Shirley Spear: Appetite for change in Scots food & lifestyle

Shirley Spear hopes to see a good food nation emerge. Picture: Andrew Woodhouse
Shirley Spear hopes to see a good food nation emerge. Picture: Andrew Woodhouse
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SCOTLAND’S big food conversation is growing every day. We are already building a “good food nation”. Together, little by little, we are bringing about the change of attitude and lifestyle needed. More and more people are contributing in big ways and small: tongues are wagging, opinions shared; word spreads through the ether; communities take action; schools are involved. Every effort counts enormously. This is the only way to build the movement for necessary change regarding the population’s diet and lifestyle.

In turn, this change will create a better, more sustainable future for our country.

There is no silver bullet, no quick fix. This is generational change and must involve every sector of society.

No-one is exempt from making their personal contribution. Everyone will benefit collectively from the results we accomplish.

I have learned a great deal since my presentation at last year’s Scotsman food and drink conference.

The Scottish Food Commission had met only twice at that time and I was unsure about the future and my role as chair.

Since then, I have met many people from industry, retail, farming, fishing, health, education and community projects.

I have spoken to them, listened to their concerns, discussed their views. I have seen examples of fantastic work and marvelled at the results achieved.

I’ve learned from these experiences and gained a much more rounded opinion, plus a fuller understanding of the difficulties we must face together.

Food is an enormous subject. It affects every person every day, as we cannot live without it. The task facing the Scottish Food Commission is enormous and very complex.

I realise many people believe we have far too wide a remit and will have no “teeth” as we have no power, as such. Some people are critical we have not taken a stance on any particular “hot topic”, such as the sugar tax or junk food advertising policy.

I’m asked for an opinion on anything and everything, from Bake Off to school meals or subsidising the cost of fresh vegetables. On Twitter, I am tagged in conversations about childhood obesity, cancer research, farm payments, Brexit issues, saving the bees and wonky veg.

If I am to take heart from this bombardment, it is to feel positive about how the movement for change affects us in so many diverse ways. One organisation alone cannot succeed or be completely responsible.

Where I believe the Scottish Food Commission can succeed is in leading a joined-up conversation. The sooner we get our public voice recognised on social media and via a public-friendly website, the better we will be able to have a public face and the wider Scottish community will begin to understand our role.

This cannot come quickly enough in my opinion and we are working on it. The commission cannot specialise in all things, but it can become the hub of all the excellent activity across Scotland.

It can support the change of direction that others will lead in their own fields and create a strong web of activity from which others can take ideas and develop their own.

There must also be more cross-departmental activity within government to achieve maximum results. We need a joined-up conversation here too and with Food Standards Scotland, which is responsible for dietary advice and monitoring official standards.

Meanwhile, we are working towards delivering more advice to the Scottish Government through sub-groups covering specific topics related to building the “good food nation”.

There is no doubt our work has been interrupted by the challenges of Holyrood elections, the EU referendum, parliamentary recess and Brexit negotiations.

Changes have been made in the government’s food and drink policy team which are still being reconciled.

We were very sorry to lose Richard Lochhead, who led the way for almost a decade, but we look forward to new cabinet secretary, Fergus Ewing, attending our meeting on 28 September.

Education and knowledge will be the main topic and I’m confident this will result in further recommendations. At my initial meeting with Mr Ewing, I was greatly encouraged by his resolve for upholding the importance of food and drink within his portfolio.

All in all, we are in a very good place to move ahead. The government is considering bringing forward a food bill for Scotland and if activated, the Scottish Food Commission will be very involved.

We will never be in a position to wave a magic wand and make change happen overnight – and change will not succeed through enforcement.

It will only happen because we, the people, want it to happen, know why it must happen, take pride in it and above all, have fun and enjoy the results of making it happen while getting everyone involved. That means you, too.

• This article appears in the Autumn 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.