The subject of how we feed ourselves is now commonplace, not just in the hallowed halls of government, under a microscope in a science lab, or around a farmhouse kitchen table.
Unquestionably our desire to feed a growing population while mitigating climate impacts is a subject that you hear discussed in the most unlikely of places and by those who just a few years ago would have had other things on their mind.
It’s no wonder; there is a huge amount at stake for food and farming, with the restructuring of payment subsidies for farmers due by 2027 coupled with the introduction of complex environmental schemes. That’s not to mention the growing demands on farmers to prove their efficiency in managing carbon, water, waste, biodiversity and more. Farming is under pressure to find a way to deliver the outcomes urgently needed; the ability to do so and at the pace at which it happens affects us all.
At the same time as this inordinate task has fallen upon the shoulders of many British farms, their income has been squeezed to an all-time low, with 1/3 of all British farming enterprises loss-making without subsidies. The squeeze is being keenly felt due to rising costs of production and pressure from supermarkets and large corporate food companies not to raise consumer prices (whilst continuing to enable healthy dividends for shareholders).
Farming could be on the brink of a complete sea change towards a more resilient, healthy food system where public goods are valued. Or just as easily it could swing in the opposite direction, causing British agriculture to move further towards total collapse.
Just a few short years ago, the streets were lined with smiling faces cheering on farmers as they set to feeding the nation during a global pandemic. Local food systems thrived and answered any critics who still argued that ‘just in time’ global supply chains were the obvious choice. Yet here we are, a few years on and we seem to have handed back the power to those systems who failed us.
Over the last 60 to 70 years the control of food systems has moved at a staggering pace, from the farm gate to factory farms and their parent companies. Just 10 companies control almost every large food and beverage brand in the world. These companies: Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg's, Mars, Associated British Foods, and Mondelez, each make billions of pounds in revenue every year. In the UK, fewer than 10 supermarkets dominate food retail, making up 95% of market share, and most of the products on their shelves come from these global giants.
In order to increase profits, food corporations drive down the cost of production, controlling and homogenising the food system to offset risk and increase margin. They have a clever weapon to make these factory products more palatable: the addition of salt, sugar and fat to process food into ‘convenience food’. This not only disguises the lack of natural flavour, but it has been argued that many of these processed ingredients have the ability to become addictive substances to us.
We are only just starting to understand some of the implications of a diet inclusive of Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs). Studies are starting to show a catastrophic increase in chronic disease, obesity and diabetes correlating directly to the increase in our UPFs intake.
UPFs make up about 50% of British diets. Combine that with the fact only 7% of Brits are consuming the recommended amount of fibre, which is crucial to our overall health and gut health, we have a problem on our hands.
The change in the way we consume nutrients has dramatically shifted since the industrial revolution. New technology rolled out by corporate food giants has enabled food to be processed in a way that was deemed more efficient in a post war era, where volume of production of calories was seen as king. For example, much of the fibre present in ingredients such as flour has been removed by industrial processing, leaving it less nutritious and less healthy. Bread which should be made up of just 4 ingredients - flour, water, salt and yeast - now tops the rankings of the most ultra processed food we consume (as well as one of the most wasted foods, but that’s another story).
According to the UK Health and Security Agencies recent study, two thirds of UK adults are overweight or obese. One in five children are eating an exceptional amount of ultra processed food in their diet (around 78%).
There is an urgent need for action to tackle increased food poverty in the UK. The most deprived families are reliant on the cheapest foods, which are often mostly made up of UPFs. Approximately 3.8 million people experienced destitution in 2022, including around one million children. This is almost 2.5 times the number of people in 2017, and nearly triple the number of children.
UPFs are not only feeding a health crisis but the degradation of biodiversity too, as ingredients become homogenised and supplemented to drive down cost and increase profit. The more we drive environmental degradation, the more we pass the problem off to the next generation, making the poorest more marginalised and forced to live in more climate-impacted countries. To do nothing is simply not an option.
The way land is used is directly impacted by what food corporations want farmers to produce. Globally we only produce a third of the nutritional food that we need for everyone to have a healthy diet, such as fruit and vegetables, yet we produce 15 times more sugar than we need, 50% more grains and 4 times more oil. Not only is what we are producing feeding unhealthy food systems, it is also driving our food waste as 1/3 of food grown is wasted. About 6% of the world's total emissions now come directly from wasted food.
We won’t fix the food system until we fix who holds the power. We must find ways over the coming decades to transition our food systems so that we can deal with inequality, biodiversity loss and degradation of human diets.
The Key Challenges of Our Food System
- Farmers are not paid fairly for the food they produce nor rewarded for doing good for climate, nature and health.
- Biodiversity loss is increasing due to lack of diverse habitats caused by homogenised farming systems.
- The food we eat has become increasingly monocultural, with the world relying heavily on fewer and fewer crops for a significant proportion of our nutrition.
- Our health is taking a toll because of the way supermarkets and other large supply chain actors market and sell ultra-processed food.
- Healthy food that is produced in a sustainable way is often too expensive for a considerable number of people.
- Food waste is increasing while food poverty is also increasing.
If we want farmers to be part of the climate, health and nature emergency solution, we need supportive supply chains and markets. Without them, farmers are left to compete in volatile global markets which do not reward the delivery of public goods. If we want all citizens to have access to healthy food, we need markets that prioritise this.
A recent report carried out by Sustain found that local food systems deliver positive environmental, economic and social outcomes. For instance, every £1 spent on a veg box scheme provided £3 in economic and environmental returns.
The same report sighted that 85% of farmers supply to supermarkets or large processors and manufacturers. However, just 5% would prefer to sell to supermarkets, while the majority would rather sell to food hubs, direct to customer (e.g. a box scheme), through independent retailers (butchers, grocers, bakers), or to caterers and hospitality (pubs, restaurants and hotels).
So how can we transition to a healthier, fairer food system?
Many of us reading this are likely to be able to access local, healthy food. Our action should start at home by avoiding corporate food systems and seeking out small scale, independent producers. We have a vast tapestry of amazing small scale farmers around the UK, many of whom offer direct sales from the farmgate or online, or they sell through independent farm shops, grocers and other outlets. There are many local farmers markets where you can meet your farmer and learn more about how they are producing your food. We must vote for the system we believe in and seek out and support alternative routes to market where we can. We must encourage others who are able to do so, too.
We need our government to take meaningful action. We would like to see an initiative that supports the transition away from ‘just in time’ supply chains, to local supply chains providing a minimum of 25% of the market share.
Roughly £2billion is spent on public food procurement directly by the Government each year. This money could be used to supply food from local, sustainable, small and medium sized farms. It could create a viable alternative market that would reap numerous environmental and local economy outcomes and help farmers transition away from supplying supermarkets and corporations. We need to invest in the local economy of food producers - farmers, food hubs, markets - providing access for consumers to purchase directly from the farmer. Local governments need to ask themselves: what does this community actually need to ensure there is access to healthy food and how can we provide it?
We need to corporations to be held to account for their actions and stricter rules to be in place with regards to the health of food they are feeding people. Pressure must be placed on them to create profit with purpose. The goal needs to shift from producing calories and cash to producing health and sustainability for all.
We want to see better links between food and education. Food has ceased to become a life skill, yet cooking, nutrition and how to fuel ourselves is as important as learning English and Maths. By learning how to cook nourishing meals, make better food choices, and utilise seasonal ingredients, we better arm our nation with the skills to lessen the impact of food poverty.
Food should not be seen as a cost, but as an investment in our health and the health of the environment, but for many, they have no choice and we must build a society that enables the right for all to access good food.
And finally, we want to see people at the heart of food systems. Farmers and food producers need to be empowered to produce nutritious food. We have to encourage the next generation to want to enter into farming, as we know farmers are some of our best allies in fixing our food system.
Our Promise to You
We will continue to champion and support small scale farmers, providing them with an alternative route to market where they are valued for the work they do in maintaining our health, as well as the health of our environment.
We will bring you, our customers, nutritious food you can trust completely, that has been grown in a way that creates a positive impact and with total transparency.
We will continue to use our voice to stand up for the food system we believe in and encourage you to join us by adding your voice too.
We will not wait around for government or corporates to fix our system, we will continue to be the change, to run our business in a way that supports a positive food system for all, today.