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Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of restaurant chain Leon and of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, has published part one of the National Food Strategy after being appointed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove to lead the first major review of the UK food system in nearly 75 years.
The purpose of the interim report is to address “the most urgent questions raised by both Covid-19 and the EU Exit”. Part two, which will be published in 2021, will look more in-depth into how the UK can “create a food system that restores our health and our environment”.
“These recommendations are urgent, specific and carefully targeted. In this period of acute crisis they could save many thousands from hunger, illness and even death. They will also help shape a more sustainable future for this country through enlightened trade deals,” the report says.
The National Food Strategy offers recommendations for how to protect UK farmers and food producers’ high environmental and animal welfare standards. “There is justifiable concern about opening up our markets to cheaper, low-standard imports which would undercut our own producers and make a nonsense of our progressive farming policies,” it says.
But rather than imposing a blanket ban, which would “make it nigh-on impossible” to negotiate trade deals, the report recommends a “subtler mechanism” to put in place specific trading standards.
First, the government should only agree to cut tariffs in new trade deals on products that meet the UK’s core standards. “Verification programmes – along the lines of those currently operated by the US Department of Agriculture to enable American farmers to sell non-hormone-treated beef to the EU – should be established,” it says. “At a minimum, these certification schemes should cover animal welfare concerns and environmental and climate concerns where the impact of particular goods are severe.”
Second, the government should commission and publish an independent report on any proposed trade agreements. “Scrutinised decisions are likely to be better decisions. The scope of the impact report should include: economic productivity; food safety and public health; the environment and climate change; society and labour; human rights; and animal welfare.”
Third, the government should give Parliament the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal, allowing time for relevant select committees to produce reports on any final deal, and a debate in the House of Commons.
Another area of the report responds to Covid-19’s impact on the global food system, with a focus on the most disadvantaged children. “The effects of hunger on young bodies (and minds) are serious and long-lasting, and exacerbate social inequalities. The Government must move quickly to shore up the diets of the most deprived children using existing, proven mechanisms.”
Recommendations include expanding eligibility for the Free School Meal scheme, extending the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers and expanding the scheme, and extending the work of the Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force, which collects data on the number of people suffering from food insecurity, until July 2021.
A recent report by the environment, food and rural affairs select committee also proposed appointing a new minister for food security in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But Gareth Morgan, Head of Farming policy at the Soil Association, said the remit should go much wider than food security. “It would need to be cross-departmental and cover healthy diets, food poverty, resilience in the supply chain and the environmental footprint of food production, at home and abroad.
“Food production and the environment cannot be framed as opposing interests, given the context of the climate and ecological emergencies we face. To ensure healthy and resilient food and farming systems in the UK, we need to focus on growing food that the population needs for a healthy diet.”
In response to the release of part one of the “ambitious” National Food Strategy, Christopher Stopes, Co-chair of the English Organic Forum, said: “It’s encouraging to see Mr Dimbleby’s ‘food-topia’ vision, which amongst other things, recognises the value of organic farming within a broad-based food strategy supported by investment in R&D that enables innovation to enhance yields and resilience, while also working within natural systems.”
Part two of the report is due to be released next year and will be followed by a formal response from the government.