The UK has a wonderfully rich array of civil society organisations (CSOs) that have changed the shape of our society and the wider world for the public good. With the upcoming UK general election, these organisations are poised for another test of wit and creativity to influence those who will wield power next.

‘Civil society’ is a term which describes the collective group of voluntary, charity, academic and non-governmental organisations that manifest the interests and will of citizens. Civil society is distinct from government and business, yet always closely intertwined. In an age of disruptive change, where trends in global politics shift at an unprecedented rate, civil society organisations could be the only solution capable of grounding the debate on sustainable food and pushing for the change so urgently needed.

Mike Clarke, CEO of RSPB, is a strong advocate for the role of the charitable sector in changing civil society. He says at RSPB “…the impact of agriculture is the single biggest problem we’ve faced for 40 years… you can start with any part of the food web and you get into the need to address the systemic causes of health, environment and economic crises.”

Food policy academic, Rachael Durrant, research fellow at Sussex University, sees civil society organisations (CSOs) as key actors in our transition to a fairer, more sustainable food regime. “We’re currently experiencing a global search for solutions to sustainability problems in food systems and these calls for transition are coming from all sectors of society – CSOs, businesses, governments and international organisations.”

Yet, over the course of Durrant’s extensive research and experience of working in this field, she’s found CSOs conspicuously absent in policy discussions and strategic planning, where “lead roles are ascribed to central government, multinational business and high-tech science,” – a bit like appointing a group of sugar-addicts to guard the biscuit tin. From their combined efforts not to scoff the lot, we get ‘sustainable intensification’, the new African Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and the latest regressive CAP reform, which don’t adequately address social, health and environmental factors or provide genuinely sustainable solutions. Civil society can offer fresh approaches, unrestrained by a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, yet when “mentioned at all, if not just plainly left out of these strategies, [they] are viewed as a delivery vehicle for their top-down agenda, or as a social conscience for an unequal food system,” says Durrant.

Durrant believes CSO’s offer a different approach that deserves more recognition and support. She’s created a framework as a way to look at the various activities of CSOs and understand their significance. She sees CSOs operating in a web of different kinds of organisations, carrying out four key roles in regime change.

Grassroots innovation

CSOs experiment with different ways of producing, consuming, trading, distributing and retailing food because they step outside the norms of practice and are critical of them. The grassroots innovations they develop can become the seeds of reform.

Niche development

This is the process of scaling up, translating and communicating these innovations in thinking, practice and production to a wider audience. This can take the form of establishing networks for the dissemination of new thinking as well as more practical training, how-to-guides or start-up funding.

RSPB innovates in many different ways. One such project is Grange (Hope) Farm in Cambridgeshire – an experimental arable farm where researchers trial potential solutions to farmland bird decline before successful new methods are put into practice more widely. Their niche development also extends to providing free advice for 2,000-3,000 farmers per year helping them put RSPB’s wildlife friendly farming techniques into practice.

Norm challenging

CSOs are vital in challenging citizens, consumers, policy makers and businesses to think differently about food systems, the kinds of food they buy and where it comes from, and the kinds of policies they support. This awareness raising is an important step towards potential solutions.

The Fife Diet, founded in 2007 as a consumer-led initiative, is a good example of norm challenging. Through a broad range of activities they sparked a Scottish food movement. In their short but busy five year existence, they have organised a range of creative campaigns to raise awareness of how damaging our food system is and change how people think about food. They partnered with the Soil Association and the local council to deliver the Food for Life catering mark in schools, and they created the Seed Truck with WWF, which went around Scotland delivering workshops and training to encourage people to create community projects around food such as gardening and cooking projects. This kind of collective activity puts pressure on the dominant food regime as consumers spending patterns shift in favour of local producers and they demand better provenance from their supermarkets and oversight from their local councils.

Regime reform

The experimentation, alternative models and activity in ‘niche development’ and campaigning all align to force change into the mainstream. This involves working directly with industries, public institutions and major corporations to help embed more sustainable practices, values and patterns into the food system.

The Soil Association has made a very visible impact on our food regime – we find their organic label in supermarkets throughout the UK and it’s widely regarded as the most trusted organic certification in Britain. This is the result of decades of activity, beginning with experimenting in the post-war period with compost and manures. Then in the 60s and 70s, they were instrumental in the growth and development of organic labelling and certification systems. In the 80s and 90s the Soil Association moved into norm challenging mode, capitalising on the BSE and foot and mouth crises, which brought to the fore significant problems in conventional agricultural practice. Their campaigns highlighted the fact that no organic farms had any incidences of either disease, boosting support for organic as confidence in conventional farming was diminishing. This opened up the space for regime reform and the Soil Association’s organic labelling and certification was adopted nationwide. Over their long period of activity, the Soil Association has facilitated the development of the organic niche within UK, which is now fully embedded into our food system.

In this complex web, CSOs are working away on a diverse range of issues at different levels in our food system, from community to policy level. They are autonomous yet connected to one another, frequently collaborating and sharing resources and ideas in order to increase the collective impact and reach of their work.

Clarke and Durrant see an increasing trend of cross-sector collaboration amongst health, environment and international development CSOs who are uniting under the banner of ‘sustainable food’ as it becomes more widely recognised that the systemic causes of many of the issues they’re working on connect back to our global food system.

For CSOs to make effective and lasting change they need to be better understood and recognised for their contribution by policy-makers. Often when CSOs are granted government funding, they’re evaluated by centralised, quantitative metrics which fail to recognise the impact of CSOs’ work. All too often there is too great a focus on volumes of food produced and more holistic methods – such as biodynamics or agroecology that provide long-term benefits in greater resilience, soil integrity and improved nutritional content – are disregarded as insignificant and incapable of feeding the world. Durrant suggests peer evaluation and more qualitative measures would give a better indication of the soft outcomes of CSO activity. Clearly there’s much to be done to reframe CSOs as a source, incubator, champion and translator of food system innovations. Not just in how they’re evaluated by policy, but also how funding for CSOs is administrated and how they’re regulated and engaged within policy development processes.

The time is ripe for change. More than ever before people are aware of how broken our food system is. There’s increased public scrutiny and vibrant debate going on all over the world on how we create a fair, healthy and sustainable food system in the 21st century. We’re seeing more concentrated efforts across the food movement and a more unified voice from civil society. Under these conditions, as Durrant’s study points out, change is inevitable.

Photograph: Steph French

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