Why public health should be the cornerstone of agriculture policy

Why public health should be the cornerstone of agriculture policy

Lindy Sharpe

26 July 2018

The UK is about to get its most significant piece of agricultural legislation since 1947.  Reacting to wartime shortages, the 1947 Agriculture Act prioritised food production and ushered in the era of intensive farming. After 1973, when the UK joined what was then the European Economic Community, Britain’s farm policy was moved into alignment with the Common Agricultural Policy, made and shared by all Member States. Now, as the UK leaves the EU, it must set a new legal framework for farming, which will determine how farm land is used, what is produced, and in what ways.

In 2018, in preparation for the new Act, Defra produced a consultation document on agricultural policy. Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a green Brexit asserts that in future the principle of ‘public money for public goods’ will be the ‘cornerstone’ of farm policy. It includes examples of the public goods that may be supported: improved soil quality, public access to nature, ‘enhanced beauty’, bee health. Human health is not mentioned except as an indirect benefit of clean air and water, access to green space and controlled use of farm antibiotics and pesticides. It is not recognised, much less celebrated, as an attribute of food.

This seems a serious omission, given that for many people the self-evident primary purpose of agriculture is to provide the food necessary to support healthy people. Without doubt, agricultural policy has enormous potential either to boost or to undermine public health, with significant related benefits or costs to the economy. For example, by providing subsidies, other incentives or via research support, or by removing ‘perverse incentives’ (which have the opposite effect to what is intended), agricultural policy can encourage the production of the crops we are recommended to eat more of (such as pulses, vegetables and fruit). It can discourage production of the things we are recommended to eat less of (such as red meat, sugar and highly processed foods dependent on cheap commodity ingredients). And it can provide clear signalling to favour production methods shown to be least damaging to public health, for example by limiting the use of harmful chemicals.

The term ‘public goods’ rings alarm bells. It does not simply mean ‘something that is good for the public’. It has a specific, useful but narrow meaning in economics, where a ‘public good’ is something that is ‘non-excludable’ and ‘non-rivalrous’, which means no one can be excluded from its use and the use by one person does not diminish the availability of the good to others. Public goods are thus things that cannot be provided by markets (because no-one can make a profit from selling them), hence the need for pubic subsidy. Economists argue that public health does not easily fit these criteria (but then, neither does public access to private land, so the Government’s own interpretation of the term is clearly flexible). It is also argued that public health is hard to trace back to agriculture: there are too many intervening processes that can render agricultural products more or less healthy, so specifying health as a desired outcome or criterion for incentives would be complicated.

Whatever the reason for omission, it was widely observed that beyond the title, Health and Harmony made almost no reference to human health. But there is a real risk here that if public health is not explicitly recognised as a valid criterion for deciding which purposes agricultural policy should support, it may be ‘defined out’ of future debate. Decision makers will find it harder to recognise public health benefits as important criteria when devising policy or  allocating funding; and individual farmers who try to ‘farm for health’ will find it harder to justify their practices or find a market for their products. This will inevitably jeopardise efforts to achieve more coherent farming, food and health policy that leads to more sustainable agriculture and land use.

As agricultural policy develops over the coming months, the FRC Brexit Workstream will be following its progress to assess how (or whether) it supports and prioritises public health. Our argument is that public health should be the cornerstone of integrated agriculture and food policy.

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