Henry Dimbleby’s long-awaited National Food Strategy took three years to write, yet the Prime Minister appeared to dismiss its key recommendation of taxing sugar and salt within mere hours of it landing.
Boris Johnson likes to talk about ‘levelling up’ — and nowhere is this more needed than when it comes to food. The impact of diet today on health inequalities, the environment and national efficiency cannot be overstated. What a shame, then, that the Prime Minister ignored the independent review during his ‘levelling up’ speech in Coventry last week.
Besides the sugar and salt tax, the report contained a raft of other sensible policies that are unlikely to be given proper consideration.
Take Dimbleby's proposal for people to cut back 30 per cent on meat — which reflects official advice already. The Committee on Climate Change wants 20 per cent cuts by 2030 and 35 per cent by 2050. Public Health England’s EATWELL guide, nominally the basis for the UK diet and contracts, urges us all to consume less red and processed meat. Meat consumption is slowly declining but Dimbleby’s report said we must get tougher and faster in addressing it.
He’s not wrong. Reducing meat intake is a quick way for consumers to lower their carbon footprint. Intensive meat rearing is also a major driver of biodiversity loss and misplaced land use in the UK and globally. The National Food Strategy report calculated that 85 per cent of UK farming land is used to produce animals. Therefore, if we want more land for biodiversity and ‘wilding’, cutting back on raising farm animals, which are slow and wasteful converters of energy, is needed.
Then there is the issue of food poverty. The government accepted Marcus Rashford’s argument last year and raised Universal Credit payments by £20 per week to address the issue. But we know that food poverty has worsened during the pandemic. Food bank use has rocketed, according to the Trussell Trust and independent donors IFAN. The Food Foundation calculates that some 14 per cent of UK households have experienced not being able to afford a decent diet (termed ‘food insecurity’). The safety nets in place are simply not adequate. To ignore the issue, argues Dimbleby, is to store up trouble for the NHS and the very inequalities Mr Johnson cited in his levelling up speech.
A key aspect of the report was reining back individual choice. Some of this is a red rag to bullish libertarians who detect nanny statism. But consumers need help. After all, who really knows everything about their diet? To tax salt and sugar might sound illiberal, but it is an incentive for processors and supermarkets to change the hidden ingredients in recipes. And when food labels don’t declare embedded water or carbon content or land use impacts, how can consumers make sense of requests to think environmentally over diet?
The issue with the National Food Strategy report is not its suggestion, but how it proposes delivering them. Dimbleby’s proposal is for the Food Standards Agency – an already long-weakened body – to be the lead in implementation, a kind of genial facilitator of three bodies, the Committee on Climate Change, the Office of Health Promotion and the Office of Environmental Protection. But these are all advisory bodies. This would consign all of the recommendations to the ‘not now’ box. Only government ministers can get these recommendations through. We don’t need more bleats from the sidelines of politics.
There exists a consensus that we cannot go on as we are. Businesses expect climate change to eventually disrupt supply chains in the medium- to long-term. Dimbleby raised the thorny issue of how much food the UK could produce but set no targets. The Government should. There’s been decades of slow decline from the high point of 80 per cent self-sufficiency in the 1980s.
Make no mistake, the mid- to late-21st century is not going to be business-as-usual. Crops and growing patterns will fail or be disrupted. This is not something for a quick fix, yet a key responsibility for states remains ensuring food security for its people. So how secure are we today? Not as much as many would like to believe. Indeed, if there was regional conflict now, the UK would be in trouble. It relies on seamless European food routes, yet the UK is vulnerable to Russian interference in its cyber operations. Border Force cannot even stem migrants in rubber dinghies, let alone shepherd long-distance food merchant ships.
Perhaps the trickiest recommendation in the report is creating a long-term shift in our food culture. Dimbleby recommends starting with children and schools. Good. But adults must begin the change, too. He proposes a ‘community eat well’ programme to help people on low incomes improve their diets. The entire country, in fact, needs this, but some more than others. Poor diets drain the NHS and cement regional inequalities. As the Prime Minister rightly said in Coventry, men in Blackpool or Glasgow die an average 10 years earlier than if from Rutland or bits of Hampshire. Diet is a major factor in this. It’s why the biggest chunk of recommendations focuses on children. Dimbleby continues themes he proposed in his first report a year ago — more programmes, more income and school support.
Dimbleby’s report is a serious assessment of where we are at today. It might be light on delivery but what matters is what’s ahead. Here lies the politics again. A White Paper is due January 2022 and a Food Act is to follow in 2023. Might the PM engage? Or will his gung-ho libertarian instincts get the better of him? At stake is not just the biggest employer in the UK – 4.1 million work in the food system. It’s also a matter of preventing shockingly early deaths from preventable diet-related disease, and reining back not just junk food culture but destruction of the land and sea. Getting the food system fit for purpose means accepting that someone has to lead the transition to a more sustainable food system. Boris Johnson led us out of Europe, but will he lead us to a more civilised enduring form of food capitalism?
Tim Lang is Professor Emeritus of food policy at City, University of London. His book Feeding Britain (Pelican) is out now.