The UK must seize the opportunity to develop an integrated food and agriculture policy that combines trade and local opportunities to produce sustainable, nutritious and affordable food that rewards farmers and educates children in order to abolish the disconnect that exists between consumers and their food, according to panellists at the prestigious City Food Lecture in London last week (20 February).
Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Chief Executive Ian Wright said the UK should use its exit from the EU to pursue sustainable international trade agreements.
"International trade has been at the heart of the growth of choice in our supermarkets and across our restaurants over the last 30 or 40 years and this is a pivotal moment for that to continue or change direction as we've left the EU and as we enter into a series of negotiations and new trade deals with the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and so on.”
But he added that in the run up to COP26 when the UK for the first time will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference “we do need to make international trade sustainable”.
He cited UK whisky exports (the UK’s largest food and beverage export) as an example. “Whisky is a fantastic example of a regional product which has been globalised largely on the back of entrepreneurial characters,” he said.
But it was “utterly ludicrous” that whisky must be bottled in Scotland to prove its provenance instead of being shipped in a more environmentally friendly way.
“All that energy that is being expended by moving these extremely heavy bottles full of liquid to markets - that's bonkers. It’s an example of why international trade must begin to think about the sustainability of the mechanisms and trade flows in order that we also take the benefits of what is this fantastic democratisation choice.”
He also branded the UK government’s post-Brexit immigration plans “a terrible mistake”. He said it was now an urgent priority of the UK’s new food strategy to “provide the stability of labour supply to assist the food chain from farm to fork”.
‘Untethered trade is dangerous’
Professor Louise Fresco, the President of the Executive Board of Wageningen University & Research, one of Europe’s leading academic agri-food organisation and research and development centres, said globalisation has meant "more food available of better quality for people". But she warned against the dangers of untethered trade putting “pressure on markets to race to the bottom" on price meaning "issues of sustainability, of exploiting the soil, destroying biodiversity are most felt in the counties where these regulations and controls are not put into place”. She made a plea for “honest, open, transparent negotiations that set the standards for everyone the same way”.
Curing the ‘invisibility’ of food
Baroness Rosie Boycott, a journalist and former chair of the London Food Board, regretted the disconnect that exists between consumers and their food.
“The invisibly of food and the free trade that has happened have combined to create this very unsustainable processed food system that we live in which is causing both planetary and health destruction,” she observed.
She called for better food education in schools, including universal school meals and gardens in every schools. Citing a famous study from the US chef Alice Waters, she said children who grow, prepare and eat their own food, go on to make healthier food choices.
"I've met kids who think spaghetti grows on trees,” she said. “We've all got examples of this lack of connection."
Princess Anne, who closed the lecture, criticised the 2015 decision to discontinue A-levels in food technology and home economics in England. “If I could ask the panel here to write in and complain because I think it’s really silly,” she said.