In Britain’s recent General Election, food and farming were conspicuously absent from political campaigns, along with other important issues facing the country such as climate change and foreign policy. Instead, party leaders focused on a few core themes, most ubiquitous of which was the economy, understood only in the narrowest sense. While this might not be surprising – given the task of trying to engage a largely uninterested public and persuade them to vote for you – now that the election is over, we can begin to gauge how some of these overlooked yet vital issues will be tackled over the next few years.

Party politics provides a starting point to examine political attitudes towards food and farming, but a glance at the recent party manifestos is not encouraging. Minimal space is devoted to agriculture and food production. In general, political manifestos are longer than the average voter is inclined to read while too insubstantial to outline exactly what a party will do.

Beyond the general election campaigns, political discourse tends to be both narrow and superficial, especially when relayed through the media. Policy initiatives and carefully crafted sound bites are directed to the public in order to score political points. When there is a sudden flurry of comment and concern over agriculture or the environment, for example in reaction to last year’s floods or the horse meat scandal of 2013, political interventions often sound stilted or insincere. This may be due to the disconnect between Westminster and the real world, a gap underlined by the fact that so few politicians have any meaningful link to the countryside or to agriculture.

Although food systems don’t appear to pique much interest from the political class, there are other mechanisms that allow for more sustained and penetrating engagement than fickle party politics and an inattentive media. The government has an entire department devoted to the environment, food and rural affairs – Defra – though it is something of a political backwater due to its small budget and seemingly non-political remit. The department appears technocratic and bereft of era-defining issues or opportunities to display ideological conviction and political astuteness.

As such, it is seen as somewhere politicians pass through during the wax or wane of their careers, but not the place to forge a reputation as a political heavyweight. However, the typically low public profile of food and agriculture, and its absence from the political agenda, means that when a member of parliament (MP) does have strong opinions, he or she can exert relatively more influence here than in other areas. And if Defra ministers themselves lack strong inclinations towards specific policy positions, they may be more open to persuasion from their parliamentary colleagues who do. Without preconceived ideas on food issues, a minister is more likely to listen openly.

The lack of detail on agricultural policy from politicians on the campaign trail or in the television studio masks the fact that they often lack a clear explanation of how their ambitious goals will be achieved. Agricultural policy involves attempting to rationalise several competing objectives: freeing up trade while increasing UK food security; improving rural economies and livelihoods while eliminating farm labour and promoting cheap food; and balancing increased production with environmental protection. At the same time as advocating potentially contradictory aims, both the government and the farming industry express support for competing models of farming: small and large, local and export-focused, organic and non-organic. There are two problems with this: one practical, the other intellectual.

The practical problem is that, in many cases, these different models of food systems cannot co-exist in the long term. Increasing farm size will inevitably come into conflict with the continued survival of small farms – swallowing them up or creating the downward pressure on prices that leads to the closure of unprofitable farms. Similarly the rhetoric from politicians characterising agriculture as both vital for the UK economy and a key outpost in the battle to protect the environment glosses over the tension between these two aims.

Out of this arises the intellectual problem of trying to meet contradictory objectives without explaining how; it avoids the difficult decisions that would need to be made and refuses to acknowledge that there will be losers as well as winners. What is needed is a realistic debate about the outcomes that we most value from a food system, the best way to achieve these outcomes and any necessary trade-offs. Instead there is a strong tendency among politicians to express support in principle for all sides of a debate, while failing to back this up with action. No government minister wants to call for the end of small farms or the loss of biodiversity, despite taking up policy positions that may lead towards these outcomes.

But politics is more than just governments, MPs and political parties. It is shaped and driven by the views of those outside parliament: lobbyists, campaigners and the general public. Any examination of the intersection of politics and food systems in Britain must include a consideration of what Lord Heseltine described as “one of the most effective pressure groups in the UK”: the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

The NFU tends to focus on the larger-scale, more intensive end of farming. It advocates maximising production, extending export markets and reducing regulation – though in the long term it is unclear whether this best serves the interests of the NFU’s membership, many of who are quitting the business as the inevitable consolidation takes place. The NFU would argue that its policies are in the interest of the farming industry as a whole and of the public – increasing food security while benefiting the economy and protecting the environment. Others disagree, including the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), which represents the often overlooked interests of small farmers and environmentalists sceptical of how sustainable the modern food industry is. Health experts, meanwhile, argue that much of the food produced cheaply through industrialised farming methods is of dubious quality and is contributing to a public health crisis.

One way of bringing hard choices to the fore of policy making is to ensure that it is done strategically and across government departments. At the moment, policies affecting food systems are delivered piecemeal, exacerbating inherent contradictions and leading to unintended consequences. For example, while the government has commitments to improving public health, promoting your 5-a-day and the reduction of sugar consumption, its agricultural policies do not appear to support public health outcomes, with subsidies favouring sugar production over fruits and vegetables.

A national food policy, as exemplified in the Square Meal report, cuts across the departments of health, environment, education and business and offers a way forward. The report, produced by a collaboration of UK non-governmental organisations, shows what such a joined-up policy could look like. It benefits from different stakeholders (farmers, environmentalists, public health advocates) working together. This is in marked contrast to much of the other debate coming from outside Westminster, which tends to pit different interest groups against each other and sow confusion as to what the aims of food or farming policy should even be.

The farming industry has been largely successful in arguing that farm subsidies are there to increase the competitiveness of the industry and that attempts to re-direct subsidies towards public goods are both an affront to hard-working farmers and a threat to food security. Civil society needs to counteract the view that sustainable food systems are, at best, an exotic niche and at worst a distraction from the important task of feeding a growing global population. Agriculture is not a sector of the economy like any other – its product is necessary for human survival and its production methods represent the most sustained point of intersection between human activity and the natural environment. When we factor in the amount of taxpayers’ money involved in supporting the sector, it becomes imperative that agricultural policy delivers a holistic and long-term approach centred on maximising the many public goods that the best farming can provide.

The relative lack of political interest in food issues presents an opportunity to promote original ideas to politicians who may never have considered food systems or their importance. Highlighting the problems caused by current policy, from soil degradation to climate change, can persuade more of the general public – as citizens, consumers and, as their elected representatives, politicians – to become advocates for a new, more positive vision of an agriculture that is sustainable. This is a first step in turning around the current apathy and complacency surrounding food policy and ensuring that in future it is treated with the seriousness it deserves.

Photograph: Neil Howard

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