The National Food Strategy: Government to improve health and sustainability of the food system

In June 2019, the Government commissioned a National Food Strategy for England to set out a vision for a better food system. Led by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon Restaurants and the Sustainable Restaurant Association, the strategy was published last week.

The resulting National Food Strategy is as ambitious as it is holistic, seeking to help England escape what it describes as the “junk food cycle”, protect the NHS and reduce diet-related inequality, all while ensuring the sustainable use of England’s agricultural land and creating a long-term shift in food culture towards health and sustainability.

The “junk food cycle”

Arguing that the previous focus on education and exercise relied too heavily on individual and voluntary measures, Dimbleby has turned his attention to ensure changes are made by the food and drink industry through the attention-grabbing Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax. The proposed policy has already received criticism for being financially regressive, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come out to say that he is not in favour of additional taxes on “hard working people”.

Dimbleby insists that the Reformulation Tax will have the same effect the Soft Drink Industry Levy did and will incentivise the industry to reformulate, helping to keep prices down. The Strategy also attempts to reconcile these concerns by accounting for the potential impact on low-income households, through recommendations including an extension of eligibility for free school meals and trialling a programme that enables GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables.

The Invisibility of Nature

The second half of the Strategy focuses on the sustainability of our food system. With research suggesting that the food system is responsible for approximately a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is a complex issue which must be tackled if the UK is set to achieve its climate ambitions.

The National Food Strategy has stepped up to this challenge, and outlined recommendations focused on tackling the system failures which are impacting the environment. In what is described as the Invisibility of Nature by the Strategy due to the inability to measure and receive feedback from nature, it focuses on a long-ignored issue.

Alongside measures to promote more sustainable land use, strengthen government procurement rules around healthy and sustainable food, and create a National Food Systems Data programme, the Strategy’s final recommendation is perhaps its most ambitious; it calls on Government to set clear targets and introduce legislation for long-term change to the food system.

It argues a strong framework of legal targets is essential, with the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) role to expand to cover healthy and sustainable food. The FSA would report on an annual basis to Parliament the progress towards a healthier and more sustainable food system and propose potential strategies the Government could adopt to accelerate progress.

Finding the correct solutions

The question mark against the entire National Food Strategy is if the recommendations have truly met the challenge facing England’s food system. The issues are clearly complex, and the Strategy has sought to tackle two problems at once; England’s ongoing obesity and health crisis as well as the global climate crisis.

The Government now has six months to respond with proposals for future laws. If implemented, the recommendations from the National Food Strategy present a potential seismic shift for the entire food value chain, from farm to fork.

With such a short time frame facing the Government, now is the time for affected industries to engage with policy makers to provide solutions to some of the most pressing questions facing England’s food system and influence the direction of policy. There has never been a more important time to make your voice heard, and share your expertise.

If you would like to discuss how the proposals could impact your business, or how best to share your expertise with government, please email [email protected].