Grass-fed beef fields

The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ white paper includes just one use of the word ‘farming’, with ’agriculture’ notching up a total of four

Readers of The Grocer will need no reminding that the food and drink industry is the country’s largest manufacturing sector, employing some four million people across the UK – bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined in terms of value to the economy.

Domestic production is also increasingly important in ensuring our future food security in a rapidly changing world, and providing vital underpinning to many rural and coastal communities.

So it is more than a little surprising to find it receiving such scant attention in the 332 pages of the government’s long-awaited ‘Levelling Up’ white paper, aimed at tackling regional inequalities, boosting productivity and wealth creation and improving opportunities to ‘stay local and go far’ wherever people happen to live.

A search of the text reveals just one use of the word ‘farming’ in the entire document. ‘Agriculture’ notches up a total of four. ‘Food’ does rather better with 33, but most of those are in the context of diet and nutrition and promoting healthier lifestyles. The countryside appears to be relegated to providing a backdrop of ‘natural beauty’ for city-dwellers to enjoy, and preventing urban sprawl through a network of improved green belts.

A possible explanation of this city-centric approach can be deduced from the potted history of civilisation in the first chapter. This charts the course of urbanisation since 7000 BC, from Jericho to Tokyo, and goes on to describe growth models through the Roman, Latin and Ottoman Empires before dwelling at length on the Medici Effect of Renaissance Florence and the Golden Age in Holland. These are seen as bringing together the ‘raw ingredients’ of scientists, artists, businesspeople and financiers in a ‘crucible of skills’, generating a kind of spontaneous combustion of creativity and growth.

The supply of food to these burgeoning centres of population is seen as somehow incidental or an accident of geography, rather than an essential precondition of industrial and technological development.

The white paper does make reference to the expected publication of a separate National Food Strategy in coming weeks. But again this is in the context of the health agenda, rather than the sector’s potential to support the government’s wider levelling-up ambitions.

At the risk of stating the obvious, food production and consumption have to be seen as integral to all aspects of economic, environmental and social wellbeing – part of the real ‘secret sauce’ in the recipe for success.