The Government’s Food Strategy White Paper has been published in response to the National Food Strategy report published last year. Defra says the plans – including incentives for industry and investment in research – will support farmers to harness this innovation to boost home-grown fruit and vegetable production, and in turn create new job opportunities across the country. However, many say it misses some fundamental issues.
There are long-standing structural issues with the food system. All too often, the food we eat, and the way it is grown, is contributing to and exacerbating the interrelated crises facing nature, public health and the climate.
Children in the most deprived areas of England are twice as likely to be obese than those in the least deprived areas. Health is now the single largest item of government expenditure and poor diets are one of the leading causes of avoidable harm to our health. The NHS spent £6.1bn/year on treating obesity-related ill health in 2014/15, and this is set to rise to £9.7bn/year by 2050. Healthier foods can be nearly three times more expensive than less healthy foods calorie for calorie.
Our intensive farm system is heavily reliant on inputs such as artificial fertilisers, and far too much land is being used to produce animal feed rather than the healthy food that is necessary if sustainable diets are to become the norm. The global food system is the single biggest contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of wildlife. It is responsible for a third of UK GHG emissions.
Global price increases and supply chain issues as a result of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine are exacerbating the cost of living crisis in the UK. Food prices have increased by 6.7% in the last 12 months and food insecurity levels have increased by 57% since January. Food is often the first place where families will seek to make savings when finances are tight, as it is a more “flexible” element of household spending, after fixed household bills are paid.
The Government delayed its response to the National Food Strategy against a backdrop of war and supply chain disruption. However, this is precisely why we need a comprehensive government response to the expert analysis and recommendations laid out in the National Food Strategy. Even with a peaceful resolution to the war in Ukraine we know there are future shocks on the horizon. Climate change is already upon us and already impacting food production in other parts of the world. We cannot assume that other countries can feed us, and exporting our food-related emissions to others, where environmental and animal welfare standards are frequently lower than in the UK, would be deeply irresponsible.
We need to move away from a food system that too often makes the least sustainable and healthy food the cheapest to buy and consume and creates a food culture that drives obesity, ill health, nature loss and climate change.
The Government needs to set out a plan for how UK farming will move toward systems that restore nature, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon, such as agroecological systems that include animals and rely less on imported external inputs. It must ensure that public sector food (including nurseries, schools and hospitals) is compatible with avoiding climate catastrophe and is good for people, animals and higher-welfare British farmers and producers. The Government must also set out a clear process and timetable for introducing legally binding targets to reduce the impact of our food system on public health, animal welfare and the environment, and to reduce levels of food insecurity.
We know it is possible to grow and sell sufficient healthy, sustainable food in the UK and around the world without harming public health or the environment. Only a long-term, cross-government strategic plan can ensure the food system in England is fit to face the challenges of the 21st Century, resilient in the face of shocks, and with a clearly stated mission to guarantee that healthy, environmentally-friendly food will always be affordable and available to all.
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