Vicki Hird – A public health public goods approach: Shaping the future of UK farm policy

Date Published: 04/05/2018

GM: genetic modification

As Defra consults on the future of UK food and farming outside the European Union, OF&G — together with other leading organic organisations — is urging government to recognise the opportunities organic offers to deliver a green Brexit.

As part of building our own response to the consultation, OF&G is asking leaders in food and farming about what the next steps should be to ensure the country’s environment and economy are properly protected, and that our farmers have the support they need to produce safe, quality and nutritious food.

In this blog post, Vicki Hird of Sustain – the alliance for better food and farming – explains why she thinks the government’s vision for food and farming needs to focus on how we produce, market and eat food in order to protect the public’s health, the environment, and the sustainability of UK farm businesses.

Vicki Hird, Campaign Coordinator Food and Farming Policy, Sustain

Michael Gove suggests public money should support the delivery of public goods. What do you see as public goods?

Sustain is clear that public money for public goods is the right approach, but we need to be aware that public goods from farming can be broad in scope. Any changes to the support and regulatory regime must contribute to environmental, social, ethical and public health goals including carbon reduction, rural livelihoods, and a reduction in obesity.

The outcomes of a public goods system need be carefully defined and applied fairly to avoid commodification of nature and unintended consequences, such as certain types of goods or land types being neglected by both public policy and the market.

The key to this will be rewarding farmers for adopting and maintaining agro-ecological approaches (including organic and agroforestry), protecting resources, offering public access, maintaining and enhancing nature and biodiversity, conserving landscapes and heritage features, high animal welfare and finally, in ensuring a supply of sustainable, healthy food.

Sustain is concerned that public health goods are being neglected as nature and environment goods are top of mind.  Public health public goods could include access to better diets, a reduction in air pollution and pesticide use, and an increase in fresh and sustainable produce in public canteens.

If you were Michael Gove, what would your priorities be delivering a fairer, more environmentally sustainable food and farming system?

If I were Michael Gove, I would prioritise developing a major systemic rethink, laying out a long-term vision with clear targets and a pathway signalling the changes that need to happen. This would include how we farm, how we manage supplies, what people eat, how food is marketed and how waste is managed.

I would ensure whole farm sustainable systems such as organic had a major boost via both support (paying of the wide goods delivered) but also via targets – such as public procurement of organic for schools, and extra marketing support.

Right now, there’s a risk that small and even medium-sized farms are becoming an endangered species.  I would reconsider my decision not to extend the Groceries Code Adjudicator to cover more of the supply chain – as farmers need improved protection against unfair trading practices. I would also reintroduce a new collective bargaining body for farm workers

What’s your vision for food and farming in the next 20 years? What would good look like?

That’s a good question, and one that we would like to see clarity on in terms of national policies. Our vision is one of a diverse farm structure with a great mix of sizes and very much open and attractive as a career to new entrants. The future of food and farming would be based on the highest level of environmental protection that delivers rich wildlife habitats and a diverse landscape.

Farm production would be diverse and mixed, with cultivation and husbandry based on a detailed whole farm and low input plan. Farmers can now confidently move to this way of farming because consumers are demanding more organic, free-range and diverse foods.

Farmers would also be well rewarded in the market place for land goods (with a strongly regulated supply chain to end any abusing practices), by other markets for ecosystems services and from the taxpayer for public goods.

All farm and food workers would be on the real Living Wage, have decent work conditions, and be able to collectively bargain for changes to conditions as needed.

The food sector downstream needs to be radically transformed with a transition away from heavily processed junk, as the ‘junk’ inputs are heavily taxed. We need to move towards providing minimally processed food that’s nearer to markets and creates more jobs.

In our vision for the future, global supplies are entirely based on accredited fair trade and sustainability principles.

– OF&G is publishing a series of interviews with leading figures in food and farming to find out how we can protect our environment and produce good food post-Brexit. To read more in the series, follow the OF&G blog here.