Last week saw a tale of two food policies, with widespread disappointment at the white paper announced in England, versus support for Scotland’s Good Food Nation Bill, which was passed into law.
Pete Ritchie, who leads Nourish Scotland, and his team worked for seven years on helping to get the bill over the line.
“We had a dram to celebrate it’s true,” he laughs. Although, he forsees the benefits won’t be delivered in his lifetime, describing this moment as “the end of the beginning”.
In comparing the Good Food Nation Bill to the UK government’s offering, he says, “Well ours is a bill, unlike the other thing which is a sort of plan with nobody really committed to doing anything about it.
“Ours is the start of something. It’s not an interesting read because it’s a framework bill. Unless you’re a masochist you won’t have read the UK Climate Change Bill which says here’s a target and we’re going to make a plan to achieve it.
“The missing bit on the Good Food Nation Bill is the target, we wanted a much clearer target. But there are targets already in law. There’s the commitment to halving childhood obesity, there’s already a commitment to meeting UN sustainable development goals on food waste, there’s already a commitment to zero hunger, there’s already a commitment on climate change, greenhouse gases, biodiversity targets. There are already government targets out there that this bill needs to support.
“It creates the framework for change over two decades – that is the time scale we have to think about”
“What it basically says is there’s going to be a plan. One interesting thing it says is that government has got to consult, it’s got to include children and young people, it’s got to bring the plan back to parliament for 60 days, and it’s going to have an independent food commission to mark its homework. That was a really important win.
“What we know is governments are very good at plans and visions but when it comes to delivering on them you do need people like the UK Climate Change Committee to go ‘hmm nice words but what about the action?’ So we’re pleased with that.
“But it’s very much the beginning of the change. The bill creates the framework for change to happen over the next two decades – that is the time scale we have to think about.
“The good news for us is there’s a cross party consensus on the bill ending the need for food banks, for example.
“There was genuine political interest in making this a strong bill and dealing with the immediate cost of living crisis.
“Long term there’s problems of food insecurity, there’s problems of huge dietary inequalities in Scotland. If you’re well-off you can afford to eat whatever you like and if you’re not you can’t, and all the health disparities that go with that.
“We want profitable businesses, but if they making stuff we shouldn’t eat how will they keep going?”
“There are tensions as there always are between wanting well for your farmers, but your farmers produce sheep and beef so how’s that doing for climate change?
“You want to support the food industry but it produces items we don’t need to eat too much of so if they’re going to keep producing biscuits or cake or chocolate bars how do those businesses keep going but sell us less of that stuff?
“At least the bill says we need to join some of these things up. We can’t simply have the Health Department plan, environment, agriculture plan.
“The other good thing is that it means local authorities have to have food plans – again – joined up at local authority level. This has got a lot of legs in it in terms of helping local authorities get more invested in the food system.
“People won’t forget quickly that during Covid local authorities suddenly had a lot to do with food, with getting food to people, working with the third sector, they made things happen in a couple of days which normally would have taken a couple of years. So, the fact that local authorities have a dog in the fight too is really important.
“Rosie Boycott did a great report for the House of Lords that said the cost of healthy sustainable food has to be built into our understanding of what the cost of living is and what social security payments should reflect and what the living wage is.
“There’s a recognition that if you want to fix the food system you have to put money into citizens’ pockets”
“At the moment that healthy food basket is going out of reach for people and not just because food prices are going up but everything else is going up as well.
“You can’t fix the food system just within the food supply chain you have to address huge income inequalities in Scotland as in the rest of the UK.
“Remember we criticise the government a lot, I’m not a mouthpiece for the government. But I will say that the Scottish government have introduced the Child Payment, (in addition to Child Benefit) that started at £10 much, to the surprise of NGOs who had asked for £5.
“It’s doubled to £20 and it’s going up to £25 this year and it’s being extended to all children under 16. So that’s real cash in families’ pockets to spend on food and fuel bills, shoes, to actually support kids.
“We’ve got a good Best Start grant scheme that’s getting high levels of take up. That’s going to go from a voucher or card payment to a cash payment. So, you’ve got that extra help with food costs.
“We’ve got universal free school meals coming in and holiday payments. So, there’s a recognition that if you want to fix the food system you have to put money into people’s pockets.
“Changing what we think good food is will take 20 years”
“They didn’t want to check up on people. This can only work if we trust people to do the right thing.
“The Scottish diet, much like the English diet is very processed. We don’t eat our veggies. We do eat a lot of stuff that we should be eating in smaller quantities.
“Trying to change what we think good food is over time, like the Nordics have managed to do, that’s a 20-year job.
“It’s about re-thinking what people like me eat, what’s typical. The trouble is you don’t get there by dissing what people are eating at the moment and telling everybody they’ve got to be vegan or the planet’s going to die.
“You get there by incrementally changing the food environment, by having a public kitchen that changes the sort of food we can all be proud of, and you get there when government leads by example when it hosts events. Cities like Edinburgh running festivals need to say, ‘this is the sort of food we’re going to have’.
“You create a food environment that’s what a Good Food Nation is all about. That’s high animal welfare, it’s a more modest amount of animal protein in the diet, it’s more greens it’s more fresh stuff, it’s more diverse stuff, it’s more interesting stuff. It’s less gloop it’s less beige. We can get there. But we’re not going to get there overnight. And we’re all entitled to a bit of beige gloop.
“We are surrounded by fish but it’s hard to find it in shops”
“We’ve had the narrative about real men eat beef and at the heart of Scotland was a heavy meat diet. It was never the case. In the 18th century Scottish meat consumption was lower than English meat consumption.
“It’s about getting more fish into people’s diet. We are surrounded by water. We are surrounded by fish but it’s hard to find it in shops. We produce one third of the UK’s soft fruit but we don’t eat very much of it. So, we need to reclaim the sense that we produce good food in Scotland, but without dissing people’s existing food culture.
“The right food comes down to a fundamental re-think of the purpose of the food system and we’ve got a food system which is driven by profit. We need profitable business in the food sector but it doesn’t have to be the only goal.
“This last 70 years of produce, produce, produce has had its logic. We’re into a different narrative now. The negatives and downside of the last 70 years are massive in terms of people’s health, deforestation, thinning of biodiversity, thinning of our oceans, the massive greenhouse gas emissions. The massive transformation of our natural world through the food system.
“We have to fix that. We have to re-design the food system around ensuring everybody has access to a healthy sustainable diet that is fit for future generations, then it’s a people-centred food system.
“We had an input/output centred food system. That’s what young farmers learn in college, that it’s a linear model – you put inputs in and outputs out and then you sell those outputs and everything else in externalities in that system.
“What happened in England was depressing because it felt like ministers could make it up as they go along”
“Whereas if you think about food as a circular process, at the heart of which is human health and planetary health, then you get a very different food system ethos.
“But it will not happen in my lifetime that’s for sure. We’re in a real hurry. But what’s nice about the bill is it’s hurrying slowly, creating a framework for long-term change. It’s not going to change things overnight. But it puts that conversation about food into the public domain and keeps it there.
“What happened in England by contrast with the food policy white paper, was one cabinet minister asked one person to review the food system. That one person Hnery Dimbleby produced a report that’s very strong in parts, and fair play. What then happened is another cabinet minister decided they were not interested. And then various other people got involved and they produced something that bears no relation to the original intention.
“That’s the problem when it’s just policy and just ministers and they’re not accountable in any way.
“In a proportional representation voting system like Scotland, where it’s unusual for any one party to have a majority, it’s a more accountable process. What we saw in England was depressing because it felt like ministers could make it up as they go along.
“The UK white paper’s mandatory reporting and data transparency items have got some promise. We think there’s an interesting potential alignment with the EU Sustainable Food Law that’s being consulted on.
“If the UK could just get over itself and talk to the EU to come up with something that works across the UK and the EU then that would be pretty helpful. Whether we like it or not they’re our major trading partner we’re going to be trading food with them for a very long time to come.”