A holistic approach factoring in the interconnectivity of diet, health, food production, climate change, biodiversity and equality was expected from the long-awaited National Food Strategy part 2, and it delivered.
Henry Dimbleby’s work has been widely welcomed, marred only by the prime minister Boris Johnson knocking one of its key proposals – to introduce a £3bn sugar and salt tax – at its launch. Johnson said during his ‘levelling up’ press conference that he was “not attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hard-working people”.
The strategy lays out the evidence as to how and why our food system is failing people and the planet, divided into four parts: nature and climate; health; inequality; and trade. It then makes 14 recommendations to be taken across England to transform the food system for the better. The UK government is expected to set out its proposals for future legislation in response with a white paper within six months.
Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, pointed out the absurdity of a food system that “does not serve the health of the population nor the planet”. She added: “It is hugely concerning that obesity often co-exists with hunger.”
Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at London City University and CIEH vice president, said: “Food is, and always has been, right at the centre of our health and wellbeing. As this report makes clear, current diets and eating habits are unsustainable – both environmentally, economically in terms of the costs of ill health, and socially in terms of morbidity.
“We have known that for some considerable time as other publications and evidence, to which this report refers, have also made that abundantly clear. So, whilst I welcome the report, it is arguably long overdue.”
He said the recommendations were good but the detail was light on implementation and said that how the government responds would be crucial.
While much of the evidence has been rehearsed repeatedly, it is still shocking: globally, obesity has almost the same economic impact as smoking or armed conflict – around $2 trillion, compared to $2.1 trillion for the latter two.
The UK spends £18 billion annually on direct medical costs of conditions related to being overweight or obese, and without intervention rates of overweight and obesity will rise and healthcare costs will increase.
Climate change has already lowered agricultural yields globally by 21%, the report points out, and worldwide food production contributes 26% of greenhouse gases. Food production has edged out biodiversity so that livestock now comprises 94% of mammal biomass – excluding humans.
Lang was uneasy with the recommendation that the Food Standards Agency alone leads in implementing the strategy’s recommendations in England, as ministers needed to also play a part. Lang argued in his piece in the Spectator (paywall) that if it was left to agencies alone this would consign the recommendations to the “not now box” and that “only government ministers can get these recommendations through”.
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of the Sustain food and farming charity, said: “Without legislation, clear responsibility, accountability and adequate powers and resources for implementing a long-term plan, the fresh ideas in this ground-breaking food strategy will quickly wilt.”
Gary McFarlane, CIEH’s director for Northern Ireland, pointed out that the strategy only applied to England and urged “all jurisdictions across the UK to collaborate on this crucial issue”.
McFarlane also argued that it wasn’t just ministers and agencies that have key implementation roles. Local government and environmental health “always have been and are […] playing the crucial role […] to ensure a transition to healthier and more sustainable diets”.
He added: “Other aspects of local authority work, such as planning, leisure services, and community development, also have key roles to play. We welcome and support the recommendations in the strategy around investment.
“That investment, however, needs to also extend to the local authority sector to harness and support the innovation they can bring along with ensuring adequate capacity.”
Summary of recommendations:
- Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax, and use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families.
- Introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies of sales of: foods high in sugar, fat, and salt; protein by type; fruit and veg; major nutrients; food waste; total food and drink.
- Launch a new “Eat and Learn” initiative for schools teaching children aged 2-18 how to eat well.
- Extend eligibility for free school meals from the annual income eligibility criteria of £7,400 to £20,000, and to children who are undocumented or have No Recourse to Public Funds (NPRF). Make enrolment of eligible children automatic.
- Fund the Holiday Activities and Food programme, which offers a free holiday club to children who normally receive free school meals, for the next three years.
- Expand the Healthy Start voucher scheme for vitamins, fruit, veg and milk to all households earning under £20,000 with pregnant women or children under five.
- Trial a “Community Eatwell” programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets.
- Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments at the current level of £2.4bn until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use. Ring fence £500m–£700m of this money for natural carbon removal and restoring semi-natural habitats
- Create a Rural Land Use Framework by 2022, which will provide detailed assessments of the best way to use any given area of land. This should be based on the Three Compartment Model outlining which land is most appropriate for semi-natural land, low-yield farmland and high-yield farmland, as well as land appropriate for economic development and housing.
- Define minimum standards for trade – covering animal welfare, environment and health protection, carbon emissions, antimicrobial resistance, and zoonotic disease risk.
- Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system including: £500m healthy and sustainable diet innovation, including £75m for alternative proteins; keeping the £280m fund Defra-earmarked for farmers to transition to more environmentally friendly practices; £50m to develop, test and scale up alternative proteins; and setting up two What Works Centres, with a combined endowment of £200m, to strengthen the evidence for farming and food policies.
- Create a National Food System Data programme to allow businesses and other organisations in the food system to track changes and plan ahead.