Contact us: Phone: +44 (0)1372 365049

Institute for Sustainable Food - Our response to the Government Food Strategy

University of SheffieldThe Government's long-awaited National Food Strategy, published on 13 June, was greeted with dismay and disappointment by members of the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food. The Institute’s Directors, Duncan Cameron and Peter Jackson, offer their initial thoughts here, with an invitation to other Institute members to add their response.

The Government Food Strategy1 was a response to the well-evidenced findings of the Independent Review it commissioned from restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, published in two volumes in 2020 and 20212. Dimbleby’s carefully researched two-volume report included 14 recommendations, designed to meet four strategic objectives3. By contrast, the Government's meagre 32-page response evades many of the key findings and recommendations in Dimbleby's report. It is a missed opportunity that fails to give the challenges of food security and sustainability the urgent response that is required if we are to provide affordable, safe and nutritious food for all while living within planetary limits.

The Government response is dominated by the 'levelling up' agenda and focuses on support for innovative technologies in farming, reducing reliance on overseas food production and strengthening the resilience of food supply chains (the fragility of which has been exposed by COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine). There will be consultations on public sector food procurement, food waste reporting and animal welfare food labelling; a review of labour shortages across the food sector (with an extension of the Seasonal Workers scheme); and plans to reduce methane emissions from livestock.

Many of Dimbleby's key recommendations are totally ignored. There is no mention of his radical proposals for a salt and sugar reformulation tax and no targets for the reduction of meat consumption (considered by many to be a vital part of our response to the climate crisis)4. Where, critics have asked,5 are the measures needed to tackle the rising cost of food or the seemingly inexorable rise in obesity and overweight?

While the Strategy's response on food sustainability is lamentable, its response to the public health challenges of the current food system is equally inadequate, putting undue emphasis on individual responsibility and consumer choice ('enabling individuals to make healthier choices'). The solution to obesity, the Government insists, is a shared responsibility where ‘better informed choices' will prompt a 'supply response' for the food industry. There is little recognition, here, that consumer 'choices' are shaped by the market rather than vice versa.

A lack or urgency pervades the Strategy. Government 'will consult' on reporting requirements relating to the production and sale of food and drink (with an initial focus on larger companies). 'Further research is needed' on the health effects of ultra-processed foods, and eligibility to receive free school meals will be kept 'under review'. After a brief mention of 'acute hunger crises, emergency, or famine conditions in Africa and Asia', the UK's role in the global food system is mostly described in terms of new trade agreements and the opportunity to access new markets post-Brexit (including the high demand for whisky, salmon and cheese in India).

While the report mentions the 'current turbulence' in food markets cause by the war in Ukraine and previously associated with the Coronavirus pandemic, there is little sense that these are symptoms of the deeper problems that underlie our broken food system, as we have argued on the Institute's webpages7. We have also insisted that health and sustainability challenges need to be addressed in tandem and that food system transformation needs to work 'from the ground up8. This work includes the radical measures that are needed to maintain and enhance soil health; the need for an integrated, system-wide approach; and a combination of 'soft' measures, such as nutritional advice and public health campaigns, with 'harder' fiscal measures such as incentives to promote fruit and vegetable consumption and taxation of foods that are high in saturated fat, salt and sugar. There is little evidence of such thinking in the Government food strategy which offers small-scale, short-term and piecemeal solutions to problems that need large-scale, long-term, systemic solutions.

We hope that this is not the last word on the need for a national food strategy, that the Government will listen to expert advice and take heed of the evidence that is contained in its own Independent Review. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to address one of the largest contributors to climate change and one of the biggest sources of societal inequality on a global not just a national scale. It is our responsibility to hold the Government to account and to press for a more properly evidence-based food policy in the UK.

 

Notes

  1. The Government Food Strategy is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-food-strategy
  2. National Food Strategy, Independent Review, Part One (July 2020); National Food Strategy, Independent Review, The Plan (July 2021). Both reports are available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-food-strategy-for-england
  3. The objectives were: to escape the ‘junk food cycle’ and protect the NHS; to reduce diet-related inequality’; to make the best use of our land; and to create a long-term shift in our food culture.
  4. See, for example, the evidence reported in the recent Royal Society briefing ‘Nourishing ten billion sustainably: resilient food production in a time of climate change’, Climate Change: science and solutions: https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/climate-change-science-solutions/climate-science-solutions-food.pdf
  5. Critics include campaign groups such as Sustain, the Food Foundation and Greenpeace whose views are summarised in The Guardian: ‘PM’s food strategy “a missed opportunity”’ (11 June 2022) and in related media coverage.
  6. The Government’s target to ‘halve childhood obesity by 2030’ seems entirely arbitrary and takes little account of the consistent failure of previous policies to reach their goals. For a review of the evidence, see DRZ Theis and M White (2021) ‘Is obesity policy in England fit for purpose? Analysis of Government strategies and policies, 1992–2020. Milbank Quarterly 99(1):126-170, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1468-0009.12498
  7. See, for example, Peter Jackson and Duncan Cameron, ‘The coronavirus pandemic is a symptom of a broken food system’ (17 June 2020): www.sheffield.ac.uk/sustainable-food/news/coronavirus-pandemic-symptom-broken-food-system
  8. We use this phrase as the strap-line for our H3 research project: ‘Healthy soil, Healthy food, Healthy people’, funded by UKRI’s ‘Transforming UK food systems’ programme: www.h3.ac.uk