Experience as a guide to education: Conservative Conference 2023
Jen Elford, Head of Policy and External Affairs for the Vegetarian Society, reflects on the Conservatives’ latest party conference in Manchester.
N.B. As a campaigning charity with a rich programme of policy work, the Vegetarian Society holds no party affiliation, but we are determined in our campaigning for animal welfare, the sustainable food agenda, climate, and provision of vegetarian and vegan choices for the public.
We have active representation at all of this year’s major political party conferences – Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Green – to press these agendas and address these issues head-on.
It’s been umbrellas in hand and a classic rainy Manchester for the Conservative Party conference this week. However, inside the plush carpeted complex of the ornate Victorian hotels and an ex-railway station turned conference centre, agenda papers are crisp and dry. Even if many of the MPs we encounter will soon be standing down, the agenda is full of opportunity for the Vegetarian Society. As an organisation campaigning for a kinder, healthier more sustainable world, with animal welfare at its heart, there are plenty of events at this political gathering for us to attend and be vocal.
The crisis in UK agriculture is high on the fringe agenda and I spend much of my four-day stay shadowing the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Thérèse Coffey, but there are panel topics outside of farming and animal welfare that the Vegetarian Society takes a campaigning interest in: the health and obesity crisis, children’s diets and school food, nature regeneration and sustainability.
The big theme across the all the debates we attend is quite distinct: how does the nation both coordinate and afford the change it so desperately needs, especially on health and sustainability? And each event panel wrestles with the age-old question: how can policy and government break out of its siloed working and do something new?
Building on our recent Vegetarian Society experience at the Lib Dem conference, where the paradigm of choice emerged as a winning proposition, I observe something else beginning to surface as this week’s Conservative conference progresses: the theme of giving people not just education on healthy sustainable food, but crucially, giving people new food experiences.
We start to unpick all this at two back-to-back fringe debates on the ‘spaghetti junction’ of issues that is the obesity epidemic. On the first panel are a businessman, two food policy people, and a former lead of Public Health England; on the second, two policy people, a finance and banking representative, and a food industry rep from the FDF. On both panels is Jo Gideon MP.
Gideon, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, is a self-described outlier and major champion in the Conservative Party of action on healthy eating. As I shadow Jo from debate to debate, I notice that one key theme keeps popping up, and what seems like a paradox. Yes, we need to educate people about healthy eating, all the delegates say; on the other hand, everyone agrees all the education on healthy eating simply hasn’t made a dent in the issue. So, what is needed? What is going on here?
Henry Dimbleby wrote about this phenomenon in his book Ravenous that came out earlier this year, and it was a central theme in his National Food Strategy commissioned (and then sadly largely ignored) by the current Conservative government. It is to his insights that my mind drifts as I listen to the panels’ conversations. People, Henry Dimbleby firmly believes, don’t make bad food choices because they don’t know what’s healthy; they make bad choices because evolution has programmed them to do so. When offered high-fat, high-salt or high-sugar foods, the primal brain simply says ‘yes’: the educated brain doesn’t much come into it.
I build this thinking in as I question each panel, and suggest that what the government and policy makers might want to try is championing experience over education. Do we perhaps need to give people not healthy eating education per se, but education in the form of new food experiences? Where better to do this than in public sector catering? The Vegetarian Society is all about getting more healthy plant-based food on offer in schools, hospitals and workplaces. Helping people to break out of Henry Dimbleby’s ‘junk food cycle’, as he calls it, and break into enjoying real, healthy, sustainable veggie and vegan food is part of our mission.
There is interest from the panels in this concept, and the think tank people seem particularly keen on the idea, stuck as they have found themselves in the education paradox. And there’s a huge potential role for the Vegetarian Society here, not just for our policy campaigning at the political level (central and local) but as a place where the Vegetarian Society Cookery School can really make a difference, particularly in the realm of training public sector caterers.
From the demand side to the farm side, and wherever I go at the party conferences, I find that fruitful conversations have to start where people are at, and the vast majority of farmland in the UK is in Conservative constituencies.
The Climate Change Committee has made clear there must be a shift in UK land use and a move to more sustainable food crops being grown here in our countryside. And so, I want to find out from the assembled farming lobby, what are the chances of us seeing ‘Buy British Tofu’ on our shelves in the next few years?
In a break between conference sessions, I caught up with Martin Lines, chief executive of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) – a tongue-twisting acronym, but a very straight-talking organisation.
DEFRA has a shortlist of plant-protein crops that could be grown at scale here in the UK, so I ask Lines about the NFFN mission and how do we get more plant-based proteins – lentils, chickpeas and soya beans – grown here in the UK? Again, the conversation centres on education.
“While market forces are entrenched and it also requires an infrastructure change,” says Martin, “the transition towards more plant-based protein is entirely possible but we need to give farmers a clear and well-funded pathway. Change in what we produce and what we eat cannot be done on the cheap, but on the other hand if done right, it can be highly profitable and the Network’s aim is to send farmers on that sustainability journey.”
I look forward to visiting Lines on his Cambridgeshire farm, cooking up some veggie food, and finding out more, but in the meantime it’s back to the conference to forge the road ahead.
We may have piqued some real interest in bringing more vegetarian and vegan food into public sector catering, and we might be partway down the farm track towards Buy British Tofu, but for a campaigning organisation like the Vegetarian Society, with its vision of a kinder, more sustainable approach to our food and farming, it’s going to be uphill for just a little while longer!
Image credit: Marmalade Photos / Shutterstock.com