Brexit presents an opportunity to boost the UK's regenerative agriculture, according the boss of Fresh Range, an ‘ethical’ online grocer which sources directly from British farmers and growers and which has just expanded to offer a UK-wide delivery service.
There are currently huge fears among UK farmers that the government will abandon food standards in order to win a post-Brexit trade deal with the US. The UK’s newly appointed environment secretary, George Eustice, was booed at the National Farmers Union in Birmingham earlier this week (25 February) after he failed to give assurances on post-Brexit food standards.
But Rich Osborn, founder of Fresh Range, an award-winning online store that enables small scale producers selling meat, dairy, vegetable and salad and herbs, to supply direct to consumers, is becalmed by the thought that if there is a widely feared divergence away from current EU food standards “there will be a trend of more people demanding more knowledge about the transparency of production”.
If the UK does end up being flooded with “cheap food and potentially highly environmentally or socially damaging products”, he believes “a large segment of the UK population will become even more discerning about their food choices”.
“I base that on the US where there is a massive anti-GMO movement that's much bigger than here because they have to consider it far more than we do,” he elaborated.
“The organic movement is much stronger in other countries because the alternative to organic in those counties can be far worse. So I think that you'll see certification models all benefit because as soon as people start to realise the alternative is unregulated, un-certified and opaque supply chains, then all of a sudden having transparent supply chains that you can trust will become a bigger part of people's lives.”
Fresh Range is on a mission to deliver fresher food sourced with care from suppliers with the highest welfare and environmental standards. Expanding from its western England origins, Fresh Range now offers its services across 16 regions in the UK.
The grocer sources from producers, such as Farm Wilder, who aim to address climate change, restore biodiversity and protect endangered native species such as bees, butterflies, birds and hedgehogs. And to combat food waste and greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain, the Fresh Range service only uses compostable and recyclable packaging.
All this, according to Osborn, taps into three big consumer buzzwords: sustainability, transparency and provenance.
“We are offering a new way for people to engage with British farmers and source food and drink directly via short and transparent supply chains,” he said.
That doesn’t mean some products aren’t sourced from overseas. “The vast majority of global greenhouse gasses generated by food come from the production of food, not due to the distances its travelled,” said Osborn. Fresh Range is “all to do with transparency of provenance so that you know exactly what you're ordering at the point of order and you’re highly informed as a consumer about exactly where your food is coming from and how it was produced”.
Plant-based vs omnivore
Meanwhile, Osborn bemoans the often toxic vegan vs omnivore discussion. “Too often it’s a binary debate. There's not enough nuance to our discussion about food and sustainability.”
For example, “if you choose to be a vegan and you eat sustainably produced vegetables grains and proteins only, then it’s an incredibly environmentally friendly diet. However, a lot of vegans are not following sustainable diets and are blissfully unaware of it.”
Similarly, “you can eat meat and dairy products and be highly destructive environmentally and socially and in terms of animal welfare – or you can eat a diet eating meat and dairy that is really sustainable, high in animal and human welfare and that can boost a regional economy.”
A rich person’s luxury?
Is an environmentally friendly diet characterised by organic, sustainably sourced produce simply a luxury for the better off? “I acknowledge that,” said Osborn. But, again, he’s encouraged that Brexit Britain could bring a mass appeal to regenerative agriculture. Post CAP, he’s confident the government will subsidise farms that are producing food more sustainably, leading to an increase in supply and fall in consumer prices.
“Farms that are not taking care of soil health, managing energy efficiently, ensuring water is clean, helping biodiversity and reducing carbon emissions by increasing carbon sequestration are going to go to the wall.”
He’s also confident that the re-allocation of post-CAP subsidies will hasten the introduction of carbon footprint labelling on food products to allow the government a practical way of evaluating the environment footprint of production on farmlands.
This recent development, being piloted by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, envisions product labels showing how many grammes of greenhouse gases were emitted during production, from sourcing raw materials, to manufacturing, transporting to the stores and to the end of life.
Osborn would to like to see a traffic system label on foods: red representing a very high carbon footprint, green being as ‘being as close you're gonna get to carbon neutral food’. “I think we’ll get there pretty soon,” he said.