Michael Gove, welly boots and rosettes

Yesterday I had breakfast with Michael Gove. He is, of course, now the voice for food on the Cabinet and convened a small and diverse group to hear views as he shapes his priorities in DEFRA.

He reflected on the fact that DEFRA Ministers tend to only appear in the news in welly boots battling floods or putting a rosette on a prize bull.  Correct.  But why?  I would argue it’s because our food system has been contracted out to the private sector on the premise that the market can best deliver the food people want most efficiently.  There has been no role for government except to smooth the way for them, and to regulate on safety.  Moreover, what we opt to eat is seen as a private and personal decision and not one for the state to get involved in.   Job done.

But things are changing. There is growing recognition now that while the food system in Britain has some incredible features, it is also having some disastrous consequences.  The vast majority of people have no stake in it.  They buy and eat what is put in front of them.   Michael Gove seemed genuinely interested in working out how to shift our food culture.  Is this a Minister who is thinking about the role of government in shaping the food system?  There was a palpable sense of excitement at my end of the room at the thought of this possibility.  It is a rare thing indeed.

He recognised that government might have an important part to play in this shift but that what was needed was a mobilisation of those people working in our food system who are pushing for the same shift.  Good.  But let’s not forget the size of the shift which is needed.  As we sat eating our delicious fresh berries, sheep’s curd, sour dough bread and raw (yes!) butter in the wonderful Borough Market, we couldn’t have been further from the food experience of most people in Britain.  (On that note, Cambridge Uni yesterday published their brilliant new FEAT tool so you can see just how much our high streets are dominated by fast food.  In the worst hit areas almost 40% of all places to get food are fast food outlets. And the Trussel Trust published data which showed how many primary school children will be dependent on food banks in the school holidays.)

Gove wants to see British food’s competitive advantage being on quality not price.  Also good.  But does that mean that most people will be eating chlorinated chicken while those who can afford it will be enjoying chicken which has had a good life, and tastes, well, like chicken (these chickens cost £15 at my local farmers market, a staggering three quarters of the WEEKLY food budget of people shopping at Community Shop)?  His challenge is how to spur a food culture shift which has the potential to reach everyone.

So why not start with fruit and veg?  I know, I would say that.  But let’s not forget every extra portion delivers a 5% reduction in the risk of dying prematurely.  That is big.  It is pretty much the only food group the Department of Health wants us to be eating more of.  We have huge opportunities to increase the productivity and competitiveness of our horticulture sector (40% of the veg we import comes from Ireland, Holland and Poland – hardly countries with dramatically different climate from us).  This will help with the trade deficit.  And we have some wonderful products (think buttery asparagus, champagne rhubarb, Scottish raspberries, Sicilian tomatoes (grown in Thanet), roasted cauliflower) which many more people could enjoy if the food system worked better to put them in front of us at every opportunity.    If Michael Gove had a vision to change our food culture so we all enjoyed more British grown fruit and veg he would help the economy and our growers (which in horticulture, are large and small businesses), he would have a chance of tackling the dietary gulf between rich and poor (don’t forget fruit and veg consumption is the biggest single marker of dietary inequality), and it he gets it right, we would all be enjoying our food more.

So where would he start? Well if he asks that question, our list is ready 😊, and our Peas Please initiative is mobilising businesses (large and small) and city authorities so the system-wide support is there and ready to go.  Leadership from the top of DEFRA could make all the difference.