In Part One of the recently launched National Food Strategy its leader Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon restaurants, asks “How did we get to the point where our food – our source of life-giving sustenance – is making so many of us sick? And why has it proved so difficult to do anything about it?”

That sounds a bit like a question I keep asking myself: Why have we allowed big food business to rob us of the opportunity to enjoy real food? And why do so many farmers fail to win the recognition and reward they deserve?

The publication of the first part of the National Food Strategy, comes soon after the unveiling of measures to get the nation fit and healthy, under the government’s new obesity strategy. Both documents contain some startling statistics around the relationship between what we eat and our health and well-being.

According to NHS figures, 63% of adults in England are above a healthy weight and half of these people are living with obesity. It is also reported that, even before the Coronavirus pandemic, poor diet was responsible for 1 in 7 deaths in the UK. But surely the role of food is to nourish us, heal us and make us feel good?

Unfortunately, it would seem our health and well-being are not the primary motive for those who feed us today. Our diet is increasingly prescribed by big food business, focussed on processing and manufacturing an ever-more convenient and alluring offer. It is perhaps no surprise then, that over half the calories we consume in the UK, now come from ultra-processed foods.

According to the NOVA food classification, ultra-processed foods include things such as soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared frozen dishes. The classification goes on to say these are “not modified foods but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food” (Group 1 foods are essentially classed as edible parts of plant or of animals).

How can our food system deliver what people really need and want? As a farmer I have always felt distant from the people we ultimately feed. For too long farming has been focussed on output and costs of production. Ours, is the role of primary production; the growing of crops and the rearing of livestock, for others to turn into ‘food’, sell and deliver.

Thousands of farmers send livestock to abattoirs, or ship tanker loads of milk to dairy companies, with little or no knowledge of who will consume what they produced; let alone what enjoyment or benefit it delivered to those who ate it. In my mind this is fundamentally wrong; how can we expect people to understand and value food when it is provided this way? How can farmers possibly win the recognition and reward they deserve, if they are feeding a system, rather than people?

I believe that it is that distance and disconnect that is at the very root of today’s dietary crisis, which is compromising the health of so many. The lack of any kind of meaningful relationship between producer and consumer has also created undesirable consequences for the environment, farm animals and our rural communities. Consolidation of our food system into the hands of food industry giants, who put profit before all else, strips our food of its taste and provenance and treats real food as a minor ingredient in a cocktail of artificial flavours, colourings and preservatives.  

There is an urgent need for change if we are to avoid a dietary catastrophe. It is time to reassess our relationship with food and change our shopping habits. It is time to put provenance and natural health benefits before convenience and price, to enrich the lives of millions who are paying a high price for that cheap, ultra-processed food. The good news is that thousands of farms in the UK still produce some wonderful, healthy food for us to enjoy; real food with real taste. We just need to find a way to make it accessible to more people.

As I have explained, so much real food is lost to us as it is fed to huge processing facilities that mix and blend the flavours and terroir of individual farms into an unidentifiable, watery soup. If we are to take back what is rightfully ours – a healthy and enjoyable diet, we must empower producers to become providers. We must help farmers who have been enslaved to the mass production of raw commodities, to identify themselves, their farms and the food they grow and rear. It’s time for a 21st century food and farming revolution!

Thomas Jefferson, who served as the third president of the United States, from 1801 to 1809, once said: “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.” I believe that by helping farmers to develop the means to sell what they produce on the farm to local people, we can all benefit.

I have recently set up Produce & Provide to support farmers in setting up processing on farms and help them to tell the story of their farms and the food they provide. The rewards on offer are far more than a financial lifeline for farmers; the opportunity to engage directly with those who eat what you produce can ignite a renewed sense of purpose, at a time when so many feel lost and uncertain about their future. Small farms can grow their business, not by farming more acres, or milking more cows, but by realising the true value of their natural capital.

The Produce & Provide website also has an interactive map, where people can hunt for local food supplied direct from farms. I would urge anyone who wants to champion their favourite local farms to send me their details and I will gladly add them to the map. Let’s get this revolution rolling!

Neil Darwent