Delivering the Nuffield Farming Lecture Report 2018, rural policy expert Professor Michael Winter OBE, from the University of Exeter, said 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 added: “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.
Winter’s report details how, in the UK people are now drinking less whole milk, and more semi-skimmed milk. There has 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 explained: “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.”