Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by the National Rural and Agricultural Workers Sector of Unite the Union

Submission to Environmental Audit Commission Inquiry into "the environmental and social consequences of the way the food we eat in the UK is produced, distributed, marketed and sold."

"The (EA) Committee wishes to examine how Government policy can be used to promote more sustainable practices in the UK food industry and more sustainable behaviours from the public. As part of this, the Committee will examine the Coalition Government’s proposals to develop new food policies."


We believe sustainable food is that ‘which is healthier for people and the planet’. While there are many more complex definitions, this highlights that everybody in the food chain needs to be health ier in order to help the survival of the planet.

We take the long view like the   World Health Organisation (p272) [1]   that
"The strategies needed to create desired changes in nutritional and environmental patterns are often complementary and, as a whole, provide cost-effective, sustainable development for agricultural land… In addition, local strategies that seek to improve the availability of, access to and consumption of locally produced foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, also increase the interdependence and thus the social cohesion between urban and rural dwellers. "

This Inquiry is a timely reminder of the C urry C ommission set up 10 years ago to address sustainable food and farming, that became known as the ' Curry Report' [2]   - properly 'The Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food: Facing the Future'.

The EAC Inquiry should ask: 
"How well have Curry's recommendations be implemented and what is the overall success of Curry's Commission?"

We take one particular aspect of the Curry Report that noted (p32) that agriculture has 'the worst fatal injury rate of any broad employment sector – on average, one fatal accident a week'. It is twice as dangerous (in terms of being killed at work) to work on a farm than the next worst industrial sector - construction. Curry said: 'This represents an avoidable human tragedy. In addition, over 100,000 working days are lost a year as a result of accidents in the agricultural sector, costing the British economy around £130 million.'

Has this improved in the last 10 years? Answer - apart from one year - 2008, No. The rate of fatalities is remarkably similar and awful. This highlights one of the 'social consequences of the way the food we eat in the UK is produced'. Funding for the HSE's 'Make the Promise' campaign that addresses this appalling state of affairs, has recently been cut. It would seem to us that farmers and farmworkers are paying a high price to produce cheap food.

Th is is one of many social consequences . Whenever the word ‘sustainable’ is used, it introduces the social aspects of environmental concerns. They have to go together. Yet ‘social’ is missing among EAC’s 5 themes. So we suggest adding No 7 and call it 'Social Well Being'. This conforms to FAO  E-forum to define Sustainable Food and Farming [3]  and their proposed sustainability 'issues', which includes one called ‘Social Well Being’ and was discussed on their e-forum   during the week March 14-18 .


Social Well Being would include wages and conditions in general, which have traditionally been below other industrial workers. There are few organised workplaces, primarily because of the adverse balance of power where many workplac e s have onl y a few workers often working alone. This has long been recognised by all governments, suc h that when all other Wages Boards were abolished in the late 1980’s the Agricultural Wages Board survived. But now, due primarily big plantation owners in the East complaining about paying employees a penny or two above the minimum wage, this has been abolished by the present government. What will replace it ? 80% of farm workers depend on the skills/reward structure in the AWB to make any progress in their lives.

Poor working conditions among temporary workers was eventually recognised with the formation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which since its introduction has made a good start. It has done a good job at enforcing regulations regarding health and safety and accommodation, among the top tier, but finds it more difficult to deal with the lower layers of contracting out labour. However the long term issue to address is the dependency on temporary labour in the sector. While there are natural reasons for temporary working, the dependence on 300,000 migrant workers, instead of local temporary workers, cannot last forever. It is not sustaina b le.

Many retailers have signed up for the Ethical Trade Init iative, which uses the ILO Conventions to lay down a series of standards – from allowing trade unions to organise , to extensive H&S conditions. This is voluntary at present but could be transformed into something more akin t o the Fairtrade label. The Little Red Tractor sch e me (NFU inspired Assurance scheme) does not – and does not want to, include labour conditions . B ut some bran d needs to be introduced that do es enable cu s tomers to ‘buy decent UK working conditions’. If most consumers knew about the appalling fatality rates, poor wages and working conditions in the UK , they may well respond in the same way as many have to ‘ Fai r trade ’. Fairtrade relates with primary producers, while an ETI brand would address employees throughout the farm-food chain.


The issue of cheapness must be addressed by the EAC Committee if it is to say anything meaningful about sustainable food. Blue Sky thinking can be 'Pie in the sky' that will do nothing unless somebody does some Greenfield Digging - and that means more investment in the land sector.

There has been a rundown in our land sciences, this must be reversed. Out of 20 research stations 20 years ago, barely a handful now still exist. One of them   Wellesbourne Research Station (latterly know as Warwick HRI) [4]   was one of the first things to go (October) in the Coalition government.

There is a parallel rundown of land skills, that will be made worse by the demise of the AWB, where many of the practitioners are now near or beyond retirement age. Cl early this is not sustainable. T oo much land under - worked because it is 'unprofitable'. Dairies are going out of business to be replaced by plots for horses. Land in the East of UK is generally intensively used, while that in the West under used.

Ways will have to be found to make it more rewarding to work on the land. A few technological fixes – to create plants that need less fertilisers, will not replace the rundown of skills need ed to farm all sorts of land conditions in new and innovative ways . N ew electronic technologies c ould help make a l ife on the land more attractive to the next generation. If the word ‘sustainable’ is to mean anything, we have to create a more sustainable land workforce, and that means paying and treating workers to 21 st century conditions.

This is what the Commission should address urgently.





[4] 31 March 2011