For much of the post-Second World War period, we’ve paid farmers to produce food. We’ve had many different policies with complicated names and at times they’ve led to curious outcomes. We’ve had massive food surpluses in some foods but continue to import others (we import nearly half the food we consume in the UK – and rising).
We’ve even paid farmers to produce surpluses and then paid them again to dispose of them.
From 1988 we had so much surplus food, that we began to pay farmers not to grow it through a policy called Set-aside: we had a huge land surplus in agriculture as we paid farmers not to use it.
In 2003, we stopped paying farmers to produce food. What became known as the Basic Payment Scheme paid them for the amount of land they held (whether it actually produced any food or not). The more land you had the more money you got: the rich got richer.
By 2020 the Agriculture Act abandoned all of this in favour of paying farmers to produce ‘public goods’ – which at the time of writing are yet to be defined but seem destined to be largely environmental.
Food and Agriculture
One fundamental flaw in all of this has never really been addressed. These policies are about agriculture, rather than about food. The UK would really benefit from an holistic food policy that sees food as a basic necessity, rather than just a market commodity.
The truth of this has been highlighted recently with the introduction of a raft of uncoordinated policies about food, all introduced whilst the Agriculture Act 2020 was wending its way through Parliament.
The Government’s National Obesity Strategy was launched in July to tackle the largest long-term national health challenge: nearly two-thirds of adults are above a healthy weight as is one in three primary school leavers. This would seem a central plank of food policy. Avoiding obesity would be a great ‘public good’ to have in any Agriculture Act.
The National Food Strategy (Part 1) also came out in July, aimed at addressing food poverty, particularly amongst our most disadvantaged children. It also addressed the need to improve food quality. Both of these also sound like great ‘public goods’ to have in an Agriculture Act.
You’ll remember too, our fleeting Eat Out to Help Out policy to help food outlets after the first COVID lockdown. Monitoring suggests that 50% discounts on food were most popular in the ‘high fats, sugars and salts’ (causes of obesity) sector (those American fast-food chains, for example) and many ate more (because it was half price) than spent less. Eat Out to Help Out had the opposite outcomes than those intended in the obesity strategy.
A national food policy?
All of these policies remain uncoordinated. A national food policy that ‘followed the science’ would help us to pursue nutritional goals, obesity goals, environmental goals, ‘local food’ goals and economic goals simultaneously.
This is likely to cost less for the State too, both in respect of farm support, but also in terms of savings to the National Health Service through improving our diets – as well as protecting the environment.
Let’s hope that these ‘public good’ aspects of food will find their way into the detail of the Agriculture Act, 2020.
Nigel Curry – 2021
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