Dr Courtney Scott: “Citizens we spoke to overwhelmingly rejected this idea of a ‘nanny state’. They want government intervention in the food system, especially in the context of a fairer greener healthier outcome for themselves as individuals and for their families.”
A NEW report shows the UK public overwhelmingly back state intervention to tackle health, climate and nature crises. Citizens see that food is at the crux of many of the issues facing us today. They want government to make sensible policy decisions that protect people and planet, and they want powerful food businesses to be more accountable.
Based on extensive public dialogue sessions in Birmingham and Cambridge held over the summer, and a new national poll, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) report shows UK citizens across all demographic, age and political groups reject ‘nanny state’ concerns and want the government to do more to fix food – including ensuring it can be produced without harming the planet.
The dialogue process prompts citizens to consider the pressures on government and businesses to balance competing needs. While alert to these trade-offs, the participants concluded that the current system damages people’s health, intensifies inequalities and harms the environment and are calling for urgent change. This was mirrored by the public poll, where more than three quarters of respondents (78%) agree that major changes are needed to fix the UK’s food system and 82% say its important we are producing food without harming the planet.
Crucially, despite politicians often suggesting the public “don’t want a nanny state”, the public dialogue and polling show that people do want the government to act. The poll found that 75% of the public think that the government is “not doing enough” to ensure that everyone can afford healthy food. Just 3% say that the government is doing “too much”. Two thirds of respondents also believe that the government is not doing enough to “protect children from unhealthy food and drinks” (67%).
Speaking to 8.9 TV, Dr Courtney Scott, who led the research, said, “When you start exploring these issues with citizens a common question that comes up is who holds the power to make change.
“Citizens recognise that they have some power, but that the power to lead really meaningful change often sits with others and mostly that’s with government and with business. They feel that the food system is so big, so interconnected, that actually we need leadership at quite a high level.
“As a result, citizens we spoke to – and this was reflected in nationwide polling as well – overwhelmingly rejected this idea of a “nanny state”. They want government intervention in the food system, especially in the context of a fairer greener healthier outcome for themselves as individuals and for their families.”
The research shows that people are aware of the power of multinational companies in the food system, whether manufacturing unhealthy ultra-processed food or producing food at high environmental cost. The national polling again backs this up. According to the More in Common poll of 2,000 people, significant majorities of people across all backgrounds believe big food companies can reduce the environmental impact of the food we eat and are calling on them to do so. Nearly three quarters of parents aged 25-40 are worried about the amount of ultra-processed food their children eat.
Across every generation and party affiliation, in the dialogue and polling, people back specific measures that the government could implement. Around two thirds call on the government to bring forward a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm (63%). The government initially announced the ban last year but has now delayed it until 2025. Just 16% of respondents think the ban could wait.
In significant majorities, people also back: fines on food producers that pollute the environment (79%); a target for reducing ultra-processed foods in shops and on the high street (74%); support for farmers to help them transition to more sustainable farming practices (68%); and support for people on low incomes to afford healthy food (79%). Both citizen groups found that people are willing to spend more for their shopping if the food is healthier and more sustainable, especially if people on lower incomes are supported to afford healthier food.
Conversely, there is little support for lowering standards to lower costs: more than three quarters of people say that the government should aspire to high standards on health (77%), while just 15% say that the government should lower health standards to lower cost.
As part of the FFCC’s National Conversation about Food project, groups of citizens in Birmingham and Cambridgeshire met four times (in each location) to discuss the challenges facing the current food system – from health and farming to justice and the environment. Recent studies have found that ultra-processed food makes up more than half of the average UK diet, with the UK now facing the third highest obesity rate in Europe. A report from Christian Aid has just revealed that around a quarter of the UK shopping basket is at high risk from climate change.
Sue Pritchard, chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, said, “These results are extraordinary. Citizens clearly have a sophisticated appreciation of all the issues around food – how it’s grown, processed, advertised, eaten, and wasted. They get that it’s complicated. And they point out that hard working families don’t have the time or expertise to fix these huge problems by making so-called “better choices” when they’re rushing round a supermarket or trying to feed their families healthy food. Citizens want food to be fairer, healthier, greener – and they want governments and businesses, who have the power and resources, to level the playing field for everyone.“
Faisal, who participated in the Birmingham process, said, “Through this process I’ve seen how important food is to everyone and that everyone wants to have a positive impact through food. But change needs to come from the top as well. We need the politicians to get on our side. We’ve got the facts, we’ve got the case studies, and we know where we need help. We need to spread the profits out in our supply chains and make sure everyone can access nutritious and sustainable food and lead healthy lifestyles.”
Ed Hodgson of More in Common said, “Our polling shows that the public are deeply worried about a food system in the UK that they think is broken. Britons think our current food system fails to support farmers, protect the environment and improve public health – and it’s clear that voters of all ages and backgrounds and in both the Red Wall and Blue wall – want to see action. They want a food system that works better for everybody and they think that starts with banning junk food advertising for children, supporting those on low income to afford healthy food and tighter environmental protections against industrial and intensive farming.”