The government food strategy will fail

14th Jun 22 by Carina Millstone, Executive Director

Boris Johnson's new food strategy serves up nothing of substance or ambition.

With the touting of venison as a climate solution perhaps even too cringeworthy for a government seemingly unburdened by embarrassment, vanishing between the leaked and final version of the Food Strategy, England’s deer have had a last-minute reprieve. No such luck for the children of this country, our natural world and climate.

In its strategy, the Government makes no attempt to tackle the truly critical issues of our food system: the ‘junk food cycle’ and the ‘invisibility of nature’ as persuasively identified by Henry Dimbleby in his review. The Government announces precisely nothing of substance or ambition, and instead serves up ladles of the obvious, the wishful, the unsubstantiated and the whishy washy. In fact, the ‘Strategy’ would almost be comical if the consequences of this missed opportunity weren’t so tragic: continuing to deprive families of secure food, continuing to condemn children to obesity with life-long consequences for their health, continuing to drive irreversible climate change, biodiversity and soil loss, presenting a major threat to future food production and exacerbating global injustice.

We wanted to see ambitious action from the government to reduce meat, as advised by the Climate Change Committee: instead, we get trade deals that eliminate tariffs on meat and dairy and unfounded bets on ‘alternative proteins’. We wanted to see decisive action on childhood hunger and obesity: instead, many children will continue to miss out on free school meals, with well-documented deleterious impacts on their learning. In George Eustice’s world, it’s down to the kids and to us all to make ‘healthier choices’. It’s not up to the government to rein in food manufacturers and retailers, and tackle England’s massive overproduction of sugar by British Sugar, arguably the root cause of the high-sugar content of many foodstuffs. We wanted to see decisive action on food waste, instead we’re promised a consultation of limited scope that is a rehash of an announcement made in the 2018 Waste and Resources Strategy. As for the foundational question of land use -behind which hides the even more foundational question of land ownership – it’s been kicked into the long grass with the promise of yet another strategy, presumably to keep civil society groups like ours busy on the consultation and ‘stakeholder engagement’ merry go round.

So why this inaction, why this refusal to tackle what are surely some of the most pressing issues of our time: our food, our health, our climate? In the leaked version of the Strategy, talking about healthier food, the Government noted that ‘the companies who embrace the concept of positive change put themselves at a competitive disadvantage’. In other words, unhealthy, destructive foods pay; healthier, planet-friendly ones don’t. To switch the balance would require ambitious government intervention to reprioritise people and planet over corporate profit – and this is the one thing this government will not contemplate. Instead, in its strategy, it perpetuates the fantasy that corporate profit can somehow align with and drive sound nutrition, climate stabilisation and the resilience of the natural world. All the Government needs to do is encourage voluntary action, ‘incentivise’ and bankroll innovation through the public purse (as is suggested here with alternative protein).

Reading between the lines, this is a strategy whose primary aim is to protect the status quo, guarantee the profits of agribusiness corporations and entrench the paradigm of the corporate food economy. In other words, it is a strategy that perpetuates the injustices and power dynamics that created the very problems the Government claims to address through it. It is a strategy doomed to fail, even if it was never set up to succeed.

You can read our policy experts’ responses to the Government Food Strategy here.

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