Ahead of the upcoming conference, we asked one of 2019’s speakers to share a key idea from across the food and farming sphere.

What options do we have, as individuals, organisations, and society at large, to vote with our wallets to create positive change in the food landscape? Anna Cura, programme manager at the Food Ethics Council, shares the positive trends emerging across the UK, and how we can harness that potential going forward.

Oxford Real Farming Conference 2019 | Photo: Hugh Warwick

How our consumer identity currently shapes our food systems

The dominant narrative in the UK food and farming sector today, and indeed across society at large, is that as individuals we are merely consumers at the end of a food chain. Daily messages tell us that being a consumer is our only source of power to influence society as a whole and, specifically, our food system. Our role is to choose between products and services, not to participate in the systems that provide us with our food. As consumers, we become demotivated and cut off from the food we eat.

Research from the New Citizenship Project 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. As consumers, those of us with money feel disengaged, while those of us without it feel disempowered. Our relationship with food is transactional. Organisations operating within the food system can see themselves as consumers too, seeking maximum benefit for themselves, and leaving little room to cater for wider concerns for fellow citizens, animals and the planet.

This consumer identity shapes our everyday decisions, which ultimately culminate in the food systems, and society, that we have. But there is hope.

A new era is emerging in today’s UK food and farming sector: the era of the food citizen

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.

A new wave of individuals and organisations are challenging 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. As food citizens, we want to and can have a positive influence on the way that food is being produced, distributed and consumed. As food citizens, we are given opportunities to express our care for each other, for our health, for the environment and for animals.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “Show people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” (Her TED talk here is worth the detour!)

What story do we want to tell?

Organisations working in the food and farming sector have the power to inspire and empower others to be food citizens too. We have a responsibility to help food citizens rise from our current consumerist era. How?

First, we can reframe how we see ourselves and the issues we are tackling. Second, we can connect with others who work towards the same goals and values. Third, 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 empower each other, from our colleagues and shareholders to our customers and communities, we provide a platform for others to realise their full potential and our collective agency for positive change grows.

The first place we can start implementing change is through how we speak to our audience, be them our customers, our employees, our shareholders, or partner organisations. The way we communicate with others says a lot about whether we treat them as consumers or as citizens. Here are eight tips we can learn from fellow food citizenship pioneers:

  1. Avoid the word ‘consumer.’ The word ‘citizen’ is very effective at empowering readers, but there are many ways to help people stop thinking of themselves as consumers. We can use a word that is inclusive and empowering within our unique context. Rebel Kitchen talks about rebels. The Food Sovereignty movement talks about people. Wigan Council’s The Deal talks about citizens. What is crucial is to be aware of which frame we find ourselves in, so that we can continue to creatively challenge the status quo of consumerism.
  2. Trigger the collective. We can choose how our actions lead to others’ actions, and remind our audiences that we are not alone.
  3. Use an inclusive, friendly and familiar tone.
  4. Refer to our readers in the same terms as ourselves. We are not simply producing knowledge for consumers, we are a community of knowledge sharers.
  5. Connect the reader with their own power. Using verb-driven sentences and the present tense motivates our audiences to act. We can also reassure people that we believe in their ability to create positive change.
  6. Give room for creativity. Guiding our audiences rather than prescribing what they could do to support our cause allows people to come up with their own ideas.
  7. Practise what we preach. If we promote sharing and collaboration, we need to make sure that we’re collaborating with others and sharing information freely and openly.
  8. Be as honest about our failures as our successes. Showing that we all make mistakes creates a supportive environment for individuals to take their own risks.
  9. Ensure our language is consistent across all our communications.

No matter where you are, you too can help shift the values and beliefs that underpin our world. Will you join us?

About the Food Ethics Council

The Food Ethics Council is an independent think tank and registered charity whose mission is to accelerate the shift towards fair food systems that respect people, animals and the planet. Its work includes challenging accepted ways of thinking, bringing people from across the food system together to unblock contentious ethical issues and promoting inspiring examples of ways forward (including its work on food citizenship).

For more information, check out its latest report ‘Harnessing the power of food citizenship’.

The Food Ethics Council is a customer of Triodos Bank.

Why we support organic food and farming

Triodos Bank UK sponsors the Oxford Real Farming Conference. The bank has over 35 years’ experience in financing organic, biodynamic and sustainable agriculture – visit our organic farming page to find out more.

Our vision paper ‘Towards ecologically and socially resilient food and agriculture systems’  argues for a transition towards a situation where healthy and delicious food is produced within the boundaries of our planet.