A Dorset farmer’s vision of a radically different future for food and farming/WCB event

On 23 June, we will hold our third event focused on the future of food and farming – all of which have spun off from Robert Golden’s thought-provoking film This Good Earth.

In our last conversation, we spoke with Philip Colfox of the Symondsbury Estate, an enterprise on the edge of Bridport in Dorset which combines farming, leisure and retail. Philip wrote to us afterwards with some ideas for a radical shake up in the UK’s food production. Here are his thoughts:

Level playing field throughout the food chain

We should ensure a level playing field throughout the food chain (ie, including manufacturing and distribution) which uses competition law to redress any imbalance in negotiating power and resources between big and small players, and dominant positions at any stage in the chain from research, via supply trades, through farms to fork, including manufacturing, distribution and retail and restaurants. This must include education, workplace practices and anything else which seems relevant to the production and consumption of food.

Holistic approach

We must look at food policy with a holistic approach including societal attitudes to free time, eating time, cooking time, community, health, etc.

Focus on food and health

We must have a strong focus on the effect of food on health, not just including food safety but human vitality and energy, community, social activity etc.

Processed food must be proven to be good for the consumer

Food health policy might be so extreme as to reverse the burden of proof on manufacturers of processed food. It would need to define what processed food is. The burden should be high.

Processed-food manufacturers are normally huge businesses and can bear that burden and responsibility if they want to take risks with our health. The whole basis of processed food is that it can be standardised and made so that it does not rot, and therefore can be made in huge quantities and transported many miles as a commodity in the same way as rock or steel can.

Also it is processed to make it look nice and taste nice so that it can be sold in huge quantities. Such businesses have a moral responsibility, if they wish to make money by interfering with nature in this way, to guarantee without a question of a doubt that it is safe.

Ultimately the objective of this policy should be, unequivocally, to eliminate processed food. The test could be the same as food labelling ‒ if it is not consumed on the place where it is made then it should be subject to regulatory prior approval, having demonstrated beyond doubt that long-term consumption of it is safe to humans and the wider environment. The get-out for restaurants or direct sales would need thinking about so that it does not allow food manufactured elsewhere and finished on site to be consumed on the premises. These are just thoughts to kick this off.

Focus on locally-grown food

The principle of the food policy should include an assumption that food which is grown locally without tilling the soil and without applying chemicals, and eaten fresh while in season (perhaps within 24 hours of picking) should be the policy objective. One of the ideas is that food is much tastier if grown in healthy soil and especially if eaten within an hour or two of being picked. This type of food will stop the cravings that are created by the bad food we are so used to. Thus taxes on aviation fuel would be a good idea, to reduce the flow of stale out-of-season food which comes in from around the globe and helps to destroy palates and appetites for fresh food.

There are other specific measures that could be developed, such as the criminalisation of certain key bad practices like the removal of fibre from food or the adding of empty calories, and these could be supplementary to the overall duty to prove that processed food is good in the long term for the planet and people’s health.

Societal changes to give more time for cooking and eating

Societal changes could include a two-hour lunch break and provision of cooking and dining facilities in all schools and workplaces, and duties placed on schools and workplaces to provide a supply of good-quality raw food to cook, plus teachers to help people learn how to prepare their meals. At present the duty on employers (if I recollect rightly) is to allow a half-hour break after so many hours’ work (and then 15 minutes after further periods). This is not enough to live a healthy life, including preparing a decent lunch and doing the necessary shopping.

We need to include a reassessment of the minimum wage policy. Coupled with Universal Credit and other means-tested benefits, we have now created (or perpetuated) a low-wage economy. This is contrary to the education policy of the government, which is to try to create a highly-skilled workforce – which one hopes means a highly paid workforce. A food policy could have a pillar to it which would make clear the intention to raise the minimum wage by enough so that only one member of a family with children should need to work.

Increase burden of proof of benefit

Farming policy should, of course, change in most of the directions that it is already going. One problem with the current policy is that it ignores food. However, farming policy should also introduce a stronger burden of proof on the suppliers to farming – eg on suppliers of machinery and chemicals. This burden of proof should be designed to protect human health and the planet over the long term. As an example, plough manufacturers should have to prove that they are not promoting excessive soil disturbance, which damages the natural capacity of the soil or the things that live in or grow from the soil biome. Manufacturers and suppliers would have to educate their customers on how and when to use their equipment. Suppliers of chemicals would have a particularly strong burden of proof of benefit/no harm.

Rather than being forced to create a massive machine of bureaucracy to enforce all this and issue permits for usage etc, access to the legal system for members of the public should be made much easier. Directors of companies or businesses involved in this should have the veil of protection from legal liability removed. Anybody should be able to take action with the possibility of winning punitive damages in certain circumstances. That will focus minds. It might focus minds so much that all damaging activity ceases very quickly. That would be a very good result for people and the planet, despite what manufacturing interests might have to say about it.

Drive the food ‘baddies’ out!

A large legal aid fund should be set up to enable this transition, rather than set up armies of regulators and reams of regulation. Let the judges sort out breaches, having given them strong legal principles by which to work. The threat should be enough to chase amoral and exploitative food processors and other food ‘baddies’ out of our country.

The UK today: record foodbank use, hungry children, an obesity crisis and post-Brexit trade deals which threaten to decimate British farming and flood the market with food produced to lower standards, and the politicians chant the ‘cheap food’ mantra.

The costs of cheap food are high – for humans, animals and the planet. What can we do to challenge big business and bad politics?

Robert Golden, the filmmaker of This Good Earth will talk about those forces in opposition to rapid transformation of the long food chain, and how people are organizing to bring about necessary change.

Samantha Knights, QC Matrix Chambers, will describe modern day slavery in the food chain.

Richard Harvey, Human Rights lawyer, Garden Court Chambers, will discuss what can and perhaps should be done using the law to bring about change.

Watching Robert’s film before the event will help to set the conversation in context, but it’s not a prerequisite for attending. These Q&A sessions are relaxed and wide-ranging, stimulating debate and encouraging engagement. Please join us.