Eastern Arc Conference 2023: Keynote Address

‘Orchestrating Change: Food in a Time of Crisis’

Prof Andrew Fearne

University of East Anglia

The current food system is like a discordant orchestra. Each instrument is working to its own beat, playing its own tune, and the result is unlistenable. The producers and suppliers complain about the processors and manufacturers, the manufacturers about the retailers. Distributors complain about the Government. The consumers complain about them all – and understandably so. They are the ones who have to put food on the tables of their families.

Of course, this is partly down to a perfect storm of recent events. Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have all put pressure on the system, whilst the bigger issue of the climate crisis has added an existential urgency to finding solutions. But there are also dysfunctional relationships within the food system that have evolved over time, and these are being stretched by the political challenges in the wider world.

There is a pressing need for change, but is it possible? Can we bring back a sense of harmony to this discordant orchestra? In my two decades of researching the food industry, I’ve never seen it in such a state, but I believe there is hope. It will take a huge amount of behaviour change on all sides, and the process won’t be smooth, but there is hope. 

In this talk I will explain the current situation and how we got here. By doing so I want to promote dialogue and encourage people to work together to identify solutions. I will deliberately provoke, but my intention is not to create more discord, but rather to encourage questions and explorations throughout the day. I want to spark conversations. 

The answers won’t come today, or even this week. This is the beginning of the process. To find solutions we need to understand the problems. In this keynote address I intend to help with this by setting out the factors that have led us to this situation – and the actions needed to find harmony again.