We are doing a lot of thinking right now at the Centre for Food Policy about how food policies might actually work for people and planet; policies that enable and empower governments, businesses and people to solve food systems problems in a coherent way. We call these “integrated food policies”.  This basically means policies that join the dots to deliver food-related outcomes more efficiently and effectively; policies that take account of the interconnections in the food system – enabling nutrition, health, environmental, social and economic goals to be delivered more coherently.  It might mean, for instance, every government department working together to address specific problems; connecting what is happening at the grassroots with national and international decision-making; providing incentives for business innovation to reconcile economic goals with health and sustainability.

But it’s a tough ask. In a report just out from IPES-Food, myself and Jess Halliday, a PhD graduate of the Centre, discuss how cities have managed to develop and deliver food policy. Originally, we wanted to feature examples of comprehensive municipal policies that tackled  the full range of food systems challenges. Yet there were too few examples. So we had to focus instead on policies that started with more specific policy goals.

Does this indicate that a vision of integration makes it all rather too complicated? A bit like the efforts to integrate all the Sustainable Development Goals? Policy-making just isn’t like that, critics say. And besides, isn’t it just plain easier to address one issue at a time?

Well, yes, it is. But integration has to start somewhere. More than anything, it’s a destination. As Jess and I found in the IPES-Food report, even when the starting point appears to be just one thing, integration ends up happening when the nuts and bolts are put into place to achieve a vision of real change. And that takes time and effort. Belo Horizonte, Brazil, built what was one of the first integrated food security policies in the world by embedding a whole agency to food within city government. In Amsterdam, concerted efforts to build their Approach to Healthy Weight across government en­sures that no child at risk of obesity goes unde­tected. In the Golden Horseshoe around Toronto, farmers – large and small – came together with city officials to integrate concerns about rural development with city development.  In Detroit, legal changes were needed to enable grassroots movements to convert vacant land into flourishing gardens, given conflicts with state-level policy.

Good food policy typically involves recognising conflicts and managing them. Failing to see the whole picture will simply mean problems will not be resolved. What if the way we are addressing under-nutrition inadvertently creates conditions in which obesity can flourish? What if, as so often happens, policies designed to meet economic goals undermine diet-related health and decent work? What if we have a food system – as we do – where retailers have developed extraordinarily “efficient” supply chains to get food to people and yet 10% of British children are living in households are experiencing severe food insecurity (as new data out this week shows); and 20 million people in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen experience severe famine?

These are the disconnects. We need to step back and ask: why? They are the disconnects that show why every country – and city and region – needs an integrated, overarching food policy.

In the first instance, an integrated approach can bring together the huge array of different policies that affect the food system and identify how they can support, rather than undermine, each other. It’s not about re-doing these policies, but showing how they fit together.

Second, they can provide an enabling environment for businesses and the public sector to reshape supply chains for economic, social, health, and environmental goals. Business and public sector agencies need the stimulus to innovate, while boundaries need establishing to define what behaviour is unacceptable.

Third, integrated policies can re-set decision-making structures that enable cross-government working and, importantly, enable participatory processes. Counter to what they might seem to be, these policy frameworks are not (or at least, should not be) about top down planning – but engaging people. Experience tells us that involving people in defining the problem is likely to lead to more effective solutions; involving people in identifying solutions is likely to lead to more sustainable solutions. People’s participation in governance is more likely to lead to transformation.

Fourthly, integrated food policy frameworks can also set out a series of clear food system goals, with reporting requirements.

The good news is there are exciting developments afoot. In London, developments are underway to develop an integrated food strategy; Scotland is revving up to develop a Good Food Nation Bill; civil society is supporting A People’s Food Policy for the UK, to be proposed soon by the Landworkers Alliance; the Canadian government is consulting on proposals for a national food policy; IPES-Food is advocating a Common Food Policy for the EU. In the Global South in this regard, there are precedents in place to learn from.*

The message from the EAT Forum this past week was #foodcanfixit. It would be naive to think integrated food policy can solve it all, but it can provide a framework that brings it all together. In his marvellous talk at EAT, Sir Bob Geldof, spoke about what commitment really means. It’s a feeling that one cannot step back: one simply has to act. Once that commitment is there, there’s a destination, as well as the beginnings of the many, many steps along the way to get there.

At the EAT Forum, too, we heard from Ron Finley, an organic gardener in South Los Angeles. “You gotta plant a seed”, he said. It sounds trivial, but for him he was doing nothing less than taking on the food system. Baby steps might be little and full of tumbles. Yet they’re the boldest and most ambitious steps we ever make.


*The gradual steps needed to build an integrated, inter-sectoral approach to food security in Brazil is a story Professor Renato Maluf will be talking about in our next Food Thinkers seminar; 27 June at City, University of London. Sign up to attend here.