The Guardian view on the future of farming: let’s think about food | Editorial
One of the many effects of the coronavirus in the UK has been to dramatically raise awareness of our food system – that is, the set of arrangements that determines how we shop and eat. Compared with education, health or housing, food is rarely thought of as an area of public policy in which everyone has an interest. But it is. And one of the consequences of recent shortages, as well as the new and welcome emphasis on the “key” roles performed by food industry workers including fruit pickers and supermarket employees, has been to open more people’s eyes to this.
It is too soon to predict with any confidence that the fragility of supply chains that has been revealed in recent weeks, as well as renewed warnings about the risks to humans from animal viruses, and the light shone on the agricultural labour market, will lead to lasting changes. It is not too soon to assert that, among the many issues raised by the pandemic, questions about the future of food cannot be safely ignored.
Already, because of Brexit and the climate crisis, food had risen from its previously lowly position on the political agenda. Leaked no-deal planning documents revealed warnings that fresh food supplies could be reduced, causing price rises (although details in the public domain are limited, the government having refused to share them). The regulations that will govern agricultural imports in any future trade deal with the US are highly contentious, with the opening up of a big European market to the US food industry – which has low standards compared with the EU – among America’s chief aims.
British consumers, as well as farmers who fear being undercut, are widely understood to be unenthusiastic about the prospect of chlorinated chicken – and the American mega-farms that it symbolises. Antibiotics, steroid hormones and pesticides are all used more freely by farmers in the US. But in the UK, too, the number of industrial-sized pig and chicken farms (classified as holding more than 2,000 pigs or 40,000 birds) has recently gone up – by 7% since 2017. Around 70% of all UK farm animals are farmed intensively in indoor units.
This is because meat and dairy products produced in this way are cheap. At a time of widening inequality, with rising hunger (along with the poor nutrition evidenced by obesity) among its most unjust manifestations, it is difficult to argue against the importance of affordability. But while anti-poverty measures must be among ministers’ top priorities, both now and when the crisis eases, some means must also be found to balance the downward pressure on prices, with a more rounded assessment of what food is worth.
Animal welfare considerations are one reason to do this. The risk of disease outbreaks in intensive farms is another. While the precise origins of Covid-19 remain uncertain, warnings about the risk of other outbreaks (avian flu, for example) must now be taken seriously. In rich western countries like the UK, there are also health reasons for most people to rebalance their diets away from animal products and towards plants (as the UK’s school and hospital caterers recognised this week with a pledge to reduce meat use by 20%). Broader environmental considerations of land use and biodiversity, food security and resilience must also be part of the equation. British agriculture is skewed towards livestock and grain feed.
Change will not be easy. Our food system is complicated, as is the global one of which it is part. Competing priorities – including price, animal welfare, carbon footprint and consumer preference – produce inevitable conflicts. But some beneficial effects could follow from our having been forced to take more notice. What we grow and eat are the result of political choices.