National Food Strategy: Government calls for evidence from public and industry about food system of the future
A radical shakeup of the UK’s food industry” is being planned, the Government said, as part of a new National Food Strategy. As one of the first steps, the Government has launched a call for evidence, giving everyone from consumers, farmers and food producers, to scientists and academics, an opportunity to shape how the UK produces, sells and consumes food.
Their views will inform the first major review of the nation’s food system in nearly 75 years, led by entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby. The aim is to “ensure the food industry is fit for the future, supports growth, enhances the environment and is resilient to the challenges posed by climate change,” said the statement announcing the review.
“No sector of our economy is more important than the food sector,” said Dimbleby when he was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme in August. “It’s not only vital to life, but for one in eight of us it also provides our livelihood. And it’s central to our culture and our sense of identity.” He said three areas would be given particular attention: health, the environment and food security. “There is a growing understanding and it is recognised that the system is causing us harm. It’s causing harm to our health, it’s causing harm to the environment and there is a question about whether we can think of food security in the same way that we currently do, with the climate changing what the land is capable of providing,” said Dimbleby.
“We are the first generation more likely to die as a result of what we eat rather than from a communicable disease.” Dimbleby said discussions around food production were hard, because “the trade-offs are not clear”. He gave the example that food might be taxed to reflect its environmental cost, and said the counterpoint was that it might make healthy food less affordable.
Health and obesity were also a tricky area, he said, because it was hard to know whether it was appropriate the Government becomes involved in telling people what to eat. The issue of self-sufficiency is gaining attention, with new figures published in August which put the UK’s self-sufficiency at 61%. The NFU said the figures showed the Government should make a strong commitment to British farming to ensure a secure supply of homegrown food for shoppers, especially given government leaks revealed the expectation that there would be fresh food shortages in the event of a no deal Brexit, due to disruption at ports.
The union said its ambition is for British farmers to produce more food for a growing population while, at the same time, delivering on an ambitious plan to achieve net zero in agricultural emissions by 2040. NFU president Minette Batters said: “While we will never be completely self-sufficient as a country it is vital that Britain takes its role as a food producer for its growing population seriously and does not rely on the rest of the world – with wildly varying standards of production – to feed our population which is likely to grow to 73 million people in 20 years’ time.”
When it came to managing the environment, Dimbleby said climate change could boost agriculture in the UK, something the review would examine. “We, in the UK, are actually in one area of the world where it could make us more productive,” he said.
“It will be wetter, hotter, with long, sunny summers and that raises the question about what our role is, not only in securing our own food supply but also as a supplier of food to other countries around the world.
“These are really complicated issues and this is a massive review. This is a broad and open call. So not just the academics, but citizens in general. If you have good ideas, big or small, please get involved. “Whether you are someone who works in a food business, a farmer, a food processor, an interested citizen – whoever you are – we want to hear from you. We can’t wait to read your submissions and hear about your ideas.”
The review will look at what is working well already and the role of new technology to revolutionise food supply – from innovations like vertical farming and robotics, to carbon neutral manufacturing and crops that tackle climate change. No idea is too big or small to be considered, the Government said.
Defra secretary Theresa Villiers said: “As we leave the EU and seek to capitalise on the opportunities this can provide for the UK’s farmers and food producers, we have the chance to reshape our food system from farm to fork to ensure it is ready to deal with these 21st century pressures.”
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said: “Food and drink is part of our critical national infrastructure. The National Food Strategy will ensure that UK food and drink remains a vital national asset and continues to be one of the UK’s biggest success stories.
“FDF will be submitting evidence, and we would encourage everyone up and down the food and drink supply chain to do the same.”
Batters added: “British food is amongst the best, safest and most affordable in the world and UK farming plays a crucial role in providing the raw ingredients that form the backbone of our country’s food system. It’s time we took pride and interest in our food industry, which is worth over £120 billion to the national economy and employs 4 million people.”
Together, these findings will inform the Government’s new National Food Strategy, published next year.
The National Food Strategy is the first independent review of England’s entire food system for 75 years. It aims to ensure that our food system:
• Delivers safe, healthy, affordable food, regardless of where people live or how much they earn
• Is robust in the face of future shocks
• Restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation in this country
• Is built upon a resilient, sustainable and humane agriculture sector
• Is a thriving contributor to our urban and rural economies, delivering well paid jobs and supporting innovative producers and manufacturers across the country
• Delivers all this in an efficient and cost-effective way.
What happens now? Towards the end of 2019, a rigorous, evidence-based analysis of the current food system will be published. In early 2020, the Strategy team will then look at what needs to be done to get from A to B: to transform the food system we have today into something better for the future. Many of these decisions cannot be mathematically or economically calculated. They will require careful balancing of the evidence, along with moral and aesthetic judgements. For example, what do we want our countryside to look like? How far do we want the state to go in protecting us from our own ‘bad diets’? These are things that the National Food Strategy team cannot decide, nor should the Government decree. So, the team will be creating Citizens’ Assemblies to debate the possible futures and actions that could be taken to get there.
The National Food Strategy will publish its findings in the summer of 2020. The Government has committed to responding with a white paper six months after publication. It has also asked Henry Dimbleby to review progress 12 months after that.