Food fighter

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food supply chain Drink manufacturing sector Agriculture

Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary
Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh is fighting to see fair food for all, reports Rick Pendrous

Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary, is a self-confessed chocoholic. "We're very interested in chocolate in this office,"​ she says. But, given that she is also an avid cyclist and fruit grower, these other activities will probably compensate for her occasional indulgence.

She is quite passionate about a range of issues, from young people and children's food, to inequality at home and deprivation and human rights in the developing world. She is quite forceful in getting her points across. Maybe it comes with the territory of having to survive in the testosterone-fuelled House of Commons.

Creagh, MP for Wakefield and mother of two, is also a very regular tweeter, as I've discovered since meeting her at the office she shares in Portcullis House, Westminster.

Her tweeting is prolific and covers an eclectic mix of subjects. Most recently they ranged from applauding the success of Britain's female athletes at the Olympic Games, to objecting to Edwina Currie's comments about private education helping women MPs. Which all makes you wonder where she gets the time. But then, I guess, it's all part and parcel of being a modern politician together with the renowned ability of women to multi-task!

She also uses social media as an essential tool in her shadow environment brief. In a recent posting, she used Twitter to get her views across about rising agricultural prices to a wider audience. That's the audience who weren't up early enough to hear them on BBC Radio 4's Farming Today programme that day!

Creagh is striving to raise her profile within parliament and among the general public. But with widespread concerns about unemployment, a double-dip recession and rising prices, Creagh is resigned to the fact that questions about cuts to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (DEFRA's) budget and the future of the UK's food and drink manufacturing sector are unlikely to rock most people's boats.

Fighting for the industry

But, with a number of food businesses in and around her constituency, she has a good handle on the important role the food manufacturing sector plays in the nation's economy. "We understand the private sector needs good regulation, a government that's on its side and a government that's prepared to argue its case,"​ she remarks.

She is also fighting the sector's corner, she says, with her shadow colleague, Chukka Umunna, who is responsible for Business, Innovation and Skills. "I am very keen that Chukka doesn't just think of manufacturing as cars and helicopters,"​ she notes. She also remarks on good links with the Food and Drink Federation.

"We think food manufacturing has a key role to play in being part of Britain's export-led recovery and a key driver of private sector jobs,"​ she says.

Creagh supports much of what the present government is doing in relation to the action plan launched in conjunction with the industry, which seeks to achieve an export-led growth of the UK's food sector of 20% by 2020. She also supports some of what the government is doing on the food supply chain, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, and the green food strategy.

The flip side

However, there are inevitable differences.

In particular, expect to see Labour develop policies in areas such as public procurement of food and drink, healthier product innovation and traffic light labelling; sustainable food chains, sustainable diets and the recycling of food waste. Last, but not least, Creagh says Labour will direct its attention to the effects of agricultural commodity speculation on the affordability of food both at home and around the world.

She is also highly critical of the huge cuts agreed by government ministers across DEFRA's budget since they came into power. "The effects of that will be felt long into the future."

Specifically, she fears, it is delaying making important decisions and putting the brakes on the policy-making process. She also laments the demise of the regional development agencies.

"We have pushed the government very hard on public procurement, making sure the food we buy and consume is produced to British animal welfare standards,"​ she says. "We are looking, as part of our policy process, as to whether those buying standards could and should be extended to schools, hospitals and other public sector organisations such as prisons."

On sustainable diets, Creagh recognises the importance of meat and dairy in providing essential nutrients, such as iron and calcium, in people's diets. She is, she stresses, not anti-meat. But she wants better education to encourage consumers to reduce their consumption of meat to "no more than three times a week".

"We've got to make sure people aren't eating it three times a day," ​she adds. "And, unfortunately, there are people that are doing that. And it's very difficult for government to [bring about change]."

Creagh says: "We want to see a food chain that's got higher value added to it, that's got more skills and learning in it."​ Her last remark is aimed directly at what she considers to be low levels of nutritional skills in Britain's catering sector but, she believes, also within the manufacturing sector.

She also doesn't believe the food and drink manufacturing sector has done anywhere near enough to develop links with local educational establishments and schools where companies are located, to provide jobs and training for young people.

Holistic approach needed

What more should the government be doing then? "I want a strategy for skills; I want a strategy for research and development; I want a strategy for exports; and I want a strategy around sustainability and carbon reduction,"​ says Creagh.

"Food is a complex system and you have to look at it holistically. And picking off the little bits of it we like here and there such as exports and jobs have to be matched with the bits around innovation and carbon reporting and reducing carbon footprint and making sure it's a sustainable food system that can carry on feeding our children and grandchildren."

By adopting better ways of assessing the environmental impact of our food supply chain, Creagh believes we can make it more sustainable.

"Eventually we will be able to make rational decisions about which forms of production to support economically and environmentally,"​ she says.

As a fruit grower, Creagh knows that food is about much more than a source of fuel for our bodies. It also plays a role strategically, emotionally and even spiritually, she says. But, above it all, the most important thing is that everybody on the planet has enough to eat.

In the UK, she wants the "food desserts"​ experienced by some deprived sections of the community to be consigned to the dustbin, with supermarkets doing much more to ensure the availability of nutritious, affordable foods, with clearer pricing structures.

"I'm really passionate about that and we've got to do more to ensure everybody has a fair access to food,"​ she says.

Related topics People & Skills

Related news

Related products

Carbon Reduction for Large Energy Users

Carbon Reduction for Large Energy Users

Content provided by ESB Energy | 12-Nov-2021 | Product Brochure

ESB Energy Business Solutions can help you meet your companies carbon targets by 2050. We offer a range of sustainable tailored solutions to reduce the...

Follow us

Featured Jobs

View more


Food Manufacture Podcast

Listen to the Food Manufacture podcast