The government should ensure that all imported food meets the same high animal welfare and environmental standards in place on British farms.
That’s the overwhelming view of the public according to new research carried out by ComRes on behalf of the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists (BGAJ).
ComRes surveyed the public in September and found 84% support the view that imports should match British standards as Brexit threatens to open the door to imports from low cost producing, de-regulated markets across the globe.
The study found that just 16% would buy food they know is produced to lower animal welfare standards if it was cheaper than food produced to a high standard.
BGAJ President Baroness Rosie Boycott said: “The results of this study are a stark reminder to government that the public values the high standards of British farming.
“There will always be countries able to produce cheaper food than Britain but it always comes at a cost. It could be the safety of the food, the farmer, an animal or the environment.
“With Brexit on the horizon we’re on the brink of potentially seeing lower quality food imports flooding into the country.
“The survey resoundingly shows there’s no appetite for it and it’s the responsibility of government and the entire supply chain to put the safeguards in place to protect both British farmers and the consumer, who’s heads may still be turned by attractive price deals in tough economic conditions, despite how they have responded.”
The results of the study come at a critical time for British agriculture – a sector which stands to lose more than most if the protection provided by the European Union’s single market is not replicated post Brexit.
British standards of food and farming are among the best in the world thanks to decades of progression in the areas of production that matter most to consumers.
Many countries which can produce food cheaper than Britain are often using production methods which are illegal here and across Europe; chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef being two well-reported examples.
Professor of Food Policy at the University of London, Tim Lang, said: “An overwhelming 84% want imported food to be of the same standard as home produced food. Gung-ho supporters of yoking the UK to the USA post Brexit should note this.
“The survey suggests the UK public almost certainly recognises the need for UK farming to tick lots of boxes. It’s got the message that farming is multi-functional. But have the politicians?”
Food production, environment and payment for public goods
- 84% of GB adults agree the government should ensure all imported food meets the same environmental and animal welfare standards as food produced in the UK. Only 2% disagree
- A majority (53%) of GB adults would not buy food that is produced to lower animal welfare standards if it’s cheaper than food produced to a high standard of animal welfare. Only around one in six (16%) agree
- Younger people are less likely to disagree with the statement than older people – it seems attitude to the trade-off between animal welfare and price swings towards animal welfare the older we get (45% disagree 18-34; 52% 35-54; 61% 55+)
- 62% of the public agree that UK farmers should receive financial support from the taxpayer to ensure a continued supply of food produced by British farmers post-Brexit, compared to just one in ten (10%) who disagree. 68 per cent of rural and 61 per cent of urban respondents agreed
- Two in five (39%) GB adults agree that a UK farmer’s primary purpose should be to produce food rather than carry out environmental work, although just under a third (29%) disagree. 33% were not clear (26% neither, 7% don’t know)
Climate change and technology
- 62% of the public agree farmers have an important role to play in generating renewable electricity from technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels, while around one in twelve (8%) disagree
- Just under half (48%) of GB adults agree that a climate change levy should be charged on food with a higher carbon footprint, with the proceeds spent on encouraging carbon-friendly farming methods, compared to fewer than one in five (17%) who disagree
- 34% agree new plant-breeding technologies, such as genetically modified and gene-edited crops, should be used to grow food in the UK, compared to more than a quarter (27%) who disagree. Young people aged 18-24 are more likely to agree (46%) with the statement than any other age group
Retail and UK marketplace
- Only 24% agree UK farmers receive a fair share of profit made by retailers on the food that they produce, compared to more than a third (36%) who disagree. Rural respondents were more likely to disagree than urban respondents (43% rural vs 35% urban)
- Access to the countryside
- Almost two thirds (62%) of GB adults agree the public has adequate access to the UK countryside in terms of rights of way and footpaths, compared to just one in 10 (11%) who disagree. Londoners and those in the West Midlands were the least likely to agree with the statement (54% and 55% respectively), whereas those in Wales and the North East were the most likely to agree (both 70%)
- Four in five (79%) adults are proud of the British countryside and the rural communities which sustain it, compared to just 3% who disagree. While urban respondents still have a high level of agreement with the statement (77%), almost nine in ten (88%) of rural respondents agree
British farmers have reacted to the survey through Just Farmers – a service helping journalists and programme makers find independent, authentic voices at the grassroots of farming.
Richard Heady, arable, beef and sheep producer, Buckinghamshire, said: “It’s too easy to presume that the British public are unengaged with where their food comes from and do not appreciate the farmer’s role in managing the countryside, whereas these results suggest otherwise. The fact the majority of adults believe we should receive Government payments in return for British food security suggests to me that people value their British food supplies more than I would have ever believed. To feel appreciated is a wonderful thing. Too often we can’t hear the positive comments over the noise of discontent. It gives me great heart to see that the majority of people think that we and our rural communities are taking good care of the British countryside. The countryside is our job, our residence, our food, our drink, our friends and our life.”
Charles Goadby, dairy farmer from Warwickshire, said: “I am proud to be a farmer, of what I do as a British farmer, and the high standards we maintain, be it food production, renewables or our care and guardianship of our countryside and environment. To me, this survey shows that the British public want our farmers to maintain that high quality of welfare and environmental work that we strive to do.”
Sheena Horner, Chilli grower, Dumfries and Galloway, said: “I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I read the survey results. We seem to read nothing but negativity around farming currently. It was therefore heartening to see that the British public supports us, but there is still work to be done by us that produce food. As although the results were supportive there is definitely some areas that we can work harder in especially in educating the general public on our share of profits from the food we produce.”
Stephen Ware, poultry and horticulture, Herefordshire, said: “I always regard surveys with a degree of caution as we need to observe actions rather than words. It is highly encouraging that the sentiment of nation appears to back farming and the countryside but we have yet to see the general public take responsibility for themselves in terms of health and their actions which effect wider issues such as climate. We have no choice but to ride the Brexit wave and wait to see where it washes us up. Yet as an industry that cannot react quickly to the potential upsides of Brexit, we stand the risk of being sold down the river in some hastily negotiated trade agreements.”
Tim Dobson, goat farmer, Cheshire, said: “Farms outside the UK also produce good quality foods to high standards. Our marketing needs to consist of more than just sticking a Union Jack on the packaging. The opportunities are there, we need to take them. Farmers need to be fleet of foot in the coming years. We must run profitable businesses, be prepared to change and not just do what we have always done. Subsidies should not support badly run farms. Poor farms should be allowed to fail.”
Robert Thornhill, dairy farmer, Derbyshire, said: “It is encouraging to see support for the good work agriculture is doing for the UK, both in terms of food production, environmental care and renewable energy production. There are some interesting differences between urban and rural responses on some statements, clearly influenced by proximity to farming and allied businesses. The most interesting statistic for me is that younger respondents appear to be slightly more likely to purchase food produced to lower welfare standards if it is cheaper. This may purely be a financial decision rather than being directly concerned with welfare standards, but I would expect a survey to produce a more welfare-friendly response than when actually shopping.”
Sarah James, free range eggs and beef producer, Powys, mid-Wales, said: “This report is very positive for the industry and the general support for themes of the responses bode well for attitudes of consumers. But I hope this in turn will be reflected in the purse when they are shopping.”
Daniel Brown, free range eggs and arable farmer, Suffolk, said: “I am pleased to see how positive the responses were especially on the question of imported foods meeting our standards. But will the public follow through with their good intentions when retailers present food of a lower standard at an attractive price? I think this would need to be enshrined in law rather than relying on the goodwill of retailers and the public.”
William Barber, arable and poultry (broilers), Norfolk, said: “Having read the survey my overwhelming view is that the public are more inclined to say the “right” thing when they are being interviewed by a pollster but then to do the exact opposite when they come to actual reality. For example, although a net 62% might agree that farmers have an important role in generating renewable electricity – you try applying for a wind turbine near their house! You will get a very different response. Again, they might say they agree that imported food should have the same standards as UK produced food or say they are prepared to pay more for food produced to higher welfare standards, however, when they are alone with their trolley they simply buy the cheapest. Aldi and Lidl are not expanding because they have wonderful customer service – it is because they are cheap and the other Big Four are desperately trying to copy them.”
Kate Daniels, smallholder, Worcestershire, said: “The willingness to pay more for food produced to higher welfare standards is interesting. It’s a complex issue balancing food budgets and ethics when people have a family to feed. My instinct as founder of an on-farm butchery is people report more willingness to pay than is borne out by their actual behaviour. It’s about finding a level that people find acceptable. I hope that more work can be done in this area, finding points of broad consensus that we can build on as we move forward into a post-Brexit world.”
George Young, arable, Essex, said: “My biggest concern in this survey is this: 46% of 18-to 24-year-olds believe that GM and GE technologies should be used to produce food in the UK. This is an example of an age group who have been led to believe that there is always a quick, scientific fix to a problem. There is a fix, but the necessary fix to reverse climate change is to pursue an ecological farming model – yes, this model will still more than adequately feed the world, even with 10 billion people living on it. Messing with elements of nature we don’t understand to facilitate the prevalence of a broken, unecological system of farming will only aid to speed up the decimation of global ecological systems. This is turn will lead to the speedier collapse of civilisation as we know it.”
Hefin Jones, beef, Carmarthenshire, said: “Having your cake and eating it comes to mind, as food, sadly is not a stand-alone commodity in global trade. Keywords are ‘US trade deal’ and ‘price at point of purchase’.”
Fraser Jones, dairy, Powys, said: “Overall, I felt the results of the survey were very predictable, but I am always cautious when reading survey results as I don’t believe they are that robust. What people say when being surveyed and what the reality is are two completely different things, although I do believe that generally the British public are supportive of farmers as the results show. I think farmers are failing in educating the public on what we do and how we produce food and it annoys me that we don’t do more to educate people in the inner cities and towns rather than constantly preaching to the mostly converted in the rural areas.”
For further interviews please contact Naomi Hurst on email@example.com or Ben Pike on 07832 168560 or firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTES TO EDITORS
A selection of high resolution images of Baroness Rosie Boycott and Professor Tim Lang are available from Google Drive.
The British Guild of Agricultural Journalists represents editors and journalists, broadcasters, photographers and PR/marketing specialists working in agriculture, commercial horticulture and other rural industries. Its members work freelance and full-time for newspapers, specialist publications, consumer magazines, in radio and on television, in online media, for agencies, commercial businesses and other organisations in the rural sector.
ComRes surveyed 2,009 British adults online on 4 – 6 September 2019. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables at www.comresglobal.com