Defra needs to work more closely with the health sector to promote clean eating and address diet-related health problems such as obesity, leading professors of agriculture and population health have urged.
Speaking at the Nuffield Conference in Nottingham, Professor Michael Winter from Exeter University said that British farmers have an important role to play in tackling prevalent health issues.
According to the NHS, one in two adults in the UK have high cholesterol; one on three have high blood pressure; one in four are clinically obese; and one in 16 have diabetes.
As the market for healthy foods continues to grow, Winter said it is important that the farming industry “works much more closely with the health sector” to promote healthy products, such as fruit and vegetables, and devise policy that encourages growers to focus more on the nutritional value of their produce.
Up to now Winter said there has been a lack of cooperation between core government bodies in this area of policy, namely Defra, Public Health England (PHE) and the Food Safety Authority (FSA).
The rural policy specialist complained that in a recent research project, he struggled to get anyone from PHE on board, eventually turning to an enthusiastic local authority director instead.
“I don’t think it helps that government operates in silos,” added Susan Jebb, a professor of Diet and Population Health at Oxford University. “Any time you want to do something that is a cross-departmental thing, it is doubly difficult.”
The need for this to change is great, according to Jebb, who pointed to the fact that around a fifth of avoidable ill health in the UK is directly caused by poor diet.
As well as encouraging closer cross-departmental collaboration, Winter said there was a need for renewed emphasis on nutritional quality in agricultural research and development, as well as more direct retail.
“I think direct retail – farmers reconnecting with their consumers and saying more about their food – has been absolutely fantastic in this country,” he said. “But it's only ever touched a small segment of consumers and, having watched that scene for 20-odd years, I struggle to see it going much further.”
Winter is embarking on research to work out how British farmers can respond to diet-related public health issues and adjust to a change in Britain’s food culture towards healther options.
His international research trip will include a visit to the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems.