Fruit & Veg Alliance: Westminster 9th July

Last Monday I trooped off to Parliament to join the launch of the Fruit & Veg Alliance. With everything else going on in Westminster this week, you may not have heard about the successful launch of the Fruit & Veg Alliance on Monday. This alliance is made up of a number of farming and food organisations, including the Organic Growers Alliance, with the aim of boosting fruit and veg production by 25 billion more portions, to be in line with the amount needed to hit the ‘seven a day’ target. In order to hit this target, more support and recognition is needed from government, hence the invitations to ministers and MPs.

Helen Whately MP was hosting and chairing the event and introduced the Minister, who briefly summed up the the current position in relation to the agricultural white paper and Brexit. He was at pains to stress that although the future is uncertain, that by the end of 2018 there should be agreement on the withdrawal bill and the likely ‘new economic partnership’ post 2021. Farmers will have access to seasonal migrant labour as usual until 2020, and the Agriculture and Horticulture bill is in its early draft stage with a planned launch in September.

Mr Eustace also suggested that larger businesses would not necessarily come together marketing support from the government, but would for technical support; and that this sort of support would be open to all scales of businesses. There will also be some kind of seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme again. There was also a lengthy discussion on how to attract UK workers and new entrants to growing: the lack of courses was cited as the main reason for the lack of qualified workers, and the courses have dried up due to lack of demand over the years. It was generally agreed that this was in part due to lack of opportunities and career progression, and lack of kudos in the industry, so the sector needs to be more attractive to our brightest talent.

There was then a good discussion on how to make fruit and veg more affordable, as this is perhaps one of the main reasons why the average consumption of fruit and veg is only 1.6 portions per day per adult, rather than the recommended 7 per day. Some thought that fruit and veg were actually already very cheap; it was the potential waste factor if people don’t know what to do with them that could make them seem expensive. Other thoughts included finding different ways to get food to people, such as via schools if children grow food themselves; taking part in a council-supported subsidised scheme such as Tamar Grow Local; and getting the public more appreciative and involved in food growing, which would lead to less waste, such as CSA organisations. Supermarkets are currently the main way in which most people have access to fruit and veg; and Andrew Burgess pointed out that because supermarkets took the stigma out of buying ‘own brand’ fruit and veg years ago, this has been perhaps too successful in that there are currently hardly any brands in produce. Perhaps more brands would help this and be more recognisable, induce customer loyalty and so on?

Laura Sandys was keen to explore how to get the ‘health’ element drawn out and woven together more tightly with food production, and getting the health department working more closely with DEFRA, pointing out that while there was lots of excellent material about the environment in the spring consultation paper, people are as important as the environment, and we also need to work on protecting human health and making that sustainable. Claire Donovan suggested that gene editing should be advanced in order to drive advances in crop production, which the minister agreed with, and said that education in schools should be more supported, and school meals need to be looked at again. Helen Whately suggested that a financial reward could be offered to farmers and growers for the education element when children and adults are encouraged to come onto farms; and that farm visits could be subsidised. The ‘public goods’ mentioned in the Health & Harmony consultation paper could also include education.

Most around the table agreed that big corporations had their roles to play too, and that MacDonald’s 5-a-day push several years ago had a major impact on fruit and veg consumption, so credit should be given for efforts made.

Kirstene Hair wondered why tasting tables at supermarkets were never fruit and veg, and that perhaps some pressure could be placed to encourage this with innovative ways of using fruit and veg at home; although several producers pointed out that those tasting tables tend to cost around £5,000 which is money fruit and veg growers tend not to have.

There was also a lively discussion about food being a public good; and how food in hospitals should be healthy food to encourage good health. Several alliance members asked if a representative from the health department could be present at the Fruit & Veg Alliance’s first roundtable meeting with DEFRA, planned for September, and Maggie Charnley from DEFRA said she would work on this.

After a packed evening it was time to draw the discussions to a close, and Helen Whately thanked everyone for taken part, and was thanked in turn. The launch was a success, and all the members looked forward to coming up with many solutions to the discussed challenges.


Present: George Eustace (Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) Emily Nash (of the Minister’s office), Neil Parish (MP), Helen Whately (MP), Kirstene Hair (MP), Laura Sandys (Chair of Food Foundation), Courtney Scott (Food Foundation), Amber Wheeler (Peas Please), Rebecca Laughton (Landworkers’ Alliance), Maresa Bossa (Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Network UK), Jack Ward (British Growers Association BGA), Ben Raskin (Soil Association), Clare Donovan (Gs Fresh) , Andrew Burgess (Produce World), Kate Collyns (Organic Growers Alliance OGA), Maggie Charnley (DEFRA), Nick Marston (British Summer Fruits)


Oxford Real Farming Conference 2017

20170105_161439This year I couldn’t make both days, so I just went along on the Thursday last week to the Oxford Real Farming Conference at the Town Hall.  As always it’s a hard job trying to choose between attending some sessions that are on at the same time, but I plumped for those that seemed to have some practical elements as well as offering a wider perspective on food and farming policy.

Building Resilience: Addressing Challenges in the Food & Farming System
Chair: Helen Browning (Soil Association)
Speakers: Christopher Price (CLA), Tim Benton (Leeds University & Chatham House), Graeme Willis (CPRE)

I thought I’d kick off the day with an overview and look at what ‘resilience’ means, a word that is being used as the new buzz word, like ‘sustainable’ was a few years ago, but which can have various different meanings. Tim Benton defined it as how well a system can recover from difficulties; and also pointed out that we need to work out whether we want to come back to the same point after a crisis or shock, or to change the way of doing things – for example, coping with the Dustbowl situation in the USA in the 1800s led to a change of farming system. He also looked at sharing risk, so that for example farmers with contracts with supermarkets can have a vertical risk share, where risks (eg climate change impacts, pests and disease, crop failures etc) are spread throughout the production chain, and don’t only rest with the farmer; and how crop insurance is also seriously being looked at to spread risk, rather than subsidies per se. Lastly he pointed out that managing risks comes at a cost, which up until now has mostly been borne by the farmers; but in an ever-risky world (as well as climate change, the uncertainties caused by a globalised future with potential shock from Brexit and an unpredictable Trump presidency), and with fewer and fewer producers as more farmers leave the industry and fewer join, those risk costs will need to be spread.

Christopher Price advocated that farmers continue to do their own risk-management as much as possible to ensure their resilience, eg not relying on subsidies which may or may not continue, saving money in ISAs when a good year, taking advantage of tax strategies such as averaging available to farmers where tax bills are more evenly spread no matter whether a good year or bad, and also touched on the idea of bringing in a USA-style insurance system rather than subsidy, or that subsidy money being used to help farmers become more resilient via consultancy etc. I later asked the question whether he’d agree with the idea that this Governmental support should be available to all producers, rather than larger scale producers on 12 acres or more as is the case now for subsidy money, and he agreed that subsidies should be changed, and support should be available to any good business with a viable plan.

Real Food From Real Farmers
Chair: Jamie Pike
Speakers: Dagan James (Boughton Water Buffalo), Jonathan Chapman (holistic grazing farm), Organic Lea representative

Dagan James highlighted the importance of direct marketing, and getting people on to your farm to get them to really understand what you do, using your production as narrative, and how it’s different from other less sustainable farms. He advocated making relationships with chefs and businesses who are a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, who really get the difference in provenance and flavour of food. Dagan also points out that you need a new skill set for direct marketing: as well as the actual farming and producing, you need to be customer-focussed and retail-minded. He and Jonathan both emphasised that (perhaps contrary to what some producers might think) direct marketing means that you can only sell premium products, and that you can’t get away with trying to palm off substandard food, as it directly damages your reputation. A last-minute speaker replacement, Hannah (I think that was her name!) from Organic Lea specialises in salads for restaurants, and the business turns over £45,000 from 1.5 acres of intensive salad production (they also grow and sell other veg such as tomatoes, celeriac etc, but salad is the speciality for restaurants). She highlighted the importance of consistent quality and supply, and being able to adapt quickly to demand. During questions, the issue arose of restaurants claiming to stock ‘local’ produce and support small producers, in order to increase their customer base, while not sticking to their purported ethics. Several options came out, not least calling out the restaurants about it (even if you don’t supply them), asking where they get their produce from, and either inviting bare-faced lies, or pointing out that their labelling is misleading; plus Riverford’s Guy Watson from the audience suggested that as consumers it’s always our duty to find out exactly where ‘local’ means and who the suppliers are. The FSA could also be brought in as a last resort if the labels are illegally misleading, eg stating produce is organic when not.

Hear From Fellow Farmers: Tech & Tools for a Resilient Farm
Chair: Abby Rose (Farmarama Radio)
Speakers: Louise MacDonald (New MacDonald Farm), Nick Green (Incredible Farm), Will Davenport (Davenport Vineyards), Stephen Briggs (Abacus Agriculture Consultants)

The overall sense in this sessions was ‘new-fashioned farming’: using innovation and tools while listening to the land to get good results. Nick Green showed us his micro-milking battery-powered device he bought online from the USA, for his one cow; Louise (nice to see a local neighbour from New MacDonald Farm appearing!) highlighted the benefits of signing up as a producer to a Food Assembly (and the Open Food Network was later mentioned too); Will Davenport explained how phone apps have helped him keep track and great records around his vineyard (with codes on each plant that can be recognised by his phone, and all the necessary info about it downloaded to his hand); and Stephen Briggs suggested some useful websites, apps and other sources of info. He uses the free Rain Alarm app daily; as well as the various BASF weed and disease ID apps. He also recommends podcasts for info and learning as well as entertainment, such as Farmerama, Radio 4’s Farming Today, TED talks, ITeachAg and Twitter. Other suggestions from the floor also included WAVE accounting software.

20170105_124025The Breadline: Exploring the Politics of Food Pricing
Chair: Humphrey Lloyd (Edible Futures)
Speakers: George Dunn (TFA), Naomi Millner (Bristol University), Lynne Davis (Street Goat)

Humphrey offered a background and overview on the politics of pricing food, noting that there was a food shortage in the 1800s which led to people hijacking grain carts – but rather than taknig the food home from themselves or thir communities, the hijackers would set up market stalls and sell the grain for what they considered to be a fair price. Food pricing has therefore been a political issue ever since, especially following the Corn Laws designed to protect wealthy landowners and producers, and their eventual repeal; 200 years ago poorer people were spending 60-80% of their income on bread alone, with perhaps 5% on meat or dairy. While it is definitely progress that people in general can afford to spend more on food and also on other things such as houses, it’s not just increased incomes which has led this, but the continued reduction in food prices, so that the proportion of income spent on food is now more like 9-12% in total. The question is whether this is the true cots of that food, and whether people are paying for cheap food production in other ways (taxes/subsidies, water bills, health and environmental problems and so on).

George Dunn has a background in economics, and gave a comprehensive dismissal of the illusion of a free market when it comes to food pricing. According to the father of economics Adam Smith, a free market must comprise of: buyers who individually don’t have the power to influence prices (not the case with supermarkets’ and other big corporations’ powers); have homegenous production ie the same product (definitely not the case with food, look at the trouble we have trying to explain how industrial agriculture differs from smaller scale sustainable production, or processed food from fresh ingredients, or country of origin and working conditions of food production workers); producers must have free entry to and exit from the market place (how many new entrants do we know struggling to get customers, especially in public procurement or supermarket stockists, and how easy is it for suppliers to leave?); and consumers must have ‘perfect knowledge’ of the marketplace in order to make rational decisions (very clearly not the case, as consumers are surprised when they realise what tiny margins producers earn compared to retailers, or are misled over ‘local’ food claims, or fall for disingenuous marketing strategies such as the Rosedean Farm labels, or scandals such as horsemeat-gate come along). Therefore there isn’t a ‘free market’ when it comes to food; which begs the question whether it needs some State or top-down tinkering, a radical change (from the bottom-up perhaps?), or some other structural solution.

The panel also discussed how cheap food has become an ideological issue in our age; fitting in with the prevailing idea that more stuff will solve things. We are beginning to realise that with the stuff comes other problems however: more waste, more health problems, environmental problems, and sometimes less nutrition as empty calories are consumed and used to fill us up rather than feed us properly. Cheap food also keeps the status quo (an echo of Marx’s ‘bread and circuses’ for the proletariat claim), and that it actually causes hunger: food poverty is not a problem of production (or food prices would be sky-high in a free market supply-and-demand economy), but of distribution.

Lynne Davis (see pic) also made the practical point that as food sellers, we need to bear in mind the impression of cheapness versus the perception of expense: showing us two photos of a cosy rustic-looking farm shop, and a bright budget supermarket’s aisles. The price of the veg was actually the same, or lower at the farm shop; but she pointed out that businesses have spent a great deal of money making their shops and ranges look cheap, in order for consumers to feel they were getting a great bargain; whereas the lovely-looking rustic farm shop with its wooden barrels, chalkboards and earthy feel gave the impression of being exclusive and therefore pricey: perhaps fine for an indulgent treat, but not for everyday shopping (a similar story has happened to the word ‘organic’ over the years). Maybe until culturally we all start realising that market stalls, farm shops and direct sales are often the best value, as producers we should pick up a few tricks from the supermarkets, such as bargain bins, basic packaging and price comparision stickers?