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With UK trade negotiations now well underway, it’s time to redefine the value of food

As UK trade negotiations with countries all over the globe progress, there has never been a better time to redefine the value of food, says Sue Pritchard, chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

The turf wars are shaping up over the value of food in the trade debates.

 

On the one hand, the free marketeers argue they are the champions of the poor, striking deals that drive prices down and importing from places which can produce most efficiently.

 

On the other hand, a coalition of farmers, green and consumer groups argue it is essential to protect hard-won standards across the whole of the UK’s food system for people, climate, nature and animal welfare.

 

Two years ago, a ground-breaking project, piloting citizen economic councils to give people more say on economic policy, provided many interesting and unexpected insights.

 

Fair

 

On food, participants from every socioeconomic background cared equally about a fair food system.

 

As one participant said: “It’s not the price of food that’s the problem, it’s the price of housing”.

 

This has been borne out by Which?’s UK survey on standards last week.

 

It demonstrates that protecting standards is more important for the poor and vulnerable, since their economic choices are much more constrained.

 

And now, food insecurity is getting even worse.

 

Dependent

 

The poorest in the UK have to spend typically 70 per cent of their income on food, with more people than ever dependent on food banks.

 

Even that radical hot-head Sir John Major agreed, on Saturday’s Today programme, that this is a travesty in a wealthy country like Britain.

 

So, is this an argument for even cheaper food in a free and unfettered market?

 

The thing is, there is no such thing as a free market.

 

All markets are based on a rules-based system of contracts, and those rules should reflect what society thinks is important.

 

Clouded

 

But all too often, such discussions are shrouded in secrecy or clouded by technical language.

 

For too long, the real price of many food system contracts have been passed off elsewhere.

 

From the true costs of production, cleaning up after the environmental damage, and consumption, in the health impacts of cheap junk foods, some players in the food system extract more value for themselves by making others pay.

 

Levelling the playing field for a fairer food system requires us to keep asking: who benefits?

 

And who pays?

 

Scrutiny

 

In the UK, the debates have started to shift, with better scrutiny across the whole food system value chain, asking whether we have the right metrics in place for productivity, returns on investments and public value.

 

Is it right, we ask, that cheap food comes at huge cost to the health of people and the planet?

 

And is it any better if this damage happens far from the UK?

 

From our Learning from Lockdown survey, it’s clear the coronavirus pandemic has been a time when many of us have been reflecting on what we value.

 

People tell us they value their food, where it comes from, cooking more fresh food from scratch.

 

Conditions

 

And 85 per cent say they want better pay and conditions for land based work.

 

90 per cent want to see more investment in shorter local supply chains and more diverse food systems, and 70 per cent want to see more resources devolved to develop rural communities.

 

The next questions are: do we extend these same aspirations to people around the world, and to generations to come?

 

In the next few months, as the UK negotiates its new relationships with the rest of the world, let’s keep these questions uppermost in our minds, and open for debate.

 

The Government’s decision to set up a Trade and Agriculture Commission is very welcome, but only if it considers and tackles these fundamental questions – and the Government listens and acts on its recommendations.

 

Sue can be found tweeting at @suepritch


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