The UK’s approach and general attitude to the food it produces is a source of constant frustration to me.
Leaving aside those involved in food production, many of us view meals in purely pragmatic terms – it’s almost a box to be ticked off our to-do list. Cook dinner. Tick. Serve dinner. Tick. Eat dinner. Tick.
There are varying views on why that should be. Personally, I believe it’s partly down to how successful the industry has been at making food accessible though a range of outlets. Convenience food tailors itself to busy shoppers grabbing products that are easy to cook on the way to and from work, for example.
In tandem with that is the idea of being time-poor and that, in turn, highlights a wider social dimension. It’s no coincidence that those more inclined to savour food and value it for its own sake are often those with the money and time to do so.
There are implications in all this for healthy eating. Supporting healthier diets isn’t so much about demonising certain foods as about tackling the social issues that drive people to pick those foods.
That’s a topic for another time, however. I’m more interested here about how the UK’s attitude to its food influences its trade policy.
A population with a purely pragmatic approach to food isn’t going to prioritise it on a national – and therefore international – level. It won’t be inclined to shout about it. Add to that the UK’s cultural reserve when it comes to championing its strengths and what you have is an attitude that undermines efforts to promote food exports, even at the political level.
The industry was not historically best served by a Government more concerned with quick wins post-Brexit than with supporting UK domestic producers. Getting deals over the line is one thing. Getting the best deals for UK suppliers is another.
The reality is that UK food has a great deal to commend it. It’s not all about tikka masala and fish and chips. The UK has a rich heritage of seasonal produce and dishes stretching back hundreds of years. It also has a rich multicultural diversity, enabling it to recreate dishes from around the world. It needs to embrace these things, applying the food science at its disposal (another of its core strengths).
Following the Government’s announcement of a new Dairy Export Programme, which has been informed by the opinions of many PTF members and other stakeholders, I and others have been mulling over UK dairy’s unique strengths.
Among other things, it’s committed to the highest quality, animal welfare and technical standards; it’s blazing trails in technological innovation and sustainability; and its products are tasty, nutritious and versatile.
Of course, we’re not perfect and some other countries could argue likewise, but I doubt they have any of these areas nailed either.
It's heartening that prime minister Rishi Sunak, in response to calls from the National Farmers Union, PTF and others, continues to resist compromising UK sanitary and phytosanitary standards in future trade deals.
Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling at times that the UK is so desperate to access imports that it fails to make other countries fight for what we can offer in negotiations. We need to get passionate about our food and pursue the high standards we’re capable of. That’s the only route to a powerful domestic and international food strategy.