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Gentlemen farmer MPs oblivious to rise of meat-free diets

Plant-based diets are increasingly popular, though you wouldn’t know it from the utterances of the many gentlemen farmers in the House of Commons. Miles King looks at how we need to grow far more fruit and vegetables in the UK, though we may always need imports.

Restaurant critic, writer and all-round foodie William Sitwell has parted company with Waitrose, as editor of their Food Magazine. He had replied to a journalist who had pitched some vegan recipes to him, with suggestions, which included  hunting vegans and force-feeding them meat. It was, apparently, meant to be a joke.

 

Free Speech warriors leapt to his defence, arguing that he should be free to make offensive remarks, and that there had been a vegan pile-on, which had led to him being sacked.

 

In truth, Sitwell's sacking was nothing to do with any ‘vegan onslaught’ on social media but rather everything to do with Waitrose's sales and the supermarket’s successful moves to capture a chunk of the vegetarian and vegan market.

 

Selene Nelson, the journalist who is no doubt now getting death threats from meat-maddened trolls, pitched some recipes to Sitwell on the back of Waitrose's own publicity celebrating how much more "plant-based food" it is selling. You would imagine that Sitwell, being Editor of the Waitrose in-house food magazine, might just have spotted this trend. But no, he chose to send back a ‘let's kill all vegans’ reply - then claim that it was meant to be a joke.

 

Did Waitrose sack Sitwell because of some notion of political correctness gone mad? No, they sacked him because he was wilfully damaging the company’s commercial enterprise - you could call him a saboteur. Who wouldn't get rid of someone doing that? It's just standard business practice.

 

The UK imports over half its vegetables

 

In its  2018-19 Food & Drink report, Waitrose told us that one third of the UK population was cutting down on meat, including one in eight who are vegetarian or vegan. This was caveated by other evidence that many were not totally strict and would occasionally eat meat. Nevertheless, the trend is clear, and people are reducing the amount of meat they eat. And a major reason for doing so is because of health concerns. It’s therefore interesting to read that globally, food production is focused on the wrong kinds of food.

 

Researchers in Canada investigated what kinds of food were being grown, and found a glut of grains, sugar and oils, but not enough fruit and vegetables. This is certainly the case in Britain, where an estimated 85% of agricultural land is used to grow meat and dairy products, with most of the rest being used to grow grains, oil crops - and sugar. We are self-sufficient in Pork and Chickens, but have to import over half of our vegetables, and most of our fruit. By value, the UK imports over 90% of the fruit and veg we consume. Clearly this needs to change, and quickly. Perhaps the new Agriculture Bill, currently passing through Parliament, could provide the policy leadership that’s so desperately needed.

 

Labour shadow Farming Minister, David Drew, recently suggested he wanted to see the UK becoming 100% self-sufficient in food - I assume he meant fruit and veg, given that we are already self-sufficient in most types of meat. But how realistic is that? He mentioned how we grow all the carrots we eat, and that certainly has been the case in the past. This year though, the Beast from the East, followed by our scorching summer, has battered carrot growers, who have been talking about a Carrot crisis for months. Onions have fared worse, with growers crying about a 40% drop in yield this year. Even potatoes, in which we are usually self-sufficient, suffered from the cold, late winter, with planting areas down to the third-lowest on record. And with climate chaos now firmly with us and a reality for farmers across the UK, is it really that wise to put all our eggs in the self-sufficiency basket?

 

Not that this concerns too many of our farmer MPs. There are around 290,000 farmers, including spouses and business partners in the UK  - about 0.5% of the UK’s adult population. If the number of farmers (or their spouses) who became MPs was the same as for any other walk in life, we would expect to see 3-4 farmer/farmer’s spouse MPs. Instead, we have rather more than that.

 

Of the 55 MPs who spoke in the 2nd reading debate of the Agriculture Bill, an astonishing 25% of them were either farmers, owned farmland, or owned part of a farming business. Another 10% identified as hobby farmers, farmer’s spouses, or had jobs in farming, or in one case came from “a long line of ploughmen.” It will surprise no-one that almost all of these farmer MPs are Tories, aside from a DUP MP who owns farmland and a large meat-processing business.

 

Gove’s vision for the future of agriculture should be challenged

 

There is a Parliamentary convention that an MP should declare any interests they may have in a topic under debate, before making comments. Most of the farmer MPs just referred to their register of interests, as in “I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests”. A few went further, including ‘Brexity’ Dorset landowner (7000 acres) Richard Drax, who said

 

Yes, I did vote for Brexit and yes, I am a turkey voting for Christmas because the subsidies that my farm receives will be considerably reduced, putting my business plan if not at risk then certainly into review. I do not object to that: I voted to leave the EU because I believe that that is best for our country.”

 

Others were far more coy. Alister Jack, Tory MP for Dumfries and Galloway, failed to mention that he is part-owner of Courance Farms, which received £84,000 in basic farm payments last year. Julian Sturdy MP, referred to his register of interests, but did not mention he is part-owner of a farming business, which received £25,000 in basic payments last year. Mr Sturdy tops up his MP’s salary by paying himself £500 a month from the farm, for around 16 hours of work a month.

 

How many of these gentlemen farmers have been reading from the National Farmers Union (NFU) hymn sheet, you may well wonder? The NFU would much rather farmers were paid to produce more food, with a few crumbs being spent on the Environment. And members  continue to attempt to derail Michael Gove’s plans to introduce payments to farmers for ‘public goods’, rather than just paying landowners for owning land, as is currently the case. Fortunately they have not been successful so far.

 

In some sense though, it is right that Gove’s vision for the future of agriculture be challenged. While the “public money for public goods” approach has to be right, how can we also shift our agricultural system away from producing the wrong kinds of food, and towards the right stuff - more fruit and vegetables. And how do we ensure that fruit and veg that is imported into the UK, is produced to the same standards as our domestic produce?

 

The former could be solved by including public health as a public good, as proposed by Sustain - the alliance for better food and farming. As eating more fruit and vegetables is good for us, it follows that producing more of them (in a sustainable way) could also be seen as a public good. Small scale production of fruit and vegetables by smallholders and Co-ops also helps provide sustainable jobs and reduces food miles. However, ensuring that our sustainable food producers are not undercut by imported food produced to lower standards, is a knottier problem … especially as Dr Liam “chlorinated chicken” Fox is in charge.

 

Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10.
 

Photo credit: Eranb, Creative Commons

 

Perhaps the new Agriculture Bill, currently passing through Parliament, could provide the policy leadership that’s so desperately needed

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