Politicians at Groundswell back nature-friendly farming but “failing” to act on bad diets
A vision for nature-friendly food production set out by farming and environment groups was welcomed by the three largest UK political parties at Groundswell farming festival.
Last week the Soil Association headed to Groundswell farming festival - a major annual event for farmers, environmentalists and anyone interested in food production.
The Soil Association was involved with a number of important sessions, and our Chief Executive Helen Browning chaired a session on the main stage at the event.
Helen was joined on the panel by a RSBP representative who presented a consensus on food, farming and nature to a representative from each of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.
The consensus declares that future farming must embrace nature as an ally for food and farming by breaking reliance on chemicals, regenerating soils, and using technology responsibly.
It has been signed by a number of groups and farmers including the Soil Association, RSPB, WWF, Nature Friendly Farming Network, the Wildlife Trusts, and the Woodland Trust.
"Humanity’s greatest challenge is tackling climate change"
Speaking on the panel, Lord Benyon, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said “There’s not a lot that actually divides us on these key issues. And that’s good. That’s good for your businesses, that’s good for organisations that want to push the government in whatever form that takes into a certain direction. Unlike countries like the United States, we agree that humanity’s greatest challenge is tackling climate change.”
He was joined in the debate by Labour MP Daniel Zeichner and Liberal Democrat advisor Stuart Roberts, and all three agreed on the importance of nature – and they also agreed that our food system needed to change to tackle the diet related public health crisis.
Speaking after the debate, Soil Association Chief Executive Helen Browning said: “There’s so much common ground between parties and with what we’re saying. That’s what this consensus is all about – finding common ground, that’s the only way we’ll make progress. Everyone acknowledged the problem, no-one is saying we need to get back on the chemical treadmill that farming has been on in recent decades.
“What is frustrating is the pace. If we had 30 years, I would feel very optimistic – but we don’t, we have five years to tackle the climate and nature emergencies. We need to act faster and to be more long-sighted to stop us going off the cliff on both climate and public health.”
Healthier choices for the UK's future
As explained by RSPB’s Katy Jo Luxton, the consensus calls for a transformation of the food system that ensures diets sit within planetary boundaries and gives farmers a fair deal.
It states that the prize for this transformation is healthier people, resilient farming livelihoods, prosperous rural communities, thriving wildlife, and a stable climate.
Helen added: “Things are happening around sustainable farming policy, but the big failing is on health. For instance, politicians need to grasp the importance of tackling the issue of ultra-processed foods, and using the cost-of-living crisis to stall on things like junk food promotions is quite disgraceful.”
This resounding warning over the connection between unsustainable farming and bad diets echoed across Groundswell in other sessions including a panel session on public procurement that was led by chef Thomasina Miers.
Speaking on the panel, Soil Association Head of Food Policy Rob Percival criticised the government’s lack of action on junk food marketing including buy-one-get-one-free promotions.
He said: “The supermarkets are saying do it, we’re ready. It’s political cowardice not to. There is really good evidence that buy-one-get-one-free deals make people spend more money. There is public appetite for government intervention – there’s no excuses.”
Percival also urged the government to improve the food served in schools and hospitals, following the recommendations made by Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy and the model set by the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme, which sets standards for schools to serve good food.
He pointed out that just last year, Food for Life menus drove a £50 million investment in British produce, including £12 million for organic and £15 million for British meat.