On 16 May Prime Minister and DEFRA Secretary held the ‘Farm to Fork’ summit. The day before, PM Rishi Sunak wrote to farmers highlighting six principles to ensure that farming is “at the heart of trade policy”, including reviewing trade deals and their impact on farming, prioritising export opportunities and removing market access barriers.
“It was a golden ticket to a supposed yellow brick road for broad discussions on tackling rapid food inflation and rising farm costs and bolstering the UK’s food security,” said Cambridgeshire farmer and Nature Friendly Farming Network UK Chair Martin Lines, who attended the event. “What can’t be ignored, in conversations about food security, is how these circumstances lock heads at the same intersection: climate change, nature loss and dietary ill-health.”
How serious is England’s dietary ill health?
In England 63% of adults are above a healthy weight, and of these half are living with obesity. The cost to the NHS is estimated at £6.1 billion a year with nearly 900 thousand obesity related hospital admissions in 2018–2019. With 1 in 3 children leaving primary school overweight, we are sowing the seeds of adult diseases, shorter life expectancy and health inequalities from childhood.
The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities has stated that tackling and preventing obesity is one of the “greatest long-term health challenges” and a “high priority” for government. So why was discussion about obesity and public health not on the Farm to Fork agenda?
“The Government chose to focus instead on discussing food security with an audience largely made up of private sector organisations which are often to blame for the problems we face, rather than looking to those who are offering solutions,” says Ben Reynolds, Deputy CEO of the food and farming alliance Sustain.
A joint statement from a group of food and farming campaigners echoes this sentiment: “Leaving our food security to the private sector has resulted in us becoming a nation dependent on junk food which is making us sick”.
Junk food is profitable business
‘Junk foods’ are foods that lack nutrients, vitamins and minerals, and are high in kilojoules (energy), salts, sugars, and fats – typically, ‘ultra processed foods’ (UPFs) which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations “now amount to around or even more than half of the total dietary energy consumed in high-income countries” like the UK.
Food technicians have cleverly developed industrial production processes with ingredients and chemical modifications – not such as would be found in a household kitchen. The resulting manufactured UPF products are highly profitable (low-cost ingredients, long shelf-life) aggressively marketed, convenient (ready-to consume) and, of most concern, hyper-palatable.
Research suggests that these food may be engineered to be addictive. That’s bad for the consumer but great for food manufacturer profits – and why, argues Dr Chris Van Tulleken, the food industry should never be at the policy table.
Yet attendance at the Farm to Fork summit had representation from “70 businesses, experts and representative organisations from farming, production, manufacturing, wholesale, retail and hospitality” but not nutrition scientists nor public health experts. Discussions were “focused on bringing great British food to the world; building resilience and transparency; strengthening sustainability and productivity across the supply chain; and growing an innovative, skilled food and farming sector”. No mention of healthy nutrition, the obesity crisis, nor public health – somewhat surprising given that tackling and preventing obesity is “a high priority” for the government.
Cost of living and poor health
According to NHS Dietician Gabrielle Morse, food insecurity is a symptom of poverty and a reality for 2.2 million Britons. She observes that those in the poorest groups continue to be more likely to have unhealthy diets (rich in processed food, salt, fat, and sugar) rather than healthy diets based on fruits, vegetables, legumes and lean meats. “This is because calorie for calorie it is three times more expensive to eat a healthy diet than a less healthy diet.”
Dr Chris Van Tulleken agrees: “Reducing the weight gain, diabetes and heart attacks caused by UPFs means reducing the poverty and inequality that make them the only option for so many.”
Surprisingly, some highly processed plant based foods such as juices, sauces and baked beans that appear healthy aren’t, according to Zoe research. “Highly processed foods, whether from animals or plants, are associated with ‘bad’ gut microbes linked to poorer health markers.”
The latest findings from the Zoe PREDICT study identified 15 “good” gut microbes linking better health to a healthy, varied diet. “Unsurprisingly, we found a strong association between eating a diet rich in minimally processed plant-based foods and having more species of ‘good’ gut bugs.”
So why wasn’t horticulture central to the Farm to Fork summit?
Horticulture for health
While government weight loss campaigns focus on calorie labelling of alcohol and foods, their advertising, and developing drug treatments and digital tool apps to aid weight loss, a better solution could be serious investment in locally grown horticulture.
Fruit and vegetables are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals making them central to a healthy diet. Yet the UK produces only 35% of its total supply of fruit and vegetables. For improved heath the nation needs to massively increase the amount of fruit and vegetables consumed (by 86%).
Economically horticulture is, according to Sustain, worth over £5 billion, far more per hectare than other farm sectors and it is a significant employer too. So why has the Government ditched the Horticulture Strategy promised in the Government’s food strategy? Why is it only proposing an Autumn review?
“Why a horticulture strategy is not a top governmental priority baffles me, given the shelves empty of veg earlier this year and the very high probability that this will reoccur, and with greater frequency, as climate instability starts to play havoc with our supplies here and overseas.” says Sustain’s Head of Sustainable Farming, Vicki Hird. “Promises of food strategies often end up as vague nothings, or weak consultations with little sign of actual action, joined-up thinking or new resources.”
“You are what you eat” said Nanny. And we all know, Mr Sunak, that Nanny knows best.
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