How a small shift in thinking – from Consumer to Citizen – can make a big difference in our food system

A new idea is taking hold across the UK food and farming sector: Food Citizenship. This idea tells us, and others, that we are not just consumers at the end of the food chain, but participants in the food system as a whole. It tells us that we have the power not just to choose, but to shape the choices on offer. We can and indeed are starting to work together in interdependence, seeking not just what’s best for ourselves as individuals, but as communities and societies.

This idea is still nascent but already challenging the dominant story of “the consumer”. While it is easy to think it is just a word, consumer language – often unconsciously – shapes our actions by telling us that, as individuals and as organisations, our role is limited to consumption: that our power to shape the food system is limited to choices between products, and the signals these choices send through the system.

The impact of this must not be underestimated. This situation drives the perception that most people don’t care about the damage caused by our existing food system. And when this perception is believed, it perpetuates existing behaviours through that system, at every level.

  • Brands and retailers respond to calls for change with – ‘If consumers don’t demand it, why should we do it?’
  • The role of government becomes limited to protecting consumers from the most outrageous extremes.
  • Even NGOs are trapped, the available strategies narrowing down to appeals to individual self-interest that are ultimately self-defeating: to behaviour change by stealth, to increasingly shrill and internally competitive attempts to get us to care, and to increasingly restricted attempts to influence governments that see no evidence these NGOs represent the people.

Thankfully, we are much more than ‘consumers’, and seeing ourselves and others as Food Citizens can move us forward.


The rise of the citizen

As Einstein put it, “We can’t solve the significant problems of our time with the same level of thinking that created them.” When you look at the world through the lens of citizenship, you see the change happening in every aspect of society, everywhere.

  • In politics, it is the shift from representative democracy – limited to the occasional choice of the vote – to the participatory democracy of Taiwan’s Gov Zero movement, Better Reykjavik’s civic forum, Portugal’s nationwide participatory budget, and Mexico City’s crowdsourced constitution.
  • It is the shift in perception of the role of business: from exploitation to empowerment, from shareholders to stakeholders, from profit to purpose.
  • Perhaps most importantly, in local communities, it is the shift from ‘consumers complaining’ to ‘citizens reinventing structures from the ground up’.

It is time for those of us who are working for change in the UK food and farming system – whether from within businesses big or small, in the public sector, or for NGOs – to pause, step back, and reassess what we are trying to do.

In 2016, the New Citizenship Project came together with the Food Ethics Council, and with six organisations active across the UK food system – from the Coop to the RSPB – to explore what impact the false and limiting idea of “the consumer” is having; to envision what it might look like to root our work in a bigger, more truthful idea of humanity; and to discover how we as individuals and organisations working for change in the food system might act differently right now to create the future we want.

The core beliefs of Food Citizenship are that (1) people are naturally disposed to care, but (2) we need to have meaningful power in order to sustain that care.

The challenge for organisations across the system is then to give us that power, and to make it meaningful, creative and joyful to express it. This is already happening in small ways across so many organisations and in so many places, but what if…

  • What if government could run a national conversation on the future of food with the same kind of creativity that the big retailers develop their advertising campaigns – so we became policymakers, not just consumers?
  • What if brands sought our involvement, not just our spend?
  • What if NGOs celebrated the food citizen movements already happening, and gave us ways to join in, drawing on approaches like citizen science, and helping us be participants – not just consumers?

The fundamental strategic shift on offer here is to foster and channel true human potential. The Food Citizenship report is there to make this new approach tangible and real, and to equip all those working for change in our food system with a new set of tools and approaches to apply in your work. As our work in this space continues, we will continue sharing our findings here.

And most importantly, we invite you to join the conversation with your ideas and experiences in engaging people as food citizens!

Contact us, share your experience, invite others to your events, or catch-up with the movement on twitter @ukfoodcitizens.


For more on these shifts, you can also read the New Citizenship Project’s report This Is The #CitizenShift: a guide to understanding and embracing the emerging era of the Citizen.