Square Meal Report

Square Meal: Why we need a new recipe for farming, wildlife, food and public health

The Square Meal report, published in 2014 was written by a collaboration of 10 UK organisations: the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, the Food Ethics Council, Sustain, the Wildlife Trusts, the Soil Association, Eating Better and Compassion in World Farming working with the Food Research Collaboration.

The report calls for stronger government leadership in planning the future use of land, food policy, farming and conservation in England and for wider public engagement on issues that affect the whole of society.

It focuses on four key inter-connected areas and proposes solutions for:

  • Improving health: getting a grip on the growing crisis of obesity and diet-related ill-health
  • Good food for all: tackling food poverty, ensuring fair food supply chains
  • Sustainable farming: investing in a resilient farming system in the face of climate change and dwindling resources
  • Enhancing nature: to bring back colour to the countryside and protect the natural environment on which we all depend.

Square Meal aimed to start a wider conversation about how to secure a healthy countryside and healthy food for everyone, and get greater public benefit from our food and farming system.  The issues raised by this report are now being advocated by Square Meal members and others as part of negotiations on Brexit and food and so this group is no longer active.


“We welcome this clear articulation of our broken food system, and call for greater sustainability and accountability in food and farming. Unfair trading practices, abuse of supply chain power and devaluation of food and farming threaten the future for producers and consumers alike. In seeking solutions however, it is critical to look not just at our British food and farming practices, but also to our interconnectedness with global supply chains and the millions of farmers and workers in poorer countries who toil tirelessly in the production of the daily food on our plates. There must be better coherence between our domestic food and farming system and international trade and agricultural policy if we are to deliver a genuinely fair, responsible and transparent food system, fit for the future.”

“This report provides an excellent overview of what is wrong with our food and farming system and gets us going on the urgent debate about how we make it deliver for everyone sustainably.”

“Square meal demonstrates the multiple wins in moving to a sustainable food system, one that can ensure food security within planetary boundaries. This clearly shows that a sustainable food system is both possible and the most affordable way forward for individuals and society as a whole. The government needs to step up and create a minister for food that covers health, agriculture, the environment, development and business, and stop the current siloed approach.”

“The UK Health Forum warmly welcomes this succinct and readable report which connects the inter-related issues of health, sustainable development and environmental protection and makes a powerful case for an overhaul of the public policy approach to food and farming. We are paying a very heavy price for cheaply produced, highly processed food. Diet-related ill-health causes unnecessary suffering and premature deaths and also underpins grievous inequalities in rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. SQUARE MEAL offers policy makers a clear-eyed analysis of the problems with the current direction of food production policy, and it identifies ways to approach those challenges. Unless and until we have the big discussions about how to fix our broken food culture and grapple with market failures we will not succeed in turning around the epidemic of obesity and poor dietary health in the UK.”

Capital Growth is a network of over 2,200 community food growing groups, school food growing projects and small-scale horticultural enterprises in London, supported by Sustain’s London Food Link project, the Mayor of London and the Big Lottery:

“Over recent years, we have seen more and more people wanting to grow food, whether as a leisure activity, to feed their families, or to make money – particularly from horticultural produce. We have helped over 100,000 Londoners to participate in food growing. We have witnessed increasing demand for access to land and for training in food growing skills and how to run a food enterprise. But – as the Square Meal report so rightly identifies – it takes leadership at national and local government levels to ensure that productive space for food growing is included in planning policies and biodiversity-friendly land management is adopted, whether it be protecting greenbelt land from inappropriate development, or asking for suitable community food growing space to be provided in social housing developments. When food is prioritised then everyone benefits – from horticulturalists more able to make a good living close to the markets where they can sell their produce, to low-income families on urban housing estates having better access to fresh and healthy fruit and vegetables.”

“The evidence of the impact of diet on health and its costs to healthcare is clear. Diabetes costs the NHS £1.5 million to treat every hour, and much of this disease burden is preventable. The growth of evidence about food’s impact on the environment is also compelling . That’s why the Faculty of Public Health supports the Square Meal report. We need a food and farming system based on protecting and promoting good health for people as well as eco-systems. We welcome this report as a valuable addition to that understanding.”

“The Square Meal report gives a comprehensive overview of the problems facing our food system, setting out clearly some of the actions we can take now to deliver the step change that’s needed. Just as we often fail on providing the perfect ingredients we know that are needed for a ‘square meal,’ we are similarly failing to prepare the groundwork for the more robust food system that will be essential as the global population continues to increase, consumer demands become ever more sophisticated, and climate change affects what we can grow and where. The Square Meal report makes an important contribution to the debate about how changes to the way that we produce, deliver and consume our food, can provide people with a healthier, more balanced, and sustainable diet.”


  1. Hilaire O'Shea says:

    The best of luck with this – but as `food’ production’ is global, the large food `manufacturers have a well oiled PR machine to discredit (by fair means or foul) any argument yo put up. And the UK Government will not support you because your arguments are either `negative’: less illness, less poverty, less bad food – or unquatifiable: `good quality’ food;’, `proper protection of soil;’ `enhancement of the environment’ and `less’ does not win votes. `More’ wins votes – more jobs, more investment, more exports -all of which can be quantified and justified by the global food manufacturers. Saving the NHS £6Billion does not win votes. Spending money wins votes: more drugs, more treatments, more research. Without obesity, heart disease and cancer how would the pharmaceutical companies make their money?? Their PR companies would soon be scaring the Government with threats of job losses and relocation to counties with more`sympathetic’ laws and policies.
    I am 100% supportive of this campaign and I’ll help in any way I can, but it’s David fighting Goliath – so we’d better come up with a pretty good slingshot pretty soon.

  2. Ellie says:

    An excellent report and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. Hilaire – I think you raise an important point! Personally I think that educating and raising awareness among the general public (including about their roles as voters and as customers of the food system) is going to be critical. I’m not naive enough to think that will turn the tide overnight but we have to start somewhere…

  3. Mike Donovan says:

    As editor of Practical Farm Ideas I am taking to working farmers and managers every day of the week, and I don’t think they would like to be told that they were part of a “broken food system” nor would they agree that 25% of UK farmers ‘live in poverty’. They might look scruffy, have dirty hands, read the Sun rather than the Guardian, don’t take a month off in a villa in Tuscany, (in fact have few holidays or days off at all), don’t go to the doctor or therapist much, like a pint in the pub, maybe a bit overweight but are as strong as an ox. Academics may well consider them in poverty, but that’s partly the problem – poverty is measured on an urban, not a rural scale.

    On your scale my children grew up in poverty, yet their childhood was hugely successful. They helped on the farm, had woods and wild places to get lost in, walked 2m to and from primary school, had two sweets on a Tuesday and drank water (which came from a spring) and milk, have 3 fillings among the four of them. No TV as the signal was poor, old cars and vans, but a lot of fun and laughter. Today this lifestyle would be condemned as ‘broken’ and the poverty police would be wanting to take them into council care.

    I help farmers by publishing tips and innovations designed and built by farmers in their workshops. Many are incredibly innovative – at the moment I’m writing up a home built power step for a tractor which allows the farmer, who has had a stroke and can’t get into the cab, to drive the tractor again. he wants to work, enjoys it, and doesn’t want to sit around like an invalid. The power step uses a winch like you see on the front of Land Rovers. The magazine has been going 22 years, carries no advertising, and now has a section titled Soil + Cover Cropping International. Don’t try to find it in the Defra library – they tell me they can’t afford to buy it (£16.50 / year).

  4. Allan Rowell says:

    Congratulations on this report. I suspect that it will fall on deaf ears within Government, wedded as they are to economic growth, but locally I suspect it could go down very well.

    The problems facing the world are widely known amongst those who choose to look for them.

    If local groups use this report when taking proposals to the local councils, for land to be made available for community groups to grow their own food it will be very helpful.

    I personally would like to see more groups coming together to grow food, perhaps forming cooperatives to take on this challenge of producing food sustainably.

    Obviously it is beyond the scope of small groups to qualify and sell food as Organic, but I see a role for them to use both Garden Organic’s Principles and Permaculture Principles, perhaps promoting the food they sell as Nature’s Food or Living Food.

    The value of this report is that it will be seen by many and will instigate change, if only on a small scale.
    It is the public which needs to understand what is happening, and it will be the public who will instigate change by using the purchasing power they wield.

    It must be hoped that this report is shared to those in power at a local level, and my local council will certainly here about it.

    • Dan Crossley - Food Ethics Council says:

      Allan, thanks very much for your comments. As one of the organisations involved in this report, but speaking from a Food Ethics Council perspective (rather than on behalf of all the organisations involved), I think it would be fantastic for local groups to use this report, for example when taking proposals to local councils, as you suggest. We hope the report will be read not just by those that may yield political power in the future (no matter the political party), but also by individual citizens. As you rightly say, the public can instigate change individually (e.g. through their food purchasing decisions) or collectively (e.g. through community groups). We’d love others to share it with local councils and for them to join the debate!

      Thanks to Alison too for related points (in a separate comment – dated Aug 4th 2014). We at Food Ethics Council would agree with you that people growing food can help people connect with their food and value it more. We’d like to see a sustainable food culture prosper, and the local food movement is certainly an important part of that.

  5. Alison says:

    How are we going to support local people to grow their own in allotments. Council’s are cutting green space officers, to the point where we will be lucky if our parks stay open. We need local support to provide growing space and support for people to grow their own, even small raised beds can assist in reducing food miles and producing local food.

  6. Alan Beat says:

    As an organic smallholder and author I have promoted the ideas and principles outlined within this report for the past 26 years.

    It’s informative to look at the actual figures for food grown here in the UK. For example, total milk production in 1996 was 13.9 billion litres, falling to 13.1 billion in 2010. Total cereal production of 24.59 million tonnes fell to 20.94 million over the same period, while potatoes declined from 7.251 to 6.04 million tonnes. Cattle numbers declined from 12 to 10 million, sheep from 42 to 31 million, and pigs from 7.5 to 4.5 million (source: http://www.ukagriculture.com/farming_today/bg_support_changes.cfm).
    Nearly every aspect of UK food production has declined in recent years. Yet the area of land devoted to agriculture remains broadly unchanged, while UK farming receives almost £3 billion every year in subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU. How can it be that such huge public funding has resulted in less food being grown, when technological advance and increased efficiency have constantly been trumpeted over the same time period? 
    What these statistics reveal is the spectacular failure of the industrial farming model, promoted for so long by the NFU and other powerful vested interests.
    This failure is illuminated by another statistic: ownership of agricultural land is concentrating into fewer, larger farms. The number of farms cropping over 100 hectares increased from 17,000 in 2005 to 19,000 in 2012, while those cropping below 20 hectares declined from 68,000 to 49,000 over the same period (source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/208436/auk-2012-25jun13.pdf ). The Nobel economist, Amartya Sen, first documented in 1962 the inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of food they produce per area: the smaller the farm, the greater the yield. This has been confirmed many times over by scientific studies around the world. 
    In developed western economies, farm profitability is distorted by massive state subsidies that selectively favour larger farms. However there is very strong evidence that more food would result from supporting smaller farms and smallholdings instead, alongside clear benefits to society and the environment.

    • Peter Melchett says:

      Dear Alan,

      I’m sorry it has taken so long for one of us to reply to you. Personally, I’ve been tied up with our harvest, which went really well in the first half of August, but before we got our wheat in the weather turned and we’ve only just finished.

      We read your comments with great interest. We would agree with the outline of your analysis – huge payments from public funds from the CAP but food production down. What has increased are the areas of crops grown for industrial use (OSR) and crops grown for fuel (some oil, but mainly maize for AD). And even of the food crops, nearly half our wheat goes to animal feed, not direct to human consumption.

      This suggests that the system is designed to support large-scale arable, mostly mono-cropping. The opposite to the smaller, more productive farms you rightly talk about in your comment. The sad thing is that the trends are all in the wrong direction – farms are still getting larger, smaller farms are bought or broken up to go in to larger units, and so on.

      It is in part because of these trends that Square Meal argues that we really do need a significant change in direction, so that our farming policies and systems respond to what we need for food, as well as environmental and other legitimate demands.

      Thank you again for your comment.

      Peter Melchett
      Policy Director
      Soil Association

  7. josh sutton says:

    What a superb and succinct report. one of the challenges will be persuading the public that food banks and similar recycling initiatives are not the answer, but are in fact a further sign that the food system is broken. In a classic example of recuperation, the market is now able to find an ‘outlet’ for the mountains of food waste it generates. That mountain comes to the detriment of farmers and producers, as well as consumers further down the line, and so sadly, the people receiving food aid in Britain today are inadvertently biting the hand that feeds them.

    keep up the good work and raise that loaf on a stick!

  8. Veronica-Mae Soar says:

    As long as the government (and some councils) believe that roads, airports, industrial estates, shopping malls and coast to coast housing is more important than productive land there will be a real battle. As one poster said, it is all about MORE – all about GROWTH – they forget that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment – not the other way around. Without a healthy environment producing healthy food in healthy soil, all other problems will become purely academic, as our hospitals burst at the seams.

    It does not he[p that many farmers, (strapped for cash I suppose) are diversifying into non farming activities, and we lose more precious land.

    The various bee campaigns have caught the public imagination, the Soil Association has done sterling work in teaching folk where their food comes from and promoting community assisted agriculture – to this we need to add “Save Our Soil” This is much more than just about the green belt. People must get passionate about soil and understand how crucial good soil is to our very survival. Councils must understand that tarmacking over top quality land is NOT made OK by offering another bit, of dubious quality, somewhere else. (as happened in Bristol) Once covered it is lost forever. Turning allotments into housing estates is another current horror. With houses cramped together and pocket handkerchief gardens, people need allotments.

    I could go on. but will spare you

  9. Has this report been buried?? To me it seems that everyone is expecting the government to sort this out, whereas all you organisations who have memberships could be getting your public out into shops, markets, anywhere they can buy food and really thinking about their purchasing. Organic consumption is very low in comparison to some other European countries, and the best way to change this, and to promote small scale agriculture is to increase demand for it. You can’t blame supermarkets for what’s on their shelves, they soon de-list anything that doesn’t earn it’s shelf-space, and who can blame them. For a start we need to promote wholesome food to the bird and bee lovers in a stronger way, they can then be ambassadors!

  10. Mary Atkinson says:

    Thank you for your comment Marian. The Square Meal Report still stands, remains relevant and is being used but with the EU Referendum vote changing the policy context there is a lot of other activity going on to put pressure on the UK Government, often by members of Square Meal report but not necessarily in the name of Square Meal. We agree with you that there is a lot more we can all do to get the messages out there and to get sustainable food and farming up the public and political agenda!