The prevailing sentiment among commentators discussing the Government’s National Food Strategy White Paper since its release on 13 June seems to veer between disappointment that it doesn’t go far enough, and doubt that it will achieve any of the desired objectives. Henry Dimbleby’s 2019 – 2021 review on the UK’s food strategy, which underpins the White Paper, focused on four key themes: breaking ‘the junk food cycle’; reducing health inequalities; transitioning to more environmentally sustainable farming methods; and viewing food strategy in the long term rather than the diminishing returns of our five year parliamentary cycle.
National Food Strategy White Paper
Since the publication of the second part of the Dimbleby review a year ago, rising inflation and the cost of living crisis, and the long shadow cast by the Ukraine war, have changed the political landscape, not to mention the self-inflicted distractions of the government. Although it is no surprise that the White Paper diverges from the Dimbleby recommendations in a number of ways (of the fourteen recommendations, seven have been ignored and of the remaining seven, the government has committed to delivering only four), it does explicitly reference the importance of food security and domestic food production. The UK’s current food self-sufficiency rate is around 75% (88% for wheat); maintaining this rate is dependent on a number of factors including being more scientific about how we use land; encouraging the population to eat fresh, locally-produced food; investing in technology and precision farming; and consuming healthier quantities and wasting less.
The White Paper accepts that the ‘three compartment model’, outlined in the Dimbleby review, should deliver the productivity needed to feed the country: intensification, to maximise the most productive areas; land sharing, where productive farming and ecological diversity can co-exist; and land sparing, taking marginal areas out of production. This is what ELMS is broadly designed to do but the lack of detail on how the individual pillars will be funded, and the end of the BPS transition period getting closer, means farmers still cannot forecast their future income. The government mantra appears to be - grow and raise quality food and the consumer will come. But will they? The UK population as a whole spends only 11% of its income on food, the lowest rate in Western Europe, and consumes one of the highest proportions of ultra-processed food in the world, second only to the United States. Is this a population likely to change its spending priorities in favour of buying fresh fruit and vegetables and locally-produced, high quality meat and dairy? And what of the ”Brexit dividend” with many politicians promising cheap imported food as a benefit to leaving the EU?
Food industry wins battle for cheap food
All food can be grown sustainably, and sustainably-grown food will be more nutritious (providing the consumer knows how to cook it). But can sustainable, nutritious food be cheap? That depends on priorities – are we willing to cut expenditure in other areas of our lives in order to allocate a larger slice of our budget to locally-produced, fresh food? Probably not in the context of the current consumer preference for ease of preparation and consumption. It is not just a matter of money – a proportion of the population is physically addicted to processed food, which is deliberately formulated to create cravings that fresh, cooked food simply cannot sate*. The government’s decision not to impose a salt and sugar formulation tax, as recommended in the Dimbleby review, reflects the power of the food industry and, some say, the tensions within the Cabinet.
The Committee on Climate Change noted in their response to the White Paper that there was no acknowledgement of the ‘externalised’ cost of the cheap food pushed out by manufacturers and the knock-on effect on NHS budgets. With over 64% of the British population defined as obese, and £billions per year being spent by the NHS on obesity-related health issues, radical reform is overdue. Furthermore, people on the junk food treadmill will not be persuaded to pursue a healthier lifestyle if they do not know how to cook it – or how to menu-plan or budget. The government’s commitment to continuing several initiatives, such as the Community Eatwell programme, acknowledges the work that needs to be done but other initiatives to inculcate healthy lifestyles in the young have failed to gain traction.
Farmers caught in the middle
But what does this really mean for farmers? The farming industry has always been – to a large extent - at the beck and call of prevailing ideology, political policy, and consumer sentiment. This was the case after the second world war when a combination of technology and science led to the semi-industrialisation of much of our food production. Food security then, as now, was a major driver. Economies of scale drove down prices and food manufacturers, taking advantage of scientific advances, were able to produce greater quantities of cheap food that bore little resemblance to its origins. Thus, transparency between farm and fork diminished as supply chains became so opaque that it was inevitable that food fraud, such as the horsemeat scandal, would hit the headlines.
Farmers are caught between a rock and hard place. The vast majority are committed to farming sustainably: good soil health and livestock husbandry are critical to the long term success of their operations. But the government has to be clear on what is expected of them. The White Paper talks about technology and innovation playing a key part, but this will take considerable investment. If farmers are not paid enough for what they produce they will not be able to make sufficient profits to re-invest in their operation. Unless people’s perceptions and priorities change, and they are taught how to cook and appreciate good quality food, alongside regulation of the food industry, little will change.
Trade deals could undermine UK food standards
There is also a large, silent elephant in the room. There is nothing in the White Paper about ensuring that UK food standards are reciprocated in trade deals that are being negotiated. In the recent Australia deal, neither beef nor lamb were excluded from the deal, presumably because neither product is likely to be imported to the UK in any quantity, given the distance and the presence of a much larger market, China, on Australia’s doorstep. Although trade deals with Brazil and Argentina are not currently being negotiated, the matter of food standards has to be critical to any future talks. The UK market will be very attractive to North and South American countries - being only a relatively short hop across the Atlantic – but unless we insist they meet our high standards, we could face a potential torrent of cheap meat and grains. What will that do to the domestic market? Only time will tell but our domestic market will struggle to compete on such an uneven playing field.
Henry Dimbleby talks about the catastrophic effect to our health and to the climate if we don’t make changes to the way we eat. But are we, as a country, prepared to break the junk food cycle in favour of quality food produced locally? We need to change our priorities, expect to pay more for our food, learn to cook and appreciate good ingredients, and be more discerning about what we put in our stomachs. If government is prepared to regulate the excesses of the food industry, and children are introduced to good food early on, we may stand a chance. However, unless the government insists on equivalent UK food standards for imported food in trade deals, all this may be for nothing, and the siren call of cheap food will be deafening. The White Paper is a shadow of what it might have been, and few proposals appear to be grounded in legislative intent. Henry Dimbleby’s basic proposition that if we fail to change consumer priorities and the country’s diet, the cost of failure will be ‘nature collapsing’ and ‘hospitals being overrun’. Food needs to stop being about just sustenance and start being about living.
*For those interested in this phenomenon the podcast “A Thorough Examination by Drs Chris and Xand” is an excellent listen.