Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, reflects on the role of farming in improving the nation's health and wellbeing.

In the autumn of 2016, a few months after the referendum, a small number of chief executives of a range of national voluntary sector organizations, met to consider if we could collectively find anything positive about leaving the EU. We had all voted to remain in the EU and were variously struggling to see if there was any kind of silver lining.

To cut a long story short, we decided that with the end of the common agricultural policy (CAP) and the concerns about the environment without EU law and safeguards, there was a need to find a way forward that would bring all sides together across different sectors as well as the public. It was also clear that agriculture, in providing the food we produce and eat as well as a beautiful and sustainable countryside, was significant for the nation’s health and wellbeing. After a series of meetings with numerous groups, and the support of a far sighted funder, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) was created and hosted at the RSA.  

The FFCC is a 2-year independent inquiry, chaired by Sir Ian Cheshire with 14 commissioners to find a common purpose across these complex issues and create a mandate for change. The Commission has developed inquiries in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England and has created locally led ‘deep dive’ initiatives in Cumbria, Devon and Lincolnshire.

In addition, a 7-month long bike tour took place in 2018 to gauge the views of farmers, retailers, small producers, local employers and employees, local authorities and the public. All these groups were able to tell us their views and give insights into the specific issues facing their locality. This has added in depth knowledge and understanding of what is happening across the country and what people believe needs to change. 

As a commissioner representing the public’s health and wellbeing, I have been struck by the determination of my fellow commissioners (who represent diverse sectors) and many others to make improving and protecting the public’s health a key outcome of the Commission. They are persuaded that we must link the future of farming and the countryside with improving the nation’s health. The need to do this is compelling.

In recent weeks we see that childhood obesity at age 11 continues to increase and to hurt those in low income communities the most. The UK also performs poorly in comparison with other countries in healthy life expectancy with a massive 18-year gap between the most and least disadvantaged females.

In the next few months the Commission will be looking at what farmers could produce taking into account UK data from the EAT Lancet report and facilitating conversations across multiple interested parties. We want to make our food safe, healthy and affordable for all the population, whilst sustaining our soil and biodiversity and developing the local economy.

These goals are not incompatible, but we do need to work together to build consensus around a different future. The report from the Commission will be launched in June 2019 and I am sure that with joint effort and commitment this will be our ‘silver lining’.