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The Government Food Strategy was supposed to be a groundbreaking response to recommendations from restauranteur and author of the National Food Strategy Independent Review, Henry Dimbleby, who wrote two government-commissioned reports on obesity and the environment.
In his independent review, Dimbleby made a number of high-profile suggestions, including the expansion of free school meals, increasing environment and welfare standards in farming, and a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption.
However, leaking the paper on Friday, The Guardian reported that it contains virtually no additional measures to tackle the soaring cost of food, childhood hunger, obesity or the climate emergency, generating criticism from environmental groups, trade groups and food industry bodies.
Dimbleby himself was also disappointed in the resulting white paper, as he told The Guardian, “It’s not a strategy. It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done.”
Instead of tackling pressing issues facing the country, the strategy focuses on long-term plans that have been criticised as not helping people struggling now, or fixing the broken food system.
Calls for less meat
Recommendations from Dimbleby and Greenpeace to reduce the amount of dairy and meat that is produced and consumed in the UK to fight climate change were absent from the report.
In fact, Johnson suggested an increase in environmentally controversial fish farming and the use of “responsibly sourced wild venison”.
But as Morten Toft Bech, founder of British plant-based company Meatless Farm, explained, “This head-in-the-sand strategy is nothing less than willful neglect of the health of our environment as well as our people.
“We urgently need to address a food system that is no longer fit for purpose and produces a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions. This means shifting to a more balanced mix of protein sources and reducing our consumption of meat, especially intensively farmed meat.
“Investing in and supporting alternative proteins benefits health, environment and the economy. The looming cost of living crisis increases the urgency of the need to drive awareness and accessibility of sustainable alternatives for all, not a “let them eat venison” approach that benefits nobody but a meat lobby reminiscent of the tobacco industry in the tactics it will deploy to avoid modernising.”
Dimbleby added, “[The government] have said we need alternative proteins but they have not mentioned the unavoidable truth that the meat consumption in this country is not compatible with a farming system that protects agriculture and sequesters carbon.”
The Soil Association agreed with this sentiment. Rob Percival, head of food policy, said, “It seems that what broke this strategy was not a lack of good intent but a narrow-minded ideology which believes government should not intervene to reshape diets.”
Tackling food poverty
With the prices of food and fuel surging, a system to shift towards the provision of nourishing, sustainable and affordable food is more urgent than ever, as more and more households who are struggling to pay the bills are put at even greater risk of diet-related disease. For the Food Foundation, the white paper mostly misses this mark.
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, explained, “Today’s white paper shows that no one in leadership in government appears to have really grasped the scale and urgency of the challenges posed to our health and our planet by the food system.
“What’s more, these challenges are growing exponentially with the cost-of-living crisis. Despite its name, the whole document lacks a strategy to transition the food system towards delivering good food which is accessible to everyone. And without a commitment to a new Food Bill, many of the commendable commitments made are in reality toothless.
“It is a feeble interpretation of Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations, which will not be sufficient to drive the long-term change that we know is so urgently needed.”
Barbara Crowther, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign at Sustain, added, “Since the Government food strategy was delayed for the first time in July there has been a 57% leap in household food insecurity. The government’s analysis of food insecurity focuses instead on growing more cucumbers. But what of the UK citizens who can’t afford to buy them? We need to make healthy food affordable to all, providing nutritional safety nets for those without the means for a food shop.
“This is not a comprehensive food strategy when it fails to offer any new measures to address either the cost of living or the human and social cost of obesity.”
The effect on fine food retail
While the general consensus of the food industry is negative in response to the new Food Strategy, the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) believes that it will not affect fine food retail as it aligns with the sustainable, local and healthy food ethos.
As Andrew Goodacre, CEO of Bira, explained to Speciality Food, “With the Government’s new national food strategy, we are always pleased to see a plan that does not increase the burden on smaller retailers. However, there are some missed opportunities to address child hunger (school meals) and the sale of some unhealthy products (those high in fat, sugar and salt).
“For fine food retailers, whose focus is on diversity and quality of products, this new strategy should not impact the business model for good food shops on the high street.
“I believe that the general public, irrespective of the government’s strategy, will want to buy healthier, locally produced food to reduce the impact on lives and the environment. These trends should suit the fine food retailers.”