13 May 2020, 09:57 AM
  • With 16 government departments responsible for different aspects of food production in England, academics suggest a new cross-government committee is needed to coordinate food policy
England’s fragmented food sector needs a new cross-government committee, say academics

Specialists from the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, have called for the creation of a new cross-government committee to coordinate decision making on food during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.

In a guidance note published by the Food Research Collaboration, the academics said they found that at least 16 government departments are currently responsible for different aspects of food from farm to fork in England, along with numerous public bodies. Meanwhile, the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own policy making powers.

This fragmentation, which has led to confusion and duplication, has been underlined by the global pandemic. The Covid-19 outbreak has had significant impacts on the UK’s food system, including disrupting supply chains, causing labour shortages, leaving farmers with food they are unable to harvest or sell, changing shopping habits and preventing some from obtaining the food they need.

Although food policy issues are inevitably split between different departments, the authors of the report say that never in recent British history has it been more evident that these separate parts of the government need to coordinate.

“Food affects many policy sectors, from agriculture and business to trade and health. As a result, important decisions that affect what we eat and who gets to eat it are made in different parts of government, and they don’t always join up,” explains lead author Dr Rosalind Sharpe.

“This isn’t a new problem, but Covid-19 has really highlighted the lack of coordination, for example with food shortages and surpluses hitting at the same time, or schools closed without plans made to feed kids dependent on free school meals.”

Crucially, government coordination would ensure that the UK’s small-scale food businesses, and the infrastructure they depend on, survive into the future. It would also ensure that efforts to match supply and demand at the community level have the clarity and guidance they need and that sufficient quantities of nutritious food are made available to consumers on a fair basis.

Professor Corinna Hawkes, Director of the Centre for Food Policy, said the new body would assist with the food industry’s recovery amid the Covid-19 crisis: “The current situation is unprecedented, and it would have been unfair to expect the government to be perfectly prepared, but some coordination at this stage is badly needed. And it also is vital for the longer-term. A cross-government committee on the food system would be one step towards facilitating the transition to a more resilient, fairer, and healthier food system, which contributes to the economic recovery.”