Public Health and the Agriculture Bill

Public Health and the Agriculture Bill

The UK is about to get its first Agriculture Act since 1947.  Reacting to wartime shortages, the 1947 Act prioritised food production and ushered in the era of intensive farming. After 1973, when the UK joined the European Economic Community, Britain’s farm policy was brought 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. A key question is how subsidies will be allocated in future: at present, CAP subsidies can make up 50-80% of a UK farmer’s income.

In preparation for the new Act, Defra has produced a consultation document on agricultural policy. Health and Harmony, the future for food, farming and the environment in a green Brexit makes it clear 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’ and 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.

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 populations. We would also argue that agricultural policy has enormous potential either to support or undermine public health, with significant related benefits or costs to human well-being and the economy. For example, by providing subsidies, other incentives or via research support, agricultural policy can encourage the production of the crops we are recommended to eat more of (such as pulses and vegetables) and discourage production of the things we are recommended to eat less of (such as sugar). It can provide strong support and clear signalling to favour production methods shown to be least damaging to public health.

But the term ‘public goods’ rings alarm bells. It does not necessarily 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. Examples include air and parks. Economists argue that public health does not always fit these criteria; and that in any case public health is hard to trace back to agriculture: there are too many intervening processes that can render agricultural products more or less healthy.

The fact that Health and Harmony itself mentions ‘productivity’ as a public good suggests the Government is already stretching the technical definition, so maybe leaving health out was just an oversight. However, there is a risk that if public health is not explicitly included now as a valid criterion for deciding which purposes agricultural policy should support, it may be ‘defined out’ of future debate. This will inevitably jeopardise efforts to achieve more coherent farming, food and health policy.

As agricultural policy develops over the coming months, the FRC Brexit workstream will be following its progress and in particular assessing how (or whether) it supports and prioritises public health.

To kick off, with partner organisations Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming and the Royal Society for Public Health, we organised a seminar which took place on 11 July.

Following on from this, we wrote letters to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Secretary of State for Health, and their senior ministers, urging them to take the opportunity to include health as a ‘purpose and outcome’ of agricultural policy.

We will publish a Briefing Paper in the autumn based on the discussions at the seminar.

Links to our future work on this theme will appear on this page.