Reforming England’s food system could save the country £126 billion, according to a recent government-commissioned report. The National Food Strategy, led by British businessman Henry Dimbleby, proposes a raft of measures to shake up how food is produced and the kinds of diets most people eat.
The need for action is laid out in stark terms. Poor diets contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year in England, and the government spends £18 billion a year treating obesity-related conditions. How we grow food accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and is the leading cause of biodiversity destruction.
To meet these challenges, the report calls for “escaping the junk food cycle” to improve general health and reduce the strain on the NHS, reducing the gap in good diets between high- and low-income areas, using space more efficiently to grow food so that more land can return to nature, and creating a long-term shift in food culture.
The strategy is, in parts, highly ambitious, particularly in its framing of the challenge as a systemic issue, and in some of the more innovative measures it proposes.
These include the world’s first sugar and salt reformulation tax, aimed at forcing manufacturers to make the foods they sell healthier – by reformulating recipes to remove sugar and salt – and raising around £3 billion for the Treasury in the process. Companies would also have to report how healthy and sustainable their food sales are. Cannily, the strategy team persuaded some companies to come out in favour of the proposals, which suggests they’re serious about seeing their ideas implemented and attuned to the government’s nervousness around upsetting the food industry.
The Eatwell Guide, which shows what proportion of our diet should come from each food group, would be based not only on the healthiness of certain foods, but their environmental sustainability too. This reference diet would underpin government decisions, and help ensure food policies are consistent with what is good for people and the planet.
The strategy takes a commendably bold stance on the government’s approach to trade policy, making clear that not honouring a manifesto commitment to protect food standards could bankrupt Britain’s farming sector.
At the same time, the strategy is politically pragmatic, clearly crafted with an eye on what what is likely to be winnable within the current government. As such, some politically-contentious issues are sidestepped.
The strategy sets a goal of reducing meat consumption by 30% over ten years, but shies away from interventions to tackle this head on, with a meat tax discounted as “politically impossible”.
The report notably fails to address the poorly paid, precarious and often dangerous jobs of food workers, in agriculture and hospitality. The report details how the problems with food are systemic, but misses the chance to make the link between poor working conditions in the sector and food insecurity and health. The terrible irony of “critical workers” like farmers, fishers and catering staff that feed many of us is that they’re unable to afford to eat well themselves.
The scale of the challenge has led to calls for a new minister for hunger, a cabinet sub-committee on food, or an independent food body. The strategy opts instead for a Good Food Bill with statutory targets around diet-related health and reporting. It also favours expanding the remit of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to encompass health and sustainability and calls for improved monitoring and measurement of the food system and the policies linked to it.
If enacted, these proposals could benefit food policymaking, but they’d leave the difficult question of how different government departments can coordinate on the issue untouched. Expanding an existing body may be politically expedient, but does the non-ministerial FSA have the clout and capacity to drive reform in the many other departments with a hand in food policy?
An ambitious and innovate strategy in parts, and wise for its political astuteness. Whether it has achieved the right balance will become clearer in the next phase, when the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs delivers its response. The recommendations will need to survive the political jungle and overcome obstacles both bureaucratic and ideological.
Should they make it through in one piece, these policies could tackle some of the biggest challenges related to food. But more importantly, the strategy could disrupt the politics and ideas about what people should want from their food system, and give licence to additional policy interventions in trade, meat and jobs.
Kelly Parsons, Food Systems Policy & Governance Research Fellow, University of Hertfordshire and David Barling, Professor of Food Policy and Security, Director of the Centre for Agriculture, Food and Environmental Management, University of Hertfordshire