Plastics, meat, sugar, the climate emergency…. We are seeing a rise in public interest and engagement on more and more major social and environmental issues. The narrative around health, the environment, and our planet, is becoming part of the general public discourse. With the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, our society is getting flooded with a clear set of values and a clear challenge to long-standing institutions. These social movements scream how much we, as a society, care about each other and the planet.
The role and nature of food businesses is also evolving in response. We are seeing a rise in purpose-driven models, illustrated by the sharp rise in Certified B corporations in recent years, featuring the likes of Divine chocolate and Rebel Kitchen. There is also a diversification of business models and ownership models, ranging from members’ co-operatives (eg: The Co-op), to community-owned (eg: CSAs), employee-owned (eg: Riverford), or crowdfunded and shareholder-led (eg: BrewDog) businesses. Organisations are increasingly acknowledging the role that employment has in giving us a sense of purpose in life, of belonging, and of contributing to society.
And it’s not just business. New engagement platforms are popping up across the UK to nurture meaningful engagement with citizens, from the creation of Good Food Nation Bill Ambassadors in Scotland to Participatory City in London, or the coming together of over 150 organisations to develop the People’s Food Policy. They all illustrate what inclusive bottom-up citizen participation can do and look like. The commitment from Defra to engage citizens in developing a national food strategy for England is also encouraging.
Challenging the consumer paradigm
With these transformations, the idea that people are simply consumers at the end of a food chain is being challenged. Our identity, our role in the food and farming sector, our relationship with our food and with nature are all being reassessed, particularly as social and environmental concerns take centre-stage in the public discourse.
The dominant narrative in the UK food and farming sector today is that as individuals we are merely consumers at the end of a food chain. Our role is to choose between products and services, not to participate in the systems that provide us with our food. We become demotivated and cut off from the food we eat.
Research shows that exposure to the word ‘consumer’ significantly decreases our sense of responsibility in shaping the world around us. It also decreases our trust in each other and our belief that we can be active participants in society. We have reduced concern for others. We tend to be more selfish and self-interested. This consumer identity shapes our everyday decisions, which ultimately culminate in the food systems that we have.
Food citizenship challenges the assumption that we’re nothing more than consumers. What we care about and how we feel about our role in society significantly shifts when we are treated as citizens rather than consumers.
As food citizens, we believe in the power of people. We want to and can have a positive influence on the way that food is being produced, distributed and consumed. We are given opportunities to express our care for each other, for our health, for the environment and for animals. Importantly, we share our knowledge and our platforms so others can join us.
If that is closer to our true nature, why is the ‘value-action’ gap between caring and doing something about it still so wide? The problem is not that we don’t care, but that when we’re labelled ‘consumers’, we feel powerless to act. And when we feel powerless, we are more likely to blame others, shift responsibility onto them and ignore our own impacts.
“Show people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
Telling a new story
Words lead to stories. Stories told many times create new mindsets. By recognising and celebrating the food citizen in ourselves and in others we have an incredible opportunity to change the story.
What story do we want to tell? The story that change starts from within. As individuals working in the food and farming sector, we have the chance not just to nurture our own inner food citizen, but to start making the shift within our organisations, and to help our colleagues, families, friends and neighbours become food citizens too. We can support one another as a community of food citizens who, as participants in the food system, have the power to shape the choices on offer.
First, we can reframe how we see ourselves and the issues we are tackling. We can then connect with others. And finally, we can empower each other by creating a nurturing environment. The UK food and farming sector is swarming with ideas and already paving the way to implement this.
When we reframe issues and treat people as food citizens, we unlock the potential for including them in our movement by providing a platform for participation so they can become active agents for change.
When we connect with others who work towards the same goals and values, we feel less alone. As individuals, we can spend time with peers who motivate and energise us. As organisations, we can nurture the communities we have access to. Collectively, we can inspire one another and hold each other to account. A key reason behind the success of the Oxford Real Farming Conference is the communities it nourishes and sustains.
When we empower each other, from our colleagues and shareholders to our customers and communities, we provide a platform for others to realise their potential and our collective agency for positive change grows.
Our audiences are powerful allies in our mission to shifting towards a UK food and farming sector that is resilient and fair to people, animals and the planet. First, they can represent those we most want to support. The recent Children’s Future Food Inquiry prioritised children’s own experiences and voices. Eleven of these children decided to become Food Ambassadors for the Inquiry and had the opportunity to present their report to parliamentarians. Second, people can also become ambassadors of our message and vision, reaching out to peers, customers and suppliers to magnify impact. Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch chocolate brand whose aim is to end slavery, engages its customers in many ways, from co-creating new flavours to providing lobbying resources for communities of interest to fight against modern slavery.
There are infinite ways to reframe, connect and empower ourselves and others. We at the Food Ethics Council certainly don’t have all the answers. What we have learned is that together we can inspire one another with ideas, share our experiences and collectively find more ways to help food citizenship spread.
Our next gathering, ‘Harnessing the power of food citizenship: How can thinking of ourselves and others as food citizens, rather than consumers, help solve the challenges of our food system?’ will be held in London on Wednesday 2nd of October. Join us for a day of collaboration and participation. Be inspired by hearing stories from pioneers across the sector who are helping us make the shift towards food citizenship, share your own experiences and learn from one another.
By joining forces, we can tackle some of the critical food and farming issues we are all trying to solve.
Will you join us?
AUTHOR: ANNA CURA
Anna is a Programme Manager at Food Ethics Council. A zoologist by training, Anna completed an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford, before gravitating towards food ethics and systems innovation. She has worked from farm to plate, from local community projects to international policy.
The Future Of Food: Beyond The Consumer was a ten month inquiry, bringing together representatives of six organisations from across the food system to explore and experiment with a new way of thinking about the challenges facing the food system. Click the image below to read more.