Good Food Nation - will the government step up to the plate?

Written by Tom Freeman on 27 June 2018 in Inside Politics

Event report: the Scottish Government's ambition to fix a broken food ecosystem has not yet been backed by action

Good Food Nation - Holyrood

Nicola Sturgeon’s 2016 Programme for Government saw a firm commitment to a consultation on a Good Food Nation Bill, to join up the government’s approach to food, be that in agriculture, environment, health, education, planning and licencing. 

In a country which has a known brand for exports but one of the worst diets in Europe, campaigners saw this legislation as an opportunity to create a fair, healthy, sustainable food system which means a healthy diet is available for all in a way that supports Scottish producers.

Yet over two years later, the consultation is still to happen, and if an indication of where food lies in the Scottish Government’s list of priorities is needed, Rural Affairs Secretary Fergus Ewing gave a recent statement to the Scottish Parliament on the future of agriculture in Scotland and didn’t mention the Good Food Nation Bill once.

When asked about it, he said the government will come back to the “specific topic in due course”.

Those hoping for brave landmark legislation with a cross-sectoral approach may well have met such a response with dismay.

“Our relationship with food is disgraceful,” Scotland’s national chef Gary Maclean told Holyrood’s recent policy event on the subject, pointing to generations of Scots who have forgotten how to source and cook healthy meals. 

Lifestyles and diets have changed so much that modern farming faces an economic and cultural challenge if it wants to remain sustainable. 

Meanwhile, the number of people relying on emergency food packages is on the rise, while at the same time one in three meals ends up in the bin, according to Zero Waste Scotland. And the problem of obesity continues to put a heavy stress on the NHS, with some indications that today’s children will grow up less healthy than their parents.

The current food ecosystem is broken in almost every way you look at it. 

The Scottish Food Coalition, which includes environmentalists and trade unions, has called for the bill to enshrine a right to food in law, set up a statutory body and establish some targets.

The UN right to food already means “governments have a duty to ensure their people are well nourished,” said Nourish Scotland executive director Pete Ritchie.

But as a direct result of policies such as welfare reform, some people are struggling to eat at all, let alone healthily.

Poverty Truth Commissioner Caroline Mockford described how she was left with no money when her disability benefits were shifted onto a new system.

“I refused to go to the foodbank so I didn’t eat anything for two weeks. In the end I had to go to the council and get my vouchers,” she told delegates.

“When I got there, it was the worst experience of my life. You’ve nothing when you’ve got no money but your dignity, but see going in that place? I came out in tears. I felt like I was begging for food.”

Mockford said the items were restricted to tinned and processed food with a reasonable shelf life.

“The undernourished are more susceptible to illness, especially those with existing medical conditions. Food insecurity is not only about a lack of money, negative health and stress, but also feelings of shame and disempowerment.

“People want justice, not charity,” she said.

Evie Murray created Leith Community Crops in Pots after taking in two abandoned children and deciding to grow her own food in her backyard.

Having already worked with vulnerable adults in Leith for several years, Murray realised the food system was not helping the two traumatised children in her care, or indeed the wider community. 
“I started to feel we need to transform the food system,” she said.

The initiative snowballed as more people in Leith got involved. It now has a thriving community croft, provides an education service in local schools and has expanded into work building a grassroots food movement in schools in Malawi.

“People are really interested in food, but the environment doesn’t lend itself to people getting engaged and what is crucial to that is access to land within communities,” Murray said.

When it comes to the Good Food Nation Bill, “legislation is nothing without enforcement”, according to Murray.

She placed the blame for the complex mix of problems in the food environment firmly on a neoliberal economic model. 

“It is predicated on a blind worship of the market, a market which values things on monetary terms and which poorly regulates the corporations which run rampant for short-term profit at the expense of nature.”

But what the Good Food Nation Bill has already achieved is getting urban-centric environmentalists and rural producers in the same room to discuss the future of our food system.

If a clue is needed about what is missing from the equation, Stirling’s commitment to become a ‘Good Food City and Region’ has culminated in the appointment of a food and drink coordinator, Ashley Robinson, to make the link between departments.

“Traditionally, legislation has taken a really reductive approach to food,” usually focused on safety, economics or public health, said Aoife Behan of the Soil Association. 

“So it’s quite a challenging piece of work if Good Food Nation is going to deliver.”

In the face of Brexit and other political flashpoints, she said, “I feel there is an issue with Good Food Nation happening. We are lacking leadership on this.”

Are ministers ready to step up to the plate?

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