for Sunday Herald, 07 September 2014
The power of the multinational food industry should be broken by a radical transformation of how Scotland produces and consumes food after independence, according to a new report.
Amongst 23 proposals to begin fundamentally changing Scottish food policy, are vegetables on prescription, tax breaks on vegetarian meals and rent-free shops for local greengrocers. There are also measures to encourage people to grow their own food, to support small farmers and to cut food waste.
The report for the Common Weal movement comes as food companies launch Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight this weekend to celebrate their economic successes. It has been written by a leading food expert, Pete Ritchie, the director of the sustainable food campaign, Nourish Scotland.
The report argues that the industry’s emphasis on boosting food production for export needs to be replaced by “sustainable nutrition”. The aim is for people to take ownership of the food system so that more food can be grown and eaten locally.
This is the best way to reduce dependence on food banks, improve poor diet and cut climate pollution, the report says. It compares the task of transforming the food market now to the creation of the National Health Service in the 1940s.
“Turning shareholder owned food companies into socially motivated agents of sustainable nutrition will not be easy, but it is a conversation which needs to begin,” it says.
“The massive food system, so fundamental to human and planetary wellbeing, is curiously subject to almost no democratic governance, globally or within countries. It is dominated by a handful of large corporations – many with turnovers larger than Scotland’s GDP.”
The report points out that Scotland exports more food than it imports, sometimes hugely so. The nation produces 15 times more fish and lamb than it eats and six times as much grain and potatoes. It is also self-sufficient in most vegetables, milk, beef and eggs.
The report proposes a series of strategic moves to begin the transformation over the next generation. It suggests building a civil society coalition including communities, campaign groups, trade union and churches to work towards “people-centred food governance”.
It also puts forward “tactical” measures, including the provision of vegetables on prescription by primary health care teams. It suggests reducing VAT on vegetarian meals in restaurants and offering rent and rates-free premises to greengrocers who sell local fruit and vegetables.
Other proposals include investing in community-based food businesses, encouraging schools to develop “whole school food plans”, and training retail staff to provide advice on sustainable nutrition. Tax concessions should be offered to food businesses that pay staff proper living wages, the report says.
Report author Ritchie described food as a “defining issue” for Scotland. “We need some new thinking,” he told the Sunday Herald. “More of the same – more inputs, more production, more exports – won't tackle the problem of food banks and poor diet – and it won't reduce our impact on the environment and climate change.”
He compared food to energy. “We've got great natural resources and great science in Scotland,” he said. “But it's about making us greener, fairer and healthier – as well as creating jobs and wealth.”
Much of the current food system was “an extension of a 19th century model of colonial resource extraction,” Ritchie argued. “As an independent small country, Scotland has the potential to get everyone round the table to create a food system fit for the 21st century.”
According to the Green MSP Alison Johnstone, it was “unhealthy” to have four big supermarket chains controlling three quarters of the grocery market. “I welcome the growing number of voices calling for fundamental change in our food system, to take it out of the hands of multinationals and instead prioritise public health and local economies,” she said.
The Scottish government is seeking views on its discussion document, Becoming a Good Food Nation. It proposes priorities for action, including food in the public sector, children’s food and local food to fulfill the vision of a good food nation. “Achieving this aspiration will be much easier with the full powers of an independent state,” said a government spokeswoman.
The Scottish food industry stressed the significant economic progress it had made in the last few years, making it Scotland’s best-performing economic sector. “Scotland is seen now in many parts of the world as a model to follow,” said James Withers, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink.
“It’s a model which isn't based on making a choice between economic growth on the one hand and social good on the other. Rather that the two are connected and reliant on each other.”