lot about Brexit. Yes, of course the Sustain alliance will continue to need to work a lot on the issues raised by the departure of the UK from the European Union. We are fully committed to do so. But increasingly, the domestic shenanigans of Brexit feel like a gigantic, messy, parochial distraction from matters that are far bigger and more important. Let’s just think about three, and they are pretty big. Climate change, health and hunger.

Our climate is changing, affecting the lives and prospects of millions of people around the world. The capacity of our planet to feed us is already being seriously affected by global warming, changing seasons and weather, loss of soils, biodiversity and fresh water. These are huge macro effects that our policy-makers find it hard to address (or sometimes even to see), tied in as they are to short-term political cycles, an obsessive de-regulatory and growth-at-all-costs agenda, addiction to a fossil-fuel economy, and a media that screams blue murder at the faintest whiff  of ‘nanny state’.

Yet change must happen. We must not throw our climate down the pan. So I am preoccupied by this question: What can we do as an alliance to make a difference? Actually, what can we do to make a big difference? Here are some ideas. The UK could become the first western economy that demonstrates it is perfectly possible, beneficial and safe to return to the age-old practice of feeding food waste to pigs and chickens. To feed them grain from deforested tropical land, with all the attendant loss of biodiversity, wildlife, soil and carbon sequestration, is now immoral. Lives are at stake.

We can also drive ahead with the message that with this many people on the planet to feed, eating this much meat and dairy is suicide (or perhaps eco-cide - whatever term you prefer – they are of course one and the same). Sustain is one of the founding members of the Eating Better Alliance, making space for more people, organisations, businesses and policy-makers to talk about how to achieve ‘less and better’ meat and dairy. We need to be looking at what market incentives, fiscal measures and other radical interventions would help. Our politicians will not be able to do this without our help, nudge or indeed whopping great elbow in the ribs.

And we can keep on cultivating food as a cultural centrepiece to life, and to sustainable, low-carbon, healthy and convivial living. Sustain’s work on food skills, food education, Real Bread, artisan food production, market gardening and better jobs – all these are about creating the kinds of lives that make food policy both political and personal. People need to be able to eat good food, and to participate in good food production, wherever they are.

All of these need support from politicians, policy, standards and planning. Third sector organisations have a privileged position of trust, cultivating public conversations and either incremental or radical policy responses, and inspiring people to invest their lives in making a difference. We must use the powers that we have to connect public concerns with industrial policy and political will, and bring those to the forefront of policy making, whether at local, city, national or international level.

And we must put soil, trees and farm management for climate change at the heart of the UK’s approach to farming. At the last AGM, Sustain was just preparing to help Secretary of State Michael Gove and his Defra team to run the Health and Harmony consultation on the new Agriculture Bill, surprising us all with his eloquent commitments to soil, public health, climate change and biodiversity. I pay tribute to all those in the Sustain alliance who have this year put so much passion and effort into making the Agriculture Bill and indeed the Fisheries Bill as good as they can be. With caveats, a better approach to farming (and, with more caveats, fishing policy) looks like it is emerging. But neither are really there yet.

The coming year will see the establishment of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) that will set the parameters and process for new farm payments. The world is watching. We must make the UK demonstrate how good farm livelihoods in agro-ecological production are intimately linked to climate change and a sustainable food system. We’re also looking with great interest at new commitments to funding sustainable fisheries, and approaches such as proposed by Shadow Fisheries Minister Luke Pollard in the same week as our AGM, in Parliament, to treat fish as a public asset, a common good in a protected marine environment, not simply a depletable source of protein.

None of this should be radical. Yet it is still seen as radical. We must shift the conversation. And we need to do so with ever more concerted effort, vigour and confidence. Third sector organisations, working together, are well placed to provide the fuel and energy to make this happen.

We come then to another big preoccupation for Sustain – food poverty. 

Over the past year, we have been working with colleagues on the End Hunger UK alliance to tackle food poverty. Due to Brexit, and unresolved questions about imports and border controls, our whole country has become much more aware of the vulnerability of our food supply to disruption. Yet here is a bitter irony. Over eight million of our fellow citizens, about half of them children, already face that vulnerability every day through being too poor to eat well. Emergency food bank referrals continue to rise. This dire situation ought to be treated as a national emergency.

Let’s see this another way. We are perfectly capable of ensuring that everyone can eat well. So let’s treat this as an opportunity for national action, allocation of duties and accountability. Dissatisfaction, distrust, inequalities and division underpin so much of the discontent that we have seen manifest itself in political action in recent years – from Trump to Brexit, to the protests in France. So what can we do about this in our sphere of food and farming? 

We can make sure that the voices of those who aren’t usually heard get heard – something we are doing through our Food Power project. We can make sure that people get a fair wage – a theme that runs through much of our work – from farming incomes to league tables on local council commitments to the real Living Wage. 

We can also unite around ending the scandal of hunger in a modern economy. But not by simply driving down food prices. That creates a cycle of trouble – pitiful incomes for farmers and food supply chain workers, poor quality food that provides calories but feeds diabetes and shorter lives, and a vicious spiralling circle downwards. Rather, our approach should be to make food more affordable by ensuring people have a decent income that matches a decent standard of living.

Over the coming year, we must up our collective game. We must demonstrate how food poverty can be addressed by decent social policy, minimum incomes, sensible reform to social security, controls on the cost of housing and heating, and with schools, hospitals, care homes and local authorities enabled to play their part in helping those who most need support to access good food. And we must address this in tandem with climate change,  protecting ecosystems on land and in our oceans, a healthy and sustainable food supply chain, good farming livelihoods and access to land. We could aim to become the first western economy to do so, nobody else has properly managed it. We must get serious. Sustain is looking at a rights-based approach. After all, leaving the EU means us ditching the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Our leaders have decided what they don’t want. Let’s demand what we do want. The right of everyone to know where their next meal is coming from.

So it is indeed timely that our Annual Gathering event that follows this AGM focuses on the promised National Food Strategy, to be led by Henry Dimbleby, which will look at food more holistically – The Times newspaper reported today this will be “across the departments of health and business and the Treasury” (and – we assume – Defra). 

All of this feels so big. Yet look what we have achieved, working together over recent years. We should all feel very proud of the work of the team of wonderful Sustain staff who have helped to make all this possible. At the Sustain AGM, we shared a list of achievements covered in our Annual Report for 2017 to 2018 - highlights including the Sugary Drinks Tax and persuading caterers that serve over 0.8billion meals per year to adopt sustainable fish policies. Below, we add a few more that we have won in just the last few months. As you read, have in your mind what we should do next together - our achievements this year prove what is possible. Working together, we have:

  • Won the inclusion of the Fair Dealing Obligation to protect farmers, as part of the new Agriculture Bill – and contributed to the environment and ‘public money for public goods’ being centre-stage in this landmark policy.
  • Contributed to the international campaign that won an EU ban on the prophylactic use of antibiotics in animal farming (and kept up pressure on Defra to ensure that the UK implements the ban, even when we leave the EU).
  • Helped win a ban on junk food advertising across the whole of the Transport for London network.
  • Greatly cut back the UK tour of the Coca-Cola truck – visiting fewer places and handing out less sugary water.
  • Won a commitment from Defra to consider an Honest Crust Act to raise bread standards.

This is what proper ‘taking back control’ looks like, with sensible – sustainable - food, farming and fishing policy at its heart.

Let's finish with some reflections on ourselves as a movement. We have all become ever more aware over the past year of our need – collectively – to understand and exercise the powers that we have. Third-sector organisations, NGOs, charities, civil society – whatever term you like to use – we hold a special place in public policy. We are free to talk truth to power. We enjoy a high level of trust. We communicate daily through the mass media. We are able to ‘walk our talk’ and demonstrate what is possible. We can think and move outside the constraints of short-term political cycles. We keep our jobs longer than many politicians. We have the privilege of being able to think longer term.

However, these powers come with big responsibilities. We lose trust, and the opportunity to communicate, at our peril. Sustain has therefore put considerable efforts this year into ensuring that our systems and policies are ever more robust. We have also very considerably upped our game on communications – thank you to all of the project staff, communication staff and members who have helped us to do so. 

Unless we are communicating, winning hearts and minds, addressing the real concerns of people with professional and lived experience, inspiring others to get involved – then we will be perpetually talking inside a bubble. And we now know where bubbles get us. So let us all re-double our efforts to talk about what matters, with whoever will listen. We must bang on doors and demand to be heard. We must exercise our powers and experience of what works. We have so much to win. 

2019 is the 20th Anniversary of the foundation of the Sustain alliance. We’ve got a lot to celebrate and the opportunity to refresh our strategy for the coming years. So what do we want to win next? And where do we want to be in 20 years’ time? Make sure you’re on the Sustain mailing list to find out more, and follow us on Twitter @UKSustain.

Published Thursday 13 December 2018

Sustainable Farming Campaign: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.

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Kath is Chief Executive of Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming.

Kath Dalmeny
Chief Executive

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