On Monday 6th December 2021, Devon Food Partnership held their first virtual event in response to the publication of the National Food Strategy in June 2021, hosted by the South West Food Hub. The strategy called for an overhaul of the entire food system and included a series of recommendations regarding all sectors to create a healthier, more sustainable, and equitable system. The purpose of the Devon Food Partnership event was to formulate a discussion amongst interested parties concerning the recommendations of the strategy, how these could be implemented in Devon and how this would be likely to impact Devon’s food system.
Five expert speakers were invited to attend to give a brief overview of the recommendations regarding their specific sector. The speakers were:
The invite to the event was circulated amongst the Devon Food Partnership and shared by members in their relevant channels, over 50 people registered and over 40 attended the live event. Attendees were encouraged to pose questions and comments to the speakers via the webinar chat which formulated interesting discussion amongst the speakers and attendees. Questions and feedback from the audience have been added to the write ups of the discussions.
This report was created to summarise the discussions from the event and to be submitted as Devon’s response to the National Food Strategy which was published in July 2021. Devon’s response will be submitted to the white paper team and a subsequent report is expected to be published in early 2022 outlining the recommendations which will be implemented. This report represents the collective perspective of the Devon Food Partnership which is working towards transforming the Devon-wide food system, including the sector specific knowledge from expert parties including the University of Exeter, The National Farmers Union, and the South West Food Hub.
The Devon Food Partnership was established in February 2021, to enable collaboration and open communications with food stakeholders across the county. The partnership is a joint initiative, and its vision and development are driven by a variety of organisations. The Partnership forms a central component of Devon’s Interim Carbon Plan, under the Food, Land and Sea theme.
In July 2021, Devon Food Partnership achieved Sustainable Food Places membership – a nationally led programme to improve whole food systems at the local level. Sustainable Food Places is a nationwide, partnership programme led by the Soil Association, Food Matters and Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. It brings together food partnerships from across the UK to share ideas and knowledge to bring about a transition to a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food system. Sustainable Food Places promotes a systems approach that integrates and connects key actors at all levels and across all sectors of the food system. This approach is encapsulated in the six key issues of the framework for action for members, listed below:
In practice, the Devon Food Partnership consists of an interim steering group that meets monthly and brings together individuals and organisations from across all food sectors in Devon. These meetings promote sharing of knowledge, expertise and are an opportunity for networking across Devon to encourage positive change which is in line with the six Sustainable Food Places principles. From these meetings, currently, two task-and-finish groups have arisen to look at specific elements of the food system; these are Healthy Start and the Strategic group from which this event was created.
In July 2021, the second part of the National Food Strategy was published. The National Food Strategy contains recommendations to address the major issues facing the food system: climate change, biodiversity loss, land use, diet-related disease, health inequality, food security and trade. There are 4 main strategic objectives that the recommendations were based around, this formed the basis for the discussion in this Devon Food Partnership event:
The public sector is well positioned to be a vital tool in shaping the future of the food system, at a local, regional, and national level. The public sector is wide-reaching and includes a vast number of institutions, including schools, prisons, and the NHS. It is estimated that the Government spends approximately £2 billion annually on catering for the public sector. Each year, the NHS serves 141 million meals, 602 million meals are served in schools and 93 million meals are served in prisons. As this sector encompasses so many intuitions, small changes to food procurement, food standards and catering practice can have a major multiplier effect which has the potential to cause a cascade of positive change up and down the food system.
The public sector could be instrumental in influencing food policy at a national level and shaping the strategy around transforming our food system going forward. Three main objectives can be highlighted as examples to kickstart this change and as examples of where change needs to happen; trans-fats need to stop being served in hospitals next to cardiology wards. Secondly, food served in schools need to reflect the climate crisis that is being taught; it needs to be locally sourced and sustainable, reducing the length of the supply chain. Thirdly, public institutions need to put their money where their mouth is, authenticity is vital in creating credibility. Anchor institutions, which are named in the community wealth building model, are vital in setting a positive example for whole system food change in local economies but this requires transparency and accountability.
Education is key in bringing about change, which is emphasised throughout the National Food Strategy. Education should start with young people in educational institutions. Educating young people in schools will cause this knowledge to percolate through society which will bring about wider system change as a result as information is communicated with parents and grandparents. The Eat and Learn initiative in schools is particularly effective at promoting this and embedding knowledge at a young age which will influence individual actions.
There are several ways to reduce inequality in the food system through school initiatives; for example, extending the free school meal eligibility to include more children and extending the holiday activity programme to include free school meals are two potential methods. In addition, increasing the uptake of the Healthy Start scheme can easily be promoted at a local level and will have a profound impact. Together with education, the eat and learn initiative, and mitigation services, schools offer a vast range of opportunities to stimulate positive change in the local food systems which will have a knock-on effect on other sectors.
Food partnerships such as FoodWise Leeds have had great success in influencing local council food policy in Devon, along with other food partnerships, should aim to follow this example. The public sector can play an important role in influencing land use and culture through the promotion of dynamic food procurement to establish better food standards, improve transparency and reduce the length of local supply chains.
In Devon, there has been a lot of great activity around these principles. For example, the Less and Better meat is a widespread campaign to reduce meat consumption whilst simultaneously procuring better quality meat from local producers. ‘Food for Life served here’ is an initiative run by the Soil Association to improve the nutritional quality of food served, reduce consumption of processed food and promote sourcing ingredients locally. Sustain has two programmes; Sustainable fish places and Back British Farmers which promote dynamic food procurement within the county.
Devon is a unique farming county with a diverse and wide-ranging farming culture that has the potential to be used as a barometer for implementing and monitoring positive change. Devon has a rich mixture of different farming practices including, upland, lowland and low and high intensity farming which is not only essential in promoting diversity but creates the potential for the implementation of a range of different initiatives to promote sustainability.
Recommendation 8 is particularly positive as it puts forward a guaranteed budget of £2.2 billion to allow for a longer transition period for farmers to transition to more sustainable land use. Acknowledgment until 2029 allows for a longer planning time which considers the long timespan of agricultural cycles, as a result it is more likely that farmers will be on board as this transition will be perceived as achievable. Incorporating farmers into the process will result in a more nuanced approach that has less chance of alienating farmers and a better targeted approach. Research has concluded that for every £1 in government support, £7 is re-invested in the local community, so providing support for farmers in this transition will not only ensure a greater uptake but will stimulate the local economy. Ensuring longer continuity and a smoother transition is very positive in promoting long-term change in farming practises which is essential in dynamic food procurement practice and in meeting sustainability targets.
Recommendation 9; to create a rural land-use framework based on the three-compartment model, raises some concern as this is a blanket-type approach that may not be appropriate or effective in certain counties. The process of mapping areas for categorisation for a certain type of farming does not consider the multiple land types one farm might consist of. This tool will be used to map highly productive land to be used for farming and lower productive land to be used for other land use practises. For Devon in particular, there is such a diverse and rich range of land types, many farms consist of multiple types which this type of mapping does not account for. A uniform approach is not necessarily the most effective or appropriate approach, individual farms need to be considered in isolation to best categorise the land so appropriate recommendations can be made.
Recommendation 10, to define minimum standards for trade and a mechanism for protecting these has a great potential to stimulate positive change. Currently, the food standard for the safety of animals is easily recognised, however, other standards including environmental are not. Recommendation 10 better recognises that every farming system must be utilised for whole system change, the diversity in farming processes needs to be accounted for and worked into sustainability plans to promote long-term change. However, what the strategy does not discuss in depth is that the UK has developed a culture for cheap food and the impact this has on agricultural practice. To meet this demand, there must be an intensification of farming to some degree. If intensification is done correctly – including meeting animal welfare standards, then carbon footprints and environmental impact can be reduced. It is possible to transform our food system to include a balanced diet with the same amount of meat, that is sourced sustainably from a local food producer. If we do transition as a society to be predominantly plant-based, it needs to be clear in policy that this will not cause an adverse environmental impact – such as soil destruction as more land would need to be converted to crop growing. Protecting choice is paramount – for both consumers and farmers.
Positive change needs to not be too prescriptive as not every alternative is environmentally better. Farmers do not want to feel that there will be a land grab and the fact that many farmers are already producing products that are healthy and sustainable needs to be recognised so farmers feel rewarded and respected.
Changing the food system starts with education, there is a responsibility on the government, local authorities, producers, and suppliers that consumers can access enough truthful, balanced information to make informed decisions concerning their food choices.
The term ‘food security’ is understood at the macro level in the National Food Strategy, in terms of reducing the reliance on imported food and becoming self-sufficient. Our use of ‘food (in)security’ locally refers to the household level, concerning the access individual households have to adequate food.
The National Food Strategy has correctly highlighted that the Covid pandemic has exacerbated levels of inequality in the country. However, this has also produced a new level of attention and sense of urgency which has the potential to be a vital opportunity in tackling issues such as food insecurity at a local, regional, and national level.
Devon County Council undertook a research project in early 2021, to survey levels of food insecurity in the county. The findings were shocking in terms of the enormous increase in food insecurity since before the pandemic. This has become a significant issue in Devon. However, the strategy does not investigate food insecurity at the household level. To an extent, this is appropriate as the strategy points out food insecurity is directly linked to poverty which is not within the remit of the strategy specifically. At a local level, it is the responsibility of local authorities and food partnerships to fill this absence, as the continuation and expansion of locally specific and locally appropriate initiatives for households is vital.
The recent research in Devon revealed that a lot of people who are experiencing food insecurity do not access food support provision, but we are yet to fully understand the reasons why this is. Further work is being planned by Devon County Council to understand the landscape of how this manifests differently at each level of society. The productive relationships between the public sector and voluntary sectors at district level, where much of the mitigation service takes place, needs to be strengthened so knowledge and expertise can be shared across districts to tackle food insecurity.
While support for families to build healthy eating and cooking skills and awareness may be an important element in responses to the inequities of access to adequate healthy food, basing the Community Eatwell programme within the primary care networks may not be the most appropriate mechanism. Methods of implementation need to be more creative and locally appropriate and locating this work within the voluntary and community sector, or in cross-sectoral initiatives is to be encouraged. Ultimately, it is evident that collaborative action is needed across multiple sectors and organisations.
The National Food Strategy is very closely aligned with the Devon Carbon Plan. It is evident from discussion around the recommendations that there are levers on both the supply and demand side of the food system that can be used to promote whole system change.
Firstly, Recommendation 8, which guarantees the budget to help the farmers transition to be extended until 2029. This is a great incentive for promoting change however, the payments offered need to be ensured that they are enough to incentivise farmers to deliver what needs to be delivered in terms of meeting climate pledges, addressing the biodiversity crisis, and helping to adapt to the impacts of climate change. It has been suggested that two thirds of the ELMS budget should go towards paying famers to manage land to sequester carbon and to restore biodiversity. We are asking a lot of our land and our farmers so there needs to be a coherent overview that includes giving farmers options and making the transition worth their while economically. There needs to be multiple mechanisms, for example localised payment of carbon offsets and farmers need to be given the choice over which methods best fit their individual farming systems.
Secondly, Recommendation 9, to create a rural-land use framework will categorise land that can be used in different ways. To meet carbon sequestration targets, there needs to be a total of 17% tree cover in the county of Devon, currently there is only 9%. Additionally, it is vital to consider where this will be best placed – for example, not in upland peatlands. There needs to be a coherent overview of the strategy to highlight to farmers the opportunities in their individual areas and what options are in the local area within framework.
In Devon, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission needs a greater level of local engagement, so farmers feel involved in the decision-making rather than the strategy being a top-down approach that leaves no choice. In Devon, up to 92% of land is owned by farmers in some areas, they represent a small proportion of the population but have a massive influence, farmers need to be fully on board if we are going to see whole system change.
NB: Devon Land Use Framework – Development of a Land Use Framework for Devon was initially a proposal that emerged from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) over the last few years and was embraced by the Devon Inquiry who felt that the county was ideally suited to establishing a pilot to test this out. The aim is to create a collective framework approach to managing land use decisions, which mediates competing pressures on land and encourages multifunctional uses. The framework will bring together communities, landowners, and statutory bodies to work in a way that combines incentives and legislation to provide business opportunities and environmental enhancement while providing good value for the public purse.
FFCC has appointed a Senior Land Use Researcher and has recruited locally based facilitators (Westcountry Rivers Trust and Devon Communities Together) who will contact key land use stakeholders and will begin to convene a Design and Delivery Group to take the pilot forward in practice from January 2022.
Thirdly, Recommendation 13, to strengthen Government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food to create a long-term shift in our food culture. There is the potential for public procurement to be used as a lever for change by anchor institutions in the local economy. Large organisations including schools, the NHS and local authorities need to better use funds to drive change in procurement to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables from local suppliers. An inclusive and sustainable food culture is created through public institutions which set an example in the community.
In Devon there has been a growing interest in small-scale farming. This includes community gardens and market gardens, there is the potential for great innovation in these areas if more funding is directed here.
Sustainability is reliant on financial sustainability first. There is a lot in strategy about what the recommendations could mean in practice. In terms of local businesses there are three themes emerging:
Firstly, in terms of transitioning to a new future in practice, there have been strong signals from the Government that there needs to be whole food system change. For example, there have already been long-term changes to certain industries such as the introduction of the sugar and salt tax for the soft drinks industry in 2016. On a broader scale, concerning the whole food system it is currently unknown what that will look like; however, it is likely to result in changes to demand, production and the supply chain. In recent years there has been a rise in trends in changing food demands that are likely to be accelerated, there is greater interest in waste, the carbon footprint, the resilience of food production and food security in more general terms. There is a call for greater transparency in the food supply chain.
Secondly, there is a call for greater transparency and better communication from businesses within the supply chain. There is a call for greater data needs, such as reporting, proving benefits, meeting the demands of consumers and the supply chain to prove food is produced in the right way to right standards. For example, mandated reporting regarding food and environmental standards can work down to smaller businesses in the supply chain. This needs to be a driver for the entire food supply chain, truthful and balanced information needs to be available to both producers and consumers.
Thirdly, there is a great potential for new partnership opportunities. There needs to be research conducted to inform stakeholders how they can most effectively work in collaboration. A supply chain mapping exercise will reveal the strengths and opportunities in local supply chains which can inform food policy and dynamic food procurement practice.
Summary comments Dr. Rebecca Sandover, University of Exeter
Devon is a county with a wealth of food producers selling high quality local food and food initiatives working to address challenges within the food system such as food security, health and wellbeing, access to food and boosting sustainable local food supply chains. Until recently food initiatives were largely operating individually, with little opportunities for coordination between them (See the Collaborating for Food Change in Devon report by Dr Rebecca Sandover, on the Devon Sustainable Food Networks Project for an overview of the potential and challenge of developing sustainable food in Devon. This report was written prior to the setting up of the Devon Food Partnership).
The Devon Food Partnership brings together all sectors of the food supply chain, an essential first step in making strategic change in our food system. Taking this integrated approach to food system change is in line with advice from national Food Policy experts, Tim Lang, Kath Dalmeny, Carolyn Steel and others. Food systems are complex and require us to consider its production and supply from a range of challenges and impacts, including understanding that the health of the food chain is linked to Devon’s economic, social, and ecological wellbeing.
In this briefing, Devon based experts are highlighting the importance of different challenges within the food system, such as sustainability, food inequality, land use change and more. Alongside these challenges are issues that underpin the health and wellbeing of our food system: food education, food cultures, agriculture, public health, social equality, and the local food economy. These issues can be seen as indicators of the health of the Devon food system, so that our food culture, food education, levels of access to local sustainable food, dietary health, the local food economy etc. can be seen to represent the state of the Devon Food system. Taking stock of all these indicators is needed as we envision a sustainable local food system that sustains the Devon environment for future generations, whilst providing access for all to healthy diets.
Devon Food Partnership colleagues have raised critical issues where change is needed, whilst also highlighting the potential of innovation already taking place in the Devon food system. After the impacts of COVID-19 to the economy, challenges from Brexit to the labour force and the imperative of the climate emergency, the time is right now to reimagine the food supply chain and make changes so that the Devon environment, local economy, and wellbeing of the population are protected and enhanced. In Devon there are opportunities for change already identified and being developed towards a healthy food system. Ian Smith, from Food Plymouth talked about the opportunity for reconsidering public food procurement practices that would not only enhance the local food economy, but also improve the dietary health of school children, students, employees, and residents in care homes or staying hospitals. Emily Reed, from Devon Climate Emergency highlighted the opportunity for new farming payment schemes to include a focus on sequestering carbon and the importance of increasing local food market and community market schemes. These points align with the work of the South West Food Hub and Food Exeter’s local organic food hub for the Greater Exeter area. Both schemes seek to boost the supply of local food into food procurement systems, with the Food Exeter scheme seeking to work in collaboration with food producers to increase the area of land producing sustainable local food that is also affordable.
These examples provide a snapshot of the potential for change in the Devon food system. Action is needed to support and strengthen initiatives working to promote the supply and consumption of local and regional sustainable food. Regional food and health programmes, such as The Devon Food Partnership can bring together networks of organisations to work collaboratively on these pressing interlinked food issues. A reimagined Devon Sustainable Food system can work to increase the supply and consumption of sustainable local food in Devon and support the procurement of local, sustainable food by public bodies and anchor institutions. This approach would not only support Devon’s farmers, but it would also help Devon’s consumers eat better and healthier food, so addressing diet-related public health concerns as well. (Note: whilst we focus on Devon, it is important to also consider a wider approach to this revisioning of the food system to work with partners concerned about these issues across the South West, whilst also learning from best practices elsewhere in the UK).