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Sustain 2020 – conference shines a light on how good food and farming can lead an economic recovery

The sold out event heard from the likes of Victoria Prentis Minister for Farming Fisheries and Food, Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for EFRA, Sheila Dillon, and Tamsin Cooper of the National Food Strategy alongside a host of Sustain members and friends pitching ideas on how sustainable food and farming could help us build back better.

“I wish I could bottle the debate to share it with colleagues. This is what is missing in politics, this enthusiasm and vision for food – we need to make food more political”

Luke Pollard MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

With the cream of the sustainable food and farming movement being in attendance, the conference challenged attendees to think more about whether they could articulate how their lines of work contributed to providing more jobs. The speakers that followed certainly seemed up to the challenge. Across ten different topics, organisations including the Soil Association, Open Food Network, Dynamic Food Procurement, Impact Hub, Feedback, alongside organic farmers and Sustain campaigns managed to tally up plans for hundreds of thousands of potential new jobs if the right investment and policies were there to drive them.

These quickfire pitches to use food and farming for economic recovery at @UKSustain are brill: so far ideas for fish, agro forestry, innovative finance and now organic farming from @Burgee2. #Sustain2020
Tweet from @WickedLeeksMag

Many of these proposals got traction on twitter, where #Sustain2020 started trending. The comments coming in showed some of these ideas were still new to many, and supported by many more. And this was probably the main aim of the conference, to inspire and stimulate new ideas. But for many even linking food and farming with the economic recovery is a new concept.

“Part of the problem is that food doesn’t seem to feature in climate change and nature and particularly the green new deal”

Fatima Ibrahim, Green New Deal UK

The need to challenge this isn’t just a siloed view of our own sector's importance. With food and farming employing 1in 7 of all working age adults, it is the country’s largest employer. The need for better recognition of food and farming's importance to myriad agendas became a thread running through the day.

Whilst food and farming Minister Victoria Prentis pulled out before the conference, she was able to do a pre-record where she answered some of our questions on the day’s topic, ranging from the impact of trade deals, plans for farming and fisheries, support for local food systems, and the potential for the circular food economy and changes in bread labelling to lead to more jobs. You can listen to Victoria’s response here. There were few real surprises in the answers given, but it was a useful summary of a range of Government positions on important issues for the uninitiated. 

#Sustain2020 great conference over 500 people really interesting ideas and comments 
Tweet from Jeanette Orrey MBE @JeanetteOrrey

A more passionate tone was struck in the final panel, chaired by Sheila Dillon, on the need for change and exploration of the possible. A common theme for many of the speakers – Carolyn Steel (author and architect), Geetie Singh MBE (Organic entrepreneur), Fatima Ibrahim (Green New Deal UK) Luke Pollard MP, and Tamsin Cooper of the National Food Strategy – was the importance of externalities being included in the true cost of food, particularly the environmental impact. Whilst not traditionally considered an externality, another element that the cost of food increasingly fails to cover is the ability for those producing it to earn a living, and that those jobs in food and farming must provide some level of stability. This was something that Tamsin alluded to in summing up, “the future is already here it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Distribution of power and money seemingly underlie many of the problems discussed in the distribution of food. But rather than despair – for which there has been plenty of cause this year – the speakers and attendees struck a positive tone. The identification of the problems, the tools to change them, and the alternatives in order to create that fairer food system were all spelt out. 

 “You all fill me with such hope”

Sheila Dillon, food journalist

It echoed the start of the day, and the words of Kath Dalmeny, Sustain’s CEO, “Let’s set ourselves those bold ambitions as we have some bold problems to solve.” Words that in other hands would have seemed daunting. But coming after a stirring speech and impressive year of results for the alliance, you got the feeling that ambitious doesn’t mean unachievable. The challenge for 2021 will be to put these ambitions into action.

Listen to the recordings of the conference sessons.

Excellent coverage of the #Sustain2020 conference here on @BBCFarmingToday - Skip to 06:15 to hear CEW Kath Dalmeny talk about how farming can help lead economic recovery 
Tweet from @CSANetwork 

#sustain2020 the first time I have ever even hard about you, and I am so glad I finally have the last 2 hours have been brilliant, I am leaving with inspired hope for us farmers.
Tweet from Leanne Barriball-the devonshire shepherdess @BarriballLeanne


Published 23 Dec 2020

Sustain: Sustain The alliance for better food and farming advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, enrich society and culture and promote equity.

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Since joining Sustain in 2004, Ben has helped launch the Food Power network and was a founding member of the Sustainable Food Cities network. Most recently he came up with the 50 Fountains Challenge (run in partnership with Refill), born out of the Sugar Smart campaign which he developed with the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. He worked with Jamie Oliver’s team to get the government to adopt a sugary drinks tax, and set up the award winning Children’s Health Fund which piloted the levy with restaurants.

Ben Reynolds
Deputy Chief Executive

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