The initial report of the UK government-commissioned National Food Strategy has been published, offering a number of recommendations to government to encourage healthy eating and to protect food standards.
The document is written by Henry Dimbleby, lead non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and co-founder of the Leon food-to-go chain. He consulted widely, assisted by a range of advisors and experts.
Most recommendations in Part One are directed towards government, but Part Two is expected to propose measures with more impact on food and drink businesses. A government white paper will follow Part Two (to be published in 2021), within six months.
Scope of study
This document covers England only, since food policy is a “devolved” responsibility – separate strategies are under development for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The teams responsible have been working in parallel, so it is reasonable to assume that final policies will be broadly similar.
The content of the strategy has changed somewhat due to Covid-19, and as we approach the end of the transition period with the EU. Part One now examines practical, pragmatic activities to be undertaken by government as a matter of urgency, in the area of social welfare and trade.
Part Two will give recommendations for more far-reaching reform of the UK food system, with emphasis on health and sustainability.
What it says – Covid-19
The food industry is assessed as having performed well through the coronavirus emergency, adapting quickly to ensure food supply was maintained. Damage to foodservice businesses is recognised as severe, however.
Looking ahead, the economic damage caused by coronavirus is seen as a serious threat to both food industry employees and the population as a whole.
Dimbleby notes some economists predict a possible “K-Shaped” recession, in which some sectors thrive in the new conditions (the upward tick of the “K”), while others sink.
Food stress is expected to increase markedly as economic conditions deteriorate.
What it says – health and prosperity
Obesity and other signs of poor nutrition are seen as serious strategic risks for the UK, thrown into sharp focus by coronavirus, which is most dangerous to patients that are overweight.
Obesity affects the least well-off most severely, but the report is clear that all economic and demographic groups are affected to some degree.
The report uses stark language to describe the scale and severity of the nations’ poor nutrition but also notes that the opportunity may now exist for aggressive, legislative action on this issue.
Recommendations on health were expected to include controls on advertising and promotion, but these were pre-empted by the government’s Obesity Strategy, published a few days before.
Actions – children
Four specific actions are recommended to help improve access to food for children, especially children from the most disadvantaged households. Note that all actions are costed, and all can be delivered via existing mechanisms:
- Extend free school meals to all children under 16 years, where one parent is in receipt of Universal Credit – this would increase the number of children benefiting from 1.1m to 2.6m
- Extend holiday activity and food programme to the whole of England, to all children who are in receipt of free school meals, thus addressing “holiday hunger”
- Increase value of Healthy Start programme to £4.25 per week, extending eligibility to all pregnant women and all children under 4, where a parent is in receipt of Universal Credit
- Extend Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Taskforce by 12 months, meaning that it will end in July 2021. This resource will be used to monitor economic and food access issues
Actions - trade
Three specific actions are recommended to help protect UK food standards, as trade deals are negotiated in the post-EU period.
This is seen as an opportunity to re-configure the UK’s long-term trade arrangements in a rational and beneficial way, comparable with the ending of the Corn Laws in 1846.
- Make food tariff reduction conditional in any future trade deal, only cutting tariffs on products that meet core UK standards in areas such as animal welfare and climate change (not necessarily all standards)
- Seek independent advice, with any proposed trade deal submitted to an independent group which will assess the likely benefits / impacts
- Consult with Parliament on any proposed trade deal, with sufficient time for committee activity and full debate
A key point raised by the report is that there is little point in the UK adopting high production standards in the post-EU period if these are by-passed via an overly-liberal approach to imports; this would simply transfer ecological and social harms to other countries.
Coming soon …
Investigation of sustainability issues and development of recommendations is delayed until Part Two, but it is clear that the situation is seen as serious and urgent.
Climate change is seen as the most significant sustainability challenge – the current food system is both a major contributor to climate change and a major victim of it.
The report describes how the next major crisis to hit the food system is likely to be climate-related, that it may arrive quite soon and that the food industry is currently under-prepared.
This suggests that ambitious action will be advised and this is likely to impact food businesses in some manner, requiring adaptive responses.
Interested parties can respond to proposals in the National Food Strategy or sign up for up for news by going to the National Food Strategy website.