British farmers could play a key role in helping to promote better public health

British farmers could find business opportunities and help promote better public health if they adapted to recent radical changes in diet – such as the growth in veganism – an expert has said.

Agricultural practice and policy should take account of new trends in the way people cook and eat, according to a new report. The current interest in health foods could allow farmers to increase production of pulses, cereals, fruit and vegetables in the UK.

Many of us are now consuming too many refined carbohydrates, added sugars, fats, and ultra-processed food, and too few fruit and vegetables.

Delivering the Nuffield Farming Lecture Report 2018 today, rural policy expert Professor Michael Winter OBE, from the University of Exeter, will say more must be done to ensure the UK has nutritional security as well as food security, and this should be seen as a “public good”.

Professor Winter said: “Farmers should be proactive, helping to create a new food culture which nourishes and sustains health and wellbeing building further on UK farmers’ proven ability to produce safe, nutritious and affordable food in response to market demand. As demand changes so 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.”

Professor Winter’s report recommends more is done to help encourage people to work in agriculture, and to up-skill existing farmers, especially smaller farmers, including an up-scaling or expansion of the Prince’s Countryside Fund Farm Resilience Programme.

Professor Winter also said there was a need for new stronger and shorter food supply chains focussed 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.

Professor Winter, Professor of Land Economy and Society in the Centre for Rural Policy Research, currently chairs the UNESCO North Devon Biosphere Partnership, is a Board member of both Natural England and Rothamsted Research, and a member of Defra’s Bovine TB Strategy Review Working Group. When compiling the report he examined current policy in British Columbia in Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The report details how, in the UK people are now drinking less whole milk, and more semi-skimmed milk. There is been a decline in the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. People are eating meat as part of ready meals and convenience products. People spend less time preparing food and eating at home.

Food prices are increasing while the number of different crops grown around the world is decreasing. Of the thousands of plant species documented as human food just three energy-rich crops – rice, wheat and maize – provide half the world’s plant-derived calories.

Britain imports around £2.3 billion worth of fresh vegetables, but only exports goods worth £109 million.  In the case of fresh fruit the respective figures are £3.6 billion and £113 million. The report says there is potential for British farmers to expand production of a range of soft fruit, apples, pears and plums, nuts and many vegetables. This may mean the need to upskill farmers and agricultural workers and the use of new technologies such as robotics, imaging, mapping, storage, yield, irrigation and nutrient modelling.

But Professor Winter said any reforms would need to take into account the challenges to agriculture caused by Britain’s exit from the European Union.

He said: “The challenges facing UK agriculture are uneven productivity and its dependence on CAP payments.  Any ask of UK farmers to respond to food cultural shifts and to the health agenda requires a proper appreciation of the industry and the difficulties it faces. Merely to heap yet more ‘demands’ on a beleaguered sector without such an understanding is inappropriate and unhelpful.

“Brexit negotiations could slow down this expansion of fruit and vegetable production – as of course they are dependent on seasonal labour. But this expansion also requires more people to have the skills needed. These crops tend be grown by a relatively small number of highly specialised growers. The knowledge and capital required to successfully engage with some specialist crops is such that expansion is not a given, whatever the apparent consumer demand might be, especially where there is a long lead-in time before income flows are assured.  Where opportunities can be grasped the potential for growth is very real.”

 

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About The Author

Deputy editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.