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Public health must be a public good in UK agriculture policy

Academics, public health advocates and food and farming specialists have joined forces to call on the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, formally to recognise public health as a public good in UK agriculture policy.

The Food Research Collaboration at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London; the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), and Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming have urged the Prime Minister and her farming and health ministers formally to recognise public health as a public good in UK agriculture policy.

In a joint letter, the organisations state that following the publication of the Defra consultation document Health and Harmony, the rubric of ‘Public money for public goods’ is likely to be the cornerstone of agriculture policy after the UK leaves the EU. Agricultural policy has enormous potential either to support or undermine public health, with significant related benefits or costs to human wellbeing and the economy. They propose that these should be explicitly considered under the rubric of ‘goods’ or ‘benefits’.

Key areas where a public goods rationale can be confidently asserted include:

  • reduction of global antibiotic resistance through measures to reduce use in livestock and fish farming
  • reduction in national ill-health costs and increased general wellbeing resulting from reduced contribution to diet-related diseases, for example by supporting the transition to producing less sugar and towards increasing production of fruit, vegetables and pulses
  • reduced national ill health from air and water pollution and pesticide exposure related to farm systems.

The following key points are also worth highlighting:

  • The term ‘Public goods’ has a narrow definition in economic theory and practice that can seem at odds with the general understanding that it means ‘something for the public good’. As ‘productivity’ is named as a ‘public good’ in the Command Paper we can assume the narrow definition is not being used; we agree that policy should avoid being held hostage by a piece of economic terminology. The key will be to make sure that public health is explicitly recognised as a beneficial purpose and outcome of agriculture policy. 
  • There is a public expectation that improvements or changes to farming, food and environment policy after the UK’s departure from the EU will take into account key current public health issues such as childhood obesity and diabetes. Public support for continued payments to the farming sector should rest not only on environmental but also on health outcomes. 

The Food Research Collaboration, RSPH and Sustain urged the Prime Minister and her Defra and Health ministers to make public health a defined object of agriculture policy, stated as such in the upcoming UK Agriculture Bill. The organisations have a number of progressive and practical proposals for how this purpose can be translated into specific instruments and measures in final policy, and said that they would welcome the chance to discuss this with relevant government teams. 


The joint letter was sent to: Prime Minister Theresa May; Secretary of State for Defra Michael Gove; Farming Minister George Eustice; Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock; and Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health and Social Care) Steve Brine.

To explore the grounds for including public health as one of the ‘public goods’ which should be supported under the new UK Agriculture Act, and cited as a purpose of the Act, the three organisations collaborated to run an expert seminar in July 2018 entitled Public health as a ‘public good’ from agriculture – examining specific public health outcomes that could arise from a new UK agriculture policy.
Signatories to the joint letter are: 

  • Dr Rosalind Sharpe, Research Fellow: Food & Brexit, Food Research Collaboration, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London
  • Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, Royal Society for Public Health
  • Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive, Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming
  • Vicki Hird, Coordinator of the Sustainable Farming Campaign, Sustain 

Published Friday 20 July 2018

Sustainable Farming Campaign: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.

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