“Is our food in safe hands? It’s in too few hands”


Puffles cross-examines the food-marketers along with some Christian activists in Cambridge

I took Puffles along to two gatherings on one day this week. The first was about what being a councillor involved, and the second was a talk at Emmanuel United Reformed Church on Trumpington Street about ‘food’ in a very wide context.

Despite my many criticisms of institutionalised religion (it did a ***huge*** amount of damage to me as a child, the consequences I live with to this day), there’s something quietly satisfying when lay members of religions sink their teeth into issues of social justice & standing up for the poor.

‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist’

This is an issue I continue to spar with some of my Conservative followers over. Their view of ‘charity’ is one where people and institutions give food to the poor. Asking why people are poor – and looking at what to do about it, is not charity. It’s politics – and in their view this is something that charities should steer well clear of.

It’s a perfectly reasonable disposition to have – it’s just one I completely disagree with.  I often find this with my Conservative followers. I understand where they are coming from and am able to follow their logic and thought processes. I just disagree with it because my disposition is completely different to theirs. It’s like this… ‘colourful’ document from the Tax Payers Alliance – to which the Labour-backing blog Left Foot Forward responded here. I can see given the former’s worldview why they think as they do. It just happens to be a planet I’d rather not live on. I’m more with a younger Clement Attlee who wrote here. The bit I disagree with Attlee is the interpretation that charity is a rich-poor giver-recipient financial transaction. For example I volunteer for Cambridge Online where I give free social media training to local residents and community groups (See here for more). Some of the people I’ve trained are financially wealthier than I am. But the impact of that training given what they want to achieve (eg for a project they are working on that they are not going to financially profit from) will have a wider positive impact on the local community.

Magic Dragon Puffles chats to knight of realm Prof Sir Brian Heap

Sir Brian‘s a member of Emmanuel URC – I spoke to both him and his colleague Mark Reeder following the panel discussion. Perhaps in the same way with the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, an invitation to discuss any particular issue from either is not something that can easily be ignored by large corporations. It reminds me of an episode of pre-WWI history, when the recently-crowned Tsar Nicholas II (still in his 20s) decided it would be a good idea to have a peace conference to see if the world could agree limitations on armaments and agree more things on the conduct of war in general. (The 1899 Hague Convention). The feeling at the time from other monarchs and governments was that no one wanted to go to such a conference, let alone come to any agreement. But at the same time, this was ‘The Tsar’ – and no one could afford to ‘offend the sensibilities of the Tsar of all Russias – which was why the great powers sent delegations.

The panel – #Diversityfail?

Sir Brian chaired the panel which included:

  • Dan Crossley – Director, Food Ethics Council;
  • Paul Mayfield – Food Marketing Specialist, Scottish Agricultural Colleges;
  • John Giles – Divisional Director, Promar International & Genus plc; and
  • Nigel Jenney – Chief Executive, Fresh Produce Consortium.

I called them all out on an all-White all-Male panel, something John Giles spoke to me afterwards about. It was something they actively tried to avoid. One of their preferred panellists (who happened to be a woman) from Tesco – there in a personal rather than a corporate capacity – choosing to remain in the audience until the Q&A session. John also said that the event sponsors, the Chartered Institute for Marketing, has a membership that is 55% female. Hence in his view the percentage of speakers at their events should reflect that. Furthermore he said that the CIM should do far more to host events outside of London. A couple of the other speakers said that while you may not get the numbers that you would in London, the local impact of such events with smaller numbers can actually be greater. We had about 40 people at this event in Cambridge. A similar event in London they said would have needed about 80 people to have had an equivalent impact. Again, a properly-functioning community development strategy for Cambridge (incorporating social media) could have filled the hall given the speakers and the issue. Both residents and students are interested in these things.

The debate – too safe?

I put this to Dan Crossley – who concluded with the line: “Is our food in safe hands? It’s in too few hands” when asked to sum up. He agreed. He was probably the most ‘radical’ of the speakers when it came to some of the public policy proposals.

The one theme that came from all of the speakers was that the world we are living in today is very different to the one we were living in even as recently as 2000. Paul, John and Nigel all indicated that chief executives are all much more aware of sustainability issues than back then. What I pushed all of them on was the issue of feedback loops. Given the rise of new communications technologies and social media, how are firms using this information and feedback to influence their decisions and decision-making processes?

A radical audience of ‘not the usual suspects’?

I like it when I turn up to events covering issues of social justice where I meet lots of people I don’t know or have not seen before. I like it even more when they speak passionately and knowledgeably about the issues concerned – which was what happened here. This is one of the reasons why activists – including myself – dismiss ‘people with religious faiths’ at our peril. Just because they may identify with a given faith that (as far as large organisations are concerned) has ‘issues’ with things like institutionalised sexism, racism and homophobia over the centuries, does not mean that they blindly follow, agree or defend the behaviour of such institutions. In my experience, it is their religious faith that is the driver for their campaigning on social justice issues.

‘Faith is my driver, but I’m going to hit you with evidence’

The contributions were notable for the breadth of issues covered – from ‘corporate land grabs’ to food waste to price of foods to transparency of corporations to antibiotics in livestock farming to the welfare of farmers. Even I was pleasantly surprised at the passion and expertise that was brought to bear. It’s one of those things where, when you know you’re not an expert but you can hear that someone else is, you can say: “Yeah – what they said!!!”

Learning point?

Two things – one for the likes of me, and one for people of faith.

Engaging with faith communities

If, within your social-justice-related campaigns you insult and ridicule people of faith who might otherwise be your allies, you risk losing not just their participation but also the expertise they can bring to bear on those causing the injustices you’re campaigning against. Ultimately it’s up to individuals who they choose to work with, but it’s a consideration none-the-less.

Faith communities reaching out but not preaching out

“We’re campaigning on this because we feel it is the right thing to do, not because we are seeking converts”. We’re in an era where it’s ever so easy for religions to get a bad press. And with good reason. It makes it all the more difficult for those who are religious to try and reconcile the immoral and sometimes illegal activities (such as the one I highlighted here) with a deeply held and very personal faith.

On issues of social justice however, faith communities & people of faith tend to get a much more positive reception – not just from the media but even those that might wish to take them to task on theological or religious dogma issues. (Including myself). I’d hazard a guess that for people of faith who are active in social justice campaigns, they are probably more interested in, and spend more time on social justice than on some of the detailed issues of theology and religious dogma – seeing their religion as more of a framework within which to live by rather than a large set of concrete rules to be micro-managed by. Hence the “It’s great that you’re here campaigning against bad stuff with us, but what about this controversial line in [insert name of scripture]…how do you account for that?” probably not being the best approach. I’m sure someone could do the same thing with all the blogposts and tweets I’ve ever posted. 500+ blogposts and over 150,000 tweets in 3 years? Do I remember every single one? Of course not. I may even have changed my mind due to new learning, new knowledge and new experiences.

Talking of learning – learning to be a councillor?

Prior to the food issues talk, Puffles and I popped our heads round to a workshop by Gary Clift of Cambridge City Council. About 15 of us were there looking at the responsibilities of being a councillor. Much of the information we had is set out here. Amongst other things, Puffles cannot stand to be a councillor but I can stand as a councillor and campaign under the name “Puffles the dragon fairy” if I so wish – not that I’m intending to stand myself. (Puffles may take a different view on the other hand, but it depends on how all this community action work goes, and how active existing councillors and candidates choose to be on social media between now and the 2014 elections which are on 22 May 2014).

The thing is, there feels like a million-and-one reasons not to stand – and this is a problem across the country

Seriously – why would anyone want to stand for public office in local government when:

  • Most of the significant decisions are taken in Whitehall anyway (I should know – I used to work there)
  • The decision on where the cuts (imposed due to a huge reduction in central government grants) should fall have been ‘outsourced’ to local government – so you get the blame for something not necessarily your fault
  • You get a tiny allowance given the responsibilities and the hours required for the job
  • You’re facing growing expectations and demands from the public – not least in a social media age
  • You have responsibilities towards that public – even if they didn’t vote for you and even if they absolutely despise every bone in your body
  • You have a media waiting to catch you out at every possible moment

The way I currently see things is that I don’t need to stand for election to achieve what I want to achieve – i.e. making this a reality. In fact, I quite like not having the responsibilities of public office and not having the distractions of having to campaign with the mindset of future elections. Also, I’d like to think that the councillors see me and Puffles as a useful if somewhat unpredictable community asset not tied to or tied by anything or anyone. Having the ties of political parties or public office bring restrictions. Having a dragon fairy who has wings means you can reach out to people and places that institutions otherwise struggle to reach.

Take the workshop this evening. The council staff were inevitably restricted in what they could and could not say – with good reason. I’m not. I’ve been in similar situations where they currently are – i.e. in politically-restricted posts. Just not anymore. Hence why I think there’s something to be said for workshops on educating the public not just about how local government functions, but the relationship between citizens & local civic society. How to go about that…well, that’s something that I’d want to build into a community development strategy. I’m meeting lots of people with lots of really interesting ideas, but a common thread linking them all together is what’s missing. That is what I want to change.


6 thoughts on ““Is our food in safe hands? It’s in too few hands”

  1. I am grateful for your comments about Faith. I think that despite its unchanging aspects, that many of us grapple with how to respond to changing dynamics of social change, and find that our theology can be very helpful in dealing with a great deal of it. What cannot be overlooked is that those who do not want to change can also find succour in their understanding of the scriptures (such as happened during the abolition of slavery or apartheid) so the breadth of theological interpretations can be challenging. Amongst the elements that do not change are the commitments to accept the ‘alien’ amongst us, to care for those who have little. On those two examples we can all join forces and cover a great deal of ground, and there are many more.

  2. Thanks for all that, Dragon’s Best Friend. As the minister of Emmanuel URC I attended the event but chose to let others do the talking. I appreciate your comments and the recognition that believers need to be taken seriously (well, some do…). It’s not about proof-texting but my faith gives me a language with which to speak of these issues, and one which gives perspectives and insights that are often otherwise lacking.. However I wont preach. I just appreciate a skeptic who recognises that we need to be allies. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to speak to you!

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