OPINION: Farmers can help overcome obesity crisis

An apple a day keeps the doctor away, or at least that was the slogan I grew up with. Those were the days when an apple contained around 12% sugar. I had no idea that the sugar content of fruit had increased so dramatically in my lifetime; today’s apples contain around 30% sugar.

Why has this happened? As consumers, our tastes have become accustomed to higher levels of sweetness which we often confuse as flavour. Retailers now demand higher levels of sugar in their fruit.

In the 1990s “industrial” agriculture was accused of pillaging the environment to satisfy Big Food. In 2014, farming is being drawn ever deeper into the cauldron of blame for the obesity crisis. In 10 years’ time, will sugar be today’s tobacco?

The shift away from high fat diets of the 1980s to high sugar diets of today is seen by some as the trigger for the explosion in obesity. Meanwhile, defenders of sugar blame it on a sedentary lifestyle. Neither sugar nor sitting to excess are healthy, but suffice to say, as a nation we looked a lot better in a bikini or our swimming trunks 30 years ago.

The Frank Arden Scholarship is Nuffield’s unique flagship biannual award. In 2013 the panel chose a study into the nutritional value of food. Arden Scholars Caroline Drummond of LEAF fame and David Northcroft from Waitrose presented their findings at Harper Adams last week.

It may sound rather dramatic, but I felt I had been present at what may prove a seminal conference for UK farming. The evidence speaks for itself or, as an unnamed Big Food employee was quoted as saying: “Big Food has conducted a 40-year experiment on public health and it has gone horribly wrong.”

The facts are stark: 20% of the world’s deaths are a consequence of over-consumption and 63% of UK adults are obese, costing the NHS in excess of £5bn every year. After smoking, obesity is the leading cause of cancer. UK households each spend £2,500 per annum in “fat tax”, six times what they spend on the CAP.

So we need a change in policy that will produce more nutritious, functional food. As farmers we are very good at responding to policy demands; the 75% of our land in agri-environment schemes is testament to that. But how do we do the right thing – grow food that, for example, contains more antioxidants and be rewarded for it?

“Health by stealth,” as Mrs Drummond calls it is all very well, but will the “stealth” refer to the undetectable reward to the farmer?

The challenge is to make food more nutritious, returning financial reward to the farmer without it becoming too expensive to the consumer. Eating healthily shouldn’t be a privilege for the well-off.

The alternative is to accumulate enough compelling evidence to tax Big Food into doing the right thing. The recent tax imposed by the Mexican government and some US States on full fat soft drinks as a means of tackling obesity does little more than pay lip service to the crisis.

I was recently shown a nostalgic 8mm cine film of a friend’s summer holiday from his childhood. In 1977 Frinton Beach was crammed with lithe, athletic bodies. Ashamedly, today’s British holidaymakers wouldn’t fit into the frame of an 8mm film – they’d bulge out at the edges.

Who would have thought farming could have a role in making Britain’s beaches beautiful again?

Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday:

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