Responses to the Government Food Strategy: good intentions but no action plan for real change

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9 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland

Monday 13 June 2022 saw the release of the Government Food Strategy, devised to tackle a range of growing issues in the UK food industry affecting agriculture, public health, school meals, the climate emergency, free trade agreements and labour shortages due to Brexit.

Since then, a wave of political figures, academics, and food industry leaders have shared their responses to the Government Food Strategy, some welcoming it, some criticising some of its points.

Karen Betts, Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation has called the strategy a success, showing the Government’s willingness to support British food and drink.

Betts said: “We welcome the UK Government’s new Food Strategy, which is an endorsement of the success and centrality of the UK’s food industry, from farming to food manufacturing, retail and hospitality.

“With the right policy frameworks and the right support from Government, our industry can provide unmatched support for Levelling-Up, and benefit from growing exports while optimising imports. 

The Government also has the industry’s support in developing ways to help people live healthier and more balanced lifestyles, and the industry’s Action on Fibre initiative and reformulation programmes are evidence of our support to date.”

Both Minette Batters, President of the National Farmers Union and Rob Percival, Head of Food Policy at the Soil Association also responded somewhat positively to the Government’s proposals.

The strategy however has also been criticised, with many saying it is not comprehensive enough, and is far from an immediate action plan.

Jim McMahon, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment has called the strategy not much more than a new slogan”. “It certainly didn’t take long to read it, given how little content was in there,” he said in the House of Commons this week.

“Here we are, not only six months late on his [Boris Johnson] own deadline but with just a statement of vague intentions from the Government, no concrete proposals, and absolutely nothing to face the major issues facing this country.”

“To call this a food strategy is farcical and frankly it’s an insult to all those who gave time to contribute to that review.”

 In a Food Foundation webinar, Executive Director Anna Taylor and Professor Sir Charles Godfrey, Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, also criticised the strategy.
“There are many good things in it but there are areas where I wish the Government had gone further,” said Godfrey. “It’s the step on the road to a strategy, but far from a strategy itself.”

Taylor also said in a statement: “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 are in reality, toothless.”

The Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield blames the Government’s obsession with “the ‘levelling up’ agenda” for the lack of proper legislation in the strategy.

‘A missed opportunity’ for public health

While the proposals regarding public health-related issues with food will not be published until later this year in the Health Secretary’s white paper, many have expressed their worry that the need to effectively address obesity and improve access to healthy food will be largely ignored.

Councillor David Fothergill, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said the strategy largely ignores the urgency of tackling the obesity epidemic in the country.

He commented: “Obesity and diet-related health issues are one of the biggest public health challenges we face, with the cost of treating obesity-related ill health forecast to rise to £9.7 billion a year by 2050.

“The strategy response represents a missed opportunity to tackle the underlying causes of many of these issues, which will continue to be exacerbated by the growing cost of living crisis. Unless the Government takes urgent action, its ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030 will be missed.

“One of the ways these challenges can be met is for the Government to expand access to and availability of Healthy Start Vouchers to ensure more families on low incomes can access fresh fruit and vegetables as well as expanding access and increasing the eligibility criteria of Free School Meals to include all children who are facing food insecurity.”

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told LBC Radio: “I’m very grateful to Henry [Dimbleby] for all the work he has done. This is about helping to support UK food and farming at a particularly important time.”

He added: “What we don’t want to do right now is start whacking new taxes on them [the population] that will just push up the cost of food. The best way to lose weight, believe me, is to eat less.”

In an interview on BBC Breakfast, Leon restaurant chain co-founder Henry Dimbleby, who was tasked with drafting the National Food Strategy recommendations, published in July 2021, said he hopes the Government can move on “from this narrative of personal responsibility and education, which is important but isn’t going to get us out of the hole we’re in.”

“There is a danger in telling the British public, they have an individual responsibility to eat well,” Sir Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology at University College London told The Guardian.

“If we are all making individual choices, how come obesity rates are rising? Is each of us making the individual choice to be overweight or obese?” he stated.

The cheap cost of foods that are high in fats, sugar and salt doesn’t help the situation, he added. “The cost per calorie is half for the extra amount. It’s saying: ‘Come on, have more than you need. It’s cheap.’ The people who say let’s leave it to the individual know that the laws of economics apply – you lower the price, you increase consumption.”

Climate change approach is ‘a cop out’

Despite the proposals to boost local fruit and vegetable production in England, many still see the strategy as not doing enough to tackle climate.

Nick Palmer, Head of Compassion in World Farming UK, believes there needs to be more effort made to reduce meat consumption: “Although [the strategy] includes encouraging words on mandatory labelling, regenerative farming and support for the burgeoning alternative protein industry, it lacks a commitment to meat reduction and the use of Government procurement for schools and hospitals, as well as firm reassurance on a minimum set of standards in future trade deals.”

Clare Oxborrow, Senior Sustainability Analyst at Friends of the Earth agrees.“If we’re to meet our climate goals, we need to see a dramatic reduction in the amount eaten. This is still possible, but the Government must support nature-friendly farming alongside a mantra of eating less, but better quality meat and dairy.”

The Director of ProVeg UK, Jimmy Pierson, has also called the white paper “a cop out”, saying it “largely ignores the National Food Strategy [recommendations], which called on the nation to eat 30% less meat.”

The Plant-based Food Alliance UK thinks the food system in the UK needs to be transformed far more than the strategy allows it to. Its Chief Executive, Marisa Heath said: “We welcome plans to develop a separate horticulture strategy and we think the Government should go further and adopt a target for growing plant-based consumption in the UK.

“Scientists agree that the fastest, most cost-effective and least societally disruptive way to tackle the climate crisis is to reduce livestock consumption and accelerate the shift towards plant-based diets.

“We welcome the commitment to the role of alternative proteins, and call upon the Government to ensure this includes plant-based foods. If the Government is serious about this work, we need to map out the implementation of the reduction in meat and dairy consumption, as suggested by Henry Dimbleby to meet our net zero goal, and how this will be achieved in time.”

A significant portion of the strategy focuses on developing “pioneering technology in farming” to help bring more jobs and economic growth to the agricultural sector, as well as more sustainable methods for domestic food production.

The Climate Change Committee however has said the changes proposed will hardly tackle growing emissions levels coming from agriculture in the UK. The Committee’s Chairman, Lord Deben said: “A wholesale rethink of how we use land in this country is needed to drive down emissions. That includes eating slightly less but better meat and dairy; widespread tree planting to soak up carbon dioxide emissions; and peatland restoration, alongside new approaches to farming.

“Instead, this Strategy fails to address these issues and relies almost entirely on innovation and technology to drive forward low-carbon agriculture and productivity improvements, many of which are untested and unproven. This is an opportunity wasted.”

An ‘out of touch’ Government

As the cost-of-living crisis continues, there have also been calls for the Government to provide more financial support to the agricultural industry so that farmers can afford to work with new sustainable technologies.

As Karen Betts has noted in addition to her support of the strategy: “There is more the Government can do – helping our sector to invest in the technologies that drive productivity, particularly in a very tight labour market, and ensuring that regulation – such as shaping new household recycling systems so they genuinely drive re-use in an efficient way – will be critical if the government is not going to drive extra costs into food manufacturing at a time of soaring inflation. 

“The UK Government must also work hand-in-hand with the Devolved Administrations to ensure that different policies affecting our sector don’t end up unnecessarily costing households more.”

Some have also said that more support is needed for children whose households can’t afford to provide them with food for school. While part of the strategy includes a plan to transform the school food curriculum, the decision to not extend the free school meals scheme has brought much criticism, with some arguing this is not enough to ensure all schoolchildren can access nutritious, healthy food everyday.

Founder and Chief Executive of School Food Matters Stephanie Slater, said: “The Government’s response is disappointing as it fails to address many of the issues we are seeing in schools. While commitments to improve food education are reiterated, these are nothing new.

“Failing to take this opportunity to expand free school meals in the middle of a cost of living crisis is out of touch with the reality for so many families. I urge the Government to reconsider Dimbleby’s proposals in full, and make the ambitious changes needed to safeguard our children’s health and future environment.”

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