Away from the uncertainty caused by Brexit, 2017 signalled something of an about turn. The BBC’s Blue Planet II put the tragedy of our plastic obsession under the nose of politicians and policy makers, more of us ‘flexed’ our diets and embraced the Food Ethics Council’s (well-established) notion of ‘less and better meat’ and the public found its collective voice – urging animal sentience to be recognised in UK law, and helping prompt policy action on issues such as neonicotinoids.
But back to Brexit for a moment. What our departure from the EU will mean for food and farming remains something of an unknown. What is certain however, is that the debate about agriculture post-Brexit is at a potentially historic moment. For food standards it could pose a huge risk, one which may see the UK entering a ‘race for the bottom’ – something our executive director Dan Crossley discussed with The Guardian’s Matthew Taylor. But Council members also stress the importance of capturing the opportunities that Brexit presents. One issue to ‘watch’ closely is UK fisheries where, “coming out of the European Union may benefit the regulation of catches”.
EU aside, there have been some interesting developments around food and food waste. The East of England Co-op's announcement that it would sell tinned products and dried food that have reached their ‘best-before’ date for 10p, was bold. But will it kick start other initiatives, and will they be effective or just publicity?
The complex and powerful role of corporates within the food system continues to unravel, albeit slowly – fuelled by an increased public interest and an understanding that food companies must be made accountable for their impacts. The issue of Sainsbury’s ‘Fairly Traded’ tea highlighted the increasing fragmentation of fair trade standards and highlighted how some large companies are moving away from independent certification and developing their own in-house programmes instead. This course of action risks “diluting the message” and undermining the Fairtrade system says one Council member.
Several Council members highlighted the issue of food price rises but noted that the issue had “not really been picked up” in 2017. There was a feeling that this will change in 2018. Food prices rose throughout the last twelve months – according to the FT “in October 2017, the price of food and non-alcoholic drinks was 4% higher than in October the year before”. This will undoubtedly have a disproportionate impact on low income families. Continued prices rises may also affect standards of production as competing supermarkets act to keep prices lower. A worrying outcome of this ‘cheaper and cheaper still’ food scenario is that higher production costs may lead to reduced welfare and/ or environmentally beneficial practices. The answer lies in real incomes and a proper safety net, not trying to keep food prices down.
It is widely agreed that action on childhood obesity should be a national priority, but such is the government’s lacklustre approach to the issue that one Council member calls the NHS “a national sickness service not a national health service”. It is approaching 18 months since the Childhood Obesity Plan was disappointingly “watered down”, with critics suggesting a lack of commitment from Teresa May. That said, some progress has been made - the Department of Health has announced funding for a new obesity policy research unit at University College London, which will develop understanding into the causes of childhood obesity. The government has also announced a new calorie reduction programme that will work with manufactures and retailers to reduce the calories in popular foods. But these are surely only baby steps, when what we need are big strides.
The next generation of ‘gene edited’, rather than ‘genetically modified’, crops is discussed by several Council members. In the coming 12 months we may see the first attempts to introduce these new genetically altered crops – the difference being that only single genes are changed. As this becomes a reality, we of course need proper application of the Precautionary Principle.
Taking a global viewpoint on agriculture “the case grows internationally for recognising biodiverse agroecology as the foundation of sustainable food production”. Backed up by the 3rd edition of etcGroup's ‘Who will feed us?’ and with the Committee on World Food Security deciding to focus on agroecology.
The coming twelve months are pivotal for food and farming. The government's Agriculture Bill – due for publication in early 2018 – alongside the recent 25-year Environment Plan will no doubt reshape our agricultural landscape. Making environmental protection and enhancement a "central priority" signals a welcome, if tardy, shift in Westminster’s attitude towards our natural world. But the environment should not be seen in insolation. Health, inequality and animal welfare should also be at the core of future food and farming strategies.
The Food Ethics Council will continue to play our part in helping to build fair and resilient food systems that respect people, animals and the planet. The year ahead presents a unique opportunity to define the future. By working with food businesses, government and civil society we hope to address ethical concerns at the heart of decision-making about food and farming.