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A report by the Soil Association has revealed that between 2017 and 2020, the UK has seen increases in permitted intensive livestock facilities, ranging from 7% in England to 21% in Wales.
However, a public survey undertaken by the group found that eight in 10 respondents were concerned about US-style industrial farming increasing in the UK, showing there is little appetite among consumers for lower food and farming standards in Britain. Three quarters of survey respondents said they would be willing to eat less chicken, and pay more for it, if it meant that the chicken had a better life.
This comes at a “critical moment” for food and farming practices, says Rob Percival, policy lead at the Soil Association. “We need a shift to agroecology – farming that works with nature through crop diversity, looking after the health of soil, wasting less, integrating trees into the farmed landscape and ensuring animals have plenty of space as well as a good diet. Our government’s approach to food and farming standards post Brexit will determine whether we can rebuild the food chain in more sustainable ways from the food on our supermarket shelves to the crops growing in our fields.”
“Brexit,” Rob tells Speciality Food, “has prompted the most significant review of food and farming policy for a generation.
“While the government is making positive noises about supporting healthier and more sustainable production, these good intentions could be scuppered by a poorly devised trade agenda,” he says. “The deal struck with the EU, though imperfect, provides some reassurance that standards might be retained, but negotiations are ongoing with other trading partners. A rushed deal which allows lower quality produce into the UK could still undercut UK farmers, creating a ‘race to the bottom’, and the government has resolutely refused to protect our standards in law.”
It comes as the Trade Bill recently returned to the House of Commons, where MPs had the chance to debate whether greater levels of parliamentary scrutiny are needed for new free trade agreements. “Our new trade deals, with the US, the EU and wider world, will have important implications for all of us: lots of consumers and farmers are concerned about a reduction in food standards, and others want to be assured that our health services and environmental policies are protected,” Jonathan Djanogly, MP for Huntingdon, said.
“The British public has made it clear that they want our high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection to be upheld in future trade agreements, and by giving some control for trade policy back to Parliament, this amendment will help safeguard those standards,” added NFU director of trade and business strategy Nick von Westenholz.
“For farmers and for everyone who wants to eat high quality food, it is crucial that our MPs are properly able to represent their constituents and are given a meaningful role in approving trade deals. Without this, the work of the recently announced Trade and Agriculture Commission, which will advise MPs on the impact of those deals, will be much weaker.”
Rob says the forthcoming National Food Strategy will provide an opportunity to advance the domestic food agenda in the UK. “The strategy should give a central role to nature-friendly farming, such as agroecology and organic, and must include measures to tackle the overconsumption of ultra-processed foods. Several years ago, the government promised a ‘Green Brexit’ for food and farming. Whether that vision is realised still hangs in the balance.”
Despite consumers’ concerns about farming practices, new research from EIT Food, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, discovered that farmers are the most trusted group within the food sector.
A study of 20,000 consumers across 18 European countries found that trust in the food sector grew over 2020, with farmers winning the trust of two-thirds of shoppers. Retailers were the next most trusted group, growing 7% since 2018.
The figures are especially pronounced in the UK, where seven in 10 consumers believe that farmers act in the public interest (vs a European average of 56%) and 55% think retailers act in the public interest (vs 41% in Europe).
“The events of 2020 have shown many consumers how vital our food infrastructure is, ranging from keeping products on supermarket shelves to considering how our food production impacts the environment,” says Saskia Nuijten, director of communication and public engagement at EIT Food. “As we look to our economic recovery in the coming year, helping to build trust between consumers and the food sector will be critical to improving food for everyone.”