5 a day, 7 a day, 10 a day. Even if we ate it, could we grow it?
Imperial College recently released new research findings which showed that you can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer significantly by eating 5 a day and that these benefits continue to increase as your consumption increases up to 10 a day. There was a lot of follow-up discussion in media as to whether this is achievable. Even PHE was quoted saying “Adding pressure to consume more fruit and vegetables creates an unrealistic expectation”, which is somewhat surprising given that the Department of Health’s own Eatwell Guide published last year requires us to be eating 7 portions of fruit and veg a day in order to meet our fibre requirements; a fact which has been largely overlooked. But at the same time as this new study came out I attended the NFU’s annual conference in Birmingham which was considering the implications of Brexit on British farming. However, other than at the horticulture breakout session on day 2 of the conference, there was little talk of growing fruit and vegetables. This won’t be surprising to many as the NFU’s voice is considered to be driven by the grain, livestock and dairy sectors, but I wonder if the NFU is missing a trick here.
There was, rightly, a lot of talk about migrant labour; and, of course, horticulture is disproportionately affected by seasonal migrant labour. Conference members noted the somewhat contradictory views of the three ministers (Leadsom, Eustice and Davis) who spoke on the topic during the week. They debated the likelihood of the Government agreeing to a seasonal worker’s scheme when there were other industries with similar dependencies on migrant labour, such as healthcare, which might be higher up the pecking order. Some feared the situation would have to reach crisis point before the government would act, others said the shift to robots was being wrongly held up as a panacea. A few lone voices asked whether farmers should be looking to increase wages to attract more British workers, while others are still working out how they can make ends meet due to increased costs from the introduction of the living wage. It is not at all clear how this will end, but if it isn’t solved, it is clear that the sector will rapidly become unable to compete with food grown in mainland Europe where many countries have competitive advantages of lower labour costs, better access to key inputs, and greater government support.
So while discussions about labour are critically important, so too is the fact that horticulture is in desperate need of a New Deal. It is the only sector of British farming which supplies food which the Department of Health wants us to be eating more of. Fresh British fruit and vegetables are part of the solution to our obesity and type 2 diabetes crisis, a crisis which is costing the NHS about 15 pence in every £1 spent. Moreover, if we can drive up demand (as we are planning to do within our Peas Please initiative), there is a growth opportunity for a sector which currently only takes up 3.7% of the cropped arable land but delivers 23% of the value of arable crops.
So, shouldn’t the NFU be making a special case for horticulture in its asks of Government post Brexit? Isn’t it time for them to secure a better deal for
the sector than the Common Agriculture Policy offered? Can the NFU help DEFRA understand that their focus on driving up exports does not work for horticulture where we have notable opportunities to increase self-sufficiency in a number of crops? Shouldn’t we all be advising DEFRA that driving some policy coherence between farming and health policy would be good for British people as well as farmers? Don’t get me wrong, the NFU’s Fit for the Future initiative is fantastic but we need the future of horticulture to be part of the elevator pitch between the NFU and the DEFRA Minister, and in turn a point of discussion between DEFRA and the Department of Health. I’m not sure that’s happening. Yet. I urge the NFU to make this a priority – our kids need their firepower for
fruit and veg now more than ever.