Despite the massive anxieties that Brexit may set the UK back decades in terms of trade, labour and food standards, there is also an invigorating energy at the possibility of setting food, farming and land use on a different trajectory, one that puts the needs of society, farm animals and wildlife centre stage rather than subordinate to the short-term economic imperative.
The watch words for this path must be health, diversity, ecology and fairness. We have the opportunity to redesign our food system to make it as easy for people to choose a healthy, ethical and low-impact diet, an investment that would bring financial dividends in reducing the burden on the NHS. With the right carrots and sticks – and the balance of these will need to be decided in the light of final post Brexit agreements – we can enable farmers to transition to approaches which enhance natural resources, help mitigate and adapt to climate change, allow other species to flourish and produce a wide range of nutritious foods. Soils and trees will be a high priority, and appropriate new technologies will be part of the picture too, allowing us to move from pesticide reliant monocultures and soil compacting heavy machinery to highly productive more complex systems, which mimic and support nature. Organic principles such as closed loop nutrient cycles, a focus on soil husbandry, and avoidance of pesticides and anti-microbials should become the norm everywhere, with strong R and D support to farmers themselves, to tackle the many challenges in this transition.
And then we have to ensure that we don’t negate all this good work as food makes its way from the field to the consumer. Convenience more than price (in my view) drives purchasing behaviour, and currently most convenient foods are highly processed and of poor nutritional value. As I know only too well from my own business experience, it is nigh on impossible to make a living selling fresh foodstuffs; everything from lack of local infrastructure to the dominant UK retail model militates against it. We should grasp the opportunity to invest in the facilities that will enable short supply chains to deliver perishable products at fair prices for both grower and citizen. We can use public procurement to kick start and support entrepreneurial and resilient food networks.
Both on the supply and the demand side though, we need to plan in an integrated and coherent manner. Fried chicken and betting shops should not dominate the high street, as they do in many more deprived communities. The most perishable products should be grown as close to or even in urban communities, while biodiversity and water need collaborative management – and therefore planning – across the country. To achieve the healthy, humane and vibrant future that society needs and deserves, we need to plan and act in collaboration across governments, business and communities, allowing decisions to be made in the right level. And while the prize is huge, for this and future generations, it will require changes, not least in attitudes, skills and incentives. Change is deeply daunting, and will require leadership that is both far sighted and practical, with an understanding of and commitment to each step of the transition that is required.
Helen Browning is former Chair and current Council member of the Food Ethics Council. She is an organic farmer and CEO of the Soil Association.