Food and farming policies are crucial in helping farmers, growers and food manufacturers produce goods that are healthy and sustainable for people, planet and animals. But responsibility for food and farming policy in the UK doesn’t just rest with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Health, welfare, trade and education are just a few of many policy areas that should be playing an important role in helping the UK produce and consume healthy, sustainable food.
“Public money for public goods’ as a concept is becoming widely accepted. Farmers – stewards of most of the country’s land – may be rewarded for delivering public goods in the future.”
Alongside other food and farming NGOs, we have argued that public spending on subsidies, research or other support must be directly linked to public goods. We have also strongly argued that standards relating to animal welfare, environmental protection and workers’ rights must be maintained and strengthened in the UK – and not allowed to be undercut by food imports that are poor quality and have low standards.
We believe that UK food and farming should be built around excellence – farming excellence, plus excellence in environmental protection, food safety, standards of production and animal welfare, and treatment of workers in the food system. UK food and farming policy should be rooted in the notion of a race-to-the-top, not a race-to-the-bottom, but for this to happen progressive policies must be put in place.
We would like UK food and farming policies to be embedded within a broader sustainability and climate change framework – to ensure UK food and farming fulfils its obligations as part of both the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris climate change agreement. We also believe that UK food and farming sectors must support healthy, sustainable diets.
Our policy work has two main elements. Firstly, relevant policy work we ourselves lead includes scrutinising selected policy proposals relating to food and farming, reviewing whether they are likely to contribute to fair, healthy, humane and sustainable food systems. This involves inquiry sessions, with inquiry panels and expert witnesses, and assessments published using our food policy barometer tool. Our work also involves policy solution roundtables to identify alternative policy options that will deliver desired outcomes, as well as advocacy work to promote policy solutions that take an ‘all things considered’ approach.
Secondly, we want to transform UK food and farming policy by working with others through joint advocacy. Hence we actively participate in a number of influential alliances – including, but not limited to the UK Food and Poverty Alliance (with its linked End Hunger UK campaign), the Eating Better alliance (promoting ‘less and better’ meat consumption) and the Groceries Code Action Network (pushing for fair practices in food supply chains). We are also an observer of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming.
One of the first reports written by the Food Ethics Council called for agricultural reform in the wake of the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak of 2001. The report called for a ‘radical reappraisal’ of Government policy on agricultural practice.
Over the years many of our Business Forum events have explored different aspects of policies related to food and farming – from ‘Shaping Brexit outcomes’, which marked 200 days to go until Brexit day, to ‘Trust, technology and beyond certification, which considered how can we ensure values travel across the food chain.
As members of the Square Meal group, we presented compelling evidence for major changes to national food and farming policy, which helped shape the food and farming 2015 general election manifesto promises of one major political party.
Our work has been cited in key policy documents and Select Committee reports over many years. We were one of only two organisations named in recommendations in the House of Commons International Development Committee report on Global Food Security. We were cited in the House of Commons EFRA Committee on Food security: demand, consumption and waste. Our Food Justice report was included in a list of important research cited for the Foresight report on Food and Farming futures.
In May 2019 we launched our Food Policy on Trial event series, as a way of a way of encouraging constructive debate about possible policy ideas relating to food and farming. Designed to explore selected emerging food policy ideas, we will run up to three ‘food policy on trial’ sessions each year.
At these inquiry-style sessions expert witnesses provide evidence and are then questioned by both a Food Ethics Council jury panel and members of the audience. Those attending can make their own considered judgements of whether the policy idea ‘on trial’ is likely to contribute to or hinder progress towards healthy, fair, environmentally sustainable, humane food and farming.
The first emerging policy idea ‘in the dock’ was a meat tax, on May 28th, 2019. Crucially, we did not starting from the premise that a meat tax is necessarily a good or bad thing! We wanted to critically explore the merits and pitfalls of some of the policy options that fall under a ‘meat tax’ umbrella.
We heard evidence from four expert witnesses. Professor Mike Rayner, University of Oxford, strongly argued the case that a meat tax was necessary and inevitable, and a natural step on from the sugary drinks tax (Soft Drinks Industry Levy). Stuart Roberts, NFU Vice President, and Richard Young, Sustainable Food Trust, both challenged the idea, with Young highlighting the environmental benefits that grazing livestock can bring. Jody Harris, Institute of Development Studies, gave evidence of the negative health impacts of consuming processed and ultra-processed meat, which include higher mortality rates and especially cardio-vascular disease.
These eminent witnesses were questioned by a Food Ethics Council jury that included Julian Baggini and Helen Browning. The jury found the idea of a tax specifically on ultra-processed meat promising, although ideally it would be extended to cover all ultra-processed food. The UK has the most ultra-processed diet in Europe[i] and there is strong evidence that eating too much ultra-processed food contributes to diet-related ill health.
To mitigate the impacts of such a tax on those that likely to be worst affected, the jury proposed ringfencing any revenue towards two main areas. Firstly, to help everyone, including those on low incomes, to eat healthier diets in a dignified way. Secondly, to support farmers and food producers to transition towards healthy, sustainable food and farming systems.
Our next Food Policy on Trial event will take place in autumn 2019.
This series is kindly supported by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Polden Puckham Charitable Foundation. With thanks also to Lindy Sharpe from Food Research Collaboration for her invaluable input in helping design this series.
[i] Monteiro, C., Moubarac, J., Levy, R., Canella, D., Louzada, M., & Cannon, G. (2018). Household availability of ultra-processed foods and obesity in nineteen European countries. Public Health Nutrition, 21(1), 18-26. doi:10.1017/S1368980017001379
New farm policy has the potential to provide a healthy, fulfilled and sustainable future.
The proposed merger of Sainsbury’s and ASDA has implications throughout the food system.