Last week Parliament debated Riverford’s petition calling for a better deal for small farmers. Their petition, signed by well over 100k people, asks supermarkets to abide by five sourcing principles; “to buy what you committed to buy, to pay on time, to commit for the long term, to agree on fair specifications and to pay what was agreed”. It is deeply perplexing that these five principles need to be stated at all, but Riverford has spotlighted the enormous injustice that farmers face when trying to sell their produce into the widescale market.
Taking part in the Westminster debate, I made it clear that these principles were not radical requests but rather a simple set of asks that in any other industry, would be the normal operating standard. The Minister for Farming gave a positive response and outlined much of the work that has already been done through the Environment Act, Agriculture Act and Procurement Act to support farmers the length and breadth of Britain and to help them produce high-quality food for local purchase and consumption both in the private and public sectors.
I for one welcome the ever-increasing debates that are taking place in Westminster and across the country to discuss our food, its provenance, its quality, production standards and even its nutritional value. While bans on traditional evils such as tobacco might sound like the right course of action, there is a looming threat that is causing huge increases in obesity (particularly in childhood) and soaring rates of diabetes which may prove far more deadly than cigarettes in the long run.
The rise of ultra-processed food should worry us all. Where food was usually cooked from scratch and local and seasonal ingredients were the norm, this has been replaced by food that has negligible nutritional value and little relationship to its actual namesake. Sadly, the rise of ultra-processed food has been accompanied by cheap deals, catchy adverts and monolithic food companies that are set on ever-increasing consumption through addiction and convenience.
This depressing state of affairs means that as obesity and diabetes rates rise, the response has not been to limit the dominance of ultra-processed food but to medicate against its impact. Ozempic, a weight loss drug, is being used by hundreds of thousands of people across the Western world as a quick solution to reverse weight gain. The fact that this drug will have to be taken for life and that its use against obesity is causing huge shortages for those trying to medicate against diabetes, seem not to have been considered.
However, the debates that are being had on farms, forums and in Westminster are helping to shape a new narrative that will undoubtedly help to change our eating habits and our relationship with food. Starting with the excellent work of Henry Dimbleby both in his Food Strategy Report and in his book Ravenous, through to programmes such as Chefs in Schools (currently operating in the Grove School, Totnes), there are some enormously positive steps being taken.
By changing habits in schools, we can equip the next generation with a far improved understanding and knowledge of food and its importance in health, education and work. By implementing the recommendations of the food strategy report and holding companies such as Nestle, Unilever and PepsiCo (to name but a few) to account, we can halt the decline of healthy food on offer and ensure better support for those small food and farming operations. Through implementing the five principles lobbied for by Riverford, we can ensure that local producers are always playing their part in ensuring we have a healthy and sustainable diet.
The Government, of course, must play its part. It must urgently review its £4.6bn annual food procurement spend and ensure that it is being spent in the healthiest way while supporting small businesses and benefitting publicly funded organisations like schools, hospitals and prisons.
These changes are not about limiting choice but about recognising the enormous health implications that we will face from a diet dominated by ultra-processed food, unless we change our habits. Using what has already been passed into law coupled with the overwhelming public support for better food, we can change our diets, improve our health, increase our productivity, help us all live longer and safeguard our environment. It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.