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#230  What do we really think about Food? Revolutionising what we eat with Sue Pritchard of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

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If you’ve listened to previous episodes of this podcast, you’ll know that total systemic change is one of our foundational beliefs: it’s coming whether we like it or not and we’d like to manage a just transition rather than waiting to see what arises from the ashes if we keep pushing business as usual until our entire bus dives over the edge of the biophysical cliff.

And so we are always on the lookout for people who not only think systemically, but who get it; who aren’t just talking the talk, but who are making things happen on the ground that will lead us all closer to the tipping points of change. Sue Pritchard is one of these people. She’s the Chief Executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, leading the organisation in its mission to bring together people across the UK and the world to act on the climate, nature and health crises, through fairer and more sustainable food systems, and a just transition for rural communities and the countryside.

She is a Trustee of CoFarm Foundation and is an independent Governor at Royal Agricultural University. Sue lives an organic farm in Wales, where she and her family raise livestock and farm for conservation.

This conversation was sparked by the FFCC’s inspiring Food Conversation – which brings together ordinary people and begins to unpick the web of deceit surrounding our food – and replaces it with something that is real and decent and nourishing on a physical and systemic level. This was such an inspiring, invigorating conversation and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

In Conversation

Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast, where we give voice to those who live and work and think at the cutting edge of our system, weaving into reality the ideas that will take us forward to a future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, your host and fellow traveller on this journey into possibility. And if you’ve listened to any of our previous episodes, you will know that total systemic change is one of our foundational beliefs. That it’s coming whether we like it or not, and we would like to manage a just transition rather than waiting to see what arises from the ashes, if we keep pushing business as usual until our entire bus dies over the edge of the biophysical cliff. So we’re always on the lookout for people who not only think systemically, but who get it, who aren’t just talking the talk, but who are making things happen on the ground that will lead us all closer to the tipping points of a good change. Sue Pritchard is definitely one of these people. Sue is the chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, leading that organisation on its mission to bring together people across the UK and the world to act on the climate, nature and health crises through fairer and more sustainable food systems and a just transition for rural communities in the countryside. She’s a trustee of Kofi Annan Foundation and an independent governor of the Royal Agricultural University. And she lives on an organic farm just down the road from us in Wales, where she and her family raise livestock and farm for conservation.

 Manda: This conversation was sparked by the FCC’s Inspiring Food Conversations, which bring together ordinary people and begin to unpick the web of deceit surrounding our food and the way it’s brought to us. These conversations were incredibly well structured and then presented so that we can watch what was happening. Educating ordinary people, giving them a chance to talk to each other, to explore what really mattered, so they could replace some of the idiocy that’s thrown at us with ideas that are real and decent and nourishing on physical and systemic levels. We really looked into how the conversations arose, what was contained within them and the thinking behind them and where they might go. And we all eat food. Every single one of us has a vested interest in finding food for ourselves and our families that is health giving, life giving, and that’s going to sustain the web of life all around us. So as we head into spring, this was one of those optimistic, idea filled, utterly inspiring conversations, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. So people of the podcast, please welcome Sue Pritchard of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

 Manda: Sue, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you for leaving your farm for an hour or two to this very lovely spring afternoon. How are you and where are you today?

 Sue: Well, it is fabulous to be here, Manda. Thank you for asking me. I am well, thank you. We’re recording this the day after an Easter break, which was lovely, and we had sunshine for the first time in what feels like weeks and weeks. And I’m here on my farm in beautiful Monmouthshire, just in the southeast corner of Wales.

 Manda: Yes. You’re in the bit, I think, where Riversimple have some of their hydrogen fuel cell cars and you can fill them up. And I have great Monmouth envy and yes, it was a lovely Easter weekend, but it also sounds as if various parts of the Middle East are heading faster and faster towards all out war, which was not so good. I hope by the time this goes out there that will have been averted. But we’re here today to talk about food systems and the wider global system, if we can get to that, and the concept. I think the overall concept that if we can fix food, we can fix everything is something that I’ve heard you say and I would really like to go into. But just to situate this for people, I’ve been following the Food and Farming Commission for a very, very long time and I discovered it’s not as long as I think. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is, how you came to be in your position and a little bit about what brought you there. Over to you.

 Sue: Sure. So the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission was set up in 2017 really as an emergency response to the Brexit vote. So when when the UK voted to leave the European Union, a group of business and NGO and civic leaders got together, recognising that there was no plan, and urgently wanted to bring together both the established leadership community but also fresh voices to help shape a new version of the future for the UK in that context. Initially they approached government, government declined that invitation. Those business leaders decided that was the wrong answer, and so approached the wonderful Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to see whether they would consider funding an independent inquiry. And Esmée did, so FFCW was born. We have the most extraordinary group of commissioners who are drawn from across the system, from food businesses, from farming organisations, environment organisations, economists, civic groups, citizens groups. And we’re chaired by Sir Ian Cheshire. And I was appointed, I saw the job advertised and frankly it was my dream job. I’m a very, very old woman, manda, I’m 60 this year.

 Manda: You’re younger than I am.

 Sue: I love it, I love being at this point in my life, able to do this work. But when I saw this job, I was very happily established in my then work. I was working as a leadership and organisation consultant in systems change. I was working on big, complex projects with government. I was a visiting researcher at UCL and I was also running an organic farm here at home in Wales.

 Manda: Have you cloned yourself? Because I have an organic smallholding of 28 acres and I can’t do all of that. 

 Sue: Well, I was going to say it never feels like hard work. That is a lie. That is an out and out lie. But I also feel incredibly privileged to have that wonderful blend of things to kind of stretch me intellectually, as well as to put my hands in the ground frequently. So this was my dream job. This job was right at that intersection, that sweet spot of working on change, on policy, but on what I think is probably one of the most important things that we can be working on, on food systems change. We all need food and we all need flourishing healthy food systems, and we don’t have that at the moment. One of the really lovely things too, about starting out at FFCC was, whilst the kind of impetus for setting up FFCC was the Brexit vote, very quickly the commissioning group recognised and prioritised work on those even bigger crises that we were leaning into: the climate crisis, the nature crisis, the public health crisis, and indeed the equity crisis. And so that’s how we were set up and produced our first report, our main report, in 2019. I thought I was taking on a job for two and a half years.

 Manda: To get that report out. That was the remit to begin with. 

 Sue: That was the job of work, to produce a report, which we did in 2019. We produced a couple of reports, we produced our kind of conventional report, and we also produced our field guide, which was the sum total of the work that we’d done travelling around the countryside on a bicycle, hearing from people in their communities. It was a really lovely, lovely piece of work. And our report went down quite well, much to our relief. It was welcomed by all of the political parties, but perhaps more importantly to me, it was welcomed by green groups, by farmer groups, by citizen groups. And so I think we were able, with the support of the commissioners and the team and our partners, to find that sweet spot, that common ground and sense of common purpose about what we needed to be doing, what we needed to be working on to tackle the food system crisis. And so we got some more funding in 2020 from Esmée and then from other funders. We’ve got now six core funders who support us in our mission and purpose, as well as lots of smaller bits of funding for particular projects. And yeah, we’re still here, but we are a task and finish charity, so we’re not making any assumptions that we’ll be here forever. We’re here to do a job of work and if and when that job is done, or when we can hand it over to other organisations better suited than us, that’s what we will do.

 Manda: Okay. There’s a lot to unpack of what you’ve just said. I hadn’t ever heard of task and finish it sounds really interesting as a concept. I know of other things, Alnoor ladha set up a group and they gave themselves eight years and then they disbanded because they didn’t want to be making a profession out of being an NGO. In your mind, if you were able to pull all of the systemic strings that you know about, and we’ll talk about what they are in a minute, what would the world look like if you were to go to your funders and go, guys, we’ve done it. We’re there. We can stop now. Not that we’re handing on to somebody else, but actually we’ve got what we want to get, we got what we need to get.

 Sue: Yeah. So I don’t think the work will be finished. I think the work that needs to happen is a long, long terme project. But for us, for FFCC, we want to see governments and businesses really taking food systems change seriously, really prioritising first of all, seeing food as a system. From what we grow, where we grow it, what we eat, how we eat it, how we use land, how we think about trade, how we think about equity, how we think about justice. So that’s the thing for us, that governments and businesses see food as a system and are prepared to work on the kind of intersection of policies that improve food as a system. Together and in partnership. So that that’s our job of work I think. The things that need to happen in some cases might be relatively quick, in other cases might take five, ten, 15 years. And and there will be other people who will be better placed to do that work. But that’s our priority.

 Manda: Okay. So let’s unpick the system a bit, because we’ve got governments and businesses and presumably people who buy stuff and eat stuff, and it always strikes me as a bit weird that governments and businesses are made out of people who eat stuff. I don’t believe they’re all living on fresh air, but they still don’t seem to get that what they’re eating is killing them, and that that might not be a good idea. Leaving health aside, we’ll come to health in a minute, but I have heard you say that the system is not, in fact, broken. The system is working perfectly for what it was designed to do, which is to make a small number of multinationals extremely rich. And it’s doing that better and better every year. And not just in food, but fossil fuel companies and agribusiness and pharmaceutical businesses and the military all seem to be very good at siphoning money to the top. I have a phrase that I stole from World of Warcraft, so when you get stuck in the middle of something and you get to the devs and you go, it’s all broken. They go, nope, it’s working as intended; you just happen to be stuck because you’re not clever enough. And I think capitalism is exactly working as intended just now. The narrative is it’s a bit broken and more capitalism will fix it, which is manifestly untrue. And I think I’ve found a new fellow feeling of someone who sees that this is untrue. So you’re a systems thinker, and systems are by their very nature incredibly complex, and there are multiple interrelated and feedback loops all slotted in together. But I’m also thinking that you’re quite good at breaking down the system into its component parts. So let’s have a go at what the system is at the moment, that’s working really well to enrich people, and then where the leverage points are of change. Does that make sense as a question? 

 Sue: Yeah perfect.

 Manda: Go for it.

 Sue: So, you’re absolutely right in your description. What we’ve got at the moment is a version of capitalism that has found ways of financializing the really foundational elements of our economy, what Rachel Reeves has started calling the everyday economy, what others call the wellbeing economy. And that is having some really, really disastrous effects. So the food system has become increasingly commodified, increasingly consolidated, and increasingly financialized, by which we mean there are bigger and bigger players all trying to get a piece of it, make sure they profit from it. And they’re extracting that profit by really screwing down the primary producers and the citizens who need, who absolutely have no choice but to consume those products. These are things that we can’t ignore. Food we can’t ignore, water we can’t ignore, energy we can’t ignore, housing. So those foundational elements of our economy are the things that we cannot avoid, that are essential to all of us. And modern day capitalism has found a way of financializing that really effectively, for increasing profits for smaller and smaller numbers of businesses. Now this ought not to be a surprise. Adam Smith himself said the bigger the business, the stronger the guardrails that will be needed around it, because he recognised that markets will work for themselves, they will not work for the public interest.

 Sue: And it always has been the job of governments to put really effective boundaries, guardrails around businesses, around markets to make sure that they continue. We can begin to, in some cases, prioritise the public interest and the public value. I’m absolutely not against markets and trade. How could we be? I am never going to be able to produce all of the things I need from my own labour, and I want to be able to trade with others who have those skills, who have those capacities and those capabilities, so we can each do the things that we are really well suited to do. And it’s trade that enables us to flourish in this kind of world. So to be really clear, this isn’t a kind of anti markets stance at all, but it’s very much a cri de coeur to say without strong and effective boundaries, unfettered markets will not work for the public interest.

 Manda: And we exist in a space where, it seems to me, if we name the giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity as finance, the people who actually pull the strings within the markets, our governance system is now a wholly owned subsidiary of that. So it’s it’s an interesting question of how do we reassert the hegemony of regulation in a space where the people we might want to regulate are controlling who sets the laws. 

 Sue: Yeah. And it’s even harder in what is now fundamentally a globalised food system. So in the UK we can produce about 60% of what we eat. That means we import 40% of what we need, but we also need to recognise I think, that it makes absolute sense for us in the UK to grow what we are ecologically suited to grow here in a regenerative way, and trade fairly with those countries who are ecologically suited to grow some of the other things we might want or need. You know, coffee, chocolate, more wine.

 Manda: Those are always the things, aren’t they?

 Sue: They’ve started to grow wine just up the road from me now, so that’s fine. But you know, a variety of wines.

 Manda: And that’s going to be an interesting point, isn’t it? Because what we’re ecologically suited to grow in 2024 might be quite different to what we’re ecologically suited to grow in 2034 or 44, particularly if the AMOC switches off. There’s so many unknown variables in this, and I’m guessing that you’re not advocating a kind of Ricardo model of we shall produce only vast quantities of, let’s say, oats, because we’re quite good at oats and to the exclusion of everything else. And then we’ll have to import everything else, because we’re good at oats, and we’ll send oats around the world, and then everybody will send us their stuff, which is, I think, where a lot of neoliberal thinking took us in the 80s and 90s. And now you said Regeneratively produced. So can we unpick how regenerative production looks to you? And to the Food Farming Countryside Commission.

 Sue: So it’s really simple and straightforward. It’s being able to produce sustainably more of the healthy food that we need for a balanced and nourishing diet. So for us it’s growing more fruits, veg, nuts, pulses, meat, dairy from sustainable sources and thinking about diets that are essentially whole foods, seasonal foods grown as locally as possible. We can unpack what local means in this context too, but essentially it’s about whole foods, a variety of whole foods, prioritising fruit, veg, nuts and pulses, meat and dairy from sustainable sources. It is taking out, as far as possible, ultra processed foods and foods that are often imported, unseasonal foods that are imported from countries who are themselves going to be hugely stressed. You were saying earlier that what we grow here in the UK now, in 2024, is going to look very different to what we’re going to be able to grow in 2034 and 2044. That is it, with knobs on for parts of the country where the climate crisis is going to have an even greater impact, the water challenged parts of the world and you know, parts of the world which are just going to get too hot to be able to even sustain human life, let alone grow food.

 Manda: And these are often the parts that are growing quite large amounts of food at the moment. So the entire circulation of food around the planet is going to be very different.

 Sue: Yes. 

 Manda: I think I’d like to come back to that. But you’ve been holding the food conversation, which absolutely fascinates me. I will put the videos in the show notes because you’ve been getting totally ordinary people, insofar as there is such a thing as an ordinary person, but people who had not previously, as far as I can tell, considered the food system. There was a lovely bit of video from someone going “At the beginning of this I thought it was so complicated and it was going to blow my mind”. And then basically it’s come down to exactly what you said; that we need to be able to have healthy, nutritious, whole foods and understand that ultra processed foods are none of those things. But tell us a little bit about how it was set up and where it’s taking you, and whether you are gaining insights from it that you didn’t otherwise know, or whether it’s supporting what you already did know.

 Sue: So the food conversation started nearly a couple of years ago now. We produced our reports in 2019. Lots of our partner organisations have been producing their own reports for sometimes decades. The National Food Strategy had been produced in 2021, the government commissioned National Food Strategy, and then promptly kicked into the Long Grass. And a group of us chief execs, senior leaders from different organisations, food and farming organisations, green groups, got together in a barn in the Cotswolds and we were really banging our heads together and saying, well, what the hell else are we supposed to do?

 Manda: Because they’re just not listening.

 Sue: Because government has declined to act. And it’s using as its excuse the notion that this isn’t what consumers want them to do. Nobody wants a nanny state. We can’t tell people what to eat. We can’t afford to do this in a cost of living crisis. And so we heard what I cheerfully called ‘the toxic narrative’ over and over and over again. And I’m not ashamed to say in the context of that particular meeting, I really did spit the dummy and say, that is it. I have had enough of this. We will take this on. We will take on this toxic narrative, and we will demonstrate that this is not what citizens think at all. They are told this is what they think, and then very often think, well, I don’t actually think that, but I can’t say it.

 Manda: Because everybody else thinks it. It’s such a strategy. Yeah.

 Sue: Yes. But we knew that wasn’t true. Because I’ve been spending time in communities, at home and in my professional practice, for decades. And we’ve been doing that work in the context of FFCC and we knew that’s not what people think. So we took it on on behalf of our community of organisations who are all trying to do this work together, that we would ask citizens directly: so what do we really want from food? And I’m a great fan of citizens assemblies, of participatory processes, of of deliberative dialogues, I’m a huge fan of all of that kind of work. But I’d noted, I suppose, two things, looking back at recent efforts; the Climate Assembly, the Nature Assembly and other work. That first of all, the topics that citizens are asked to engage in can feel very esoteric, very abstracted, and very far from their everyday and lived experience. But we all eat food. So if we start with a really simple question, so what do we want from food? Everybody can find a way into that. And we can talk about food and health, food and farming, food and land use, food and climate, food and nature, food and trade, food and justice. But everybody can find a way into it.

 Sue: And then the second thing I noticed about the really, really good work that people have done historically, they’d spent an enormous amount of time investing in the dialogue or the assembly itself, but had not perhaps invested in the kind of work that, let’s call them ‘the business as usual merchants’ do, which is the lobbying and the advocacy and the narrative shaping. So in this project, we have invested just as much resource in bringing those citizens voices out of the assembly, out of the dialogue, and into the public sphere, into the public domain, in front of policymakers, in front of politicians, in front of business leaders. More importantly, in front of each other. So that citizens can see other citizens who look just like them speaking in really simple and really straightforward ways about what matters to them about food.

 Sue: And you asked me what I’ve learned that’s new and what has affirmed what I thought I knew. Let me start with that one first. It has affirmed for me that people are thoughtful, they’re kind, they’re generous, they’re respectful, they’re imaginative, they’re insightful. You ask people and they are full of really positive ideas and a generosity that I think we have been allowed to forget in the last ten years of populism in the UK. What I perhaps wasn’t expecting, and it fills me with joy, was, first of all, how determined people are to express to government that they want and expect them to do something. The breadth of feeling and the commonality of that feeling, that people expect their government to act on big and complex issues, has been fantastic. And that they want to stay involved in the project. So they’re all saying, do we get WhatsApp groups? Can we keep going? How can we work with others? How can we work with other communities? How can we do work in our own community just to get some really practical change going? And that’s why in the design process, instead of having one National Assembly, which is very often what happens, we’ve got a blended design. So some citizen assembly processes, some participatory or dialogic processes, but they’re all in places and in those places we’re bringing in the local leaders and the local anchor institutions who are themselves in a position to do something. They can get on and work with their citizens to do something and make stuff happen. And so that is very liberating for citizens, but it’s incredibly liberating for those organisations, too. Who are really enjoying feeling connected with their own citizens, in their own communities on things that are eminently doable. And so that’s been utterly, utterly joyous.

 Manda: Yes, yes. So many questions on this! Because one of the things that struck me watching the videos, and I will put them in the show notes, and people listening I totally recommend; they’re quite short, they’re beautifully made. You’ve got some really good videographers. And the generosity of spirit shines through, and the fact that absolutely everybody gets that ultra processed food is a really bad idea. A lot of them, you know, my kids are drinking endless amounts of sugary drinks. You think, yes, sugary drinks should just not be on the shelves. There’s a really interesting podcast with Robert Lustig, who used to be a paediatric physician in the US. He did it with Nate Hagens. And he ended up, he said he’s beginning to do liver transplants on 12 year old children who have the same liver disease that he was previously seeing in very old alcoholics. And it’s as a result of drinking sugar water, because it’s cheap and it’s available and it’s addictive. And as you said, we now have this extractive system which does not care at all about who dies as long as the profits are made. We can rant about that in a minute, but let’s go back to the determination of people to do something locally and nationally. I think it was Upton Sinclair who said, ‘it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it’. And our current governmental systems, the revolving door between government and business, is very well greased. The lobbyists are very well practised, as you said, and most of the government is a wholly owned subsidiary of people who do not want them to understand that this sort of stuff works or is necessary. It struck me this idea of the nanny state, this is the government that decided to tax people based on where they slept; that they were going to force couples who were quite happily sleeping in separate bedrooms to sleep in the same room, because they were completely incapable of understanding that that might not be something you wanted.

 Manda: You can’t get more nanny state than that. So either they have more cognitive dissonance than I think, or they’re just basically lying. Either way, my opinion of the current government probably could fall lower, but I would struggle to know how. Given that’s the case, then it seems obvious that the change that can be made is local. And you were talking about local things, and I watched one of the videos and somebody said that over 50% of the people in Birmingham could not afford the government’s mandated, and even that is pretty basic levels, of nutritious whole food. Which is the food justice issues are enormous. Although I did listen also to people on the videos who were very reasonably explaining what we needed to fix it. So can you tell us two things: is there a way that we can hold government to account? Because I struggle to see what that is. You get one chance every 4 or 5 years to vote them out, and I doubt people are casting their vote based on food systems. And even if they are, they’re likely to be ignored. But locally, we can make change. So can you maybe pick a city, a place, an event, something locally that we can unpick to show what’s happening? And then if you can think of a way that we can influence national government, let’s unpick that too. Over to you.

 Sue: So let me start with that. Are people going to vote based on their understanding of food systems? Well, perhaps not literally, but I think the work that we are determined to do along with colleagues, is shine a really, really bright light on the food that people have every day on their plates and to show them what that represents, not just in food, but in the whole of the economy; the political economy of food, the chemistry, the biology of food, the whole system of food. People often talk about food systems, and what they mean is, you know, what goes in the ground and what goes to the plate. We are really clear that when we talk about food systems, we are talking about the politics and the economics of food, as well as what we grow and what we eat. And we talk really explicitly about the power dynamics in food systems as well. So if I were doing a different kind of a lecture, I would be talking about critical systems.

 Manda: Go on then. Talk about critical systems. Tell us about that.

 Sue: The version of systems which is about power and about justice. And it includes those considerations when we think about systems. So we’ve always been very explicit about that in FFCC. We don’t necessarily shout about it, but it informs and underpins everything that we do and how we design what we do and how we locate what we do in the whole kind of ecosystem of organisations doing this work. So I think starting with the story of the food on people’s plate, you know, the chicken nugget or the burger or the rubbish bread, the poor quality bread that people now eat, a staple that’s been enshitified, to use Cory Doctorow’s wonderful word. It is a way into understanding the system through something that is very straightforward and visible. So I think we could change people’s perceptions of the world they want, the government they want, the society they want, through showing them a different way of thinking about it, through the doorway of food. And then I think, what can business do? What can what can governments do? But for both of those categories, there are lots of different kinds of government, there are lots of different kinds of businesses. And so the answer to the question, what can businesses do? What can what can communities do? You have to kind of get pretty granular. You have to really start talking specifics, context specific responses to that.

Manda: Because everywhere is different, because geography is different and social structures are different.

Sue: And business structures are different. So I get really, really excited when I see some of the challenger businesses, the new and emerging challenger businesses, who with entrepreneurial zeal, are showing how to do things differently. People like Hodmedods growing pulses and grains, the Bold Bean Company putting delicious beans in jars and making it really, really easy to add pulses and beans to diets at relatively straightforward cost. And Riverford, you know, that’s the perfect example of getting really good organic vegetables in people’s kitchens through boxes. None of those are perfect, but are some really lovely examples of challenger businesses, of entrepreneurial thinking and challenger businesses showing how it’s possible to do things differently. The businesses, of course, that are going to really, really struggle are the big global food businesses, agribusinesses who are the particular beneficiaries of the worst aspects of the system at the moment. The people who have been able to use their power to screw down farmers and producers to get commodities at ever, ever cheaper cost, and who are using those commodities to make shit food basically. The ultra processed food that’s bad for us, bad for planet uses lots of packaging. You know, Michael Pollan’s brilliant phrase says if it makes health claims on the packet, then just don’t buy it. 

Manda: Basically if it’s got a packet that isn’t a paper bag, you probably don’t really want it, but then you can’t get that in the food deserts in the middle of cities.

Sue: Absolutely true. Yeah. Although when I lived in London for a while, when I started this work before Covid, I was living with my daughter out in Bethnal Green and the fruit and veg shops from the ethnic communities were brilliant, absolutely brilliant. A massive variety of of fruit and veg on show, up and down those streets.

Manda: In between the Greggs and the Costco. 

Sue: And the chicken shops. Exactly. And the charity shops and the gambling shops. Exactly. So yes, we can have a whole other conversation about revitalising the high street.

Manda: But having local food that you eat and you know where it came from is a key to revitalising the high street. Or at least perhaps changing the nature of the high street so that you get your boxes delivered on a cargo bike from somebody that’s five miles away?

Sue: Absolutely. And one of the lovely things about the work that we’ve been doing in the Food Conversation and the work that we were doing prior to that with big local, local trust, some of the poorest communities in the UK. Those communities are full of ideas. They’re full of ideas how to get healthy food affordably to people who need it. Just the kind of structures around them are not helping them. And that’s what we need to focus our attention on. But before we kind of step away from the question that you asked me: how are those big companies going to change? And I think that’s the really, really tricky question. It’s at the same order of how are fossil fuel companies going to change?

Manda: How’s the military industrial complex going to change? Yeah.

Sue: How indeed is the entire fossil fuelled version of capitalism that we’ve got at the moment going to change? And my systems view, my critical systems view recognises that it’s going to be pretty hard. You can’t do this from a kind of individual consumer perspective. You can’t get consumers consuming a little bit more effectively and persuading companies to make a little bit less of the rubbish stuff. You really do need a whole new global governance. And I suppose, this is both incredibly boring, but also it gives me a tiny glimmer of optimism. That the really boring accounting stuff, the stuff where the global governance of businesses is starting to require them to report differently and to account for different things on their balance sheets. And it’s very kind of below the line, and it’s not terribly sexy, but it’s really starting to require companies to tell the truth and be much more honest about what they’re doing and where they’re doing it, and how they account for it. So there’s new visibility, which enables new scrutiny on those big corporates. And I think the other thing that gives me a great deal of hope are the opportunities afforded by big data and AI. There have been some fantastic campaigns of late coordinated. Cargill is a really good example. There’s been a very, very effective, coordinated campaign that just shines a light on Cargill’s activities. Where I live in the Wye Valley, Cargill is a key shareholder of Avara, which runs the majority of the chicken sheds.

Manda: Yeah, Auschwitz for chickens. It’s hell on Earth and spews enormous amounts of effluent to destroy what was one of our most beautiful rivers, for people outside the UK. And they are allowed to do this.

Sue: Yes. So Cargill have also been known for their destruction of the Amazon rainforest. And now in the Cerrado they’ve been successfully prosecuted by communities in Oklahoma for pollution of rivers in that state. So by being able to bring together the activist energy and really aligning and focusing our attention, it makes it really hard for those corporations to have any way to go, other than to acknowledge that they’re going to have to change. Their license to operate is becoming harder and harder and harder. So I’ve got got a little bit of optimism about that.

Manda: Can we just unpick that? Just because I’m curious, can you tell me how the big data and the AI are being useful in this particular instance? Because then we can expand that out to other instances, but I hadn’t heard of this.

Sue: Well, it just means there is so much more information which can be curated and brought together by so many more people. So many, many more of us can connect what we know.

Manda: And is this citizen science? People just going down to their bit of river and analysing it and uploading it to an app?

Sue: Versions of it, yeah. It’s being able to use satellites to see what’s really going on in the parts of the world which are very visible. So we can see what’s happening in the Cerrado, we can see what’s happening in the Amazon now. People can interrogate that information. More people can interrogate that information. Citizens are using citizen science in the Wye and the same happened in Oklahoma. So people are able to mobilise more effectively and being able to gather data, share data, interrogate data, curate data in ways that we have not been able to do in the past. And that can be, I think, both empowering and game changing. 

Manda: And it seems to me certainly around here there are a lot of retired physics professors. You know, very, very smart people with suddenly quite a lot of time on their hands who will take up a cause like the river didn’t used to be full of stuff that was killing everything, and we’ll make it their life’s work to find out what’s happening and to share it with other people. And I think you’re right, that kind of. Action individually is tiny, but en masse it can make a huge difference. Are you seeing it? Because you seem to exist, you and the whole organisation, exist at an interface between ordinary people who eat food, and businesses who produce stuff that they call food and the governments who facilitate them at the moment. Certainly the local councils. I live near the Severn, which is very similar to the Wye and the local council, I’m not sure they have a brain cell to share between them, but if they do it’s oriented towards maximising profit for their friends. So are you seeing this change? Or perhaps let’s try a slightly different tack. It seems to me that since you started the national food conversation, the pushback against ultra processed foods has become much more mainstream. The Daily Mail has noticed that we’re eating rubbish and it’s giving us all diabetes, which is huge. Is this the lobbying that you’re doing? Is this what you’re doing? Is this what’s beginning to affect people do you think?

Sue: I’d love it if it were true! And I think, you know, we are playing a small part, but I think we’re at tipping points. So people people have been doing this work for a long time. Michael Pollan’s been doing this work ten, 12, 15 years ago, Tim Spector in the UK, Chris Van Tulleken, his brilliant book Ultra Processed People, has really caught people’s attention. And Henry Dimbleby’s popular version of the food strategy, Ravenous, has done a similar thing. So I think this is about tipping points. That different people, different groups, different organisations have been plugging away and plugging away and plugging away. And thinking about our theory for change, I often ask ourselves what territory are we in here? Are we in tipping point territory where we just have to keep plugging away doing this thing and it will tip, it’s about to tip. Or sometimes we have to ask ourselves, are we just banging our heads against the wall here? Do we need to do something different? Now the food conversation is the something different. It’s it’s kind of calling the bluff of all of those lobbyists that say no one wants a nanny state, by pointing out that the only people who say that are the people who literally employ nannies to look after their own children. And just taking on the lobbyist arguments, you know, this is one of our massive asks, every time we work with food businesses, the big food businesses, we’ve got a fairly simple ask: stop undermining the policy asks of organisations like ours of partners like the Food Foundation, Sustain, Soil Association and others who are all producing really, really strong work. The de minimis for any conversation is stop being unhelpful. I was going to say a big swear there.

Manda: We’d have to bleep it out. So.

Sue: So I didn’t. Well done me. But just don’t be a bad person. Don’t do the wrong thing. Particularly those organisations who pay lip service to change in front of the cameras and then immediately run round the back door of number ten.

Manda: And lobby for no change at all. Yeah.

Sue: Excellent idea, but you know that kind of tooth sucking moment where they go, ‘you can’t really do that’. 

Manda: It’s OK, we’ll self-regulate, we’re good people, we went to the same school as you.

Sue: Yes. And our kids are on the same rugby team. So stop doing that.

Manda: Do they listen to you?

Sue: I mean, they very often have the good grace to look embarrassed. So that’s a good start. 

Manda: Yes. We talked to Rob Percival a while ago, and he had been invited to a kind of Cargill and others industry conference, where he stood on the platform and said, you guys are the bad guys. You need to stop what you’re doing. Which I thought, first of all, what did they think he was going to say when they invited him? And second, my goodness, that was very brave. And he said afterwards half the people could not meet his gaze and the other half were coming up and going, thank you for saying this. So they are people with kids too. And I’m imagining it’s a bit like Steve Jobs not letting his children anywhere near any mobile devices until they were in their mid-teens. They probably don’t let their children eat chicken nuggets or white bread or any of the other stuff that’s being put out.

Sue: And, you know, Manda, everyone has to be the hero of their own story. They are not bad people, but they are profoundly trapped and embedded in a structure and a system that now is just not working for us, or for the public interest and the public value. And I think the ones that I am willing to work with are the ones who acknowledge that to themselves, and who are genuinely asking the question, what is the pathway out of this? Right? And again, to be fair, they will say to me, we employ many people, we can’t just go away. We are embedded in the system as it is and if it stopped tomorrow, many people would be without work. And so we need a pathway out of this that is fair and just for everyone. And so what they say is we can’t do this on our own. We want government to set the regulatory guardrails so that we level the playing field for everybody. So we raise those regulatory baselines. So we’re not going to get undercut by the idiots who are going to carry on doing the crap stuff, the bad stuff; that if we’re all going to improve, then that will not too rapidly disadvantage us.

Sue: That’s something. That is something. The elephant in the room, and I know you’ve talked about this in other podcasts, is that we probably can’t continue consuming as much as we do. So there are big, big questions about the kind of economy that we want for ourselves, for the long terme, the kind of society we want for ourselves in the Long Terme. And given the massive resource depletion that we face as a planet, and given the need for a fair and equitable distribution of those resources, particularly for people in the Global South who have not had fair access to even the basic things they need, we in the Global North have got to face into the fact that we are going to have to start organising for a society and an economy that looks very different to the one that we have now. Not one that’s full of hair shirts and misery, but one that starts valuing a web of relationships that isn’t about stuff, it isn’t about consuming stuff, but is about valuing, as Tim Jackson would put it, care and craft and culture and community. And all of those things are the things that, you know, when we were living through Covid, we realised really quickly were the things that we actually really cared about, but then we kind of end up defaulting back to a system where accumulating the next thing becomes the default response.

 Sue: And that’s why I love the food conversation, because in the food conversation, we’re talking about food and people are saying things like, we probably are going to have to pay more for food in the UK because if farmers can’t afford to grow food sustainably, we can’t carry on like that. But also we don’t want to see organisations taking a piece of the food system and turning it into rubbish, turning it into crap food that they sell us, which is over packaged, over processed, bad for our health. Takes up lots of logistics miles, needs to be refrigerated. All of the stuff that depletes and extracts value, doesn’t add value at all. So they are themselves starting to imagine not just a different food system, but a different society, that focuses on what matters and focuses on what’s important and really prioritises the connections that they are making in those conversations.

Manda: And this feels like a genuine theory of change. This is what I find so exciting about what you’re doing, is again, watching the videos, the gentleman who said it was very confusing he also said he used to look at adverts or watch adverts where there’d be a highly polished, generally white guy, standing in front of a couple of placid looking cows with acres of green behind him, promoting dairy stuff. And it wasn’t until he engaged in your process that he realised that, first of all, that guy is an actor. And second, most farmers are not even earning the minimum wage and the suicide rate is off the scale. And and now he understands that. And now he wants his money to go to the farmer and not to go to 17 middlemen who are raking it off in the middle, which is fantastic. And so it seems that there is a theory of change that says, if you can hold enough of these conversations in enough places, all these people are going to go home and they’re going to say, hey, I talked to farmers, I’ve spoken to other people. This is the reality. We need to do different things in our communities. This has been going on for, I think, about a year now. Are you beginning to see, you said you had local groups that were really excited because they had excited people wanting to do things with them. Are you beginning to see little kind of fractal ripples in the geographic places? Can you tell us a bit about that?

Sue: Yes, and of course, people were already doing things, you know, people people weren’t sitting in their communities doing nothing on this. People have been doing this work for ages. There have been some really brilliant groups. I mentioned Big Local, Sustainable Food Places. There are some fantastic food places in Birmingham, Leeds, Brighton. 

Manda: Yes. Most of the cities seem to have somebody who’s really into food. Yeah.

Sue: Yes. We could make lists couldn’t we, between us, of places where people are already trying to do things. So our job is to back them, to illuminate them, to amplify them. And thinking our theory of change is about midwifing the new, as well as hospicing the old. As well as telling the truth to the kind of old legacy businesses to say, you know, you’re not going to be able to carry on like you are, let’s tell the truth and let’s talk about it, in a properly kind of business intelligent, risk managed way. What it means to change the way that you do business. Whilst at the same time doing everything that we can to midwife the new, to tell the stories of what’s happening and to demonstrate, we’ve been using this phrase a lot; the future is already here. The future is here. This isn’t some kind of radical and weird fantasy, as some would have us believe, that just the hippies and the dreamers talk about.

Manda: And the very rich people who can afford to buy organic food, that’s one of the narratives, isn’t it? It’s a luxury.

Sue: Yes, it is very much so. Yes. It’s this is an artisan concern. But as you’ve seen from the films yourself, the people that come to the food conversation are a proper reflection of the whole of UK society. And we use gold standard recruitment processes to make sure of that. And that’s why that kind of shared and collective voice is so significant, because it’s coming from groups of people that genuinely reflect the breadth of British society and British opinion. So it’s about saying this isn’t a theoretical fantasy future, this is what people are already doing and this is how it’s working, and this is what they need from policymakers and from businesses. These are the conditions we need to create around them, to help them flourish and to accelerate change. But this is the future; it’s here and it’s possible.

Manda: Brilliant. Okay, I’m watching the time. I have so many questions. You said hospicing the old; do you have, you Sue Pritchard or you as an organisation, have an idea of what an off ramp looks like for the really big, the Cargills, the Danone, the massive companies that are currently driven by the need to extract. What does their off ramp look like? And I’m guessing it’s a total systemic change. They will not be able to change alone, because they have pension companies invested in them and people’s 401’s and all the rest of it. The system is the system. But I’m thinking you have thought about this as deeply as anybody I’ve ever spoken to. Do you have a sense of what the off ramp, how we step onto it, what it begins to look like?

Sue: Oh, it’s going to vary again, isn’t it? It’s going to vary from company to company. There are some global businesses that do nothing but produce crap food. 100% of their product lines are categorically unhealthy, as defined by WHO. They’ve got a big job in front of them. And to be completely candid, Manda, I don’t know what their off-ramp is going to look like.

Manda: Change your product lines to something completely different that isn’t carbonated sugar water basically isn’t it? 

Sue: Yeah. Yes. And and don’t forget, capitalism is littered with companies whose products or services or business models no longer worked and are no longer with us. So that’s the nature of the beast. And it’s possibly beyond my intelligence to be able to work that out for them. They need to do that for themselves. They need to think it through for themselves, probably with the support of their investors and their shareholders and their boards. But having super clear, super honest questions about the pace and scale of change that will be inevitable, in a properly risk focussed way, that has got to be happening. I’m certain that’s going to be happening. For other companies who maybe have broader portfolios and brought a broader range of products, they may well be able to navigate a journey for themselves where they are disinvesting in the old, and they’re bringing new products or services to the fore. And they can see a pathway where they, as a corporate entity, can continue to exist. I’m I’m relatively sanguine about the fact that businesses come and businesses go and that’s capitalism. Suck it up.

Manda: And maybe we get past capitalism and we get to something where businesses still come and go, but in a different model. Associated with that then, I’m thinking some obvious political changes that could be made would be to ban advertising to an age group, the under tens, the under 15’s. To completely ban certain quantities of refined carbs, sugar and salt in food. Lots of bans on lots of things. But that it would need to be global. Because what we saw with things like baby milk, you prove that baby milk is actually one of the worst things you can possibly give your newborn infant. So let’s go and sell it to people whose governments will will take the backhanders and will let us do that. And we need that not to be happening. So it needs to be, I’m talking myself into a global governance system. Which would be an interesting thing, and I can feel a lot of arguments against it. But when you’re in conversations with policymakers and accepting that they then have the guys going around the back door going, don’t do any of this because, you know, it’ll harm our bottom line. But are these the kinds of things that they’re looking at?

 Sue: Yeah. And I think international agreements feel a bit different don’t they, to globalised governance. Globalised governance has got all sorts of red flags. But international agreements are the stuff of collaboration, of shared interests, of shared concerns.

Manda: This is what closed the holes in the ozone layer. If we can do that, we can do other stuff. Yes.

Sue: Yes, exactly. And like we said, right at the very, very start of this conversation; we all eat food. And if we can fix food, we can fix everything. And that’s true for this country and it’s true for all countries. The manifestation of their food systems issues may show up a bit differently, but no country is going to survive more than 3 to 5 days with a broken food system. So we are genuinely all in this, and we’re all in this at a time when pressures and challenges on food, what we grow, what we can grow, could not be greater, with climate and nature crisis. So we are all in this, and I can absolutely imagine an intelligent and collaborative international agreement based on principles of equity and collaboration and cooperation, that makes it impossible for people to go and do what perhaps they have been doing hitherto. If people aren’t buying refined sugar in the global North, let’s go sell it to the Global South for a bit and watch Malawi and other countries health profile plummet.

Manda: Watch the pandemic of diabetes move to there instead of here or as well as here.

Sue: Exactly. I don’t know what the alternative is. Well, no, actually, that’s not true, I can imagine what the alternative is and it’s not a pretty picture is it? 

Manda: No it’s not pretty. Because fixing food is, as you said earlier on, fixing the power dynamics and the way it’s produced and the whole climate and ecological interplay of growing appropriate food in appropriate places in appropriate ways. And agreeing what appropriate is. I wanted to have a whole conversation with you about agroecology but we’re running out of time. Even the word regenerative farming has been co-opted by people who think it means spraying with glyphosate and not using the plough quite as much, which makes me weep. And agroecology will doubtless go the same way, because they will just half inch it. And somewhere along the line there needs to be that value shift, so that the people who want the world to be inhabitable, which seems to me is not really a very high bar, could say, you know, guys, you don’t get to do this. You don’t get to tell us that your hamburger is actually regenerative, when quite plainly, that’s only for a given version of regenerative that you just made up on the spot.

Sue: Yeah. So I’m quite clear on this. And at FFCC we’re pretty clear on this. I’m not opposed to using the word regenerative at all. It is probably the access word that everybody can connect to on a journey towards something that is more fundamentally sustainable. But for me, the key defining word is agroecology. People have been working on defining agroecology for well over 20 years now, in service of the Sustainable Development Goals and with a strong voice from the global South. And it’s much more than what is grown on a farm. Agroecology does take a whole system view, and it talks about the governance of food systems, it talks about the culture of food. It talks about a fair food system, as well as how we farm and how we get food onto people’s plates. So for me, whilst I may not use it in my everyday conversation at the pub on a Friday night with my farmer friends, agroecology is the organising principle that determines how we think about the food system for 2030. So FFCC has amongst its missions, a transition to agroecology by 2030, so that agroecology becomes the kind of default way of thinking about food and farming in the UK. So I often say regenerative practices are necessary, but not sufficient in the transition to a more sustainable food system for the future. And agroecology provides the the wrap around for all of the components that are needed.

Manda: Brilliant. Oh gosh. That would open up a whole new podcast. But just very briefly, given that we’ve seen what seems to me quite reactionary columns of tractors driving into London or Paris or wherever, that the right seems to have co-opted what was a genuine and heartfelt desperation on the parts of farmers who just had their everything pulled out from under them. In your conversations with the farmers who aren’t sitting on tractors on the way to London, are they coming on board with reducing the industrial agriculture and increasing the agroecology? Is that a thing that you’re seeing?

Sue: So I think it varies hugely. And I would say about those folk who were protesting in Wales and who were protesting in London, the farmers who are protesting are coming from very different positions. There are some, the kind of right wing populists, who find the parade and rush to the front of it and think that’s leadership. Without a doubt, there are some of those. But there are plenty of people who say we need our voices heard, you are not properly understanding the political economy of food. You’re making it all about what farmers have to do. And look, Nestlé and Tesco remain otherwise untouched. So they’re talking about justice and they’re talking about fairness and they’re talking about the pace of change. So I think that it has represented a kind of massive upswell of fearful and anxious and angry voices. But the motivations for that fear and anger are really, really different. And what I’ve really valued in the last few weeks is seeing my own union in Wales, NFU Cymru, and strong farmer voices in England too, saying whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, we need to be really clear what the issue is here. We have serious and valid concerns. We need to focus on those, and we need to really focus on the long game. And they are now refusing, I think, to be co-opted by populists, refusing to allow themselves to be polarised and just sticking to the things that are really important and really matter. So I’m hugely grateful for that.

Manda: Yes, yes. And I have noticed that in my social media feeds, a lot of pushback going, hey guys, there’s a lot else going on here. So very quickly before we finish, let’s assume that in the UK there is a change of government at the next election, whenever that happens. But it’s got to happen within a year from now. This year.

Sue: Yes.

Manda: If the incoming government, whatever its structure, were to call you, Sue, and go okay, we put something bland in our manifesto, which I think we can pretty much say that will be the thing. What do we actually do? What are our first hundred days and what are for the first terme, hoping we get a second terme, we’re not worried about the politics here, we will sort the optics; tell us what we should do.

Sue: Well. I’m ready. If that should come, I am ready for that, Manda. And I think the first thing is to do what we have been doing in the food conversations. Bring citizens together in an assembly, and work through all of the fantastic policy ideas that governments have already had offered to them over the last ten years. Increasingly over the last five years. And start working through. So which of these can we adopt? These are the ones that citizens absolutely back. You’ve mentioned a couple already: stop advertising crap food to kids, prioritise government spend through public procurement, get decent food on the public plate, feed our kids well in schools, feed sick people well in hospitals. There is huge public support behind that. So let’s work through all of the policy proposals that people have been working on, working on, working on. Do the ones that can be done, grab those low hanging fruit. We have three criteria in our food conversations: just do it, test it if we need a bit more research, and for the really tricky ones, for the ones where trade offs are necessary, let’s debate it in really good public debate. So let’s put that process in government through a process of citizens assemblies, and then appoint a minister for food with power for food systems, not just food on the plate, but for food systems. The Minister for food systems with power. And create, using mechanisms that government has already, through the public value framework, cross-cutting mechanisms across all of the government departments that recognise that food intersects with business, with trade, with Defra.

Manda: With health.

 Sue: And put those existing working mechanisms in place to require those departments to work much more effectively together in service of food systems transformation. So, you know, I’m ready. I’m ready for that call, Manda. 

Manda: Yay! We’ll set that intent, we’ll make it happen. Get Sue in. Tell them what to do. In fact, you could be that minister, that would be fine, wouldn’t it? 

Sue: I’m not actually a politician, but I’d certainly be very happy to help.

Manda: As we know what they do is they put you in the House of Lords and then they can do whatever they like. So you could become Lady Monmouth.

Sue: Well, that’s a thought.

Manda: Probably there is one of those.

Sue: There probably is, yeah. But yes, I’m sure if somebody were to ask me I would be very, very happy to help in whatever small way I could.

Manda: Right. I’m going to see if we can make this happen, because that sounds like a jolly good idea. And I’m so pleased that you have so many easily actionable things and that you’ve got your three criteria: do it, test it, talk about it. It’s beautiful and it’s brilliant. Is there anything else you wanted to say to people before we head off? I will put lots of links to everything that you’ve mentioned in the show notes. Anything else?

Sue: Well, in the UK and all around the world, I can’t think of many things that are more important than this right now. So the most important thing that any of us can do is join in those systems changing activities, which are going to be in your communities all around you. It’s not about what you buy. It’s it’s about who you talk to and what you do together in your community. So if any of your listeners aren’t already doing that, and I can’t imagine that many of them won’t be, find more ways to get involved in food systems change in your place and it’ll just be so rewarding.

Manda: Brilliant. I’ll put links to some of the city ones that we mentioned. If anybody listening knows of one that isn’t in the show notes, just send me the link and I will put it in the show notes and people can have that as a resource. Sue, thank you so much for everything that you’re doing and for taking the time to come on to the podcast. It’s such an inspiring conversation. Thank you.

Sue: My absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me Manda.

Manda: And that’s it for this week. Wasn’t that grand? I am so grateful to Sue for the clarity of her thinking, for her capacity to look at all sides of a debate and find the best way through. It’s so easy to get caught up in what’s going wrong and how it’s really hard to fix it. And what Sue is absolutely doing is going out there using the best ideas that we have at the moment, to bring people together, to give them that sense of agency and connection and sufficiency that is the answer to the way forward. And she’s getting results. I honestly think if you have any time at all, go to the show notes and have a look at the food conversation videos. They’re not very long and they are beautifully produced and they completely knock on the head the whole narrative that people want really crappy food, they really don’t. And the more of us that know this, the more we can hold conversations with people in our circles based on what other people actually think, the sooner we hit the tipping points where these are the narratives that have the biggest traction. So if you’re looking for something to do this week, please go and watch those videos and then just go and hold conversations with people around you.

Manda: And as Sue said, find out who is really working towards real food being available within your community; in the schools, in the hospitals, in the prisons. In all of the places where government money is spent, we should be making sure that local, whole, nutritious food is what’s in there, not the food desert ultra processed rubbish. So go to it people, that is our call to action for this week.

Manda: As ever we’ll be back next week with another conversation. And in the meantime, enormous thanks to Caro C for the music at the Head and Foot. To Alan Lowells of Airtight Studios for the production. To Anne Thomas for the transcripts. To Fay Tilleray for wrangling all of the tech and for the conversations that keep us going. And as always, an enormous thanks to you for listening. If you know of anybody else who eats food and who cares about where it comes from, where the money goes, where the injustices are, where the power imbalances lie, then please do send them this link. And we’ll see you next week. That’s it for now. Thank you and goodbye.

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