Welcome to In Conversation With… and this month it’s great to talk with Vicki Hird.

Vicki is an award winning author, strategist and senior manager who has been working on environment, food and farming issues for over 25 years.

With Vicki, I want to talk about Food and Farming and issues such as Brexit, food poverty, the environment and of course chlorinated chicken.


Now we’ve left the EU, Boris Johnson has said there is no need to accept EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment or anything similar. What do you think this could mean for smaller, local farmers in the UK?

There are significant risks – and opportunities too – for all farmers but for the smaller farm businesses the risk of diverging from EU policies could be stark. We will have a new system of farm support which could be helpful – paying farmers for ‘public goods’ like protecting environment, soil and nature, as well as productivity and animal health and welfare grants – but these are all in development. They will take time to pilot and roll out.

While this is happening, we will see new trade deals with the EU and other countries being negotiated. This could mean more imports of food produced to lower standards and also fewer market opportunities to our nearest markets in the EU if we drop their food, labour and other rules.

This will be particularly hard for the smaller players already squeezed in a harsh supply chain. In the transition we need to make sure the smaller farm businesses are listened to, are protected from supply chain abuse, and that they can access support that ensures they can start to move to the new form of sustainable production with public as well as market goods in mind. Another risk is the lack of infrastructure (abattoirs, processing, storage, milling, etc) that smaller producers need to access new and better markets. This needs urgent attention.

Any talk of trade deals and up comes the subject of chlorinated chicken. It’s a controversial practice that’s been banned in the UK since 1997 because of food safety concerns. If excepting a trade deal means excepting chlorinated chicken will this mean a race to the bottom in food production? ?

Poll after poll confirms that consumers do not want hormone- injected, chlorine- or acid-washed, antibiotic-intensive food. These processes often mask filthy production methods and terrible animal welfare and worker conditions. Countries we’re planning new trade deals with also have weaker pesticide regulations and food safety and traceability rules. We want a race to the bottom ruled out via legal measures, so the UK can lead the way in high quality, high welfare food, not dropping standards just to please new trading partners.

Fast Food

I’ve always found it incredible that a food company will spend millions to advertise a £1.99 burger. How can we level the playing field, so smaller initiatives like Free Range Dairy Network and others that support local food systems, can compete with the larger food corporations? ?

The billions spent on advertising heavily processed foods really work. Competing with that will be pretty hard so we need to see how we can bypass these routes and set up new and better routes to more receptive, informed markets. That means farmers cooperating and collaboration is key, so they have a strong voice and a decent supply. It also means investing in new supply chains, infrastructure and retail opportunities like the Better Food Traders Network and digital direct sales platforms.

We also need stronger regulation of the convention supply chains so they can’t abuse suppliers and to curb food manufacturers marketing junks food. Ultimately the economics need to be reconfigured so harmful food production doesn’t profit in this way, and we’re clear about the health, environment and social costs eating this food costs us as a society.

Food poverty is still an issue in the UK. One thing I’m proud about is that through the Pasture Promise scheme, people can buy a nutritious food affordable to practically all budgets. How important do you think it is for people to have access to affordable nutritious food? ?

Sustain has a long history of working to remove the barriers for people on low income accessing safe and nutrition food. Our current place-based project, Food Power, works with local communities across the UK to strengthen their ability to reduce food poverty and tackle its root causes.

Many of these are beyond food – low wages and incomes, zero hours contacts, inadequate welfare – but making good, sustainably produced food affordable and accessible for all should be government policy.

Also those in the supply chain ensuring it – probably with shorter (less greedy) supply chains should be championed, supported and scaled up.

Food and Farming Not Important

Do you think the Treasury is short sighted in dismissing the importance of food security in a rapidly changing environment? We’re seeing extreme weather as well as a rise in the deaths from the coronavirus. Being able to feed ourselves surely should be important in times of crisis?

The recent Government advisor comments about farmers ‘not being needed’ as we can just import our food – are rightly shocking to many. They reflect a narrow set of economists’ views, who do not consider the wider systemic and integrated role of farming, and who concentrate on GDP alone.

It’s a daft approach and I don’t think it reflects all government or the Treasury thinking, but it still needs to be challenged. Such views should not gain any traction or credibility at a time when we should be forming farm, food, environment and trade policy in an integrated way because of the severe challenges we face.

These include the climate and nature emergency as well as obesity and other health issues and changes as a result of Brexit. We need to be diversifying farming so it can deliver more of what we need (not the same as what food industry what to sell us – see junk food!) as well as helping drive the dietary shifts required to reduce the pressure on farmed environment and improve people’s health.

This is why I find Food and Farming so interesting. Food isn’t just food, it’s also a political instrument in many ways. In Brexit, food and farming seems to be at the bottom of the ‘food chain’ with banking taking the top spot – but we can’t eat money. What comes first cheap food that enables zero hours contracts and low wages? Or was cheap food invented because there would be food riots if people couldn’t afford to feed themselves on their wages?  At what cost to our health, the environment and wellbeing is producing and eating ‘junk food’? Or what is the rise in the takeaway culture with their adverts sitting alongside the meat and vegan fast food offerings, going to do to us, when we need to moving in a totally different direction? All things to be discussed as we look at how we shape a healthier society for people and planet.

Some of these questions will be tackled in Vicki’s free newsletter that’s published at Sustain https://www.sustainweb.org/foodandfarmingpolicy/

And you can follow Vicki on Twitter @vickihird

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