Brexit has ignited a debate on food and farming. As the UK begins to identify how systems will look outside the European Union, it’s become crucial to have this discussion and ensure that food production is working for farmers and growers, as well as the environment and society.
Farming has always had to look to the future to plan harvests, livestock or many other factors, so it’s essential that these benefits are calculated with a long-term perspective. As a society, we need to consider where we want UK food production to be in 20 years and what we can do to help support that.
1. Use farming subsidies for the good of everyone
The public benefits of organic farming for the environment have been well documented by independent research over decades. They include more wildlife and biodiversity, healthier soils and carbon storage. Subsidy support for farmers could reflect their commitment to protecting these ‘public goods’.
This will ensure that farming is supporting wider society and can also help build longevity into our food systems. For example, the health of soils is absolutely crucial, not only to ensure the growing power of our farms, but in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere (helping to diminish the effects of climate change) and providing flood protection.
2. The Government need to lead by example and directly buy from farmers
The procurement of food in the public sector – such as in schools, hospitals and care homes – holds great potential for change. The food served in these settings can help to signal the values and priorities of the Government, and can encourage behaviour change by sending a strong cultural message. This is particularly true when we consider the support that can be offered to UK farmers by bringing them into these crucial domestic supply chains.
3. We need to be better educated about food
Early and explorative education can be the bedrock to a healthy understanding of food. This can span from understanding food systems and where food comes from, to knowing what to do with it and how to eat healthily, but economically.
Projects such as the Soil Association’s Food for Life initiative– a schools programme designed to introduce children to healthy food and educate them on where it comes from – are fantastic initiatives that help equip the next generation with the understanding of farming and food production.
4. We need to understand the true cost of our food
As the term agriculture suggests, food and farming reaches much further and has impact outside of the supermarket and the dinner table. It also forms the backdrop to our leisure activities and social events and creates jobs while playing a major role in the economy.
While organic farming may be more labour intensive, and so is often more expensive at the till, it’s important to look at the implications of our growing methods. Studies such as the True Cost of Food go some way in starting to identify and incorporate the real costs associated with intensive farming, whether for health, the environment or society.
5. How we spend our money
Households in the UK spend less on food (as a percentage of household income) than any other country in Europe. Reasons for this are varied, but it could be an indicator that we’re not as connected with our agriculture and food as some of our European counterparts.
As shoppers we’re able to dictate the direction of change through the choices we make at the checkout. By buying, or not buying, we’re sending a clear message about the world we want to see and the products we want our food systems to deliver. We want high animal welfare and health for ourselves and the environment, but when we get to the shelf, do we actually make that choice?
What underpins these approaches is the reinvigoration of our connection with farming and the land from which we produce food. We need to return to the cultural element of agriculture and enjoy, not only the food that we grow, but the process of growing, harvesting and appreciating the land. Farming with a purpose and telling that story to people can help enliven the connection between the farm and the fork.
There are a number of reasons for shoppers to choose organic, but there are also benefits and opportunities for farmers who want to sustain the land and deliver a robust future of farming for society.
Two case studies
Riverford has promoted a co-operative, communal approach to farming – which creates greater stability in the supply chain and guarantees consistent high quality.
South Devon Organic Producers grow organic vegetables to supply Riverford veg boxes. They felt it was wholly inefficient to have lots of machinery to grow veg, so they created a growing organisation and gave control to the group and the programme to ensure that they were farming efficiently on a cooperative model. As a group they become more robust and were able to deliver a varied range of great quality produce.
The Better Food Company chooses to source food in a way that benefits a wide section of the community.
Bristol-based Better Food Company could source organic veg wherever they like, but they’ve chosen Community Farm, just south of Bristol. In doing that, they’re paying a little more per kilo, but they’ve made this choice, not only because they have local, good quality food, but they know that Community Farm invite people from Bristol to receive vocational training or wellbeing programmes. This helps to reinforce the cultural and social impact of farming.
This article is based on a talk that Simon Crichton gave at the Abergavenny Food Festival, September 2017. Simon works for Triodos Bank, which supports the environment by lending money to organisations that support the planet and produce food through low impact farming systems.