Solving the food and farming puzzle

July 21st 2014

Rob Percival

Rob Percival

The alarming decline in birds, butterflies and other wildlife in the UK countryside over the past 50 years might seem to be disconnected from the concurrent rise in the nation’s healthcare bill. What could the loss of colour and variety from our fields and forests have to do with the £14 billion the NHS spends every year treating diabetes?

We can add further pieces to this puzzle. Consider the fact that food prices have risen by 12% over the past six years, and a quarter of British farmers now find themselves living in poverty, even as major retailers continue to make year-on-year profits. Consider the fact that hundreds of thousands of people across the UK are reliant on food banks, and 33% of our children are overweight or obese, and yet we generate 16 million tonnes of food waste a year.

Join the pieces of the puzzle together and an image emerges of a food and farming system that is failing to live up to its potential, that is associated with worsening public health, and that often fails to protect the environment and animal welfare, or ensure fairness for farmers.

What if we could rearrange the pieces of the puzzle?

Cultural historian Thomas Berry once said: “You cannot have well people on a sick planet: what affects one part affects all.” Food, farming, wildlife and health are intrinsically interconnected.

The Square Meal report, published last week, asks what the UK food system would look like if it were designed around health and ecosystems, and not just economics. The report opens a conversation, asking: what if we all came together and showed Government how public health, conservation, and social and environmental concerns, and their solutions, go hand in hand?

Declining wildlife. Expanding waistlines. Social inequality.

Complex challenges require integrated solutions. And examples of such solutions already exist…

…in the growing numbers of towns and cities across the UK who are taking a joined up approach to food, with public agencies, NGOs, businesses and communities working together to make healthy and sustainable food a defining characteristic of where they live.

…in the growing numbers of schools and hospitals, restaurants, and cafes, nurseries and universities, insisting on serving seasonal, local and good-quality food, with higher animal welfare and environmental standards, at no extra cost.

…in the growing evidence of the benefits of organic farming, which demonstrates that as well as being better for wildlife and the environment and better for animal welfare, organic farming produces crops and crop-based foods that are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than their non-organic counterparts, as detailed in a study published last week in the British Journal of Nutrition.

Integrated solutions require vision and leadership. They require joined-up policy making, and a commitment to making the food system work for the common good. Can we solve the puzzle and fix our fragmented food system? The Square Meal report has opened up a conversation that affects us all.


Rob Percival

Soil Association Policy Officer for Food & Health

Rob Percival is policy officer at the Soil Association, working on ‘good food for all’ – encouraging people to connect with, and care for, each other and the natural world through their relationship with food.

Read more of Rob’s blogs.

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