Need to know: the week ahead and the week just gone

The Intelex team look back at highlights from the weekend and what’s ahead, with a particular focus on the count-down to the 2015 Election:

The story this weekend: The Mail on Sunday published details of Labour’s public health strategy based on leaked documents, revealing the Party’s plans on public health, fitness, and alcohol.  The document outlined plans including reducing sugar and salt content in products targeted at children and banning advertising before the 9pm watershed.  Other plans include a minimum alcohol price and preventing drinks companies from sponsoring sports, impeding supermarkets from selling sweets at checkouts, a target of encouraging half the population to take up regular exercise within the next decade, and the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. However the article suggested that the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, opposes this interventionist stance, and quoted an unnamed Labour MP arguing that the Party ‘need to show business we are on their side’.  Umunna last week addressed the Food and Drink Federation annual dinner, emphasising the Party’s support for the sector – and failing to mention any aspect of Labour’s plans to tackle obesity and unhealthy lifestyles.  Labour figures have largely stayed silent on social media about the leak.

More Labour this weekend: Ed Miliband suggested Labour would consider a form of renationalisation of the railways. The proposal may well be popular given rising train prices and the £4bn of annual subsidy the rail network receives. The proposals would see the Labour take over the franchises as they expire, thereby costing the Government nothing. However, there is rumoured to be a £325m short-fall in the rail funding which would probably prevent an immediate cut in ticket prices.

The story of the week ahead: This week marks a year to go until the 2015 General Election and commentators seem to agree on one thing at least: the outcome is uncertain, with the likely impact of UKIP on the outcome posing a major conundrum. As Patrick Wintour outlines in The Guardian, ‘In the short term, The Great Unknown is whether the European and local elections will turn out to be a frolic, and the serious business of politics, as senior Tory Ken Clarke put it last week, will thereafter return.’ In his column, Patrick Wintour looks at the packed schedule of political events coming up over the next year, but reflects that one thing is likely: Government will grind to a halt as the parties turn their attention to the election

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Intelex hosts food breakfast event with Huw Irranca Davies

Intelex team member Tom Morrison-Bell reports back from our food roundtable

At a roundtable last week, Shadow Food and Farming Minister, Huw Irranca-Davies MP highlighted rising consumer awareness about their food and a growing desire among consumers to ‘feel good’ about what they are eating. Voluntary approaches can work better with industry than unnecessary regulation. The realities of long, international supply chains, which have been central to delivering low prices for consumers, need to be balanced with adequate transparency mechanisms. This means consumers need to be reassured that their food has been ethically sourced and producers have been given a fair deal. Not only will business reap the rewards of ‘swimming with the consumer tide’, but improving the quality and reputation of British food will also help boost Britain’s exports.

Attendees agreed that food policy underpins a whole range of areas including in education, health, business and agriculture. Dan Corlett, CEO of Farming and Countryside Education (FACE), gave a wealth of examples of how his charity has helped realise this. He described a previously failing school, in a deprived area of Telford, that has turned itself around through comprehensive engagement with food and farming issues. Food was used an integral theme through which pupils were encouraged to engage in subjects from maths to geography. The Year 6’s (10-11) were even able to obtain a GCSE in IT five years ahead of time through the IT skills used to compile their experiences of engaging directly with food and farming issues.

The attendees represented the full range of the food and farming sector from major manufacturers, Nestle, Mars, Mondelez to retailers Tesco and Morrisons and the National Farmers Union and Food and Drink Federation. All are engaged in numerous education outreach activities and there is a genuine commitment to both deliver value for consumers and promote ethical consumption. But there was a recognition that price is likely to always remain the key issue for consumers. Huw Irranca-Davies agreed with this assessment but pointed out that there is value in focusing on other consumer preferences to move beyond price. As was pointed out, many consumers choose iPhones when there are cheaper options available so why can similar shifts not be met in the food sector.

Government also has a key role to play. The government can ensure that it drives competition through its procurement strategy, setting an example through its list of preferred providers, encouraging companies to meet the same high standards across Government departments. All also agreed that a joined-up and collaborative approach would be very beneficial for consumers, producers, manufacturers and retailers alike. As the Shadow Minister said, such an approach to food policy can help individuals and engage with a myriad of issues, not just for today, but for the next generation, who will face a looming food crisis unless action is taken now.

GM: the growing debate

Intelex team member Tom Morrison-Bell looks at recent debate on GM.

You may have noticed GM has returned to the media this week after Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson MP, branded anti-GMers as ‘wicked’ and their views ‘disgusting’. The GM debate is one of the most divisive and sensitive around. But what is really going with GM in the UK?

The short answer is ‘nothing really’. That said, the UK Government is trying to shift attitudes both at home and in Brussels.  In June, Owen Paterson gave a speech at Rothamsted Research calling for ‘a more informed discussion about the potential of genetically modified crops’ and detailing a number of advantages, including ecological and economic, of GM. This was preceded by a number of Ministers paving the way for a more positive push on GM: Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts MP, warned  Europe should back GM or face becoming ‘a museum of 20th century technology’; the well-respected Lib Dem and then Defra Minister, David Heath CBE backed GM crops ‘if they’re found not to have a detrimental environmental outcome’; and even the PM himself gave his backing to GM, claiming that he wants to start a ‘pro-science culture’ in the UK, starting with a shift in attitude towards the inappropriately termed ‘Frankenstein foods’.

It is hoped that the public support of the highest ministers in the land, will help contribute to the slow change in EU regulation that is required for GM to really take off. As GM policy is ultimately determined by the EU, with no member state permitted to take independent decisions on the matter, on the ground the status quo is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Monsanto’s decision to remove all GM strains pending approvals from the EU regulatory pipeline is another clue that the EU regulatory system is not functioning effectively on GM crops (although note that Monsanto still have one of the very few GM crops grown in the EU, MON810, a herbicide resistant maize, so it is not a total withdrawal as has been reported.)

None of this is to say that there is no movement at all – just this week the European Food Safety Association gave the all clear on two new GM crops and public opinion appears to be easing on GM as the wealth of evidence indicates that GM poses no threat to human health. According to a poll in The Independent, more people support than oppose the growing of GM crops and more are prepared to buy and eat GM foods than not, which is definitely a sign of changing public values. These changing values are a positive sign for GM campaigners that, long-term at least, change is possible.

Whether it is strategically wise for Ministers to blatantly engage in emotive arguments whilst calling for a ‘scientific’ and ‘evidence-based’ approach to GM is one question, but either way, GM does not look set to be found in England’s green and pleasant land any time soon.