The future of food: safety first for agriculture; the foot-and-mouth and BSE crises have forced a reappraisal of the way britain produces food

The future of food: safety first for agriculture;
the foot-and-mouth and BSE crises have forced a reappraisal of the way Britain produces food

July 7, 2001 The Independent (London) by David Nicholson-lord

For many people connected with farming, Renate Kunast is the voice of the future. "Of one thing I am absolutely certain," she says. "The BSE scandal marks the end of agricultural policy as we have known it for decades... As never before we are realising the ills of an agricultural policy geared to mass production. BSE has catapulted the public out of the treadmill of thoughtless mass consumption... we can never return."

The agricultural historian of the future may well come to view the last five years as a turning-point. In Britain they span the final acknowledgement of the link between BSE and its human form, variant CJD, in March 1996, to last month's much-predicted abolition of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). They cover the appointment, just over a year ago, of Ms Kunast as Europe's first Green agriculture minister, with a sweeping brief for reform. More fundamentally, many observers believe they could signal the end of a policy which has driven British agriculture for the last 60 years: that of cheap food, whatever the cost.

Around half a century ago we spent, depending on which definitions you use, over 30 per cent of our income on food; today the figure is around 17 per cent. Part of the explanation is increased affluence - food has to take its place alongside white goods, foreign holidays and mobile phones. But the evidence of the last decade or two, in which successive food scares culminated in the collective trauma of BSE, suggests it may have been a false economy. And if one conclusion unites groups at opposite ends of the farming spectrum, from the National Farmers' Union (NFU) to animal welfare groups, it's that we should be all be paying more for our food.

In one sense, many of us already are. Despite the decision by some retailers to drop their margins on organic food, it still commands a significant price premium. Yet we're buying it as never before. According to this year's Organic Food and Farming Report, published by the Soil Association, the body promoting organic farming in the UK, sales of organic food grew by a record 55 per cent in the year to April 2000. The market topped pounds 600m in 1999-2000 and is expected to be worth pounds 1bn within two years. In an industry undergoing its worst financial woes for a generation, organics are seen by many as the salvation - hence the stampede by farmers to convert their land to organic cultivation.

Conversion, however, is a long and uncertain business - it can take up to five years - and British consumers' appetite for organic food has not been matched by Government support for farmers who have seen the green light. The result has been logjam. The central funds available for conversion (currently pounds 13m a year) have frequently been exhausted before the year's end, the UK's organic area is still only three per cent and the volume of organic imports is high (75 per cent) and rising.

There is also the question of whether it will last. Sceptics point to previous spurts in the organic market in the Eighties and early Nineties which fizzled out. And as organic food comes under the microscope, will we discover that it is not all it seems? Last year the newly established Food Standards Agency (FSA) infuriated the organic lobby when its chairman, Sir John Krebs, came close to saying consumers were wasting their money buying it - there was no evidence of nutritional benefits, and pesticide residues on conventional food were harmless. Recently the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) described as misleading a Tesco leaflet that said organic food was produced avoiding artificial pesticides and fertilisers.

Organic experts disagree. Reviews by both the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and a House of Lords Select Committee found that organic foods have lower levels of pesticide and drug residues and tend to contain more vitamins and fewer nitrates. The House of Lords found that while up to 60 per cent of conventional fruit and vegetables contain pesticide residues, these are very rare in organic produce. And a recent study published in the journal Nature found that organic apples were firmer and sweeter than conventional ones; they were also more frugal in energy terms, produced better soil and made more money for the growers.

It seems increasingly unlikely that the clock will be turned back. First, the political landscape has changed, possibly decisively. MAFF has gone, the EU has signed up to an action plan for organic farming, and over in Germany, Europe's paymaster, Ms Kunast has declared that BSE is a symptom of an food production system "gone badly wrong" and set her sights on an "agricultural U-turn" in Europe.

Second, whatever the arguments about the health benefits of eating organic, there's no dispute that it's good for the wider environment. Organic farms have been found to contain five times as many wild plants and 57 more plant species than conventional farms, for instance. And what the foot- and-mouth epidemic has reminded us is that a biologically diverse, beautiful and accessible countryside is essential to tourism - and that we're now a tourist nation rather than an farming one.

According to a recent analysis by Newcastle University, tourism is worth four per cent of GDP (agriculture is one per cent) and employs seven per cent of the workforce (1.5 per cent and falling in agriculture). Yet while tourism could lose pounds 5bn this year through foot-and-mouth, and has received only pounds 18m in compensation, farming has lost pounds 775m but could get pounds 1bn in compensation. And all these losses were incurred for the purpose of protecting a meat export trade worth about pounds 500m. Small wonder that business people in the Yorkshire Dales were proposing a mass trespass on closed footpaths last month.

Yet if foot-and-mouth continues to highlight the lunacy of contemporary rural economics, it has also pointed the way forward for farmers. Increasingly they will manage rural businesses rather than simply producing food. The shift into tourism - camping and farm-based activity holidays - will continue. So will the move towards environmental management - receiving money from the state to look after the landscape and safeguard biodiversity. The latest seven-year rural development programme saw a 60 per cent increase in the budget for "green farming".

There is also likely to be a pronounced switch away from food to crops for industry. Starch from wheat and maize is already used in paper and biodegradable plastics, oil seed rape is a lubricant, flax and hemp find their way into car door panels. Many farms have started producing "biomass" - fast-growing willow trees, for example, to burn in power stations. The growing appetite for natural products could see fields full of evening primroses and sunflowers destined for beauty products.

According to Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, part of the reason for the growing importance of non-food crops is environmental. There are tougher requirements on recycling and a demand for materials that take carbon out of the atmosphere and thus help mitigate global warming. Mr Gill believes a quarter of the UK's cultivable area could end up being turned over to such "renewable raw materials".

But perhaps the most compelling reason why the clock won't be turned back is that the organic boom is part of a shift towards safer food production. How much this will feed the growth in the specifically organic sector is open to debate; what's not at issue is the move in food towards products that consumers feel they can trust. And this, in turn, entails improving the food chain so that we're in a better position to judge where the food has come from and how each stage in the food chain is managed. Organics, in that sense, may simply be the sign of a food market embarking on the long-term business of trading up.

Yet food chains that are more transparent, coupled with consumers sensitised by the likes of BSE and foot-and-mouth into a higher state of uncertainty and aversion to risk, may also be a recipe for turbulence, particularly when there are powerful new independent voices such as the FSA about. Few people think we have seen the end of food scares, for example, even if they're only unsettling little snippets about dioxins in eggs, unfit chicken meat getting into the food chain and a new risk of BSE from cross- contamination in abattoirs, to name just a few headlines from recent weeks. There's a vigorous environmental and animal welfare agenda that the food industry cannot avoid, ranging from genetic modification to battery farming and long-distance transport of livestock. And there's also a health agenda, linked not so much to the avoidance of toxins as the promotion of long- term health, which suggests that to avoid the two great killers of the Western world, cancer and heart disease, we'd all be better off eating less meat and more fruit and vegetables.

With all this ahead, cheap food looks less and less of a good deal. Yet if we spend more on food, who should reap the benefit? Farmers, possibly: the NFU argues that the proportion of the "retail pound" that gets back to the producer has sunk to unsustainable lows and blames the complexity of the food chain and the market dominance of the supermarkets. Animals as well: Peter Stevenson, political and legal director of Compassion in World Farming, says that a "slight" increase in the proportion of our income we spend on food - say, half a percentage point, to 17.5 per cent - could easily enable us to introduce more humane production methods. And some retailers would also benefit: those who provide customers with food they can trust.

But the chief beneficiaries could be ourselves. Jules Pretty, of Essex University, has calculated that every acre of conventionally farmed land in Britain costs over pounds 200 in taxes and clean-up bills and argues that we pay three times for our food: once in subsidies, once over the counter and once to mop up the environmental and health costs. The latest estimate for the cost of BSE is around pounds 4bn. If food always made us healthy, instead of too often making us ill, we would all, clearly, be much better off.

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