Feedback responds to the National Food Strategy – Part 1

30th Jul 20 by Jessica Sinclair Taylor

Feedback welcomes part one of the National Food Strategy report, by Henry Dimbleby, published yesterday. In our evidence submitted to the National Food Strategy team we argued that, fundamentally, we now need to reorient our food production around a new understanding of productivity, one that includes human health and the wellbeing of our planet and ecosystems. We looked at the interactions between what we grow and what we eat, and the health of our climate and biodiversity. The separation within policy-making between environmental and planetary health on the one hand, and human health on the other, creates a false dichotomy which prevents us addressing obvious absurdities in our food system. One glaring example, in the face of obesity-driven deaths from Covid-19, are agricultural subsidies to grow sugar beet on an area of land roughly equivalent to that used to grow vegetables, in direct contradiction to a levy on sugary drinks designed to reduce consumption. Bringing considerations of supply and demand together is more likely to result in holistic and effective policy-making. 

Henry Dimbleby faces the formidable task of doing this across the UK’s food system. However, in this first report, Dimbleby responds to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the food system, alongside the impending end to the UK’s transition period for leaving the EU, two events with fundamental implications for how we grow, access and consume food.

We welcome the report’s focus, during a window of opportunity that is fast disappearing, on the potential to recover from Covid-19 in a way that leaves us with a better food system: broadly, we would argue, one which is fair, resilient and inclusive, that delivers delivers good food with maximum health and nutrition, minimum environmental impact, and that guarantees good livelihoods. We need recipes for recovery which take a pinch from multiple priorities to cook up a flavourful and nourishing dish: better rights for food workers (some of the worst hit groups by both pandemic job losses and Covid-19 itself), a resilient supply chain which delivers what local areas need rather than what generates the greatest corporate profit; and access to delicious, healthy food for everyone, including those most marginalised and most impacted by the pandemic and its fallout. 

We share the report’s concerns that, on top of existing high-levels of inequality-driven ill-health caused by poor diets, the UK faces a surge in poverty driven by the economic impacts of the pandemic, and the government’s priorities in protecting business and society. We welcome the focus on poverty and lack of access to good food, and on the practical proposal to support families which are needed to address these issues. We hope the government, which only begrudgingly extended the Free School Meal voucher scheme over the summer, heeds the call to draw far more children into the scheme and to greatly increase the capacity of summer holiday programmes to meet children’s nutritional needs while school is out. 

The Strategy, rightly, has much to say about the different impacts the pandemic crisis has had on people working in different parts of our food system. Many working in food were already among the lowest paid workers in the UK: most workers in hospitality and food service have been furloughed, and their sector faces an uncertain future; supermarket workers have been on the frontline of the pandemic. Meanwhile, corporate retailers, the reigning superpowers in our food system, have further increased their already formidable market share. To a large extent this power imbalance is the result of policy decisions, both historic and recent. The government mustn’t fail to take advantage of an opportunity to help the UK strengthen more diverse and resilient supply chains, rather than continue to reinforce existing market power imbalances. Similarly, the Strategy appears to miss an opportunity to tie its recommendations to protect the most vulnerable together with its findings on the impact of the pandemic on power in the supply chain. For example, who supplies new holiday food schemes, and where can Free School Meal vouchers and healthy start vouchers be spent? Restricting the spending of this public money to big retailers, rather than including markets and smaller shops, is a missed opportunity to support and enhance regional supply chains, and the jobs to go with them.

Regarding Brexit and our future trading relationships, despite the positive noises on the negative impacts of unfettered agricultural trade deals, the strategy falls short on trade recommendations. The proposed ‘dual tariff’ scheme will allow meat and other products currently banned here, to be sold in UK stores and the backing of the UK’s newly formed Trade and Agriculture Commission to define and uphold UK ‘core food standards’ is a completely inadequate substitute for upholding them in legislation – in particular given the commission’s exclusion of environmental groups. More will be needed to protect standards and to drive them further towards regenerative and health-led approach to agriculture which prioritises the highest nutritional output for the least environmental impact. 

All eyes now turn to the next – and fuller – strategy, due in early 2021. While the tight focus on pragmatic recommendations to mitigate some of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit is understandable, it feels that Dimbleby has pulled his punches on the environmental costs – and opportunities – offered by the present moment. As newspapers report the UK falling behind our European neighbours on funding a green recovery, it is a missed opportunity to fail to make concrete recommendations targeting the environmental co-benefits of building a better food system. This strategy, against the backdrop of our urgent climate and biodiversity crisis driven to a great extent by the food system, will need to articulate a radical vision for change. Part 1 feels like a tentative step forward. Part 2 needs to be a leap.

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