Ilove British food. I appreciate the passion, belief and graft that goes into it. I’m into food miles, farmers’ markets and farm shops. I know that red tractor food is safe and traceable. I go to the Royal Show. I read articles about artichoke farmers, beekeepers and folk who make weird pickles in Dundee.
I’ve also learnt about the importance of food production to Britain. It’s the lynchpin of the rural economy and environment. A tractor a day keeps the bulldozers at bay.
In my enthusiasm and support for British food, I’m in a minority, and always will be. Despite the fact that celebrity chefs create more ripples than cabinet ministers and farmers’ markets rise weekly like mushrooms in most town squares, we are not an epicurean nation. To most consumers, the provenance of food isn’t as powerful a motivator as its price. It occupies a finite proportion of household spend.
And yet Britain’s landscape is shaped according to mass demand for its food. Put specialist producers and diversification aside for now, key though these are. Rural Britain’s future rests on persuading swathes of increasingly food-savvy but otherwise indifferent consumers to buy British. Producers don’t have to convince nuts like me. Likewise, low-income households will choose the lowest price. That’s accepted. We’re talking about the 60% in the middle.
So who can persuade them? The NFU, of course. For a start, most British food producers are already NFU members. In turn, they’re enthusiastic, dedicated and screaming for a chance to be recognised in their own right. The NFU’s food industry links, too, are superbly established and its regional networks enviably efficient.
It’s had a big hand in making British food what it is. Countless partnerships, co-operatives and joint ventures have been born out of regional get-togethers. And the red tractor, now appearing on £5bn worth of UK
produce, began as an NFU initiative.
Knowledge, ability, enthusiasm and drive abound. To make use of them, the NFU first needs to overhaul its internal structure from the top down. By dismantling layers of age-old détente and political complexity, it could become an effective ambassador for members’ work by directly reconnecting it to consumers.
That achieved, marketing initiatives must go well beyond polite collaborations with sector bodies and levy boards. The NFU should start by creating a singular, mass-media generic campaign for British food.
I’m talking mass media in the real sense. TV, radio, print and outdoor, perhaps, backed by a production and media budget of several million pounds.
It must say more than ‘Buy British’. That would be making the age-old gaffe of conveying sentiment without support. There’s lots of support to be had. As well as preserving our countryside, British food is free of the taint of excessive food miles. Thanks to the NFU and the red tractor, production is conscientious. And despite worryingly low returns, British farmers are among the most dedicated in the world.
Boil this down to a singular proposition, and the NFU could own the definitive British food message, lock, stock and barrel. Sector bodies and levy boards would thrive. On the back of a generic NFU campaign, every produce sector from beef and milk to plums and cobnuts could add gravitas to their own promotions while consistently reinforcing the main message. And of course, provide a more realistic return on levies.
Most sector bodies already enjoy a healthy dialogue with the NFU. The task of imbuing them with a common campaign platform couldn’t be easier.
On February 28, the NFU must ensure that its new leader is more interested in British food than political exchange. Don’t fear directness and disruption: commercial businesses thrive on them. Put the tractor on full throttle and we will have a lean machine that definitively stands for British food on behalf of its producers.