What are the key challenges associated with producing food in an environmentally sustainable way?
The expression ‘environmentally sustainable way’ is an easy expression to use but more difficult to apply in a consistent and practical way when it comes to making decisions about food production at the farm level.
There are multiple considerations in growing crops and many of them have an environmental dimension. From a grower perspective there is always a dilemma about where to draw the line between acting in the best interests of the crop, the supply chain, the consumer and the environment. Ticking all these boxes all the time is challenging. The 2019 / 20 winter is a good case in point. A lot of land supporting overwinter crops such as cauliflowers, cabbages etc was severely waterlogged. From an environmental point of view and to reduce the risk of damage to soil and soil structures, the answer would be to hold off from harvesting. But our ‘just in time’ food supply chain system means that daily orders need to be fulfilled. The food system is too finely balanced to withstand big changes in continuity of supply. In these situations, there is often no alternative but to carry on harvesting in sub optimal conditions and operating in a way which, some might argue, is not environmentally sustainable.
We have created a supply chain system where there is virtually no room for error or breakdown in supply. As consumers we increasingly expect to see a full range of product every time we visit a retailer. We have lost sight of the fact that crops are dependent on the weather and that variations in weather lead to variations in production. We need to ask the question how much flexibility should exist in the supply chain to accommodate decisions made to further environmental sustainability versus decisions made to ensure product reaches the shelf and continuity of supply is maintained.
What are some of the pressures involved for food producers which prevent further progress in this regard? Is it profitable to be environmentally sustainable?
There is a broader issue here for society to consider. Consumer expectation is often for near perfection in all categories of fresh produce. Retailer specifications are very tight; shape and size need to be uniform and colouration is important for some crops, notably apples. Making sure that all consignments of fresh produce are free from ‘extraneous material’ and are within the tight customer specifications probably increases the intensity of production and pressure on the environment. In 2019 significant volumes of apples were left in orchards because they were too big to meet the retailer specification and yet there were perfectly good; they we just too big to meet and consequently, there was a large amount of waste.
Despite all the technology available to growers, the weather and the season always have the upper hand and in a straight fight between weather and technology, weather generally wins. Achieving perfection in produce is broadly dependant on getting the right weather at the right time. Moisture and warmth in spring, light, heat and some rain in summer and a mix of rain and dry through the autumn enough to replenish water supplies but not so much to affect the harvesting of winter crops
(brassicas, cauliflowers, cabbage, Brussel sprouts). The variability and volatility in weather patterns over the past couple of years highlights just how difficult it can be in trying to deliver high specification produce in less than ideal conditions.
There is relatively little scope in current pricing models for growers to recover any extra costs associated with additional environmental measures. The pressure is always on deliver product at least cost. Perhaps we should explore new pricing models which reward growers for prioritising environmental sustainability.
A priority for us is to explore how a healthy and sustainable diet can be accessible to everyone. Does a sustainable diet cost more to produce?
Not necessarily. There is a good supply of vegetables at very competitive prices. For the cost of a cup of coffee (£2.70) in January 2020, anyone shopping in one of the main retailers could have bought the following items; a cabbage £0.79p; 350 g pack of broccoli £0.65; a kg of carrots £0.59 and a kg of frozen peas £0.69 total cost = £2.72. This would be enough veg to feed the average family for several days. How much cheaper does it need to be?
How might any increased costs be mitigated to ensure that everyone can access this?
The margins involved in fresh produce are around 1 to 2%. There is very little scope for reducing the cost of production. Affordability is as much an income issue as a cost issue. There is a basic cost of production which needs to be recovered in the price paid for the product. The industry can’t operate on a model whereby it absorbs every cost increase at its own expense. We need to find a different way to help those who can’t afford a wholesome supply of food. We can’t expect growers to use their limited margins to fund the gap.
2. The National Farmers’ Union told us that they had yet to see a clear national vision on what sustainable food production looks like. What is your view on this? What does good practise look like? How can we measure it?
We would completely agree with the NFU on the need for a clear vision about what sustainable food production looks like. The past 40 years has seen an almost total focus on production efficiency which has resulted in food becoming less expensive and consumers spending an ever-reducing proportion of their weekly wage on buying food. This has been a massive win for consumers. For the next 20 years the emphasis will be around delivering higher levels of environmental sustainability. This will manifest itself in greater regulation around use of plant protection materials, stricter controls on the use of irrigation, greater emphasis on biodiversity, etc. These are not necessarily negative trends, but they are likely to increase the cost of production ad the costs need to be recovered from the supply chain.
We need to understand what is important in the environmental sustainability equation and align the required actions and the measures so that they deliver the optimum benefits. The obvious areas for consideration are carbon emissions, soil health, water quality and air quality. There is also a strong case for including a target for security of food supply and nutritional content to ensure there is a balance between the competing demands of food production and environmental sustainability. We also need to think carefully about the long-term consequences of reducing our productive capacity and at the same time increasing our reliance on imported products and the impact this could have on environmental sustainability in other parts of the world.
We need to be clear about the UK position on imports of produce which could be easily produced in the UK and the conditions under which that produce is grown in other parts of the world. The UK needs to guard against ‘off shoring’ production in the interests of keeping prices low but without proper concern for the impact on the environment in those countries exporting produce to the UK.
What are your thoughts on the ‘public money for public goods’ model proposed in the Agriculture Bill?
The principle of public money for public goods must the right one. What is less clear is how a public good attracting public funding will be defined. It would be good to see more detail on the definition of a public good and get an indication of the amount of funding available to support this element of the future agricultural support system. Without adequate funding it could become little more than a catchy slogan.
3. In your view, what relationship does food production have to public health?
This is an extract from the Food Foundation’s Food Facts https://foodfoundation.org.uk/publications
Diets that are low in veg are associated with more than 20,000 premature deaths across the UK (IHME 2015). The latest evidence from the Global Burden of Disease project shows that diet is the biggest risk factor to death and disability in the UK. Research shows that fruit and veg protect against coronary heart disease and a greater level of veg consumption and an increased variety of both fruit and veg may also protect against type 2 diabetes.
Based on this evidence from the Food Foundation and the general advice from the Eatwell Guide published by the NHS, there is a very clear relationship between health and the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables.
There is a strong case here for introducing something into the national curriculum about health and nutrition and the importance of getting the right balance between fresh vegetables and fruit, proteins and carbohydrates. Our sense is that we are increasingly seeing second and third generation families with little understanding of what constitutes a healthy and balanced diet and the importance of fresh produce within that diet.
How can producers be empowered and enabled to work towards public health?
I don’t think there are any issues around growers feeling empowered and enabled to work towards public health. All growers recognise the health benefits from eating more fruit and veg. The biggest challenge is persuading people to change their eating habits and get closer to the recommended intake of fruit and vegetables which should be around 30% of their daily intake. The Veg Power TV advertising campaign has been a great initiative in terms of encouraging children to eat vegetables.
Growers would welcome more support from retailers in getting the health message across to consumers. There is very little scope for growers to include anything about health on their labels, so consumers can’t assess the overall nutritional content and value of their shopping basket. There is very little in store promotion about the need to consume vegetables and fruit. There are rarely any cooking instructions and while it easy to assume that consumers know what to do with every piece of fruit and veg to create a healthy and nutritious meal, we may be overestimating levels of knowledge here.
What is the appetite for positive discrimination against unhealthy food? While some will argue that it is a basic right to consumer whatever they please, the reality is that the real cost of poor diets is picked up in higher health care costs and this must be a concern for society as a whole.
Does the Agriculture Bill offer an opportunity to more closely align food and public health?
Unless we have missed something, possibly buried in S.17 of the Bill, its difficult to detect any connection between food and public health in the Bill. The Bill is strong on powers but short on ambition. It would be good to see a statement supporting a financially viable and sustainable industry which plays an important role in maintaining supplies of nutritionally rich and safe food essential for the health and wellbeing of the citizens of the UK.
We’ve been told that the food industries tend to be biased against low-processed or healthier food - the example was that there is “no money in a head of broccoli”. How can food producers square that circle: working toward public health while still remaining economically viable?
Fruit and veg production can be profitable but the current level of competition between retailers and the relentless pressure not to pass on production cost increases means achieving a sustainable return in the current climate is challenging. A small increase in the cost of fruit and veg would make a significant difference to a producer’s ability to invest for the future, particularly in areas such as increased environmental sustainability.
To a large extent, we as consumers have lost sight of the value of fruit and veg. Fruit and veg are now treated as commodity products with prices to match. Instead, fruit and veg should be regarded as ‘super health foods’ and an essential ingredient in a healthy diet. (contrast the cost of protein supplement products with fresh fruit and veg). If fruit and veg were treated as a major contributor to a healthier life, then possibly consumers would be willing to pay a little more for this simple benefit.
We also need to reflect on the cost to society of an unhealthy diet and the increased incidence of heart disease and diabetes. A switch to a healthier diet could result in considerable cost savings for the health service.
4. What specific support or incentives would be useful to help food producers to be more environmentally sustainable?
There are some obvious areas such as encouragement for water storage to reduce reliance on summer abstraction from rivers and underground supplies. Support for energy reduction and the use of renewables would be useful. Making it easier to get planning permission for new more energy efficient operations would also help along with support for research and development to look at alternative and more environmentally efficient production systems.
But underpinning all these issues is the need for an agreed vision on how best to tackle the issue of greater environmental sustainability and how to achieve a balance between producing food and managing the environment.
What could be the impact of technology which enables more intensive production on the environment?
There are some significant opportunities to use more technology. And there are some great examples of where technology is being used to reduce production costs. Technology developments will continue at pace providing growers have the capacity to invest. One area of special interest is the use of robotics to reduce the current reliance on manual labour particularly in harvest operations. However the costs here are very significant and it is difficult to see how all but the largest operations could afford to invest in automated harvesting systems.
There are also opportunities to make better use of Big Data and AI, but the use of this technology must feed through to practical solutions. My sense is that there are situations where significant amounts of data are collected but it’s not always possible to process or interpret the data in a way that produces a tangible and useable outcome. This will probably improve over time as we become more experienced in analysing data and delivering practical solutions which can be readily implemented at the farm level.
How could producers be supported to reduce wastage?
The big issue for growers is around retailer programming. Growers generally don’t invest in fresh produce crops without having a market. The unknown at the start of each season is how big the market will be, and what other short term and unpredictable factors will influence consumer demand. The weather has a large part to play in determining the size of the crop (good season / poor season) and in determining consumer demand. For example, a cold spell in June will depress demand for salads at the peak of the salad production season. And, hot summers depress demand for crops such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Matching supply with demand for perishable produce with a limited shelf life is more of an art than a science. For example, UK lettuce production in peak season would be in excess of 1million lettuces a day, through a 15-week season. That supply can’t be turned off if consumers decide not to buy salads for whatever reason. This is just one example of how difficult it can be to match supply with demand and why on occasions there is waste in the system. There is an adage that ‘the first loss is the cheapest loss’ which explains why crops are ploughed in if not needed. The costs of harvesting, grading, packing and transporting crops for which there is no obvious market just exacerbates the scale of a grower’s loss.
What should be the Government’s key priorities for future agricultural trade negotiations?
A key issue for the sector is making sure that any further opening up of the UK fresh produce market (although we currently import fresh produce from about 90 countries) does not undermine the standards which apply to UK production. Production methods and standards - for example access to plant protection products - can differ significantly from country to country. The industry has no problem with competition, but that competition must be based on consistent and comparable standards.
What would be your key policy ask that would help food producers to produce a healthy, environmentally sustainable.
As a general principle, the fresh produce industry would prefer to operate without subsidies which it believes can have a distorting affect. However, it is worth making the point that the EU fresh produce industry (our main competitor) continues to have access to circa €800m through the Fresh Fruit and Veg Regime and this has the potential to overstate their competitiveness and distort markets.
Many growers would prefer to see a better functioning supply chain which provides a more realistic return for their investment and the risk associated with each crop. At this point no one knows what level of funding the Govt is prepared to direct towards future agricultural support but given the challenges ahead, particularly around delivering greater environmental sustainability, it pretty clear that grower production costs are likely to increase. We urgently need to see a better functioning supply chain where these additional costs are returned to the grower through the successful operation of the market.
We need to contemplate signalling to consumers the end of the era of super cheap food, achieved in part by externalising the true costs of production through scouring the world for ever cheaper sources of supply. And that the goal of delivering long term sustainability comes at a price and that price is higher than the current price.
There is no doubt that UK producers could lead the world in the development of environmentally sustainable production schemes. We have world class research establishments and fresh produce businesses which can innovate and adapt with amazing speed. The question we need to address, is … is this what consumers and environmentalists want and are they prepared to fund it?
24 April 2020