The recent Health and Harmony consultation from Defra, while covering a wide range of policy options for post-Brexit agriculture, has been criticised by some for its lack of focus on human health and nutrition.
But a new report from Exeter University’s Prof Michael Winter, designed to coincide with the inaugural Nuffield Farming Lecture in early July, suggests there are considerable opportunities for farmers to tap into the growing demand for healthy food – with or without government support.
According to Prof Winter, food security is no longer solely about the availability of food, but also covers its nutritional quality.
“For farmers, the potential for heightened attention to the nutritional content of their products extends far beyond the traditional concerns of safety, quality and provenance,” he says.
“As a result of the health consequences of the ‘nutrition transition’, farmers may face new market changes, presenting both challenges and opportunities.”
Prof Winter says he is reluctant to see extra demands imposed on farmers in the quest for a more nutritious food supply, given the fragile economic situation that many face and the high degree of dependency on CAP payments, which are set to be phased out post Brexit.
“Merely to heap yet more demands on a beleaguered sector is inappropriate and unhelpful,” he says.
But in some areas, there is potential for farmers to capitalise on the emerging demand for a better quality diet, especially in the meat sector.
According to Prof Winter, the growth of veganism is symptomatic of a much wider set of concerns about meat. But rather than mounting a vigorous pro-meat advertising campaign “and so putting itself at odds with dietary recommendations”, he suggests the livestock sector should “understand and adapt to change”.
“It has long been the case that white meat has been perceived as a healthier option than red meat and moreover, white meat can be seen as a more ‘sustainable’ option,” says Prof Winter.
“What these arguments do not fully take into account are issues of animal welfare and the fact that ruminants, unlike pigs and poultry, can be fed on feed not directly palatable to humans such as grass and crop residues.”
There is also a growing body of evidence that grass-raised beef has specific health benefits, which is enabling some producer groups, such as Pasture For Life, to promote their meat on this basis.
Prof Winter cites research showing that grass-fed beef can significantly improve the fatty acid and antioxidant content of beef, as well as raising Omega 3 levels. It is also better for cholesterol levels.
Fruit and veg
The Nuffield report also highlights fruit and vegetables as an area where there is a big trade deficit and, as such, an opportunity for farmers.
“The scope to expand production of a range of soft fruit, apples, pears and plums, nuts and many vegetables is enormous, and plays well to both the health and local provenance agendas,” says Prof Winter.
Having said that, he predicts challenges accessing sufficient seasonal labour post-Brexit, and points to the high capital requirement to engage with some specialist crops.
Beyond the fruit and vegetable sector, there are other opportunities for farmers to tap into the health food market – for example, in the areas of whole grains, ‘minor’ cereals (such as spelt, rye and oats), and pulses, which can all deliver benefits to consumers.
“Consumption patterns, and therefore demand for food, will change as a consequence of both increased consumer awareness and new policy imperatives,” says Prof Winter. “Farmers can either react as these developments unfold, or they can be proactive.”
While keen to avoid further burdens being placed on farmers, Prof Winter suggests a new policy framework is needed to encourage better health and nutrition.
In particular, he welcomes Defra’s drive towards paying “public money for public goods”, but says limiting this to those services which the market cannot reward, such as the environment and recreation, is too narrow.
Healthy food, says Prof Winter, is something which is “most palpably in the public interest” and should also be supported.
He describes it as “a profound paradox” that the sector that receives the least CAP support – horticulture – is the one that has the most to offer in terms of healthy eating.
“I am not suggesting direct subsidies for horticultural products. But we could consider capital grants or loans to encourage appropriate investment, start-up assistance in marketing and, perhaps, a conversion scheme similar to the successful Organic Conversion Scheme,” he says.
Prof Winter also suggests public research should have “human nutrition at its heart”, while marketing initiatives should be encouraged, such as “health proofing” quality assurance schemes and building more robust supply chains.