Professor Tim Benton of Leeds University recently highlighted the worrying issue of ‘cheap food at any price’ at an EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee roundtable.
At the discussion, which aimed to explore whether Brexit could have an impact on the price or availability of food in the UK, Benton commented: “The issue is a Liam Fox MP “cheap food at any price” approach versus a Michael Gove MP “let’s protect the environment and have a thriving rural economy with lots of artisanal food producers, producing things for the top end of the market” approach. That schizophrenia is something that we are not examining enough, because that could be a really uncomfortable place for many consumers, as well as producers.”
He went on to say that the country can’t afford to continue driving productivity at the expense of all else. “We have to get productivity and profitability co-aligned. The issue for farmers is not productivity, it is profitability. How can we make farmers profitable, while also providing clean air and clean water? They are not side issues or nice‑to‑haves. We also have to provide healthy diets in order to avoid the national health crisis. Land is our most important strategic asset, and at the moment we do not plan our use of land. We leave it up to the market, and the perverse incentives come from the global market failure in our food system.”
The issue for farmers is not productivity, it is profitability. How can we make farmers profitable, while also providing clean air and clean water? They are not side issues or nice‑to‑haves. We also have to provide healthy diets in order to avoid the national health crisis
Looking to the future of farming, Benton called for integration. “We have to get joined‑up, and to use the subsidies to enhance the profitability of the farmers and not necessarily the productivity. Overproducing food that has negative personal health and environmental impacts that we throw away is in no one’s interest.
He added that the UK has evolved a food system that has allowed consumer complacency to increase. “We all, as consumers, have trust that our food is being delivered in ways that are consistent with our values. Brexit will force those issues to be opened up, and there is a real risk — as with chlorine-washed chicken or any of the other debates — that consumer trust in the current food system, let alone the future food system, will be perturbed. We need to think about the whole set of values, which we do not do enough. We think about price and business interests narrowly. What about trust? What would happen if our consumers lost trust in our food system?”