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Broad potential policy impacts from GO-Science dialogue on food supply challenges

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In January 2016, the final report was published of the independent evaluation of the public dialogue on UK food supply challenges and solutions, and the role of innovative production technologies and approaches in meeting these. The project was designed to inform Government decisions about future policy and research priorities in the UK food supply, particularly the implementation of the 2013 Agri-Tech Strategy through Agricultural Centres of Innovation and the Global Food Security Programme. The evaluation concluded that

“This was a successful small project with potentially wide-ranging policy impacts. The balance of the framing and choice of case studies, the quality of stimulus materials, the considerable learning that participants took from dialogue events and the quality of the analysis will make this project a good demonstrator for what can be achieved through public dialogue to manage risk in these research and innovation areas.”

The project was unusual in being delivered through a partnership between the Government Office for Science (GO-Science) and Consumer Association Which?, working with contractors TNS BMRB and supported by Sciencewise. The evaluation concluded that

“the novel partnership between a government department and NGO has worked very well in terms of broadening the framing of the project, harnessing expertise and resources, and spreading the project management burden.”

The project was also unusual in having a two tier governance mechanism with a wide range of internal and external stakeholder input which the evaluation report concluded was “very effective in ensuring the credibility and robustness of the project (particularly in broadening the framing, providing balance and ensuring accuracy of the stimulus materials) and increasing the potential for medium term policy impacts.”

There was an internal Government Management Group which included Defra, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Department of Health. This group was led by GO-Science. There was also an external Advisory Group with about 12 core members with representation from the food industry, consumer associations, environmental NGOs and academics led by Which? The Advisory Group was closely involved in the framing of the dialogue and ensuring that it covered low-tech and demand side management, not just high-tech solutions.

The dialogue project involved 48 public participants meeting in deliberative workshops in London, Cardiff and Paisley on two consecutive Saturdays in January and February 2015. The budget was £66,000. The evaluation report put the project costs into a wider perspective:

“Ultimately this project could feed into identifying opportunities to increase the success of the UK agri-food industry, of which the entire supply chain from agriculture to final retailing and catering is already estimated to contribute £96 billion to the UK economy (of which £18 billion was exported in 2012).”

The evaluation found that the feedback from policy makers and other key stakeholders was very positive:

“there was resounding agreement that the project had been ambitious, enjoyable, really well run and produced valuable results which need to be listened to by government and industry.”

The policy makers involved particularly valued the richness of the detail the dialogue provided on how the public balance risk and benefits, and what underlies those opinions, which were seen to be useful in many different policy areas. The evaluation report concludes that:

“a more quantitative approach may have given a larger sample size for the cost but would not have provided the richness of reflection and insights that have been identified as useful to policy makers.”

While the headline outcomes from the dialogue were not very surprising, the evaluation concluded that the report of the dialogue was:

“widely seen as providing a very sound evidence base which tells a strong narrative: the public is initially disconnected from food production; but easily becomes engaged and willing to find solutions to the challenges as they learn about them; individuals are often willing to change their behaviour; and do not discard all technological solutions out of hand; but are prepared to consider each on the basis of its risks and benefits in a nuanced way.”

It is still very early to identify specific impacts on policy, but the evaluation report provides details of potential policy impacts on Defra, BBSRC, FSA, BIS and Department of Health as well as plans by each of these bodies to share and promote the dialogue results. In summary, the evaluation suggests that impacts were likely to be felt through the following routes (all quoted from the evaluation report):

•       Feeding findings on public attitudes to food system challenges into Defra, the Global Food Security Programme (GFS), the FSA and Department of Health policies and strategies. For example, by widening the current export/growth focus of the 25 Year Plan for Food and Farming to include sustainability and obesity concerns. Which? and GO-Science have presented findings to Ministers and senior policy makers in Defra, Food Standards Scotland and FSA and have sought out other opportunities to feed in key messages. Meetings were also being arranged with the Agri-Tech Leadership Council/ Food Research Partnership, Scottish Government (in relation to the Scottish Food and Farming Plan) and Welsh Government.

•       Influencing research and innovation priorities within the GFS Programme and Agricultural Innovation Centres (when they are announced). Together these programmes account for more than £100 million of investment. The dialogue has contributed a nuanced understanding of the hierarchy of factors at play when the public is weighing up the risks and benefits of different types of technology.

•       Making the case for the usefulness of well-run public dialogues in delivering open, balanced and nuanced opportunities for the public to participate meaningfully in shaping research and innovation agendas. On the basis of this project the need for public dialogue has become a central plank of the narrative for GO-Science’s five year plan.

•       Providing a legacy of materials and lessons on how to communicate food sustainability issues in an accessible and engaging way e.g. for ongoing FSA and BBSRC public dialogue processes and for wider awareness raising of food system challenges.

There were also immediate impacts on the public participants: 89% (42 out of 47) said they thought it more likely that they would get involved in these types of dialogues in future. The evaluation also found that:

“Participants were genuinely shocked to learn about the sustainability challenges of current consumption and production patterns and many reported during the dialogues themselves, or in follow up telephone interviews with 18 participants two months later, that they had changed their behaviour, particularly eating less meat and reducing waste.”

Evaluation of public dialogue on UK food supply challenges and solutions and the role of innovative production technologies and approaches in meeting these, by URSUS Consulting.

See related project page: UK food system challenges and the role of innovative production technologies and other approaches in meeting these