Get ready for a lot of talk… maybe, maybe too much talk – to steal U2 lyrics. We’re in the midst of the rhetoric and spin of party conference season, the road to the next general election.
Rishi Sunak’s recent scaling back of environmental commitments is alarming. However, parties across the political spectrum seem nervous to double down on environmental commitments, wrongly pitting measures to tackle the climate emergency against measures to tackle the cost of living crisis. Whilst the two have similar root causes and similar solutions, the cost of living crisis is unfairly being used as an excuse to avoid urgent action to address ecological and climate collapse.
“We risk losing the consent of the British people,” Rishi Sunak stated in his speech, justifying his environmental retreat with the public’s apparent fear of the so-called nanny state. But what do British people really want? Have they been engaged with, meaningfully? Have they had their voices heard? Or are assumptions about what people want being used to prop up political decisions?
The disconnect many people feel from politics and political parties is similar to the disconnect many feel from food businesses. Most food companies do not understand the public, even if they think they do. Many food brands and major food retailers will claim to know their customer base well, and will no doubt spend many thousands of pounds on sophisticated customer segmentation. But that tends to be pretty superficial.
Have you ever engaged the public in genuine dialogue about what really matters to them, rather than ask benign questions about whether they prefer the look of an own-label ketchup bottle versus a branded one? Those that do dive deeper will no doubt unearth some surprising results.
Recent engagement has shown that, overwhelmingly, the UK public do not want cheap food – particularly if it is poor quality and bad for them or the planet. When you do engage citizens, you find out they are concerned about who holds the power, how those power-grabbers influence our food options, and how we can address injustices in our food systems.
Listening to what people – the public – want is vital. That is the reason behind the National Food Conversation, co-ordinated by the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission. A representative sample of members of the public in Birmingham and Cambridgeshire were given the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue to explore the big food issues of today, with leading experts and each other, and to consider a range of potential policy responses.
It is an all-too-rare chance for people to have the space join the dots on food and farming, learn about how decisions on one aspect will influence another, and gain more agency as empowered food citizens, rather than passive or silent consumers.
I joined one session and heard first-hand how the public expect those in traditional positions of power, whether in government or in business, to work hard to make things better for them, their communities and the planet. In an accompanying national poll of 2,000 people, almost four in five said we need big changes to food in the UK.
It will be critical for the food sector to listen carefully, involve people and be ready to be held to account. Let’s not just assume what people want.