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 and 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.
Public money for public good
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. Future subsidy support mechanisms for farmers could reflect their commitment to protecting these ‘public goods’, through practices such as agroforestry. 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.
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.
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.
We need to look at the full system
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.
How we spend – and invest - our money
Households in the UK on average 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? And as citizens, our influence extends beyond what we buy. There are so many other ways we participate in, and influence, food and farming systems – including where we bank and whether our investments support sustainable or unsustainable food and farming practices.
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 people 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.
Rebecca leads a team at Triodos Bank (www.triodos.co.uk) responsible for UK business banking activities with SMEs, social enterprises and charities, with particular focus on the Environmental, Food & Farming, and Social and cultural sectors.
Rebecca is speaking at the third event in the 2017 Food Talks series entitled ‘MONEY: How can we imagine money working better for our food system?’
The event takes place on Thursday 19th October 2017 (6.30-8.45pm) at the Impact Hub King’s Cross, and is brought to you by the Food Ethics Council in partnership with Impact Hub Kings Cross, Organico, Think.Eat.Drink and London Food Link, part of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. For more information and to attend the event, visit here.
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.
Bristol-based Better Food Company could source organic veg wherever it likes, but it has chosen Community Farm, just south of Bristol. In doing that, it is paying a little more per kilo, but it has made this choice, not only because it has local, good quality food, but it knows that Community Farm invites 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 piece that first appeared on Countryfile.com, 11th October 2017