Opinion: It’s time to back progressive farmers

New survey data shows people overwhelmingly want food that supports farmers and meets high standards. Foodservice businesses have a key role to play in meeting their wishes, says the Food Ethics Council’s Dan Crossley.

Farmers are at the sharp end of crop failures, climate breakdown, price pressures, labour shortages, and the outcome of trade negotiations. Yet agriculture makes up less than 1% of GDP in the UK. So, should the public care about farmers – and do they?

The short answer is yes and yes. The public should care because farmers are the lifeblood of our food system – and crucially many do so much more than produce food alone. Progressive farmers can be, and are, at the forefront of action to address the climate, biodiversity and obesity crises. The new Agriculture Act is now in place, with the Environment Bill and Trade Bill not far behind. These will change the playing field (and perhaps the field itself!) for farmers – in many good ways, but they bring risks too. Progressive farmers need support from the public, government and businesses to ensure they can have maximum positive impact.

But do the public care? Again, the answer is yes. An overwhelming majority of the UK public want farmers to be treated fairly and to support those with high standards. A recent poll by Yonder (formerly Populus) – commissioned by Eating Better, the Food Ethics Council and Hubbub – interviewed a representative sample of 2,095 people in the UK. It found that almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents agreed they would like to do more to support UK farmers with high animal welfare and environmental standards.

Throughout this turbulent year, over seven in 10 of those surveyed said they had taken action to support UK farmers in the last 12 months. This included over one-third of people reporting that they had bought directly from farmers (for example, from farm shops or farmers’ markets) and over one in ten had signed petitions or campaigned in support of UK farming.

There has also been strong public support initiated by the NFU, Jamie Oliver, Which? and others for the need to avoid trade deals which undercut UK food and farming standards. The Yonder survey found that two-thirds of the UK public agree that we should only import meat and dairy if they meet equivalent UK standards. This provides further evidence to back up Footprint’s recent meat survey, in which some of the UK’s leading foodservice companies pledged not to source US meat produced to lower standards than are currently required in the UK.

My sense is that where food – particularly meat and dairy – comes from and how it’s produced will come under much greater scrutiny from the public than it did before. Laggard foodservice companies, be warned…

Of course, it’s hard to consider the implications for others when the foodservice sector is itself on its knees due to the pandemic. We hope foodservice businesses can bounce back soon – and when they do, we believe they can play a vital role. This is not about waving a ‘British is best’ banner (it isn’t always best). Instead it’s about supporting farmers and growers that want to produce nutritious food, farmed humanely and sustainably.

Treat everyone in your supply networks fairly, lobby government to raise the bar and be transparent about where you’re sourcing from and why. Then we might just get the fairness and, yes, high standards of environmental protection, animal welfare and workers’ rights that so many of us want to see.

You can read more about the survey here.

Dan Crossley is executive director of the Food Ethics Council


twitter: @foodethicsnews @dan_crossley

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