National Food Strategy shows a better food system is within reach but much more to be done

16th Jul 21 by Christina O'Sullivan

The strategy shows us that a sustainable food system is within our reach, but we must address corporate control.

This week, the long awaited National Food Strategy was released, the first major review of England’s food system in 75 years. The strategy takes significant strides in tackling meat overconsumption, food waste and food inequality and it is exciting to see many of the things we have consistently campaigned for feature in the strategy.

After a pandemic which has exposed the shameful extent of food inequality in the UK, and as alarm grows over unchecked destruction of nature, this Strategy shows us that a vibrant, productive, sustainable food system is within our reach, but that Big Food’s business as usual – on sugar, on meat and on waste – cannot continue.

Making the clear case for meat reduction

To effectively address climate change, we simply have to eat less meat. The National Food Strategy recognises this and calls for a target for meat reduction – a big step in the right direction. Without immediate action, the global meat and dairy industry will account for almost half the world’s 1.5C emissions budget by 2030. Raising meat uses 85% of our land in the UK – land we need to preserve nature and plant trees. Crucially, the strategy also points out that some of the most powerful players – supermarkets – must play a central role in this change. It includes a survey showing 50% would support a government target for supermarkets to reduce their meat sales – Feedback’s supermarket scorecard calls for all supermarkets to adopt a target to halve their sales by 2030.

Mandatory reporting on food waste for large corporations

The Strategy calls for corporates to take more responsibility for what they sell – recommending that the government makes it mandatory for big food businesses to report on how much they waste, among other indicators. While not the whole story, this is vital: we have consistently called for food waste reporting to be mandatory, it might not seem like much but knowing exactly how much waste there is, is a crucial first step to reducing this industrial scale problem. Globally, around one third of all food produce is wasted, yet we don’t know the exact amount as currently corporations do not have to report it. The government has considered making it a legal requirement to publish how much food goes to waste; we hope the strategy’s strong recommendation for mandatory reporting pushes this into law.

Failing to address farm food waste

Although the strategy rightfully calls for mandatory food waste reporting for large corporations, it does not adequately address food waste on farms. Our wasteful food system forces farmers to produce more food than they need to secure contracts with large supermarkets. Research in this area is sorely lacking, but conservative estimates suggest that 3.6 million tonnes of good food is left to rot on UK farms every year. From our Gleaning Network, we have seen firsthand piles of perfectly good produce being wasted on farms, it’s heart-breaking for the farmer and disastrous for our planet. The government can address this, by including big farm businesses in mandatory food waste reporting and helping farmers by addressing unfairness in our food supply chain.

What about access to good food?

The Strategy is right to focus on how the government can help create good green jobs in farming, and make it easier for people in every income bracket to eat a healthy, fresh and sustainable diet. But more healthy start vouchers won’t work if there’s nowhere to buy fresh, healthy food in your area. Feedback staff working in Merseyside see every day how poor access to good food hampers people’s confidence, health and ability to feed their families well – that’s why we’ve helped set up a mobile veg van to visit some of the worst-affected areas, but that isn’t a long-term solution. Government needs to cough up the cash to seed local and regional food economies, help local authorities and bodies like schools and hospitals buy local and provide the resources to help civil society get beyond the food bank model.

Failure to address sugar from beet to sweet

Much media coverage has been given to the recommendation for a ‘sugar tax’. The proposed tax is on wholesale sugar (and salt) — the idea being that this will push food companies to reformulate their products and reduce sugar content. But a critical part of the picture is ignored: production. The UK produces vast amounts of sugar in the form of sugar beet, enough to exceed our Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) three times over. To make matters worse, we use our prime agricultural land to produce sugar beet. The level of sugar production is at odds with aims for sugar reduction; if we continue to produce three times more sugar than we need, what will happen to that over-supply? To address sugar effectively, we need to produce less of it in the first place.

The elephant in the room – who has the power?

The Strategy makes many good recommendations but fails to effectively analyse who has the power to create or perhaps more importantly to stop vital change. Our food system is largely controlled by a handful of large corporations. In a system dominated by corporations profit maximisation will always be the ultimate goal. We must ensure we have a national food strategy that works for people, not profit. That means a government that is prepared to intervene where necessary to curb corporate power. At this crucial moment for people and planet, as we begin to recover from the pandemic and face the growing realities of climate change, Feedback’s work feels more important than ever.

Further reading:

Feedback’s Meat and Climate Scorecard

Meating the climate challenge: Why supermarkets must urgently cut their meat and dairy sales

When there’s no waste, there’s a way (to net zero) A call for policy for food waste prevention

Too much of a bad thing: The use and misuse of UK soil and land to grow sugar

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