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The Road to Sustainability: Public Discussion on Food System Solutions in the United Kingdom

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ainsley Schoff
June 3, 2021

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change continues to be top of mind as the number one issue for most countries across the globe. Its impacts will be far reaching, from severe weather patterns to the air we breathe to our ability to live on coasts and island nations. While many inputs affect climate change, our current food system practices have a distinct warming effect. To see effective change in our food system practices, we must make a conscious effort, as a global community, to change how 7 billion of us eat every day. This is no small task and poses a unique problem for individual countries. In the United Kingdom, food sustainability practices have long been important to policymakers, but recent work done by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) showed a gap in consumer knowledge: Most consumers were largely disconnected from food production. In an effort to better understand consumer comprehension of United Kingdom food production and consumption practices and the acceptability of potential solutions, the United Kingdom government partnered with consumer group Which? to investigate public opinion.

This was a collaborative effort with two tier government involvement, a large consumer body in Which?, and 27 other stakeholders dedicated to better understanding consumer attitudes. To ensure materials provided to participants would be neutral, correct and balanced with expert viewpoints, the collaboration chose to assign an advisory board to oversee the development of content. It was important to all stakeholders that the information provided was accurate, relevant and comprehensible to participants.

There were 49 participants, chosen using free-find methods and a screening questionnaire to help the group meet pre-set quotas for a diverse range of perspectives. Participants were an equal ratio of male-to-female, their ages and education reflected the local population, they were a mix from urban and rural localities and 10% of participants represented a minority group.

Two day-long workshops were held, each one week apart, trailed by follow-up phone calls two months later. The first workshop focused on the food system challenges and issues, including long-term sustainability, obesity and other food-related health issues, food prices and affordability, climate change and water use. Some of these issues were close to home and relatable to participants, such as prices and health; others were pieces of the food system they never had considered relevant. To better understand buying habits and what drove participants’ decisionmaking, the first workshop focused on participants’ food purchases, while also exploring their initial views on food sustainability. The second workshop took a deeper look at their opinions and ideas on possible solutions to food system challenges in the United Kingdom. These potential solutions ranged from consumer behavior change to novel technologies being used in food production, such as precision agriculture and genetic modification. Each was assessed for its advantages, disadvantages and possible acceptability.

Participants largely were surprised by the challenges facing the United Kingdom’s food system and came up with several issues they felt were the most pressing, ranging from the impact of food production on climate change to making it easier for consumers to make healthy choices in the supermarket. While they accepted that behavior change would be easiest to address, they also discussed novel technologies in the food system and under what conditions these would be acceptable. Participants felt that before these technologies were used, they needed to pass scrutiny by independent oversight that prioritized the public good over industry profit. These are important insights as farming practices continue to evolve and agriculture production changes to keep up with new climate regulations and a growing population. While these workshops were a collaborative government effort, participants were clear that they would rather an independent organization were involved in food system supervision that would act as a, “Consumer champion.”

Two months after the workshops concluded participants were called for a follow-up interview to explore their reflections on what they had learned and whether they had experienced any long-lasting behavior change. Many reported they had been purchasing less meat and had been making a conscious effort to produce less waste. While helping these individual participants, these workshops also delivered valuable information to the stakeholders involved. The collaborative effort identified best practices for disseminating information that would have an impact on the public that could best affect behavior change.

Food systems are not the only places we need to change as we tackle climate change and many of these changes include public behavior changes and acceptability of new technologies. These workshops offer an effective model for public dialogue to manage risk and assess acceptability in multiple sectors, including, but not limited to, renewable energy technology, electric vehicles and public transport, the local and global water supply and mining for finite resources in developing countries. All of these areas can be intimidating to the public because of the vast amount of information to understand, but the United Kingdom’s successful public dialogue on food systems offers a way forward to better inform the public and better inform policymakers on future legislation.

To learn more about this case, visit https://participedia.net/case/5712. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.


Author: Ainsley Schoff is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is passionate about economics, public policy, agriculture and the environment, and how harnessing data can help solve the world’s problems. Before her studies she spent years managing large-scale farms in New Zealand. She obtained her undergraduate degree from George Washington University. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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