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Futureproofing agriculture for the health of the nation

On the 12th September DEFRA published the much-anticipated Agriculture bill. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union in March 2019, this legislation will shape the agricultural system for the foreseeable future. Whilst the Bill is positive in its environmental ambitions, it’s disappointing that a Bill which is essentially about the production of food pays no attention to our diets and health.

Within CAP, farmers are currently paid subsidies based on the size of land they farm. Despite several reforms to the CAP; the system mainly favours large farms and does little to promote and incentivise production of nutritious food.  Food production in the UK predominantly occurs on large farms, many of whom would struggle to survive without farming subsidies. Even with large and highly efficient farming operations, the UK imports nearly half of its food.

With all the uncertainty that lies ahead – in the short term with Brexit negotiations and the medium to long term with trading relationships and climate change; this Bill is the Government’s golden opportunity to deliver two ambitions – not only for ‘ours to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found’ (which was a Conservative Manifesto promise) but also to build a policy environment which incentivises the production of nutritious foods which promote the health of British citizens.

A large part of the bill is focused on the provision of public goods for public money. Clean air, the internet and parks are all considered public goods as they comply with two defining elements of a public good, they benefit all without exclusion (non-excludability) and do not diminish as others use them, ensuring all can enjoy (non-rivalry).

The current Bill considers animal health and welfare as a public good; even though it is excludable and rivalrous.  Animal health and wellbeing is very important, so too is the health and wellbeing of our citizens. And yet, our health has thus far been rejected as a public good on the grounds that it doesn’t comply with a definition of a public good.

Why nutritious food should be considered an access good.

The consumption of nutritious food helps deliver the public good of a healthy society, thereby qualifying nutritious food as an access good.   A healthy population is a public good because it brings a wider set of non-rivalrous and non-excludable benefits, including:

– a reduced burden on the tax payer: what we eat is now the second largest driver of ill health and death in the UK – second only to tobacco. The public purse is bearing the consequences of this with soaring NHS bills resulting from heart disease, diet-related cancer, stroke, obesity related diseases and a burgeoning number of people being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes) and the opportunity cost of this means reductions will benefit all in a non-rival and non-excludable manner.

increased economic productivity resulting from less absenteeism and presenteeism; this will benefit all in a non-rival and non-excludable manner as GDP increases.

impacts on the transport system: such as the size of cars to accommodate larger people. This is both rivalrous and excludable as larger sized vehicles would limit the number of vehicles allowed on roads and larger vehicles would likely increase the cost of travel as well as carry a larger carbon footprint.

a healthier society; with reduced multi-morbidity and poor mental health will benefit all in a non-rival and non-excludable manner.

a more equal society; obesity has a higher incidence among disadvantaged households, and also imposes a disproportionate burden on those already disadvantaged. Reducing inequality will benefit all in a non-rival and non-excludable manner.

Therefore the Food Foundation is calling for the Agriculture Bill to include “supporting nutritious food production which protects public health.

As we await the return of Parliament for the second reading of the Agriculture Bill on the 10th October where amendments will be put forward, we echo the words of Professor Richard Smith, Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor and Professor of Health Economics, University of Exeter Medical School:

The Government has a duty to intervene in the market when, left to its own devices, it fails to protect or promote the creation of public goods. The Agriculture Bill is an opportunity to be seized, to incentivise the production of nutritious food to mitigate the harmful effects of obesity and to lay the foundations for a healthier society, which will benefit us all.