The Government Food Strategy calls for new technologies and increase in sustainable food production but it’s unclear on how to tackle the cost of living crisis

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AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli contributor: Fiona Holland
Houses of Parliament

The Government Food Strategy has been released today, following the recommendations laid out by Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby in the National Food Strategy Independent Review published in 2021.

The strategy focuses on increasing local and sustainable food production in the country, creating new jobs and growing the national economy through new trade agreements following Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called it “a blueprint for how we will back farmers, boost British industry and help protect people against the impacts of future economic shocks by safeguarding our food security.”

Agriculture

£270 million is to be invested in England across farming innovation funding programmes from now until 2029 in a bid to improve sustainable farming technology, increase productivity and profitability to the sector, and establish “long-term resilience”.

One of the main targets of the strategy is for at least 50% of food spend to be on locally-produced food or food certified to high environmental production standards affordable for consumers. Only 15% of tomatoes are currently grown in the UK according to Thanet Earth.

New technologies such as environmentally-friendly glasshouses are expected to help increase England’s domestic production of food.

Development of food security is crucial at the moment says the Government, especially since the war in Ukraine has contributed to the food price inflation and shortages across the UK and the rest of the world.

As well as expanding the level of domestically produced food in the country, the strategy also sets out to increase production in the horticulture and seafood sector in order to “[make] the most of post-Brexit opportunities.”

The Government intends to follow the Agriculture Act (2020, Fisheries Act (2020) and Environment Act (2021) to help create frameworks for farmers and food producers to use to implement sustainable farming practices. A sum of £1 million from the UK Seafood Fund is also going to be used to increase exports of UK seafood.

Part of the strategy also aims to include a plan to create a new professional body for the farming and horticulture industry, who can help create “clear career pathways”. These will help more talent enter the sector, and ensure high quality training for workers, which will help them to “run sustainable and profitable businesses.”

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “The strategy we are setting out today will increase the focus on skills in the food sector, and the roles and career pathways available. In particular, we will seek to boost our horticulture industry and ensure the expertise needed to develop the sector here in the UK.”

While the strategy contains many objectives aimed at improving the farming sector, it had initially been strongly condemned by Minnette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union. In an interview with The Observer last week she said Dimbleby’s original proposals to increase food production had been “stripped to the bone” in this latest document, as farmers would not have the money to produce food that people can afford.

However, following the publication of the full strategy, Batters responded more positively saying it “represents a clear milestone”. She added: “The government [is] recognising the importance of domestic food production, maintaining our productive capacity and growing more food in this country, particularly at a time when the war in Ukraine has focused attention on the importance and fragility of our global food security. Food production will always be core to a nation’s resilience and I’m pleased the government has recognised this.

“Domestic food production and environmental delivery go hand-in-hand and we are proud that British farmers have an ambition to reach net zero by 2040, while still maintaining our current levels of food production.


“We know the public want to be eating more local, British food and farmers are ready to play their part in producing high quality and climate-friendly food, all while protecting and enhancing our environment. We now need to see this strategy develop into clear delivery and investment to capitalise on the benefits food and farming delivers for the country, such as our world-leading standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety.”

The PM visited Cornwall over the weekend to launch the new Farming Innovation Funding programme, intended to improve farming technologies and develop national food production.

The strategy arrives not long before the West Country by-elections take place on 23 June, which could be crucial to the PM remaining in power.

Gene editing

The Government has also said it will support progress on gene editing. The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill which was passed this month, has already allowed for a simpler regulatory regime which would allow breeders and researchers to use gene editing to improve food production in the UK.

Work in the flied of gene editing is already taking place in the UK. Last month, Professor Cathie Martin spoke with Food Matters Live about her work in creating a crop of vitamin D-rich tomatoes using the technology.

Labour shortages

Labour shortages are another issue negatively impacting Britain’s food system as a consequence of Brexit. The Government’s approach to the problem includes making another 10,000 work visas available to horticulture workers, extending 2,000 visas to include the poultry sector from the newly released 10,000 visas for the Seasonal Worker Visa Route. It also plans to launch an independent review to explore the labour shortage crisis in the food supply chain. The potential role of automation as well as migration and domestic labour will be evaluated.

In an attempt to tackle sustainability in the country’s agrifood system, the strategy intends to publish “a land use framework” by 2023, which will help farmers adapt their way of working to the changing climate, and ensure the country meets its net zero and biodiveristy targets.

To help consumers access sustainable food more easily, the Government has also launched a a Food Data Transparency Partnership, part of which will involve providing customers with more information so they can make more sustainable and healthier food choices.

While the strategy proposes a great wealth of changes, it has been criticised for not providing any new measures to help the country properly manage its rising food prices, climate change, the obesity epidemic or child hunger.

The document released today is “a list of policies rather than a strategy”, Dimbleby told BBC Breakfast in an interview this morning.

He later told the broadcaster: “They’ve now implemented more than 50% of what I recommended, but it hasn’t been done with one vision across the whole system.”

One such recommendation that is lacking is the sugar and salt tax, which the Government had proposed to implement in response to Dimbleby’s recommendations in his plan for the National Food Strategy.

The price of our cost of living scandal shouldn’t be paid for by increasing obesity and ill-health,” said Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion in response to the Government Food Strategy. “Yet eminently sensible recommendations by Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s own advisor – including a tax on sugar and salt in processed foods, and an expansion of free school meals – have been cast aside.”

The Government’s proposals for tackling health related recommendations however are due to come with the Health Secretary’s white paper, due later this year, according to Dimbleby.

Free school meals

Another key recommendation from Dimbleby’s Independent Review was free school meals, which he suggested should be extended to all 1.1 million children who live in households on Universal Credit.

While meals will not be offered to all 1.1 million in the new strategy, the Government says it has made it easier for families to use its Healthy Start Scheme, by fully digitising it. It is also continuing the National School Breakfast Programme for schools located in disadvantaged regions, as well as the Universal Infant Free School Meals programme to all infants in state funded schools in England. Free school meals will also be permanently extended to ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ families.

A scheme of up to £5 million is also being introduced, which intends “to deliver a school cooking revolution” by improving the food curriculum. The scheme aims to ensure all children reach the end of secondary school knowing how to follow a healthy diet, as well as having more of an interest in starting a career in the food industry. The scheme will also include running a pilot for local authorities to ensure schools comply with school food standards.

Alternative proteins

The Government Food Strategy stresses the importance of the alternative protein sector as an opportunity for growth and tackling climate change, setting out to provide support through research and innovation.

As part of its partnership with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) the Government has pledged to invest over £120 million in research across the food system. It also highlights the importance of investing in British grown beans and pulses to promote healthy, low carbon and sustainable protein.

The whitepaper states that the alternative protein sector would complement the traditional livestock industries and regenerative farming will “provide a more sustainable production of traditional protein sources.”

It intends to utilise its Farming Futures research and development (R&D) Fund (part of the Farming Innovation Programme) to make livestock and protein sectors ‘climate-smart farming’. One of the key areas is to launch a ‘Call for Evidence’ initiative to evaluate the benefits of feed additives and materials to reduce methane emissions from livestock.

Elena Walden, Policy Manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said:“It’s great to see the Government recognise that sustainable proteins can provide exciting opportunities for green growth, complementing the best of British farming while creating good quality jobs across the country. These foods can also help guarantee we have a diversified, sustainable and secure food supply in an increasingly unpredictable world. 

With its world-beating scientific credentials and entrepreneurial spirit, the UK is well placed to become a global leader in sustainable proteins, but without ambitious and coordinated measures now, we risk falling behind other countries like the Netherlands and Israel who are taking this area more seriously. Investing now will put the country at the forefront of this dynamic global industry.”

However, despite the emphasis on alternative proteins, the Government didn’t make any recommendations on decreasing meat and dairy production and consumption, despite factory farming being responsible for around 15% of the total greenhouse gas emissions.

There was so much potential in the initial recommendations to help us work towards the vision of a healthy, affordable, nature- and climate-friendly food supply – but as with so many of the various ‘strategies’ from this Government in recent months, it’s been stripped to the bone.”  said Lucas.

Sustainable food production

The document highlights the importance of driving sustainable food production by reforming farm policies, reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change. It intends to do so by supporting farmers to “improve soil quality, invest in hedgerows, encourage optimal use of fertiliser and pesticides, and support regenerative practices such as agroforestry” through the Sustainable Farming Incentive. Its goals also include:

  • Trebling woodland creation rates by the end of this Parliament
  • Restoring 280,000 hectares of peatland in England by 2050
  • Protecting 30% of our land and sea by 2030
  • Improving soil health
  • Reducing climate emissions by at least 6Mt CO2 equivalent per annum by 2035
  • Halting species decline in England by 2030

Despite the focus on sustainability, for many the Government’s guidelines are nebulous, in particular with regards to the environment and cost of living crisis.
The Food Foundation Executive Director Anna Taylor commented: “Today’s White Paper shows that no one in leadership in government appears to have really grasped the scale and urgency of the challenges posed to our health and our planet by the food system.

“What’s more, these challenges are growing exponentially with the cost of living crisis. Despite its name, the whole document is lacking a strategy to transition the food system towards delivering good food which is accessible to everyone.

“And without a commitment to a new Food Bill, many of the commendable commitments made are in reality toothless. It is a feeble interpretation of Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations, which will not be sufficient to drive the long-term change that we know is so urgently needed.”

Obesity and public health

The Government’s Food Strategy states that sustainability and nutrition are interconnected, and focus should be on healthier and more environmentally friendly food choices.

64% of adults and 40% of children in England are overweight or obese. More deprived areas of the country are the worst affected and most likely to suffer from dietary-related illnesses. Whilst the cost of healthier food is a factor in dietary choices, the paper stresses that lack of cooking skills and a need for convenience also play a role. The document says that the Government, the food industry and consumers share a responsibility in finding a solution to combat obesity. The industry needs to supply and promote healthier foods, the Government needs to implement legislation to support change and tackle inequality, whilst individuals need to be better informed about making healthier choices and drive demand.

To tackle healthier and more sustainable eating, the new £11 million UKRI-BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) initiative, the Diet & Health Open Innovation Research Club will support research across industry and academia to better understand the relationship between food and health. Over the next three years the programme will look at how to improve the nation’s diet on a large scale. The Government will fund an NHS pilot initiative through the Community Eatwell programme. Local Food Partnerships between councils, the public sector, volunteers, partners and businesses will also work to tackle diet-related ill health and inequalities whilst working to help the local food economy flourish.

More initiatives in schools to help children learn about food and make better dietary choices will also be implemented.

Public procurement

The Government will be consulting on the public sector catering policy, including the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF). The aim is for the public sector to spend 50% of its food budget on sustainable, organic and locally grown produce that meets animal welfare standards. The Government will support the public sector to work with small and local suppliers.

Rob Percival, Head of Food Policy at the Soil Association told Food Matters Live: “The Government Food Strategy falls short on many fronts, but there are positive proposals to celebrate. The most exciting is the ambition that 50% of public sector expenditure on food should be produced locally or to higher environmental standards, such as organic. The Soil Association has been calling for such a policy for years, and we’re delighted that the Government has responded.

“While the food served in schools and hospitals often falls short, pioneering caterers working with the Food for Life programme have demonstrated that higher welfare and sustainable produce can be served on a cost neutral basis, if menus are redesigned to include less and better meat. If implemented as part of a wider package of reforms to public procurement, this policy could be transformational.”

Animal welfare

The Government will be launching the Food Data Transparency Partnership to provide consumers with the information to allow them to make more ethical, sustainable and healthier food choices and “incentivise industry to produce healthier and more ethical and sustainable food.”

“Our Animal Health and Welfare pathway will involve Government funded vet visits and advice to farmers about measures to improve the health and welfare of their animals, with one of its objectives being to control endemic disease in farmed animals,” says the document.

Similar metrics to the food and drink production reporting requirements will also be applied to sustainability and animal welfare and will initially target large business across retail, manufacturing, out of home, food to go and online delivery businesses. The Government will consult on labelling requirements in the foodservice sector that apply to animal welfare – domestic and import – to ensure its standards are met.
The consultation on these guidelines however are not due to take place until the end of 2023.

Those wishing to access the UK market, must meet the outlined domestic standards. “This will include considering how animals are managed to prevent disease outbreaks, alongside a holistic consideration of the related matters of antimicrobial resistance, animal welfare and environmental protection. Through promoting this world-leading approach, we will help guide the international trading system to better respond to current and future challenges.”

The whitepaper states that the country’s trade policy goes hand in hand with its international development work and aims to create a coalition to improve the food system and better animal welfare and environmental standards globally.

Free Trade Agreements

Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) might see tariffs on environmentally friendly goods being wavered.

Post Brexit, the Government intends to “move away from the rigid EU framework of ‘standard’ check levels. Instead, border checks will be used only when necessary to protect our biosecurity,”as well as seek trading opportunities with countries such as China, Japan, India, Canada and the US and encourage food and drink small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to export their goods abroad.

An Export Council will be established to connect the industry and Government together to increase the UK’s exports, and 10 agri-food attachés will also be appointed globally to help UK food and beverage exporters succeed in major trading partner countries.

With regards to the food price crisis, the document also states that the Government is advocating for all countries, including in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), to “keep food trade flowing and avoid trade-restrictive measures,” and cooperate through the World Bank and the UN food and agriculture agencies to curb the impact of high food prices on countries and people most at risk to be affected by the rising costs.

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