The parent state: Green Party Conference 2023
In our look at the party conference season, Chris Ogden, Communications Officer for the Vegetarian Society, reflects on the Greens’ latest party conference in Brighton.
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.
Of all the UK’s major political parties, the Green Party would probably seem to be the Vegetarian Society’s most natural ally. Like us, protecting our climate and natural environment, along with the rights of animals, are some of green politics’ founding principles. Environmental sustainability is the green movement’s raison d’être.
Even if you do subscribe to the view that the two organisations are part of the same movement, it’s important to note that we serve vitally different functions. As a campaigning organisation without a party affiliation, the Vegetarian Society’s job is to sow the seeds for a kinder and more ethical food system, proposing ways toward that and advocating for them. The job of the Green Party – or any political party, for that matter – is to win power and reap those seeds, implementing policies as it sees fit. As we’ve learnt at other party conferences in recent weeks, the arguments needed to win Greens over to our cause will be different to those we need to deploy to appeal to members of the Labour, Lib Dem, or Conservative parties.
How much do Greens currently align with the Vegetarian Society’s mission, then, and what is the best way for us to frame our discussions with them for a fairer, better food system? We sought to find out at the party’s Autumn Conference over a sunny three days in Brighton last weekend.
One of the most striking takeaways of attending Green Conference with a Vegetarian Society hat on is how proactively the party is already engaged with the issues we care about. All food served in the Brighton Centre this year was vegetarian or vegan, as Greens insist on for catering at all their events. However, this interest is policy-based as well as practical. In a stuffy room on the centre’s third floor, the party’s Food and Agriculture Policy Working Group met to discuss potential policies around land use and the types of food we should be eating and prioritising. Ideas floated during the meeting included encouraging greater take-up of the Mediterranean diet compared to the one in the UK’s Eatwell Guide, backing community-supported agriculture projects such as fruit and veg boxes, and means of phasing out factory farming.
The greatest evidence that Greens are engaging with experts on food was a panel discussion held on Friday afternoon. Titled ‘Land use – balancing the needs of nature with food production’, the session was hosted by Cllr Emily O’Brien, the party’s spokesperson on Food, Agriculture and Rural Welfare. Featuring food and agriculture experts from farms, charities and universities, the session looked to explore how to reduce carbon emissions and restore nature while supporting the farmers and producers on whom we all depend.
The panellists challenged the either/or nature of the session’s title, arguing that nature and food production instead go in hand. For farmers, represented through Molly Biddell from the Knepp Estate in Sussex, the solutions were clear: greater diversity of people, government certainty, and working with farmers so they receive more than 10% of the money we spend on food currently. Mollie Gupta, a seaweed expert from the World Wildlife Fund, spoke about regenerative ocean farming and the role seaweed can play in offering carbon sequestration.
During the Q&A, I put a question to the panel: how much of a role do they believe plant-based food will play in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises, and how can we bring the agricultural sector with us? In response, Ian Wilkinson from FarmEd stressed that we need to distinguish between factory farming and more sustainable forms of farming. Scale can come from agroecology (essentially, sustainable farming), with more horticulture offering huge potential for plant-based food production and carbon sequestration. That would mean modifying more land for perennials and legumes. The panellists also agreed on a need to produce less but better meat, with a greater focus on fruit and vegetable production. It was also noted that seaweed could play more of a role in our food system, following the example set by countries in East Asia. The panel was clear to emphasise that it was vital not to penalise growers, but instead give them a positive incentive to change and critically to bring the British public along on this journey. The point was made that the current cost of food is not equitable for farmers or consumers, with prices too low for farmers to be fairly remunerated, but in many cases too expensive for consumers during the current cost-of-living crisis. Everyone agreed that change was needed, and urgently.
A particularly fascinating argument that came out of the panel was offered up by Professor Tim Lang from City University London’s Centre for Food Policy. He spoke of the need to reframe the ‘nanny state’, saying we should view it instead as the ‘parent state’. This seemed to chime with the rest of the panel. Indeed, when asked what they would do on their first day as food minister, many of their ideas were interventional, such as integrating the NHS and health into the food system, bringing farmers and ecologists together to better understand and manage the impact of farming, and introducing a Food Security and Resilience Act together with a National Food Policy Council to provide continuity in domestic food policy and with EU law. All these ideas suggest the positive role that greater government could play in supporting consumers and farmers.
That idea of the ‘parent state’ seems an apt description of the Greens’ current approach. While ‘freedom of choice’ seems to be the watchword of the Lib Dems, Conservatives, and Labour, with all three parties wary of state intervention, the Green worldview is one of active and positive state involvement, with government having the authority to act on behalf of the welfare of society as a whole. This was evident later in the weekend when Green MP Caroline Lucas brought a policy motion on banning the advertising of high-carbon products – a definition broad enough to include the likes of meat and some ultra-processed foods – which members of the party decided to pass.
The Greens’ instinct to tar red meat and junk food with the same brush as cigarettes is both radical and interventionist, something the other main parties appear keen to avoid. Of course, the party runs a clear risk that this level of state imposition will not chime with a segment of voters. Whatever one’s view on that, the Green Party’s message is clear: if we are going to achieve a kinder, more ethical food system, we cannot rely solely on market forces. Through good policy and legislation, we also need to rely on the guiding hand of government.
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