UK farmers could set the tone to improve public health (but this cannot be left to market forces?)

Featuring Brian Harvey | 20th July, 2018

As the head of PKF Francis Clark’s agricultural sector and a father of two, the relationship between food/ farming and public health is a topic I am particularly interested in.

As the producers of our food, I believe that farmers and the farming industry in general are capable of having a huge influence on the UK’s food culture and the overall health of the nation.

I find it deeply concerning that all too often, food to a consumer is being seen as a commodity in their eyes. As a proportion of our disposal income, food has never been cheaper and we have become all too comfortable with ‘cheap food’ and this race to the bottom is to the detriment of the agricultural community. In reality, consumers should care about where the food comes from and how it was produced because this can impact positively on their health.

In essence, I feel that health and well being should be more important than the price of a food product (and yes I do appreciate that for some, the choice of paying more for better food is not an option – but see below) and in fact there are wider social and economic benefits to reversing the current race to the bottom and the lowest consumer price.

Current food culture

My views appear to align broadly with those extolled by Exeter University Professor, Michael Winter OBE in his delivery of the Nuffield Farming Lecture Report who is quoted as saying:

“Farmers should be proactive, helping to create a new food culture which nourishes and sustains health and well being building further on UK farmers’ proven ability to produce safe, nutritious and affordable food in response to market demand. As demand changes, UK farmers need to respond with confidence to the concerns and opportunities in our changing society.  Human health should take centre-stage when society is making policy decisions about food and agriculture. I’m optimistic that this shift will take place, but of course farmers will need support through Brexit as new government policies emerge designed to ensure a strong, sustainable, competitive and food health-oriented industry.”

However, the report itself finds that people are consuming less fruit and vegetables and more fats, processed foods and added sugars. The Professor uses the example that there is an increasing popularity in convenience foods like ready meals due to people wanting to spend less time preparing food. As a result, consumers are not thinking about what they are consuming.

Financial reality and challenges

Currently, Professor, Michael Winter OBE finds that the variety of produce being grown around the world is diminishing.

I have heard on a number of occasions recently from politicians and informed commentators that food production is not considered to be a ‘public good’ that will attract ‘public money’ and it seems to be the intended government policy to leave food to the market.

Given that a farm will and should act like any other business and will supply (where possible) what the public demands, otherwise the business won’t flourish financially. So we are in a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario where the point about food preparation/ ready meals and the demand for ever cheaper food above could be driving food production if left to the (global) market – and the downside is the health of the nation.

Professor Michael Winter gives a broader appreciation of the challenge: “any ask of UK farmers to respond… to the health agenda requires a proper appreciation of the industry and the difficulties it faces.” As examples, in the UK these include the dependence on subsidies (CAP payments) and fluctuating productivity.

Strategies

As a view I believe in, I was pleased to discover from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 2014 publication that the government recognises that plants and animals must be safeguarded not only for environment reasons, but for the wider economy.

I feel that there is a need for further research in this area to quantify the costs (heath and environment) of leaving food production to the market.  If, as I suspect, the costs of dealing with health issues, for example, of over processed foods is significant that there may be a case for UK Government investing in initiatives to align farmer’s interests with public’s (improving public health).

This could compliment suggestions made by Professor Michael Winter including:

  • Doing more to help encourage people to work in agriculture
  • Up-skill existing farmers, especially smaller farmers, including an up-scaling or expansion of the Prince’s Countryside Fund Farm Resilience Programme
  • The need for new stronger and shorter food supply chains focused on nutritional qualities of food, and Quality Assurance Schemes should be deepened to include nutritional quality at the core
  • Government policies should also encourage the growth and sale of pulses, fruit and vegetables
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