Following a series of high-profile news stories about food standards and farming recently, Alison has been considering how best to help consumers navigate the confusing idea of ‘good food’.
We have the cheapest food in Europe but the biggest gap in wealth inequality. Much of that cheap food is ultra-processed; so poor in terms of nutritional value and so costly in terms of human and planetary health – that’s an incredibly complex story to tell and to get to grips with.
The recent Climate Assembly Report suggested that “with the right information and evidence” people want a fair, transparent and sustainable food system. Yet there have been many shocking exposes about food, particularly on supermarket shelves and no obvious shifts in consumption behaviours.
There’s also a huge question about exactly how we show that certain foods are fair, transparent and sustainable. Take, for instance, Red Tractor. The ubiquitous assurance marque on a number of British-produced foods is now planning to differentiate production methods. Free-range chicken will now be orange, enhanced welfare for chicken will now be purple, and organic will now be green.
There are also plans afoot to consolidate the many environmental standard marques into one. Red Tractor, The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group, Natural England, and the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) amongst others, are developing sustainability assessments.
Efforts to harmonise and communicate standards in a practical and accessible way are welcome. Consumers need clarity and producers need curious citizens who want to understand the origin of food and the standards to which it is produced.
What works against us here is the stereotypical British reticence to stand out and be tarred with an awkward customer brush. How many will overcome it and ask questions? A local farmer rears pigs for sale to a local butcher, but the butcher doesn’t reveal the pigs’ origin even though that piece of the jigsaw might help sales. Sometimes the pork doesn’t even get labelled free-range. We all have our part to play, farmer, butcher, processor retailer, purchaser.
On the radio, a Norfolk farm shop owner described how her customers were ‘time poor’. They just want to dash in and dash out again. That makes story-telling even harder.
As do the examples where the story is not quite what it seems. A visit to the impressive HQ of one of the country’s leading milk buyers revealed a reception area that was adorned with floor to ceiling images of cows grazing in lush fields under a blue sky. In fact, this particular company invited a group of farmers along to promote the savings to be made from year-round indoor housing. While there are many good herds that are kept indoors, these are not cows that are living the pastoral dream in a green and pleasant landscape.
Perhaps then, we can hope governments will act and work with us towards that fair, transparent and sustainable system? But the record is pretty poor. With the failure to pass the amendment to the Agriculture Bill trade deals may well result in a two-tier food system with imports that will fall below the requirements that UK farmers must meet.
If it’s a race to the bottom we’re sure we don’t want to be in it.
James Rebanks’ new book English Pastoral tells the story of how, over three generations, his family’s farming practices have shifted. His is a leading voice, telling consumers what’s truly affordable in terms of health, environment, and animal welfare. Many others are communicating the same story through the farming press and farmer networks, on podcasts, and just in everyday conversations with friends and neighbours.
It’s an important story to tell and we have to remember how far from most people’s everyday experience our rural lives are. Stories will allow us to reach the predominantly urban population and present our view of what it takes to get that food from farm to fork.
Alison Park runs Low Sizergh Barn farm shop Cumbria, which is located on the family dairy farm. The Park family are celebrating 40 years at Low Sizergh Farm.