The need for a new approach to food production and an urgent need for people to reconnect with their food were the key themes of the 2017 City Food Lecture, attended for the first time this year by four members of the European Network of Agricultural Journalists (ENAJ).
The speech, prepared by Chris Elliott, professor of food safety and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, focused on the impact of the complex global food supply system. It highlighted Professor Elliot’s view that this has had massive and negative impact on our ability to understand and indeed care where our food comes from.
The wide-ranging address covered the UK’s growing dependency on importing food and the effects of its £20bn (€23.46bn) balance of payments agri-food deficit. Professor Elliot argued that the UK agriculture and food industries are being sacrificed to keep food prices low, provide consumer choice and maintain political stability.
He also stated his belief that the UK agriculture industry does not compete on a level playing field.
“Having strict regulations is of course important to protect many attributes of a high integrity food system such as workers’ rights, animal welfare and to ensure our food is safe.
“However, in the highly complex global food supply system, to be able to say these standards are met by all exporting countries, is in my opinion, really not possible. Putting it simply, working to lower standards means a lower cost base, and results in products which are much more competitively priced. I also believe we’re not considering the UK’s long-term food security needs.”
He added: “We are importing large amounts of food ingredients and commodities into the UK. These are often from complex supply chains. This leaves us highly vulnerable to the growing menace of food fraud, which is being orchestrated more and more frequently by organised criminal networks.”
The speech also highlighted the professor’s concerns about the growing ‘disconnect’ between people and their knowledge of where their food comes from. He said that the causes are complex and that government, the food industry and educators have responsibilities to address the major societal problem.
He made a call: To get back to basics, to grow more of our own food and to remove the multiple steps from food production to consumption. But at the same time to keep food available and affordable.”
The Lecture was concluded with a thought-provoking address by HRH The Princess Royal, a staunch supporter of UK food and farming.
The City Food Lecture is organised by seven City of London livery companies whose roots are in the food industry – namely the Worshipful Companies of Bakers, Butchers, Cooks, Farmers, Fishmongers, Fruiterers and Poulters. London’s livery companies have their roots in the medieval system of guilds, protecting and regulating their members’ trade or craft, and eventually becoming part of the city’s government. Some date back more than 900 years.
The four ENAJ members were guests of the Worshipful Company of Farmers, where ENAJ committee member Adrian Bell is a liveryman. They included Karin Huber and Katarina Herzog, from Austria; Rebecca McDonnell, from Northern Ireland; and Suzanne Campbell, from Ireland. Suzanne subsequently broadcast the following report on RTE’s weekly Countrywide radio show, which is usually presented by ENAJ secretary Damien O’Reilly.