We need to radically reform Scotland’s food system

Great day visiting Cyrenians Fair Share programme in Leith

Great day visiting Cyrenians Fair Share programme in Leith

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure to visit the Cyrenians Fair Share food depot in Leith. There. The charity is doing brilliant with their cooking classes, where people learn new skills, build confidence and get together to share and enjoy food.

The Cyrenians are just one of the many organisations around Scotland who are working to try and give people access to better, more nutritious food. I believe we need a radical rethink of Scotland’s food system to make sure quality food is available to all of us.

Last week, I led a debate on the right to food in Scotland in the parliament. You can read my full speech below.


Meeting of the Parliament 17 March 2016

I welcome the opportunity to debate in Parliament Scotland’s food future, and I thank colleagues who have made that possible by supporting my motion.

My motion highlights the work of the Scottish food coalition and its report “PLENTY: Food, Farming and Health in a New Scotland”. The coalition is made up of several organisations whose contribution to improving the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland is widely recognised, and deservedly so. The report is a landmark report that should be discussed far and wide, and steps should be taken to implement it. It begins with the statement:

“We have plenty of land in Scotland, and plenty of sea, and plenty of skilled people, scientists and innovators. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have plenty of good food for everyone.”

Hear, hear.

It is absolutely the case that, as the report states,

“At the moment, our food system is characterised by inequalities and exploitation.”

Given the importance of food—it really is one of the few things that we cannot live without—our food system should be founded on the principles of social and environmental justice. A food system that is founded on those principles would enable us to address inequality, climate change, declining wildlife, animal welfare and poor health.

Some people may be of the view that business as usual is “Just grand, thank you very much”, but if we are what we eat, many people in Scotland are clearly not eating well. In a country with

“plenty of land … and … sea”,

why is that the case? Why are 65 per cent of people in Scotland overweight or obese, and why is it that in 2014-15 almost 120,000 people required emergency food aid and almost a third of those were children? That reliance on food aid exists in a country that rightly celebrates its food and drink sector. However, the focus is very much export based, with much ado about whisky and salmon—despite the environmental damage that fish farms create in Scotland—to boost the profits of companies, many of which are based outside Scotland. I would like to see more focus on an agroecology approach and more investment in growing our organic sector.

Fifteen per cent of Scottish households do not own cutlery. Such is the concern about our food culture, which is impacting terribly on our health, that leading consultants have coined the new term “diabesity”, which reflects the relationship between obesity and diabetes. That epidemic, which has a global reach and impact, also has a very local one. It costs health and happiness and, like demographic change and population increase, puts our national health service budget under increasing pressure.

Corporations can and do make huge profits from dominating the food market, often with unhealthy food and unsustainable ways of growing and producing the food that we eat. However, the public purse pays for the pollution and ill health. Lobbying at the highest levels of Government has created the perverse logic that is needed for our leaders to think that international deals such as the transatlantic trade and investment partnership deal are a good idea for our food system.

It does not have to be that way. We are all aware of amazing projects in our communities; there is in the Lothians region a fantastic collection of those projects and community energy, which connect people to Scotland’s true food future. Community gardeners are taking over Granton’s street corners to create mini gardens, vegetable plots and communal meals. The Broomhouse Health Strategy Group and the Pilton Community Health Project work with people on budgeting, cooking skills, getting them more active in their daily lives and much more. Leith Community Crops in Pots is building a more rural feeling from concrete patches in Leith. We can grow almost anywhere. The Cyrenians at the Royal Edinburgh hospital and its Leith FareShare depot and kitchen are doing an excellent job helping people to learn to cook, enjoy food together and appreciate all the wondrous things that food can do.

Musselburgh Transition Toun is another example. It is working wonders with a wee community garden by the river. Edinburgh Community Food is building a network across the city, and many other groups are doing fantastic jobs providing emergency food relief. I want to mention two of them: Transition Edinburgh South and the wonderful walled garden at Gracemount. There are undoubtedly many more that I have failed to mention, and they are all working wonders.

Food should help us to grow and to get well when we are not well; it should make us feel good. Really nutritious food helps us to keep well and gives us the ability to deal with busy lives, no matter how old we are. It gives us personal resilience. Local food networks are vital to the development of resilience at community level. We need to think about the future and about our ability to produce the food that we need closer to home.

In yesterday’s stage 3 proceedings on the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, I spoke about the situation of the smallholder Jim Telfer, who is a tenant farmer who fears losing both the land that he rents and his livelihood, because his land is where the film studio that was discussed at First Minister’s question time, which is the subject of a speculative proposal, would be located. Is his farm on poor-quality land? No—it is on prime agricultural land. I hope that that will be recognised and valued, and that the film studio will be built elsewhere. Cumbernauld has been discussed as a possible location, but Shawfair, which is nearby, has excellent transport links and a school that focuses on the creative industries. Members of the local Damhead community have rallied round Jim and have campaigned hard. The vision that they have for the land where they live is for it to be formally recognised as Edinburgh’s food belt. We need to think about the idea of urban crofts. Green-belt land has never faced such development pressures, but we need to think about where the food that citizens within and outwith Edinburgh’s green belt eat comes from.

The food belt is a compelling idea—it represents a much better way of thinking about the value of our green belt and its benefits. Land in the food belt is a way of connecting us to our food. Land here could have many more local businesses providing employment to people in cities and in more rural areas. For too many people, the green belt is a patch of land that they commute through without giving it much thought. We can rethink that land.

I hope that the minister understands not just the power of ideas, but the power of money. Yesterday, I learned that the funding that allowed the Scottish food coalition to form has been cut—in fact, it has been completely removed: Nourish Scotland’s funding has gone from £90,000 to nothing.

Nourish Scotland would like to tender for work, but it turns out that the only tender that is available to it is one that wraps up a massive amount of work on local food in a £3 million contract, which is inappropriate for small and medium-sized enterprise bidders.

I congratulate and thank all those who are working to make us a better food nation, from our school dinner ladies to the Soil Association. Let us make sure that we are not just a well fed but a properly nourished population.

I would be grateful if the cabinet secretary could address the funding situation that I outlined when he closes the debate.





A future-proofed health service

This week I spoke in a debate on the NHS. It is universally acknowledged that the NHS and our network of social care services in every local authority are an incredible national asset. In the debate I acknowledged the contribution of all NHS staff, our GPs and our carers, who really are at the heart of the service.

Read on for the rest of my speech.



Funding is absolutely key, so the Greens will set out our long-term fair and progressive tax proposals within the next two weeks. This morning, we welcomed the Government’s having fallen into line with the proposals that the Greens made—during the recent budget process—on vacant land, a fairer council tax and ending the council tax freeze.

Of course, as colleagues have mentioned, the most cost-effective measures are those that prevent ill-health in the first place. Addressing poverty and health inequality is paramount. Wellbeing must be at the centre of Government policy, because being healthy is not simply about not being sick.

The focus on a truly healthy life starts before conception, by supporting the growth of community-based projects such as the Pregnancy and Parents Centre in south Edinburgh, which is a welcoming not-for-profit organisation that works with parents-to-be and their families, and by supporting organisations such as the Cyrenians, that work with people who find themselves homeless or vulnerable. We increase our national health by supporting local authorities to provide free fruit and practical food education—through the growing schools initiative, for example—and by working towards free school meals for all primary pupils. I welcome the progress that is being made in some of those areas.

Physical activity is key too, and we can make it easier for our young people to be active by investing—as the Royal Society for Public Health’s directors urge—10 per cent of the transport budget on walking and cycling, which would ease congestion and cut air pollution. Air pollution is causing more than 2,000 deaths each year, but action by the Scottish Government to address that invisible killer is dangerously slow. We can also encourage physical activity by working with local authorities to create exciting outdoor play spaces in our schools and more affordable access to sports facilities, which are prohibitively expensive for many people.

We have to address poverty and inequality if we want Scotland to be well. When over 200,000 children live in poverty, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies advises us that that figure will rise by 100,000 due to on-going austerity, we have to use every means at our disposal to mitigate the impacts. I am hopeful that we will use the powers that are coming to Parliament to do so, at least in part by abolishing benefits sanctions.

While we focus on reducing health inequalities in Scotland, we need to focus, too, on ensuring that we work with all those who deliver healthcare in order to enable them to continue to deliver the high standard of care that everyone in Scotland should expect. A living wage plus for carers is important.

We have heard that bed blocking is costing us a fortune, and every week in Edinburgh, some 5,000 hours of social care go unmet. That has to change.

A focus on primary care is essential because 90 per cent of patient contacts are with GPs and other primary care professionals in our communities. We have to act to ensure adequate training, recruitment and—which is important—retention of GPs, because the world is very eager to recruit our well-trained medical professionals.

I welcome the relationships that are being built across parties by the BMA, the RCGP and the RCN. Last night I was pleased to take part in a debate on public health with colleagues from across the parties and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. The manifestos of those organisations leave us in no doubt as to their experience-based and well-evidenced views on how the Government and Parliament can improve health outcomes and deliver the broader national consensus of which Jackson Carlaw spoke.

Engagement among clinicians, Parliament and the public is essential and welcome. As we have heard, public meetings are taking place this month as part of a review of in-patient hospital care for children in NHS Lothian, which has a deadline of 18 March. The independent expert review is being undertaken by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which was asked to do so by NHS Lothian. However, all our citizens—young and old—are entitled to safe, effective and sustainable patient care.

With the increasing birth rate and West Lothian’s growing population, it is essential that paediatric services at St John’s hospital be protected and properly resourced. The West Lothian population is expected to increase by 25,000 within the next 19 years, so this is not the time to diminish or centralise services, or to ask people to travel to services in Edinburgh, for example, where National Records of Scotland estimates population growth is set to outstrip previous growth forecasts, with an expected increase of more than 28 per cent over the next 25 years, including a 27 per cent increase in children under 15. Andrew Burns, the leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, has rightly noted that that growth, which is

“not far off a one-third increase in the population … comes with massive challenges.”

A future-proofed health service, with facilities that are as local as possible, is essential for dealing with that challenge.

The cabinet secretary has assured Parliament that there are no proposals for closure, but nor is there a guarantee that, for example, paediatrics at St John’s will not be downgraded or closed. Delay and uncertainty cause unnecessary stress for patients and staff. Staff concerns led to a downgrading of the ward last summer. Reliance on expensive locums and increased overtime requirements demonstrate the need for a fully resourced plan for the future. There is understandable dismay that the people of West Lothian will not find out until after the election what the future holds for them and for St John’s. I ask the cabinet secretary and NHS Lothian to take every step to ensure that the report is published before the election.

In closing, I say that we all have a duty to do all that we can to improve Scotland’s national health. In order to do so, we must invest in and properly support all those who look after us, whether at home or in our hospitals.