The UK is struggling with the double whammy of an agricultural system that is struggling to stay sustainable due to cost pressures and a health system on the verge of collapse due to obesity. Our farmers, at least quite a few of them, are paid subsidies from the EU to produce more of the same. This seems quite futile, but the subsidies are also to assist farmers to act as custodians of our countryside, which is absolutely correct.
I’m told our minster for food and farming, George Eustice, is undertaking a review of UK agriculture as part of our Brexit strategy. This could go a number of ways. Our current trade deficit in food could rise from £20bn to £30bn or greater to help the prices of food remain relatively low - ie by letting the developing world produce our food while we build our ’knowledge economy. Frankly, this would only help reduce the nation’s food security and maintain the status quo of selling energy-dense, nutritionally poor highly processed food. Another option is to start to think about combining our food and health policies and bringing in education into the bargain.
What if we had a food production system that paid our farmers to grow more nutritionally rich produce? And not just fruit & veg - our meat producers could rear animals naturally high in vitamins and unsaturated fatty acids. What might this do for our balance of payments and the health of our nation?
This utopian system would require a major rethink of subsidies, taxation and, yes, education. The unhealthiest in society are the less well-off and a poor diet is clearly one of the most striking causes. But to think there is a willingness or in many cases the ability to pay for more expensive, ‘healthier’ food would be wrong. To start with, how about if the purchasers of food in schools, care homes and hospitals had to meet ‘nutritional standards’?
We in the UK need to create a think tank for our food system. We have a wealth of talent that could, if given the chance, come up with an outline for a combined ‘national food and health system’. If this is one of the possible outcomes of Brexit then perhaps we have taken a step in the right direction rather than a leap into the dark.
Chris Elliott is director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast