Vital role for farming in battling obesity

1st May 2014

At the recent Nuffield Farming Arden Conference, Professor Tim Brocklehurst joined calls highlighting the roles that farmers can play in battling the obesity epidemic.

Obesity related illness costs the NHS almost £20billion each year, and that figure is rising. Healthier diets could significantly reduce that, but so far the population as a whole hasn’t embraced these. For example, there has only been a slight increase in the number of people eating the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

At the conference, Caroline Drummond MBE, Chief Executive of LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) presented an alternative, complementary strategy, enlisting the help of farmers as the primary producers of our food.

In particular, the IFR supports the call to look at ways of making the crops we do eat even healthier. This can be achieved in a number of different ways, but all involve the close cooperation between farmers, the food industry and the scientific research community.

_DSC0313How farmers grow crops affects their nutritional content, and there is scope to improve practices here to increase nutritional content. New varieties can be bred specifically to increase nutritional content. The IFR, along with the John Innes Centre, has achieved this through the development of Beneforté broccoli, enriched with 3 times more of a phytonutrient called glucoraphanin. Developing this variety involved plant breeders and scientists working with growers and farmers to deliver a product onto supermarket shelves.

Even in staple crops, like wheat, there is potential to improve their traits to make them more nutritious. Wheat is responsible for 1/5th of the calories we consume, so if farmers can grow varieties that marry that with other health benefits the overall effects on public health could be massive.

And there is scope for more. The IFR is looking at flavonoids, compounds found naturally in widely eaten fruits thought to be in part responsible for the positive impact of fruit and vegetables on health. Can farmers grow different varieties to increase our intake of these compounds? Globally, our diets are in the whole made up of 20 different plants, yet there are over 20,000 edible plant species. There are opportunities to exploit this biodiversity, widen the crops farmers grow, to deliver more health benefits.

All of these potential improvements can deliver real benefits to health, but only through a combined effort from government, researchers, the food industry, and farmers, which is why the IFR is supporting LEAF’s call for the farming industry to be fully involved in the obesity debate.