A one-day citizens’ jury on the future of food has voted by a margin of twelve to one that staying in the European Union would be better than leaving it.
The jury was organised by People’s Knowledge at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University with the Food Research Collaboration, City University London. The debate was held in public at The Duke of Cambridge, Islington, London.
On Thursday the 12th of May 2016 the citizens’ jury heard evidence from expert witnesses on the possible future of the food system in the United Kingdom depending on the outcome of the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) on the 23rd of June 2016.
In recent weeks the upcoming EU referendum has dominated the UK media. Issues concerning the food system and the potential impact of the UK either leaving or remaining in the EU have largely been missing from the public discourse. This pop-up citizens’ jury gave the public an opportunity to hear from experts in food and related issues and form a verdict on whether the future of the UK food system would be better in or out of the EU.
The citizens’ jury for the event was comprised of 13 jurors, selected from members of the public who applied to be on the jury. Jurors represented a range of backgrounds and interests in the UK food system. The jury heard evidence from six witnesses selected for their diverse backgrounds and expertise in food and related issues.
During each witness session, the jury heard evidence from two witnesses. Jury members then retired to deliberate on questions they would like to ask the witnesses during cross-examination. The members of jury asked challenging questions of the expert witnesses during cross-examination, challenging perspective on the potential for negative and positive outcomes from the EU referendum. Members of the public in the audience were also able to ask questions of the witnesses and had an opportunity to make statements to the jury. After all of the witnesses had given evidence and been cross-examined, the jury retired to deliberate on their verdict.
After a break in proceedings for lunch, a group of actors for People’s Knowledge Collective gave a short dialogic performance which reflected the challenges and confusion of the citizens’ jury members on the EU referendum and coming to a verdict. The performance was based on dialogue, process and experiences of the citizens’ jury during the morning’s proceeding.
The Witnesses and Discussion Topics
The six expert witnesses represented a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, giving different perspectives on the food system in the UK and the European Union. Notes and comments made by jurors during the debate are given below in italics.
Joan Walley is a former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent and was the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons. Joan spoke about the impact of the food system of the environment and the capacity of EU legislation to regulate this.
“Important food related issues: animal welfare, climate change, sustainability, and food for all. Given that our government may deregulate if we Brexit we should remain as EU controls are good.”
Tim Lang is a Professor of Food Policy at City University London and former farmer. Tim spoke about the unsustainability of current diets and suggested that the UK food system depends on collaboration with other countries because it is not self-sufficient. He suggested that the EU referendum is a distraction from tackling the important and significant issues in the food system.
“Food is the centre of everything we in my culture, it’s not just about eating and surviving but brings people together. So why separate when food is far more richer when we collaborate. If Britain only had fish and chips imagine how boring it would be.”
Guy Watson is a farmer and founder of Riverford Organic Farmers. He spoke about farm labour and land ownership issues in relation to UK and EU policies.
“Inequality is a big problem in our food system. Many people working in the food system are low paid. Living wage would help but this is independent of in/out debate.”
Erik Millstone is a Professor of Science Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. He spoke about food safety and the role of EU regulation in ensuring food standards. Erik suggested that UK food safety enforcement would be weaker should the country leave the EU.
“‘Be at the table and not on the menu’. We cannot return to pre-1974 ‘good old days’ – the world has moved on and so have we. Too much distraction from personal power struggles rather than genuine debate.”
“EU isn’t perfect but acts as a ‘brake’ on UK govt schemes to put big business before people. Regulations on animal welfare, food safety and food and farming standards are hard won and necessary. Deregulation could mean less animal welfare standards, food safety and a threat to our future.”
Vicki Hird is the Director for Policy and Campaigns for the non-governmental organisation War on Want. Vicki suggested that food standards would be negatively impacted by the UK leaving the EU. She spoke about regulation and trade, and was questioned about the impact of leaving the EU on potential trade with developing countries.
“The main distortion in the British food industry is its domination by a small group of landowners and large businesses. This is unlikely to be altered by brexit, for either better or for worse.”
Dr Alan Bullion is a Business Analyst for Informa Agra. He spoke about the impact of the UK leaving the EU on large food businesses and the UK food economy. Alan suggested that farmers in the UK would be worse off financially if the UK left the EU, with dairy and beef farmers particularly negatively impacted.
“Farmers need help from EU as money saved by leaving is not guaranteed ring fenced for farmers and food production. Lack of discussion about food and farming probably reflects how un-important it is to UK government.”
The jury enjoyed a short performance by the People’s Knowledge Collective.
Performance by the People’s Knowledge Collective.
During the afternoon there was also discussion about the views of groups who wanted the UK to leave the EU. Many of the witnesses stated that the ‘leave’ campaign had some strong arguments but that they personally felt the ‘stay’ argument was stronger for the future of food in the UK. Several representatives of the different ‘leave’ campaigns had been invited to speak as a witness during the debate but none of the campaigns contacted offered a speaker. Alan Bullion was questioned as to whether witnesses representing the ‘leave’ campaign had not attended the debate because there are fewer experts in the food system who align with the ‘leave’ campaign, whether they were simply not available during the day or some other reason.
After an hour’s deliberation, the jury delivered their non-unanimous verdict. Based on the evidence heard the jury voted in the following way when asked whether it would be better for our food system if we stayed or left the EU: one juror voted for the UK to leave the EU, 7 jurors voted for the UK to remain in the EU, and 5 jurors said they were tending towards voting to remain in the EU but that they would require more information on Brexit before making a firm decision.
Some further comments from individual jurors:
“I feel to make a more informed decision that it would have been beneficial to hear from witnesses who supported Brexit. Although the fact remains that due to lack of evidence around Brexit, I would currently vote to remain in the EU. I feel it is quite tellingly that no-one appeared as a witness in support of Brexit. Where were you Boris??? I do think that if we, as a nation decided to leave the EU then we would be fundamentally worse off. Trade would be affected, quality control would be affected and in turn the public’s would be affected. Presently I feel that if we are to leave the EU then corporations will benefit above people and that in my mind is not a good enough reason to leave the EU. Our economy would falter or even stall, which would lead to another recession, food shortages or crisis, possibility of rationing, loss of jobs, another financial and housing crisis, I do not think we can sustain another crash presently and I feel it is in our interest’s to remain in the EU presently.”