Time to rethink our food system

Prestige Purchasing’s Chairman, David Read

It’s time that our food system modernised and became fit for purpose for the 21st century. And that we all have a part to play.

In 2017 we spent £219bn on Food and Drink in the UK, and in doing so generated employment for around 13% of the working economy. Our food system feeds 67m people every day. Half of what we eat originates in the UK, around one-third from the EU ( at least for now), and the remainder from around the world. It’s one of the very few systems on our planet where every citizen of the world participates, several times, every day.

I was a child back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Back then there were no hubs and spokes, national distribution was an idea, and the world of exotic food arrived dried, in a cardboard box with a Vesta label. As a child I was scolded if I didn’t eat everything on my plate, because after all “millions of children” were starving all over the world.

So, it was no surprise that governments were pre-occupied with productivity and distribution. After all, it was just 33 years ago (in 1985) when Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure were singing “Feed the World” at Live Aid.

We are now in a position where there is officially enough food in the world for everyone. But to stop people going hungry, and to have a food system that is fair to our citizens, communities and the environment we need changes in politics, farming and lifestyles. Consider, for a moment the impacts.

Our food system is playing an active and detrimental role in all of the following:

Climate Change is accelerating – 2017 was one of the world’s three warmest years on record. In the UK, a recent meteorological report showed that floods, droughts and heat waves are increasingly becoming the norm.

Biodiversity has plummeted – In the UK, we are reducing our wildlife population at an alarming rate. In the last 50 years, almost 60% of species have declined, such that we are now #189 in global rankings in this area.

Soil Fertility has collapsed – Agricultural soil has been so severely degraded that some of England’s most productive land will likely become unprofitable within a generation due to erosion and lack of organic carbon.

Poverty and food bank usage rises – 4m children in the UK live in households that are not meeting official nutrition guidelines.

Diet-induced illness is spiralling – coincidentally, almost 4m in the UK have diabetes (over 90% with the diet generated type 2). Obesity and diabetes costs the NHS over £27bn each year, which is 10% of the total budget.

Pay is low in the food sector – 40% of agricultural jobs and 60% of foodservice jobs are low paid.

These problems are of course not new, but many of them have become embedded in our food system from the priorities, regulations, standards, subsidies and trade policies that have stemmed from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which has been extremely slow to adapt away from the “feed the world” systems of the last century.

Leaving the EU presents us with a unique opportunity to modernise. To build a food system in the UK that provides healthy and affordable food for everyone, protects our land and our landscapes, and supports our sector in terms of employee health, income and wellbeing. This will require tough and visionary leadership.

“Our food system requires a reset, as we have become involved in a race to the bottom, the results of which will ultimately generate a crisis of health and food availability the likes of which we have not seen for centuries.”

We are told that our choices are high standards or affordability. Protection of the environment or food for everyone. These are lazy, false choices. Take Organic food for example. The cost of production of most organically farmed product is higher than that of the same product intensively farmed. Yet the impacts in environmental and health terms are not factored in, so organic food remains a niche product mainly for the wealthy, whilst the consumer and the environment pays in other ways for the cheaper products that the majority of consumers eat.

We have proved in the past that we can rise to the challenge when the dominant problem was enough food in the right place at the right time. Having reached the point where there is enough food to go around, the focus we need now is much more wide ranging.

Here are just some of the things we need to change:

Raising food standards – in the process eliminating places where low standards impact health and wellbeing, and the environment.

Enabling affordability for everyone – creating better and more efficient supply chains for healthy product to create an affordable choice. Educating the young to know how to eat well and healthily on a budget. Product innovation and leadership from QSR businesses.

Raising young people’s understanding of food and the food system – building stronger links between education and the countryside; creating better skills in our young people to cook food well.

Rectifying the imbalance of power in the food and drink value chain – there are too many places where farmers are forced to provide product at below the cost of production, to inflate the balance sheets of others.

Reducing our reliance on processed foods – where often the item price is the only consideration, rather than truly reflecting the value/impact outcomes.

Helping consumers eat more healthily – recognising and promoting the relationship between food, farming, nutrition, health and wellbeing, and in turn the link between this and educational and working performance in the population.

Lowering food waste – WRAP estimates that avoidable waste in or supply chains costs us over £2bn each year. As this number is measured at the point in the value chain where it is wasted it likely represents 2%-3% of all the food we consume.

Investing in farming innovation – from land use to technical/IT solutions that delivers sustainable improvements in productivity.

Building soil organic matter – and therefore carbon levels; ending the use of pesticides and herbicides to protect biodiversity where the evidence supports this. And prioritising pasture fed farming systems.

Our food system requires a reset, as we have become involved in a race to the bottom, the results of which will ultimately generate a crisis of health and food availability the likes of which we have not seen for centuries. On the other hand, we can take reassurance from the fact that we can all play an impactful part in at least a few of the above, and if we all take the lead we will need a great deal fewer to follow.