National Food Strategy calls for historic reforms to food system

The National Food Strategy has published a 290 page report calling on the Government to commit to a historic package of reforms in order to build a better food system for a healthier nation. 

The independent report, commissioned by the Government in 2019, calls for the introduction of the world’s first Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax, with some of the money being used to expand free school meals and support the diets of those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods. It also calls for food education to be central to the national curriculum, and for food standards to be protected in any new trade deals.

In addition, food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby also recommends measures to restore and protect our natural environment, by investing in sustainable farming techniques and new food technologies such as novel proteins. 

While there is little specific mention of the poultry sector, the report does recommend meat consumption should fall by 30% by 2022, as well as fruit and vegetable consumption increase by 30% during the same period.

Major backers of today’s report include chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver, social welfare expert and former senior civil servant Dame Louise Casey, the economist Partha Dasgupta, and the chef Prue Leith. 

 Author of the report Henry Dimbleby said: “The food system is a logistical miracle, full of amazing, inventive people. With the right leadership from government, it is well within our power to change the system so it makes both us and the planet healthier.

“Currently, however, the way we produce food is doing terrible damage to the environment and to our bodies, and putting an intolerable strain on the NHS.

“COVID-19 has been a painful reality check. Our high obesity rate has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate.  We must now seize the moment to build a better food system for our children and grandchildren.” 

Mark Bridgeman, President of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “The National Food Strategy is a welcome addition to the debate about the future of land use and food production in the UK.  The strategy highlights the need to properly reward farmers for environmental improvements above and beyond what they already do, and rightly recognises the world class environmental and animal welfare standards of British food.  It is precisely because of these standards that Government and industry can argue with confidence that consumers should buy British meat, fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy and environmentally conscious diet.”

Summary of Recommendations

The recommendations in the National Food Strategy are grouped under four objectives:

  1. Escape the Junk Food Cycle to protect the NHS

  2. Reduce diet-related inequality

  3. Make the best use of the land

  4. Create a long-term shift in our food culture

 

Objective 1: Escape the Junk Food Cycle to Protect the NHS 

Recommendation 1

Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families.

The Government should introduce a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold wholesale for use in processed foods, or in restaurants and catering businesses. This would create an incentive for manufacturers to reduce the levels of sugar and salt in their products, by reformulating their recipes or reducing their portion sizes. 

Recommendation 2 

Introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies.

Supermarkets and the hospitality sector are extremely adept at nudging consumers towards certain products and behaviours. 

The report recommends the introduction of a statutory duty for all food companies with more than 250 employees to publish an annual report on their sales of various food types, including fruit, vegetables, different types of protein and products high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS).

Recommendation 3

Launch a new ‘Eat and Learn’ initiative for schools.

Culinary skills and knowledge have declined across every social class since convenience food became widely available. The report recommends the introduction of an ‘Eat and Learn’ Initiative for schools. This would ensure that children start learning about food earlier, and that all food lessons are well funded and rigorously inspected by Ofsted. The Food A-level should be brought back, to give students a clear route into the food industry. 

Objective 2: Reduce diet-related inequality

Recommendation 4

Extend eligibility for Free School Meals.

After Key Stage 1 (Reception to Year 2), the eligibility threshold for free school meals is set at an annual household income of less than £7,400 before benefits. In other words, you have to be extremely poor to qualify. This means there are some children from low income families who are going hungry at lunchtime. The report recommends that the Government should increase the earnings threshold to £20,000 before benefits. This would mean a total of 1.1 million additional children getting a freshly cooked, free lunch every day.

Objective 3: Make the best use of the land

Recommendation 8

Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use. 

Under the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme of agricultural payments, farmers will no longer receive payments for commercial activities, or simply for owning land, but for activities that contribute to the common good. These include nature restoration, managing woodland, flood prevention, soil improvement, animal welfare and carbon sequestration. 

But it is not yet clear exactly how ELMs money will be distributed, which makes it hard for farmers to plan ahead. Moreover, the total budget is only guaranteed up to the end of this Parliament, in 2024, which could mean that some farmers face a financial cliff edge. The transition to ELMs must be managed extremely carefully if the economy and culture of the countryside is to survive. 

The report recommends that Defra should guarantee the current level of funding until at least 2029 (the end of the next Parliament) and ensure that ELMs payments are sufficiently generous to make it worthwhile for farmers to switch from conventional farming to more sustainable practices. 

Recommendation 9

Create a rural land use framework based on the Three Compartment Model.

The UK’s Net Zero pledge is written into law, with commitments for nature recovery soon to follow. The only way to meet those targets is to change the way we use the land. We therefore recommend that the Government should create a Rural Land Use Framework based on the so-called “three compartment model”, in which some areas are used chiefly for food production, some for nature and carbon sequestration, and some for low-intensity, nature-friendly farmland. Defra should create a new data map of England, with detailed information on any given area of land, its eligibility for various environmental incentive schemes, and the uses to which it would be best suited. This will help farmers, landowners and local government make good long-term decisions about how to manage our precious land. 

Recommendation 10

Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them.

In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged that “in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”. But it has not yet said exactly which standards it means to protect, or how it plans to do so – despite having already agreed a new trade deal with Australia.

In Part One of the strategy, published in July 2020, the report proposed a mechanism that would enable the Government to keep its promise without breaking the anti-protectionism rules of the WTO. When making new trade deals, the Government “should only agree to cut tariffs on products which meet our core standards”. This recommendation was repeated by the Government’s own Trade and Agricultural Commission.

The report states Government must draw up a list of core minimum standards which it will defend in any future trade deals, and then set out which mechanisms it intends to use to protect these standards. Otherwise there is a serious risk that cheap imported food will undermine our own efforts to protect the environment and animal welfare, while undercutting – and potentially bankrupting – our own farming sector.

Objective 4: Create a long-term shift in our food culture

Recommendation 11

Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system.

The report recommends that the Government should invest £1bn in research and development to help improve the national diet, develop sustainable farming practices and protect the environment. This money should go on a wide range of ideas and initiatives: everything from methane-reducing additives for sheep and cattle, to new agro-ecological techniques, to local initiatives to improve health outcomes in deprived communities. The report recommends that £50m should go towards building a commercial “cluster” for entrepreneurs and scientists working on alternative proteins. This would help launch the UK into a new global food industry. 

 

 

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