Can we Change our Food System for the Better?

Sophie Cunnington - Yellow Wagtail Project Officer

We are in an environmental and health crisis that can no longer be ignored, and our food system is in the centre of this. We eat too much of what we shouldn’t and too little of what we should. Our health seems to be going on a downward spiral and NHS is overwhelmed. Post war farming policy and incentives have focused on the production of food to the detriment of the wider environment. The agricultural sector is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases emissions in the global economy. But can we change this? Can we create a food system that enables us to escape the “junk food cycle” and protect the NHS? Can we reduce diet related inequality? Can we restore biodiversity to our land and meet our food needs at the same time? Can we make these changes last?

These are all questions that have been tackled by the National Food Strategy, an ambitious and detailed plan that seeks to transform England’s food system. Published in July of this year and led by Henry Dimbleby, this 290-page report shows that the subject has been thoroughly researched and has gained insights from people involved throughout the food system including farmers, researchers, the general public, food banks and social enterprises, schools and hospitals, and has given many hope that things can change. What this report has made evidently clear is that we cannot have healthy people without a healthy planet, and we cannot have a healthy planet without healthy people. In this short article, we unpick Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, hear form people who are already making change happen, and question whether it is really possible for us to restore nature and nourish ourselves in Oxfordshire.

Can we make the best use of our land?

Wildlife in the UK has been in decline for decades. The State of Nature 2019 report showed that since the 1970s, 41% of UK species studied have declined. Efforts have been made to reverse these declines through restoring degraded habitats, creating wildlife For the Climate, Nature and Ourselves: Can we Change our Food System for the Better? Sophie Cunnington, Yellow Wagtail Project visit the Kitchen Garden People, a Community Supported Agriculture scheme at FarmED corridors, sustainable farming practices, and rewilding. It is refreshing to see that the National Food Strategy has highlighted the potential for farmers to not only feed our country, but also play a vital role in bringing nature back to our landscapes.

For this, the National Food Strategy recommends three actions: guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029; create a Rural Land Use Framework; and define minimum standards for trade.

The strategy highlights the importance of the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs), which is being introduced in England between now and 2027. ELMs will reward farmers moving to more sustainable management practices, and for those activities that enhance the land and create common goods including nature restoration, soil improvement, carbon sequestration, flood prevention, managing woodland, and animal welfare. However, the National Food Strategy states that the Government are only committing to maintain funding for agriculture, an average of£2.4 billion per year, until 2024. This will make it difficult for farmers to plan for the future. The strategy recommends that this budget should be extended until 2029 to allow farmers to transition to a potentially new way of farming. They also address the need for making it easy for tenant farmers to join the scheme.

A number of farms are already one step aheadincluding Bruern Farms owned by Henry Astor and FarmED based at Honeydale Farm, both located in the Cotswolds, and Sheepdrovebased in West Berkshire. These farms run as mixed farms, where crops and livestock are raised together. By using farming practices that work with nature, they are restoring their soils, storing carbon, and producing nutrient dense food with minimal if not zero inputs, like artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

Bruern’s prize crop is their heritage wheat, and they grow up to 250 varieties in a single field. The soil is blanketed by a living mulch of clover and perennial plants which allows Astor to manage his fields in a continuous cropping system where the seeds are drilled directly into the soil, allowed to grow, and be harvested, and the cycle continues. Astor is also experimenting with agroforestry, where trees are planted throughout fields to increase crop resilience and productivity, and make space for wildlife, and is participating in Wild Oxfordshire’s Natural Flood Management project. Extending financial support will help other farmers to make giant leaps as Bruern Farms, FarmED and Sheep drove have done.

The strategy also recommends creating a Rural Land Use Framework identifying what land would be best for what purpose and this should be used to connect and inform existing land based schemes and strategies within Defra. The Framework should work under a Three Compartment Model where a mosaic of different landscapes is created to provide habitats for nature and food for people. They propose that the mosaic should consist of wild land which will involve restoring habitats like broadleaf woodland and peatland, low intensity farmland, and higher intensity farming that is not polluting or environmentally damaging. The strategy states that for this model to be possible, we must allow one third of our land to become semi-wild which can be achieved if we increase crop yields by 15%, halve food waste and reduce meat consumption by 30%.

Bruce Winney works for the Wildlife and Countryside Link where he manages and supports the charity’s work on Local Nature Recovery Strategies. He is also a volunteer for Wild Oxfordshire. Bruce feels that putting aside 30% of land purely for nature will be difficult and that 15% would be a more practical target that would still double the amount of land of high value for nature. He emphasizes that for the scheme to be successful, the framework must consider the current policy landscape. This includes 30 by 30 (the goal of managing 30% of land for nature by 2030), the national Nature Recovery Network and the Wildlife Trust’s Wild Belts, a form of which is thought to be under consideration by the new Secretary of State for Housing, Michael Gove. Winney suggests that the bottom-up Local Nature Recovery Strategies approach, which will be rolled out in April 2022, would be a starting point for implementing the framework and should understand local opportunities, and involve landowners and the farming community.

Although they propose that we must reduce our meat consumption, Dimbleby and colleagues do well not to villainise the meat industry. They highlight that if livestock are managed in the right way, they can help to manage ecosystems, sequester carbon, and reduce our reliance on artificial fertilisers.

Emma Blomfield, from Emma’s Ewesful Acresgrazes her cattle on the Yellow Wagtail Project’s wetland meadows and pastures, a conservation project hosted by Wild Oxfordshire. Not only are these cattle an integral part of meadow and pasture management but they are also important for other species including dung beetles, Yellow Wagtails and House Martins. Her cattle are stocked at a low density which helps her to avoid the use of veterinary medicines unless absolutely necessary. Emma and her cattle are a good example of the low intensity farming that the strategy recommends for the Three Compartment Model.

The Three Compartment Model should help to inform regulations and payments that are being designed to encourage farmers to move to more sustainable farming practices. The strategy also highlights the importance of seeking input from other government sectors including the Ministry for Housing Communities, Local Government, the Department for Business and Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Finally, the strategy tries to address concerns over future trade deals. In the strategy’s first report, Plan One, published in July 2020, Dimbleby and colleagues state that the Government “should only agree to cut tariffs on products which meet our core standards”. The strategy advises the Government to define a set of minimum standards for trade and create amechanism for protecting them. Minimum standards should include animal welfare, protection of environment and health, carbon emissions, antimicrobial resistance, and zoonotic disease risk.

The Government has not yet specified which standards they plan to meet. However, if a tariff-free trade deal on agriculture is agreed, it would compromise our own efforts to move the food system in a more sustainable direction.

Blomfield still has concerns over potential deals with the US and Australia, stating, “products from these countries may have to meet our standards but they can still be produced cheaper than in the UK, our UK standards limit the number of animals we can produce.” Will imports outcompete our products and put farmers’ livelihoods at risk?

“We must acknowledge the value of the animal.” says Blomfield, “Farming is like any business, we have margins, but our margins are tight”

Can we escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS?

In England, poor diet contributes to around 64,000 deaths each year. More than half of people over 45 have a diet related health Emma Blomfield and her cattle condition and levels of obesity are on the rise. We must shift our diet.

The strategy recommends that by 2032 we mustincrease our consumption of fruit and vegetables by 30%, increase fibre by 50%, reduce foods high in fat, sugar and salt by 25% and reduce meat by 30% when compared to figures in 2019. Dimbleby emphasises that to do this we must escape the ‘Junk Food Cycle’ and protect the NHS by introducing taxes on unhealthy food groups, mandatory sales reporting for large food companies and education in schools.

Dr Sally Bell, a medical practitioner for 22 years, uses lifestyle medicine to help people prevent and recover disease. She now runs a private practice and offers online life style courses. Dr Bell says, “90% of chronic diseases are caused by our lifestyle choices.” She is an advocate of lifestyle changes particularly around sleep, movement, nutrition, and connecting with ourselves, with others and with nature.

Like many, Dr Bell finds the National Food Strategy positive, however, she has concerns over the recommendation to introduce a tax on sugar and salt in processed foods. The strategy states that taxes here would incentivise food manufacturers to reformulate their recipes and reduce portion sizes. But Dr Bell points out that if a sugar tax is enforced, there will be a push towards artificial sweeteners which can have a profound impact on health, affecting both the gut biome and endocrine system. Secondly, she highlights that by putting a tax on salt, we are not getting to the heart of this problem, “Salt is not the issue, ultra-processed foods are”. She emphasizes that we must stop vilifying food groups like salt and fats and instead, start to address the root cause - ultra-processed foods themselves. These foods make up over 60% of our caloriesin the UK and lack the nutrition and fibre that we need in our diets.

“One thing that would radically change the health of our nation is eating real food.” says Dr Bell

The recommendation to launch a new “Eat and Learn” initiative for schools might be the start of making this change happen. This pushes for “food tech” to be taken seriously in schools and measures implemented to make it happen, including curriculum changes, sensory education, reinstating qualifications, and government funding.

“The only way we can change long-term eating habits is by getting children into the garden and by giving them real food.” Dr Bell

Can we reduce diet-related inequality?

The pandemic has not only highlighted the inequality of health in England but has increased the number of people who have struggled to provide food for their families. Both food banks and community food groups experienced a rise in the number of people using their services during the pandemic.

The strategy recommends a number of ways the Government should tackle diet-related inequality which include, extending the eligibility for free school meals; continuing to fund the Holiday Activities and Food Dr Sally Bell Programme, which provides activities and at least one hot meal a day during periods of the holidays for children on free school meals; expanding the Healthy Start scheme, which provides coupons and vouchers for pregnant women on low incomes and families with children under four, to buy fruit, vegetables, milk and vitamins; and trialing a “Community Eatwell” Programme, which would allow GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables, and give food related education and social support.

Sustainable Wantage, Community Action Group reiterates both the problem and the need."Throughout the pandemic, demand for the services of our Community Fridge hasrisen due to reduced food security. Taking these recommendations seriously will be vital for improving diet related inequality in the future.”

The Community Eatwell Programme trial is particularly encouraging which Dimbleby recommends should be tailored to local needs and build on existing neighbourhood initiatives. He suggests that funds could be invested in local infrastructure and facilities that already exist including fruit and veg street markets, box schemes and community farms, kitchens and cafes.

However, if doctors are to prescribe healthy food, like the Community Eatwell Programmesuggests, they must understand nutrition. Dr Bell points out that there is no teaching of nutrition in most medical training and many doctors are stuck in a paradigm of just treating parts of the body rather than taking a more holistic approach such as changing one’s diet. “A lot of work is needed to inspire medics to change but there is now a diploma for lifestyle medicine in the UK and students from the Bristol Medical School have started the Nutritank Society” says Dr Bell. The Nutritank Society aims to promote the importance of nutrition and lifestyle medicine in the medical world.

Rachel Hammond, founder of edge, is working to reconnect people with their food in urban spaces. She is concerned that schemes like the Community Eatwell Programme and the Eat and Learn initiative, mentioned above, ignore the importance of people growing their food. She emphasises that we must teach people about how their food is produced and give them practical skills to do it themselves and inspire new generations to start careers in sustainable food production. She says, “the best way to get a child to eat a tomato is for them to be part of the production and watch it grow from seed to fruit”. Hammond highlights that bringing food into urban spaces has a huge number of benefits including improving physical and mental health, combatting social isolation, improving air quality, biodiversity, and urban cooling. It can reduce food poverty, create jobs and opportunities for tourism and build a community. Hammond uses her old home Todmorden, in West Yorkshire, as a great example. The community of Todmorden has transformed this town from a place with a number of challenges to one with a thriving community by using food to start conversations and help people to rethink the connection between food and health. They have done this by turning public realm spacesinto edible landscapes where people can take and share food from the growing spaces. They have also been changing perspectives by teaching people skills including grafting trees and how to cook. The town has created a value around food and there is now movement to buy locally and support the local economy. Edge is trying to show that it is commercially viable and economically beneficial to grow food in urban spaces that can benefit whole communities.

Can we create a long-term shift in our food culture?

In order to change our food system for the long-term, Dimbleby recommends the following: Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system which includes a new “Challenge Fund”; Create a National Food System Data programme, including a National Rural Land Map for the Rural Land Use Framework; strengthen Government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food; and set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change.

The Food Strategy highlights the importance of a new Challenge Fund with a recommended budget of £500 million for the next 5 years which, they state, “should be spent on projects that make the food system better in practise, rather than simply on new ideas”. This would increase funding opportunities in innovative areas that are often missed by government funding such as farms, start-up businesses and community projects. This should be welcomed as the funds would be directed to people working in their communities and who use local knowledge to tackle local challenges.

The aim of the Challenge Fund is to meet the strategy goals by shifting diets, through novelways such as accelerating work to reformulate processed foods, exploring ways to help customers change their habits, boost locally led initiatives to improve diet and health, and develop new ways of growing food.

The strategy also suggests that the Challenge Fund should provide grants of £15 million for the next five years for alternative protein/meat substitute initiatives and that the Government should invest £50 million into building shared facilities for entrepreneurs and scientists that work on these proteins to encourage creativity and idea sharing. However, Dr Bell shares concerns over alternative proteins as they are generally ultra-processed, and as she previously stated, it is the ultra-processed food that are an issue for our health. She suggests that whether you are an omnivore, vegetarian or vegan a focus on eating whole and real food would be a more appropriate and healthy option.Sheepdrove farm echoes Dr Bell’s views and has a particular concern that alternative proteins such as lab-grown meat will continue to create a divide between people, good food, and nature. Afterall, the National Food Strategy not only envisions a healthy human population, but also,healthy landscapes and communities that have rediscovered relationships with the land, our food and each other. Should ultra-processed alternative proteins, devoid of any connection with the land, nature and people have a place in this vision?

Can we really do this?

Overall, the National Food Strategy suggests that our food system will have a bright future but is there enough political will to make this happen? A number of collaborators of this article are uncertain. So, I want to propose the question: Can we as individuals, communities or as a country bring about the change that is needed? Could Peter and Juliet Kindersley, owners of Sheepdrove FarmOxfordshire lead the way in sustainable farming that can feed our community, restore our soils and biodiversity, create nutritious food and, healthy people that support each other and understand and care about their food system?

“We need a generation that sees life differently and sees us not as leaders but as part of the ecological system. We are nature, and nature is not there to be exploited.” – Dr Sally Bell

The collaborators of this article are just a few of the inspiring people who are leading the wayand are also creating opportunities for others. FarmED are a demonstration farm showcasing not only how farms can successfully run whilst working with nature, but also how they can empower others to work with the land. They have created opportunities for other people to start their own business including bee keeping and a micro dairy, all of which adds value and resilience to the farm. They run farm walks, talks and feasts to inspire farmers, children and anyone who may be interested, and host a great number of workshops ranging from sustainable land management to food and health. They also offer supported tickets to increase accessibility to their workshops. Henry Astor at Bruern Farms has given one acre of his land to the Chippy Larder, a community organisation in Chipping Norton which provides low-cost food to the people who need it most. Here they keep 25 laying hens and a vegetable plot. Henry is also involved in writing a curriculum for local schools about the environment and farming and is turning one of his barns into a kitchen for workshops where he hopes to take people on a journey from farm to fork.

Community is at the heart of Sheepdrove. They host a number of businesses on their farm including a market garden coop, an organic fermenting business and a smokery. They have also created a space for people to connect with farming and nature. They have a sustainable events venue, guest houses and a natural burial wood.Edge is working reconnect people with food and nature by designing spaces for food, dye,and medicinal plants to grow in urban areas. Alongside their landscaping they run food related workshops and courses, and work with schools to inspire others to grow their own. They have also launched an Urban Food Production Toolkit to help community groupsunderstand different food production systems, and a book may be on the way.Sustainable Wantage, a Community Action Group are reducing food waste by collecting surplus food from supermarkets and with the help of their volunteers, distributing it to local people. Dr Sally Bell not only has a private practice that helps people to change the lifestyle for the better, but she also gives out free advice through her blog and social media and has run a series of webinars available on YouTube for all to access.But change will not happen without help from us as consumers. We need to support farmers and growers that support our values. And with more and more farmers starting to sell direct, this couldn’t be easier. Henry Astor at Bruern Farms has set up a farm shop with a mission to keep food local and feed Milton under Wychwood. Emma Blomfield from Emma’s Hallam Duckworth and his micro-dairy herd at FarmEDEwesful Acres delivers her meat throughout Oxfordshire and surrounding areas. FarmED have recently started a café. We also must learn about our food system, learn to cook, and eat seasonally and locally, we mustquestion where our food comes from at restaurants, cafés, and shops.

We can change the food system from the ground-up, but it will involve collaboration. We must shift our mindsets so that we see ourselves and our food as part of nature. We must stop looking at topics like the environment, food and health in isolation and see them as one. And most importantly, we must all play our part. Are you in?

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