ballot polling election politics

Start with food and good things will surely follow. Yet if we assume party leaders rank the issues in their general election manifestos in order of importance, we soon see food issues are two-thirds of the way down most priority lists. On average, food and Farming are a mere ‘chapter 12 of 18’ issue in the manifestos of the major political parties.

There’s work to do. We need political leaders to understand food is at the heart of everything. Transforming our food system will improve the resilience of the UK’s economy, create good jobs, address hunger, hardship and injustice, protect our environment and respect our farmed animals. Food systems change should be the opening chapter of election manifestos, and a cross-cutting theme across every chapter – not a peripheral afterthought.

We know progressive food businesses want – and need – the government to act. Current patterns of exploitation and damage to people and planet cannot continue.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this sentiment from food business leaders at our Food Ethics Council Business Forum dinners: “We want to do the right thing for people and the planet. But if we’re the first to make radical changes, we’ll lose out. We’re stuck in a competitive trap.” 

It’s a fair point, and one that’s come up time and time again in our own work with the dairy sector. Why be the first to charge a fair price for a product, if shoppers will just go someplace else down the road? Why be transparent about your method of production, while others flaunt cleverly crafted ‘fake farm’ brands that tell nothing of the real story behind their food?

This is where stronger food systems policies are crucial. Governments can and should play a vital role in levelling the playing field for the sector, creating legal environments that enable and reward good business practice, whilst stamping out damaging, unethical practice.

Food business execs do have the power to lobby for better policies, including calling for fairer regulation to level the playing field. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Much of the groundwork has already been done, including via the National Food Strategy.

With a UK general election imminent, we face fertile ground for sowing seeds of change. MPs in rallying marches are all ears, while UK civil society and industry are gearing up to influence what might be a new government.

This is not about giving large corporates even more of a voice. Currently, not everyone has a genuine opportunity to make their point to political parties. I would love those in independent grocery businesses, B Corps and social enterprises to have more of a voice in asking what they want from the next government about future food systems, alongside more opportunities for greater citizen, civil society and farming voices. Can those of you in larger grocery businesses help to elevate those other voices?

For those of you working in the sector, ask yourself what you want food systems to look like in the future. Use any lobbying power you have responsibly – to bring more voices to the table and to go beyond self-interest. Choosing when to lobby, when not to lobby, what to stand up for, how to vote – it’s a privilege and a power, and one that should be used to create inclusive, positive change.