New Blog – “Can farmers play a creative and positive role in building a new food culture to nourish and sustain human health and wellbeing?” asks Michael Winter at the Nuffield Farming Lecture 2018

Dr Adelia de Paula, SIRN Network Coordinator reports on event in London, 5th July 2018.

On the first week of July, I attended the first Nuffield Farming Lecture delivered by Prof Michael Winter, Professor of Land Economy and Society at University of Exeter and a member of the SIRN leadership team. The Nuffield Farming Scholarships are well-known and have created opportunities for more than 2,500 scholars from the UK and abroad to learn from, and exchange ideas for, the advance of agriculture.  Introducing the event, Dr Louise Manning (Harper Adams l University) explained the rationale behind the biennial lecture series. They are aimed to develop and promote new thinking for the benefit of agriculture and society at large.

In 2016, a call was issued for individuals recognized as authorities in their chosen speciality to apply for  the opportunity to  carry out a study on a subject of key importance to  agriculture and to produce a written report. The offer was accompanied by a bursary and the successful applicant was Michael Winter who used his journey to reflect on how changing food cultures and the need for a healthier human diet might impact on agriculture in the United Kingdom (UK). Michael visited Denmark and also spent seven weeks during Spring 2018 at the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of British Columbia, hence his absence during our latest major SI event at Leamington SPA.

Michael’s talk addressed four issues related to our food culture:

  • Availability – He looked at trends in food consumption and its relationship with how products are traded.  Over the last 50 years, there has been an increase in global trade for some key commodities, like soybeans and wheat. However, this trend does not follow for rice and cattle meat. According to Michael, we live in a world that gives us an ‘illusion of food diversity’. Our diets are becoming less diverse with a concern about the increasing consumption of processed food in the UK (currently at 50.7% of household purchases).
  • Acquisition – He examined how convenience food and online shopping is on the rise in the UK. All these changes have implications for our health, the sustainability of systems and our social interactions. It is well-known that children’s eating patterns established in early life tend to continue into their adulthood.
  • Appropriation – Michael explored changes on which and where food is consumed, and the consequences of more access to information (by cookery books, websites and TV programmes) and places to eat (eating out or take-away).
  • Anxiety – The presentation highlighted the ways in which food contributes to individual worries such as food safety and provenance, excess of food choices and over-consumption, the power of retailers, issues related to animal welfare, the environment and implications for poor countries. To respond to all these anxieties, several campaigning movements and political groups are trying to influence future agendas. One of them is looking at ‘food sovereignty’ as part of global food policies agenda.

In his view, current changes in the UK due to Brexit can bring new opportunities for the farming industry shifting production to more healthy crops such as fruit and vegetables, diversification of the cereals sector and bringing pulses into our diets. In his case for ‘farming for health’, there is the prospect for interconnecting agricultural and health policies and practices, based on an economic argument (healthier population will reduce the costs for the NHS). Therefore, Michael asked “Can farmers play a creative and positive role in building a new food culture to nourish and sustain human health and wellbeing?” and explored the ramification of this transition.

He concluded the talk with recommendations for:

  • Policy development with a need for broadening policies and research on Sustainable Intensification to include human nutrition and health as a core element.
  • A more innovative and dynamic market structure with emphasis on the nutritional quality of food at Quality Assurance Schemes and stronger and shorter supply chains.
  • The expansion of schemes, like the Prince’s Countryside Fund Farm Resilience Programme, aiming to enhance skills with the development of communities of practices. This will ensure a stronger and well-equipped industry and more importantly, regain trust amongst the public and all those involved in the food-farming industry.

The forum was opened to discussions chaired by Sir Prof Charles Godfray in the role of “Jeremy Paxman”.  A summary of several points raised as follows:

  1. What is the meaning of nutritional security and food sovereignty? How do we turn these ideas into policy? Would the economic argument (a health agenda, reducing costs for NHS, etc) be enough? Do we have political leverage to bring agricultural and health policies together?
  2. What are the implications for shifting to horticulture that has lower profit margins, challenges related to labour and current eating habits? Is this the right time for this transition? What is the support provision to farmers during the interim? Should government provide subsidies?
  3. Does the population get the right calorie advice? How can we enable and empower the population to make healthy choices for their diets? Can we understand what is influencing the millennials and contradictory messages circulated by social media?
  4. If the main ‘villain’ in our health is the food processor, do we need more regulation? What is the role of government?
  5. Should we be concerned about food becoming more expensive? Should we have a smaller industry?
  6. What is our view on grass-fed meat, its environmental impact, consumption and nutritional benefits for eating meat, and support for the livestock farming industry?

Another aspect highlighted in the discussions was the role of the farming community in re-connecting people with the countryside with praise for the Open Farm Sunday initiative. According to NFU, Ian Piggott came up with this idea after undertaking a Nuffield Scholarship in 2002. The scheme has been successfully running since 2006 and is managed by LEAF with  record visit numbers for 2018.

On my way home, I stopped at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition to see the Soil Security Programme, University of Reading and NERC display ‘Soil: our buried treasure’ discussing three key messages: Soil is important for food production, but also plays a vital role in cleaning water and storing carbon. It is refreshing to see this “down to earth” topic showcased amongst other displays exploring ‘the antimatter conundrum’, ‘quantum technologies providing cutting-edge insights into mental health’ or ‘is there life on Mars?’. We need to get the message across at every opportunity.

For me, one thing is clear, there is no way we can implement the ‘farming for health’ approach if society is not fully involved. We need to open a conversation, bring evidence, and make better narratives to answer Michael’s question on how we could explain the concept of trade-offs to the public. This was exactly what Andy Whitmore’s team tried to achieve with the ‘Tree of Trade-Offs’ at the Rothamsted Festival of Ideas, a celebration of 175 years of the Institute. In this display, members of the public were asked to choose 4 of 6 trade-offs (beautifully illustrated by PhD student Kelly Jowett) with the key message that we can’t have it all and we will need to compromise. It is only recently that some of us started making more informed decisions on what food we eat based on ‘trade-offs’, and the current usage of this terminology in the Brexit media coverage will certainly help UK consumers to realize the intricate connections of our food system.

Let’s hope these discussions will lead to a more equitable, healthy and sustainable society.


More information:

[1] The presentation is now available on Youtube.

[2] Read ‘Changing Food Cultures: Challenges and Opportunities for UK Agriculture’ report by Michael Winter here.

[3] Bursary supported by by Meryl Ward and her family (Frank Arden Memorial Scholarship), the Frank Parkinson Trust, the John Oldacre Foundation and the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust.

[4] The 2020 Nuffield Farming Lecture which is: “Brick-2-Click”: How will the retail revolution impact on the UK farmers of tomorrow?” – See more details and how to get information here.



18th July 2018