Farmers should be rewarded for supporting the NHS in tackling the UK’s diet-related health problems, says Rob Percival, head of policy for food and health at the Soil Association.
Farmers already juggle multiple responsibilities.
They are charged with feeding the population, preserving the natural environment, maintaining biodiversity, and increasingly with responding to climate change.
Should they also be responsible for the nation’s health?
With diet-related illness now the biggest burden to the NHS and antimicrobial resistance on the rise, the way we farm and produce food has never been so much in the spotlight for its consequences for our health, though much of the transformation is taking place at processing level affecting the nutritive content of food.
Farmers cannot be held responsible for the way people eat, but they can be rewarded for practices and outcomes which support the nation to stay healthy.
Consider the nation’s diet.
On average, we consume too many ultra-processed foods and insufficient fresh veg, fruit, nuts, and pulses.
But with the Agriculture Bill promising the biggest changes to farming policy in a generation, this is an opportunity for Government to put in place a joined-up food strategy, with targeted payments to farmers which increase the availability, affordability, diversity, quality and marketing of fresh and healthy foods.
Antimicrobial resistance is another critical health issue.
While livestock farmers are making great strides in reducing the use of preventative antibiotics, around 40 per cent of the antibiotics used in the UK are still given to farm animals.
Should the Agriculture Bill incentivise farmers to shift to higher welfare, pasture-based systems, like organic, which use fewer antibiotics?
If post-Brexit policy supported farmers to improve housing conditions for animals and transition to higher welfare systems, this would help to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics essential to human medicine.
Then there are pesticides, which pose potential health risks to both farmers and citizens.
With emerging evidence suggesting many frequently used chemicals act as endocrine disrupters, even at very low doses, it seems sensible for post-Brexit policy to set the ambition of helping farmers to get off the pesticide treadmill, with payments on health grounds for reduced use or for transitioning to robust integrated pest management or organic systems.
With Brexit unresolved, the prospect of ‘no deal’ and future trading arrangements poses grave threats to the sector.
But if this is a moment of great threat, it also holds seeds of opportunity.
Many farmers are already supporting the nation’s health. Should they not be recognised and rewarded for their contribution?
A healthy population should be one of the central ambitions of a functional food and farming system, and the Agriculture Bill is a rare opportunity to reframe our ambitions.
Ultimately it falls on the Government to lead the UK’s response to the inter-related issues of antimicrobial resistance, dietary ill-health, soil health and climate change, but they cannot do it without farmers.
It is time to recognise farmers are standing on the front line of our National Health Service.
Rob can be found tweeting at @Rob_Percival_