What is the Future of Food?

Agriculture & Food

The first session of the Soil Association conference has kicked off with a simple question: What is the future of food?

Caroline Spelman was not present to give the keynote speech, but recorded a disappointingly political video. “The Foresight Report points to the vital role of organics in future food provision in the UK… we want to be the Greenest Government EVER!! … Government wants to support local food hubs… consumers are choosing organic and local…” and so on. But like most politicians she failed to actually say how they were going to do any of this, or make any actionable commitments to  support more integrated, sustainable food production and distribution, and as such there was laughter across the floor when the video ended. As one commenter from the floor said, the only thing of real value was her comment that “organic farmers can pass on vital lessons to the rest of the sector”, which he suggested we should take and promote relentlessly.

Peter Kendall (NFU) followed up with comments on the Foresight report, mentioning specifically the importance of waste reduction. He’s genuinely keen to find syncretic ways to feed 9 billion people, but suggests that governments can not dictate what consumers should buy, and that it is up to consumers to encourage more organic farming by paying a higher price for it. What he’s failed to take account of, of course, is that non-organic food is only cheaper because it does not include the external costs, such as polluted water, biodiversity loss, higher health-care costs, and so on.

As many from the floor pointed out, why should consumers pay more for organic? Surely they should pay more for non-organic, since that’s the method which has the higher total cost?

Peter also commented that the UK has a bit of obsession with GM, and the consequent danger that the debate has been condensed in the public mind into one of “Is GM the future of food or not?” Mike Bushell, from biotech company Syngenta – the company which walked out of a recent report in favour of organic farming as a model for international development – echoed this by confirming that GM is not the future of biotech, and that marker assisted breeding is playing an progressive role in using new technologies more wisely.

The NFU somewhat blew it though by sharing the Foresight report’s suggestion that there is “no grounds for excluding new methods on the grounds of ethics or morality“. Granted we should embrace and apply new technology, but mankind is – and takes great pride and joy in being – a moral animal. Knowing that the NFU is happy to divest us of this defining virtue is alarming to say the least.

Prof Urs Niggli (FiBL) was expecting Spelman to mention some of the solutions, since pointing out the problems (especially the need to use less water and fossil fuels) is easy and she’s supposed to be in the solution business.  In Austria, where they see organic as crucial for rural development, biodiversity, combating climate change, resilience, and minimising waste, 20% of farmed land is organic. In Switzerland, where 11% of farmed land is organic, they are using organic farming as the solution for many of the problems they face farming on the alp. The UK is only 4%. Ah well, at least we’ll be able to celebrate a doubling sometime quite soon, but I fear the Swiss will probably be celebrating theirs before ours, because they are ahead in accounting for the external costs of non-organic farming.

Jan Hutchinson (Faculty of Public Health) also wanted to hear more action points, but gave Spelman the benefit of the doubt that it was such a short smiley speech that perhaps she didn’t have time to say anything important. Using food standards in public sector procurement is useful and welcomed, but it’s old. The problem is in successful implementation and replication. There’s the false impresson amongst consumers, however, that certified food is more expensive, so getting  adoption outside the public sector is still tough. She encourages us to redefine what we mean by a ‘proper meal’, and spread knowledge about how to choose and cook more healthily. (Free tip: if you have the means and desire, start a cookery course called ‘Confidence with Vegetables: how to cook healthy, local, sustainable meals for half the cost of your normal weekly shop’).

Did you know the NHS funds allotments, since they play such a great role in catalysing public health? Great stuff, eh? Makes one optimistic.

Rita Clifton (Interbrand) was also unimpressed with Spelman. She’s more interested in measurable action and not political rhetoric. Rita brought some market experience to the conversation around behavioural change. The problems: we already have a great deal to worry about in life; we get conflicting advice when we do seek it; and we’re reluctant to change if it means effort of expense. However all is not lost, and, as the transition to unleaded petrol shows us, large public change can be swift and painless. We need to (1) Be clear about the issue, (2)  Why it’s critical for them / their family / their community to act, (3) Make it easy to take action, and get it supported by a celebrity they like.

She made the point that people express high value ethics during consumer research, but react to price at the checkout. How do we remind ourselves of our ethics at the checkout? She suggests by building the organic brand to be stronger on sustainable value: social value, environmental value, and economic value. By buying this product you’re not just buying the product, you’re supporting a better world. Nice, but … well the same reasoning might be applied by charity shops. To my mind it’s not about doing good, it’s about not doing bad. Which brings us back to the recurrent observation that if non-organic food were fairly priced, organic food would quickly have a majority market share.

It appears to me, therefore, that the key thing is to encourage more people to grow and sell organic food. The more people are involved, the more they’ll create ways to buy. The more ways to buy there are, the more opportunities there are to buy organic and have an affirming, ethical experience. (Which is horribly phrased, sorry.. but we do all like to feel good about ourselves and affirm and define our identity through our purchases.)

Some great questions and statements flowed from the floor*:

“If the comsumer is king, why is NFU policy farmer focused?”

“The market is secondary to the importance of a healthy food system. We in danger of losing the real point of organic farming by making the market the main focus” Nic Lampkin

“We need a new hierarchy of stakeholders to deliver these goals. Right now it’s all poachers no gamekeepers”

“Don’t tell people how to think, show them how to think.”

“I’m not working in a market. I’m working in a regulated environment…. if I went non-organic my prices wouldn’t change much, but we would loose the public goods which are delivered”

“We have to be political.” (from the people behind FruitMap)

“Markets only work if the consumers are educated and objective. Organic can’t compete with half-truths in advertising.”

*Sorry if I’ve misquoted. My shorthand is no good, but I hope I’ve captured the key messages. Please let me know of any errors and I’ll update.

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons


  1. Re: “if non-organic food were fairly priced, organic food would quickly have a majority market share.”

    In your article you mentioned all the things no included in the price of non-organic food, but there is the other side of it too… subsidies.

    I was speaking Zoe at Eco Land Co-op earlier today and in her research for a new report they are launching next week, “Small is Successful – Creating Sustainable Livelihoods on Ten Acres or Less”, she discovered that large farms get 75% of their income from Gov’t subsidies!

    So, if one takes that into consideration too, then I think your argument is even stronger 🙂

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