Fabian Commission hearing was food for sustainable thought

fabianYesterday, the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, along with the University of Sheffield’s Department of Geography and the Research Exchange for the Social Sciences, hosted a hearing of the Fabian Commission on Food & Poverty. Here, Grantham Scholar James Thackery explains the important role these hearings could play in ensuring the UK population has enough to eat, and shares some of the insights he took away from the event.

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Since late last year, a team of commissioners appointed by the influential Fabian Society have been hearing evidence from a wide range of UK food policy experts. The aim of the Fabian Commission on Food & Poverty is to set out the challenges that Britain’s food system faces and make policy recommendations to whichever government takes office in May. Earlier this week, the fourth of the commission’s five hearings (the first outside London) took place at the University of Sheffield, on the theme of ‘Environment’.

Three people gave evidence:

  • Tim Benton – Professor of Population Ecology in the School of Biology at the University of Leeds and UK Champion for Global Food Security)
  • Dale Southerton – Director of the Sustainable Consumption Unit at the University of Manchester
  • Hilary Hamer – Founder and Director of Food4Hull

The commission was chaired by Geoff Tansey, a trustee of the Food Ethics Council and a Joseph Rowntree Visionary for a Just and Peaceful World. Also on the panel was Andrew Kuyk, a food and sustainability consultant and former civil servant; Jeanette Orrey who spearheaded the movement for healthier school dinners with Jamie Oliver; and Niall Cooper, National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty.

Professor Benton gave the first presentation, opening with the hard-hitting message, “business as usual is not an option”. His talk discussed the various challenges the food system faces and the consequences if we do not change our ways: 120% increase in water use solely for agriculture, a greenhouse emission increase of 70% (itself causing a damaging 2°C increase to the average global temperature), all within 50 years. He proposed a new model of full-cost sustainable production, to reduce environmental damage from bad agricultural practices. Sustainable agriculture is expensive, and so food prices will rise too, raising the question, how will the already impoverished fare when even the cheap food becomes unaffordable? He ended his talk with a discussion of where the power to promote change lies, highlighted with a powerful diagram of a population hourglass that showed a few supermarket superpowers at the neck between producers and consumers.

Professor Southerton was next. His talk was an in-depth academic analysis of some of the misconceptions we have when considering how to positively change consumer behaviour. He stated that, even for the environmental-converts, pro-environmental values don’t translate to pro-environmental actions. He underlined several critical weaknesses when framing the idea of a consumer’s choices: for example, the social structure within which a consumer made choices in the past can restrict their choices in the future, and purchases we take for granted such as water and petrol suffer from “mindless consumption” as consumption is “habitual and routine”. He also highlighted that eating habits are entwined with cultural traditions and familial structures, which will both affect how any desired consumer behaviour changes play out. These things are all important when deciding how to best change the way the UK eats for the better.

Hilary Hamer then gave evidence based on her experience working with food organisations in Hull, offering many examples of how they have worked towards improved food security. She also highlighted many of the food struggles that the most impoverished families in the UK face, with shocking evidence on child hunger and children who go from school lunch to school lunch with nothing to eat in between. She also painted a powerful picture of land that had gone to agricultural waste, becoming a desolate “lunar landscape”. She ended her talk with a questioning of food investment, her example being cucumbers which have a high water content and lower nutritional value than other vegetables – are they worth our time, soil and calories to grow?

The commissioners then asked their questions, and the range of topics yielded some interesting discussion points: should community eating hubs be established to feed the impoverished? Can unhealthy food actually be more sustainable? Could online shopping work like public transport in reducing cars on the road and, therefore, carbon footprints? If enforcement has been successful for issues such as drink-driving, might it work for sustainable food choices? And should it be the consumers who bear the burden of rising food costs?

Finally, the audience was given an opportunity to ask questions. Topics included the correct use of landscape, redistributing supermarket ‘waste’ to the impoverished, allotments, introducing the living wage to help people purchase sustainable food, the consequences of the dairy industry and eating less food in general. We then continued the conversation over lunch – food for sustainable thoughts.

The day was full of fascinating discussion and in particular I was struck by how complex the food system is and how interlinked these issues all are. Many issues around UK poverty were brought to light for me, which I had not even considered when thinking about the future of UK food security. The discussion encompassed the environment, business, politics, nutrition, health, consumption behaviour, diet, poverty and economics. It painted a picture that is in all honesty, frightening – but that’s why we’re having these commissions. I’m confident that the commissioners will have had a lot to take away from Tuesday’s evidence and mull over, and that the Sheffield session, along with the other hearings and perhaps other commissions, will ensure that valuable reports will be given to the policymakers in Parliament.

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Fabian Commission brings food and poverty hearings to Sheffield