/ Food & Drink

What’s the future of our food?

What do the future decades hold for consumers, food suppliers and farmers? There are plenty of challenges, but also opportunities, ahead…

It’s a really interesting and important time for our food. Our food supply chain, food laws and wider approach, such as how farmers are supported, has been closely linked to our EU membership. So we need to decide what we want for the future.

Which? wants to make sure that consumer interests are at the heart of our future food policy – so this week we brought together a range of experts from across the food chain to talk about the challenges and priorities.

Micheal Gove, as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has recently asked Henry Dimbleby, a co-founder of the food chain, Leon, to write a national food strategy for England.

The Scottish Government is also currently consulting on proposals for how to become a Good Food Nation – and across the UK there are discussions taking place about future agriculture.

What’s at stake

Brexit could raise some immediate issues – such as making sure we hold on to important consumer protections and put robust food controls in place.

But it is important that we also take this opportunity to join up the way that food is dealt with across government departments.

At the moment different departments with different priorities all have a role – whether that’s protecting food safety, tackling obesity and other public health issues, promoting the growth of the food industry, how we trade food products or how we tackle the environmental impact of food production.

We know from our research that people expect that food standards will be maintained after we leave the EU – and if anything they think we should take the opportunity to enhance them by improving animal welfare for example.

Food standards

The majority of people have told us that they don’t want us opening up our doors to products produced using practices that aren’t currently allowed – such as hormone-treated beef or chlorine-washed chicken for example.

Most people also want to support UK producers where its feasible. That’s particularly the case with meat and dairy products, for example, where people want to buy local and support high welfare standards.

They also think that support given to farmers should be linked to better animal welfare or food safety, for example.

The experts that came to our conference all generally agreed that we need to value food more and make sure that public health is more of a priority.

In the coming months, Which? will build on the consumer research we have carried out, pushing to ensure that the way we produce food in the UK, as well as what we decide to import, reflects what consumers need and want.

What do you think should be the priorities for the government and food industry going forward? Do you think we need to do anything differently?

mann abbott says:
19 January 2019

I think if 80% of the country could follow VEGAN diet , we will be healthier and less Burden on NHS.
It would also improve Health and live longer, Eating Vegetable and Fruits will give our Farmers more Income and they will grow more to fulfil our demands.

GMack says:
23 January 2019

I believe society is increasingly losing the ability to ‘live and let live’ and the small but vocal vegan lobby are symptomatic of this trend. There are clearly benefits to eating a balanced diet of both meat and vegetables just as there are benefits to regular exercise and eating the correct calorific value. We should allow choice but also education with clear labelling, fat & salt reduction and correct portion size being in the vanguard
Billions of insects are killed producing grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables due to insecticides, mono-culture plantations and machinery. Palm oil and avocado production have massive environmental implications. Rice production arguable has a worse carbon footprint than many meat products. There will never be consensus that vegetarians are good and omnivores are bad. So let’s move forward with good education, clear labelling, reduction of excessive salt & fat, proper portion sizes, locally sourced produce (meat or vegetables) and leave people freedom of choice without all the lobbying – live and let live!

Hear, hear! GMack.

I don’t object to the reduction of sugar and salt because I can add it if I want to [although I don’t].

David Gooch says:
19 January 2019

A near vegan diet may be desirable, but is it practical? Our hill farmers don’t have much option but to continue farming livestock as crops are not viable. It is they who care for the most beautiful parts of our country, and grazing by animals shapes our landscape. If we all, as taxpayers, were to subsidise them so they had a decent income, no problem, perhaps. Unfortunately, there are some people, usually the richest in our society, who believe they should be exempt from paying taxes like the rest of us do. After Brexit, we will need to be more self-sufficient in food production. This means hard choices for us and the Government. I am not sure the latter are up to the challenge.

Alan Crawley says:
19 January 2019

Whilst there is plenty of nutritional data on packaged foods , there is no similar data given for fresh fruit and vegetables, nor fresh baked products on sale at supermarkets. This needs to be addressed if we are serious about understanding the make up of the food we consume , in order that we can make informed choices in following a healthy diet.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
20 January 2019

The reason we do not have nutritional info on fresh food is that it is quite impossible to say whether this carrot or that apple actually contain so much Vit A or so much Vit C as every one is different. Many many years ago tests were done on fresh fruit and veg to ascertain their nutritional content. The results have been set in stone, despite changes in production methods and the nutritional content of our modern soils. So we are still told that an apple contains X amount of Vit C – even if the ones on the shelf do not. For best nutritional content try to stick to organically grown food.which comes from healthy soil

Tilly says:
20 January 2019

I would love to see better labelling. It’s hard to know if eggs used are free range or not for example. Vegetable oil should have to be labelled by type e.g. palm, rape, sunflower. Also nutritional labelling is confusing and inconsistent, the worst foods simple opt out of displaying the information or grey out the boxes. We can’t solve an obesity crisis when almost all kids cereals are 30% sugar and infant formula is aggressively marketed. I would like standards to improve and not lessen, certainly not importing substandard American chicken products with inferior welfare standards.

Our eggs have “free range” on the box and the vegetable oil is labelled “sunflower”.

Not all knowledge has to come from the label. There are other sources of information that help consumers to choose acceptable products, and once known can be remembered as ‘favourites’.

Much of the obesity crisis is attributable to foodstuffs that are purchased as pacifiers, are well known to be fattening, and are consumed in excessive volumes. Labelling alone will not arrest that trend.

If you buy ready filled boxes of eggs the info should be on the box, but we took empty egg boxes back to our butcher to be refilled from a large tray of eggs that used to just have a sign saying free range. All the eggs are stamped but you need internet access to find out what they mean.

You are right John on labelling not stopping obesity. Labelling only helps those that want to be helped or need to know for dietary requirements.

There are many foods that could be improved by lowering the amount of sugar in them. Does jam need to contain so much sugar? There are some good sugar-free jams around now. I used to like Horlicks but now find it is far too sweet with 44.5% sugars. Why can’t they make it so you add a little sugar if you need it? I don’t like sugar replaced with sweeteners that leave a bad taste in my mouth.

And to answer my own question, sometimes, what you are really buying is flavoured sugar.🤔

I do enjoy the marzipan on the xmas cakes, though….

I can’t remember the last time I ate xmas cake. I always left the icing but quite liked the marzipan eaten so that the last mouthful was mostly marzipan.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
20 January 2019

Sweeteners f do no only leave a bad taste they are very bad for your health too. It is possible to gradually wean yourself off excessive sugar, but it does mean not buying certain items like drinking choc and horlicks which add too much – and of course even soups and sauces also have added sugar ! . The reason for all that sugar is that it is addictive – like a drug – and manufacturers want you to keep on buying their product.

Have you tried using sweetness based on stevia? It does not have an unpleasant taste and can help to cut down on sugar consumption. I don’t understand why commercial soups generally contain sugar, but it’s very easy to make soups without it.

Sugar is used in jam not just as a sweetener, but is essential as the preservative. The lower the balance of sugar:fruit the more likely that the jam will go mouldy. Homemade jam doesn’t contain any other preservatives and needs around 50:50 balance.

Unless people eat three thickly-spread jam sandwiches every day and little else [and lick the spoon as well] I doubt if the sugar in jam will contribute much to the nation’s problems. Reduced sugar jams are available. We need to keep a sense of proportion.

The sugar content of jam and marmalade has been reduced because of criticism of the sugar content, so that it is less effective as a preservative. That is why the label may say that jars should be kept in the fridge after opening. The less sugar, the more important that this refrigeration becomes.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
23 January 2019

As Hilary indicated, low sugar jam will go mouldy very quickly even if kept in the fridge – I can vouch for that

It’s possible to delay this by adding a chemical preservative, as used in most packaged bread. Keeping the fridge as cold as possible will help.

Lessismore says:
23 January 2019

Agree about drinking chocolate being too sweet. The answer is to use cocoa. Anybody have an answer for a sugar free Horlicks alternative?

Lessismore says:
23 January 2019

I always used to peel the marzipan and icing off. Some is nice but it is often too thick and I absolutely hate that thick roll-on icing. Easy maybe but excessive. Christmas cake tastes good with cheddar cheese to offset that sweetness and just a small amount once a year!

I have avoided eating icing for years, though I will eat the marzipan if the icing can be peeled off. I did not discover the practice of eating Christmas cake or other heavy fruit cake with cheese until being confronted by it on a visit to West Yorkshire. It’s an odd but pleasant combination.

I sometimes make Christmas cake without icing for my own consumption but Dundee cake decorated with almonds looks a bit more attractive. Anything other than a cake with a thick layer of icing.

patricia murphy says:
20 January 2019

We are omnivores, biologically, and while I would be happy to follow a vegetrain or vegan diet myself, I do not think it is the (rather simplistic) answer to feeding the world

We need to eat less meat certainly, but we can still graze animals, on hill land for example, where we can’t grow crops, and we should cut out waste rather than restrict our diets. Honour the sacrifice of animals we kill by using every bit, and give them a good healthy natural life and a good death. I think factory farming, which maximises profit at the expense of animal welfare, the environment and our own health, is the elephant in the room in this debate about diet

Lastly, vegan is the new black in media food circles, but a really good knowledge of nutrition is needed for anyone engaging in this , to feed children for example, or they can miss out on vital elements in their diet. I have hard evidence of this, so be careful of the food gurus, and food fads. Do your own research and make informed choices.

I should be interested to know what people mean by ‘factory farming’. At all the livestock farms I know in our part of the country the animals live outside most of the time and even when they are in the barn during the winter, the husbandry is not particularly intensive. The pigs seem to spend all their time outside with three-sided shelters for each family to keep the rain and snow off.

In a Vegan world, would animals be bred for leather, or would oil-based synthetic materials have to be used, or are there vegetable-based alternatives available?

I must admit I cannot imagine a life without milk, butter, cheese, eggs, fish, meat, wool, or leather, or a landscape without animals. Maybe horses would survive for equestrian purposes.

I don’t know any Vegans personally and although I had a couple of acquaintances some years ago who were vegans I did not take much interest in their way of life. Unfortunately Veganism has all the appearances of a fad nowadays and some of its adherents do tend to proselytise.

Do a search for danish milk production John.

I wonder how many vegans are cat owners and let their little darlings out to play. Do they give our wildlife the same regard as animals bred for food?

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
20 January 2019

Factory farming is just what the name implies. The animals are jamb packed together in huge warehouse-like barns, and never get out to breath fresh air, roll in the grass or display natural activity. They are fed a diet which is often not natural to them. Birds are frequently de-beaked to stop them pecking each other in frustration, young piglets have their teeth drawn and their tails cut off for the same reason. Cattle are routinely fed antibiotics as prevention rather than a vital cure . The best place to find details is on the website of Compassion in World Farming.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
20 January 2019

You would not believe how strict some vegans are. They not only feed their carnivorous pets a veggie diet, but will not even eat honey because it is exploiting bees, In fact anything to do with animals is “exploiting” them and is totally unacceptable.

Thank you Veronica-Mae. It appears that there are around 800 ‘mega farms’ in the UK using intensive husbandry but there is a range of opinions over whether such livestock units provide satisfactory welfare conditions. Some do and some might not. It is not clear whether the Red Tractor scheme is an effective assurance mechanism and whether retailers that proclaim ‘responsibly sourced’ sell factory-farmed meat, eggs, dairy products, etc. I would assume that Vegans cannot tolerate any use of animals for human consumption.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
21 January 2019

John – :Locals in some areas are still needing to campaign against further “mega farms” where thousands of pigs (for example) will be confined. Under planning regulations as they exist, the only acceptable complaints are about the affect on the local air and water, the seepage of sewage and the increased traffic. Nothing about the way the animals will be kept or treated. Campaigners have been fighting for years to get the government to officially recognise that animals are sentient beings and feel fear, pain and distress.
Incidentally, it has been shown that when an animal is fearful e.g. at slaughter, various hormones are released which enter the meat and have been shown to be bad for those eating it.

I completely understand that the method of husbandry and the possible form of treatment of the animals cannot be a planning consideration for intensive production units as it might not be permanent and is not enforceable without continuous inspection.

Local authority planning officers must surely know that a mega farm will imply a degree of intensive husbandry; it must be possible to set limits on the numbers housed per animal type and age per 20 square metres [for example] – unless any degree of intensive production is unacceptable.

Part of the problem seems to be that the government itself is not a sentient being.

Lessismore says:
23 January 2019

I hate the fact that turkeys are often bred to have so much breast meat that they struggle to stand on their legs.

I find it intolerable that animals can be bred for food and then that food is wasted because people are incapable of managing the food that they buy. We need to do a lot better and we need to be brave so that when we do eat out we ask to take the remains of our meal home if we find that we are eating somewhere with portions that are too large. Tell them and ask for less next time – and/or eat elsewhere – but don’t just vote with your feet. Businesses need business.

Lessismore says:
23 January 2019

Isn’t it called nose-to-tail eating? No waste! In other cuisines eg Italian and French many more pulses are perfectly usual in the meals. British recipes of the past used more too. That way we can reduce the amount of protein from meat that we eat. Have a look and find yourself some new recipes. Meat-free-Monday is a good start.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
24 January 2019

We always ask for granny portions = and many more places do provide them now (cheaper too) There are still folk who (at a carvery) pile their plates so high you wonder if they will make it to the table. Then they often leave half of it. That is disgusting.

The amount of sugar added to just about every tinned/processed/packaged food we eat is a national scandal. It’s no wonder so many of us are fat; almost every food manufactured is rammed with sugar, fat and other very undesirable additives such as sugar substitutes, MSG, antibiotics, nitrates and chemical preservatives. The Government should start by passing legislation to reduce the amount of added sugar to all foods by 25%: Sugar is highly addictive and this is why the manufacturers add it; after this vegetables and cereals taste bland so kids (and a lot of adults) won’t eat them. Even some breads are loaded with sugar! It’s madness, we shall never be a fit nation as long as all the food manufacturers are allowed to get away with this.

Lessismore says:
23 January 2019

Agreed I agree (although it will be disputed) that sugar is addictive or should we say sweetness is addictive.

I do not believe it is a good thing to just swap to sugar substitutes although sometimes they are necessary. It is best to look for companion foods to sweeten or reduce the sourness or acidity of something and to reduce the sweetness that you need to enjoy it little by little. Manufacturers tend to do the opposite getting you hooked on a higher amount – and their product. You need to be cynical or you will become a complete marketing victim.

We are now being bombarded by vegetables bred to be supersweet.

If you cook for yourself then you are in control of what goes into your meals and what is excluded. It’s often said that ready-meals are convenient but it’s not difficult to make your own and store them in the freezer.

Jeanne Kendrick says:
20 January 2019

Food should be safe, sustainable and clearly labelled – we often “work to eat” so why should it be dumbed down?

We must stop selling food in packaging that is either excessive or unnecessary, and if packaging is needed, it must be recyclable and accepted for recycling by every council in the land.

We have had a number of Convos on this topic, e.g. https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/plastic-packaging-waste-solutions/, but Which? appear to have passed them by. Are we wasting our time?

As consumers, we should always “vote with our wallets” each time we buy food.

That way we can encourage the production of sensibly packed, quality food and discourage items of unsound quality and those will silly packaging.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
21 January 2019

Yes indeed. We must take that little bit of extra time to think about what we are buying. We can also be successful in telling the supermarkets what we want them to do. They DO listen and have reduced or eliminated a lot of plastics, changed black (unrecylable) plastic to clear, and are offering more loose fruit and veg. Such things do take time but they ARE listening.

In wish some of the leading food retailers, especially those who boast about their environmental performance, would change away from black plastic trays for meat, fruit. vegetables and ready meals. I had hoped that M&S would show the way on this but nothing has changed yet. Sainsbury’s are using brown and green plastic for some of their product trays but primarily for category differentiation rather than to assist recycling.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
23 January 2019

You will be pleased to know that Waitrose are well down the route of replacing black plastic and also reducing packaging generally. Such things cannot be done over night as changes in production/packaging methods etc need to be made.

Lessismore says:
23 January 2019

I think we need that – and more. We British are notorious for voting with our feet – and we need to make more of a protest. It can be tough but it is worth standing at the till and stripping off the unnecessary plastic and/or writing that letter and sending back that packaging. Don’t just write on a website unless you make your own copy/screenshot. You could just be wasting your precious time and letting off steam only to receive no acknowledgement at all… There are usually some websites where you can send your photos of excessive and unnecessary packaging.

Lessismore says:
23 January 2019

Recently I’ve found that more of the Sainsbury’s bags on potatoes, carrots and parsnips have been the plastic which you can recycle at a larger supermarket with the carrier bags. Maybe that was because they were bought for me at a large Sainsbury’s. Some things they insist on selling in unrecyclable plastic eg ginger and sweet potatoes (both can be bought at Morrison’s without any packaging). I wonder if there is any strategy at what packaging is sold in what store. Personally I usually shop in a Sainsbury’s Local but have taken to buying more vegetables at the greengrocers without plastic which is wonderful.

Veronica-Mae Soar says:
31 January 2019

M & S ARE on board with this. In fact they are rolling out special collecting bins for all the plastic which is currently not recycled by councils (including the dreaded black) and it will be turned into childrens’ play ground equipment

I rolled out our special blue collecting bin for recyclables last night. I went to open it first thing this morning to add some more cardboard waste and the lid had frozen tight. It took a bucket of hot water and a sponge to clear it enough to open the lid but it was freezing as I did it. I wonder how many bins went unemptied today.

If the forecast is for heavy frost on a night preceding the bin collections I insert thick cardboard stubs beneath the bin lids so they don’t make contact and freeze solid. A farmer friend lies newspaper around the rim, which seems to work for him

The price of access to the US market will be British agriculture (and probably health care). The Americans are very hard bargainers in this respect – just ask the dairy farmers of Ontario in Canada who are being forced to give greater access to the US milk market. Remember the slogan “America first” (and last, and everything in between. Take care.

Anna says:
24 January 2019

Can we please talk about CITIZENS’ interests, rather than consumer interests? Research shows that this simple shift in language, perception, and most importantly identity, has dramatic impacts on what people value, what their sense of power and responsibility is, and how involved they are with the broader community. If we only think of consumers, we are disempowering ourselves and missing the mark to really create the significant change we need. If we only look at what consumers want, we will continue reinforcing the system that creates the problems we are trying to tackle.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

It’s really a discussion site for people with an interest in the consumer market for goods and services from any relevant angle. It is not restricted to “consumers” and the word is shorthand for anyone who is a buyer, seller, user, maker, repairer, designer, policy-maker, investigator, lawyer, writer, commentator – or any other type of contributor. I am not sure that “citizen” has a wide enough connotation to embrace all that. Helping people with their queries was a later development and is unreliable because it depends on who can respond at the time and what level of knowledge they have. That is why responses often turn into discussions rather than solutions. While Which? itself is, understandably, quite “consumerist” in outlook many of the contributors take a different line and challenge “consumerism”.

[Apologies for the semantic digression.]

This comment was removed at the request of the user

The community guidelines advise against it and there have been warnings recently against introducing new subjects, so the answer has to be “No”. The discussions are supposed to be strictly relevant to the Conversation subject matter and be a logical development. The problem is that, in the real world, personal conversations cannot be strait-jacketed and we are accustomed to going where the mood takes us. With a much wider unknown and unseen community, however, there seems to be a need for greater conformity to the guidelines. There is no doubt that muddled conversations that stray away from the point at issue can be confusing, and possibly alienating, for some people who want basic facts or adherence to the topic.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

I am only offering a possible interpretation of the community guidelines, Duncan, and with reference to comments from the editors in the light of recent unacceptable, and in some cases offensive, divergences from them. I am not laying down the rules, and I recognise that I have frequently taken topics outside their boundaries myself, hopefully without causing offence, so moderation has generally been light. The position has changed now and I appreciate that there has to be a bit more discipline. None of us can enjoy Which? Conversation if there are constant reprimands and with people being upset and needing to express disapproval.

If you see any comments that are off-topic or offensive you should use the reporting tool or send an e-mail.

Hi – just to step in here – let's get back to talking about the future of food.

I do think the use of language with all of these topics, including whether we consider ourselves 'consumers' or 'citizens' or simply 'people, is interesting. I think that discussion has validity when discussing the future of food and other 'consumer/citizen issues', however, discussing our moderation rules here is not. You could continue that discussion in the Lobby.

Many commenters occasionally drift off topic (it often begins in a related way – such as packaging and consumers vs. citizens here) but usually it is short lived. However some off-topic discussions develop and get further from the original subject to the point when sight is lost of the original subject, particularly for new arrivals. A job then for the moderators or regulars to bring it back on track.

If anyone wants to develop an issue that they want to take off-topic they can post on “The Lobby off topic discussion” and tell us.

I like to eat healthy food and lots of vegetables and fruit is part of my day to day tradition. I cook a lot from scratch and thoroughly enjoy what I eat. I can’t see their being a problem one we leave the EU we managed well enough years ago so should be much better for us

One problem Margaret is that a lot of our vegetables, and much of our fruit, comes from the EU, especially when it is not in season in the UK, and the cost will soar if we have to source it from other places, or pay a premium for European supplies, because of tariff barriers in Europe. Nevertheless I think we can adapt and alter our diets to match the seasonal availability. Freezing and other preservative techniques have advanced a lot so it’s a matter or organisation and logistics.

There is also the issue of customs controls at the docks which will slow down imports of perishable produce. I feel that problem is being exaggerated because we used to [and still do] import fruit from Israel, South Africa, the Caribbean, and New Zealand where transit times are up to three months by sea. Air freighting the tonnage required would be prohibitively expensive but it is not impossible.

Becoming more reliant on home-grown produce might be a good thing anyway. At present, because of the EU’s common agricultural policy, too much fertile land has been taken out of production and either built on or set-aside or given over to forestry. We could put some of this back under the plough or for grazing and try to become more self-sufficient in vegetables and dairy products.

It might be considered politically controversial but here is a video of a conference speech on New Zealand’s approach to global free trade when it found itself in an economic depression and had to find new markets and trading partners:

I often wonder about the ethics of eating plants. For example a carrot is inedible once it is dead and so you have to eat it whilst it is alive. You can slice it up and boil it but it is still alive during that process.
At least a steak is dead when you fry/grill it.
And just because you can’t hear a carrot scream it doesn’t mean that it isn’t screaming. You can’t hear a dog whistle but a dog can, you can’t hear or see a TV programme without special apparatus but we’re surrounded by them without being aware of them.


Now, @DerekP, be nice! 😉

A friend once told me that the broccoli had the most developed nervous system of all veg and if it had a brain it would feel pain. Two degrees in biological sciences, during which I told everyone this ‘fact’, he told me he was having me on.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the veg. There really is no evidence of a nervous system that would allow them to feel pain.

During the last war we had food rationing which lasted until 1954. We had a healthier nation.

One of the welcome innovations in food processing has been the introduction of nitrite-free bacon.

Traditionally, bacon is treated with salt, nitrites to act as a preservative and nitrates, mainly retain the pink colour. Since the early 1970s it has been known that nitrites can be converted into carcinogenic nitrosamines, especially at the high temperatures used for grilling or frying. Before the use of nitrites in processed meats, there was the risk of botulism, a very serious type of food poisoning. (The bacteria produce a potent toxin that is not destroyed by cooking.)

I wonder how nitrite-free bacon is safe now, when nitrite was considered to be an essential preservative for so many years.

I hopr that people will come to theirs senses and will change their terrible lifestyle on eco lifestyle