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‘THE food system we have today is both a miracle and a disaster.’ That was the opening line of the historic National Food Strategy report and plan published on Thursday 15th July. This opening line summed up the overall message of the report and the focus of its recommendations. Our food system does not work for our health, our environment, and our society, but it has ensured that most of us have food on the table, day in and day out.
The National Food Strategy was established in 2019, headed up by Henry Dimbleby, the brother of the well-known David Dimbleby, and founder of the upmarket London fast-food chain, Leons. Its aims were to look at the environmental, health and societal costs of our food system and provide suggestions for how these could be solved. Dimbleby was advised by various experts and members of the food and drink sector, including not just industry bigwigs such as Minette Batters, the President of the National Farmers’ Union or Justin King, former CEO of Sainburys, but also a member of the Landworkers Alliance and Helen Browning, CEO of the Soil Association.
Last year, the strategy released a preliminary report in reaction to the pandemic. It sought to encourage the government to continue to support Free School Meals (FSM) and Holiday clubs as well as to take a long-view approach towards trade deals, especially setting out minimum standards for food imports (this so far has not been adhered to in the Australian deal).
Now the final report has been issued with a clear plan for the government to tackle the major disasters brought on by our present food system. The greatest strength of this strategy and its final report is not its recommendations, but rather its clear setting out of the problem; the unhealthy, unfair and unsustainable nature of the UK’s food system. It has highlighted the problems right in front of the doorsteps of No.10 and the government, giving them little excuse to not accept that our food system is currently wrong. As many have already argued, including Sue Pritchard, CEO of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, the strategy makes it clear that the food system is not failing since it is delivering what was expected of it. It provides cheap food regardless of the environmental, health or social costs. What is needed is a new design to our food system in order for the reduction, if not ending, of these costs to become the priority.
The report gave some clear headline statistics on the state of Britain’s food system. One in 3 people over 45 is clinically obese, with illnesses related to high Body Mass Index costing the government £18 billion a year in healthcare spending. The most deprived areas in the country have the highest number of fast-food outlets, with on average over 110 outlets per 100,000 people. This was compared to just 60 fast-food outlets for the least deprived areas, including the Cotswold District which is one the three areas with the smallest number of such outlets in the country. Meanwhile our food system is currently accountable for a fifth of the country’s emissions, rising to 30% when imported food is taken into consideration. And as part of the global food system, Britain contributes to wider land-use change through agriculture, which rather poignantly is the main cause for the emergence of infectious diseases, with forests and wild areas being cleared away while intensively farmed animals, especially pigs, use high amounts of antibiotics.
Meat, a highly debated topic in food, was also tackled in the report. The conclusion; we need to see a 30% cut in the amount of meat consumed nationally, alongside a 25% cut in the amount of foods High in Fats, Sugars and Salts (HFSS) eaten by 2032. Meanwhile, we need to increase our consumption of fruit and veg by 30% and fibre by 50%. There was still an understanding that the production of meat can have positive impacts on the environment, especially in rewilding with wild and native breeds of cattle and sheep, as well as the ability to sequester (capture) carbon in soils through grazing. Nevertheless, the report was concerned with the high methane and carbon emissions from meat-animals, including chickens and pigs as much as cows and sheep.
Certainly current meat production is environmentally poor, even in the UK despite the frequent publicity of the benefits of British meat by the National Farmers’ Union. Instead, there needs to be a greater emphasis on encouraging better meat production practices including mob-grazing, ending the use of nitrogen or fertilisers for grass-production and increasing the use of diverse grasses in fields. This would be far more sustainable than the emphasis on a ‘protein transition’ that the strategy relied on as a means of replacing cuts in meat consumption. A ‘protein transition’ is currently looking more and more like a new means of the global food system being controlled and captured by corporate-technological monopolies. The report’s suggestion of a £1 billion fund to drive this transition and wider ‘food innovations’ is one of the concerning elements of the strategy alongside its limited willingness to mention or recommend agroecology as a key means of building a better food system.
Ultimately, the strategy is a start in the need for major change and revolution for our food system. Its main recommendations beyond the cuts in meat and HFSS’s included introducing a Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax, trialing a ‘Community Eatwell’ programme where GPs could prescribe free fruit and veg for patients and other food-related support, and the setting of targets and laws for long-term change to the food system. Dimbleby also called for the ‘budget for agricultural payments to be guaranteed until at least 2029’ and a rural land-use Framework to be drawn up, especially focused on reducing the amount of land dedicated to food production, with opportunities for over 20% of land currently used for food, to be turned over to rewilding and nature conservation.
The government now has six months in which to respond to the report through a White Paper which has to set out what the government plans to do with the report’s recommendations *. A number of considerations will have to be taken into account, especially what is politically tolerable for a government heavily invested in quick-publicity wins, which could be a major stumbling block for real change. Many are in favour of changes in food consumption, such as reductions in access to sugary and salty foods. There are, though, concerns about policies that put pressure on people rather than companies to change. These concerns are particularly prevalent around indirect taxes which could simply force food prices up, pushing poorer families to reduce the amount they spend on healthy food, with junk food often costing less per calorie than healthy food. Dimbleby did note this issue, and in reaction supported expansions of Free School Meals, the Healthy Start Programme and Holiday activities for children.
Reactions to the strategy’s report have largely been positive. On farming, Vicki Hird, Head of Sustainable Farming at Sustain (a food-focused campaign charity) stated that the strategy was ‘welcome’ with it recognising a role for agroecological approaches ‘such as organic’. Hird did urge caution, noting that ‘to create a resilient, fairer and responsive market for farmers we also need properly regulated supply chains and the growth of new routes to market for farmers’. Jim Elliot at the Green Alliance (an environmental charity) wrote of how ‘exciting’ the report’s insights were, due to them showing ‘ how we can ‘have it all’: healthy food, as well as restored nature, carbon sinks and sustainable farm businesses.’ The National Farmers’ Union also welcomed the report, arguing that it should ‘act as a wake-up call that we need to value the food we eat’, but also raised concerns towards a sugar and salt tax and emphasised the current strengths of British food and farming.
This strategy has made it absolutely clear that the UK’s food system has to change. Now the question turns to whether we will see genuine systematic change. The current system’s disasters greatly outweigh its miracles.
*Ed: However early signs are not promising. On the day of publication, the prime minister poured cold water on some of the key proposals: “I’m not attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hard working people”. Watch this space
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