Historic reform to diets, food education, farming and meat consumption are needed to improve the UK’s health and restore the environment, a landmark report has said.
Henry Dimbleby’s much-anticipated National Food Strategy was released today (15 July), with bold ambitions to counter the diet-related deaths in the country and enable farming in a way that protects nature, creates sustainable livelihoods and tackles climate change.
Among its wide-ranging recommendations, the report said meat consumption should reduce by 30 per cent, which could be done by reducing meat in processed food or food to go, as well as people cutting down what they eat in the home.
The report, the second of two, was compiled after two years of analysis and meetings with people from every part of the food system, including “deliberative dialogues” with citizens across the country, to establish what changes the public is willing to embrace. These include things like discarding things like a ‘meat tax’ in favour of government interventions to incentivise dietary change, such as has been done in things like solar power.
“The recommendations we have put together are intended to create the kind of food system the people of this country say they want – and need,” Dimbleby said.
“However, state intervention is rarely, if ever, sufficient by itself,” he said. “You can’t send in the army to improve the cooking in schools, or imprison people for serving bad hospital meals.
“Transforming the food system will require change at all levels: structural, cultural, local and individual. But it is work that must be done.”
In addition to cutting meat, fruit and vegetable consumption will have to increase by 30 per cent, the report said, and suggested GPs might be able to prescribe fruit and veg to people at risk of suffering from dietary ill health or food insecurity.
Making these diet changes, particularly around meat, will allow intensive farming to decline, and enable a more regenerative use of livestock to fertilise fields, moving away from fertiliser and soya for animal feed – both key contributors to climate change via nitrous oxide and deforestation respectively.
“The next big shock to our food supply will almost certainly be caused by climate change, in the form of extreme weather events and catastrophic harvest failures,” said Dimbleby. “Agriculture alone produces 10 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, despite constituting less than one per cent of our GDP.”
Setting out in stark detail how poor diets contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year in England, Dimbleby also calls for a Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax to end what he dubs the ‘Junk Food Cycle’ and availability of cheap processed food causing obesity-related illness, which could be used to fund the expansion of Free School Meals.
The report has been widely backed and supported by food charities, campaigners, civil servants and celebrities, with the government due to respond within six months, and there has been speculation about exactly what, if anything, the government will choose to act on.
“It’s likely that the elements of the strategy focused on vulnerable children and ideas for procurement in schools and hospitals will be easy for government to pick up,” said chief executive of the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission, Sue Pritchard.
“But I hope the level of consensus (that the need to transform our food and farming system is urgent) revealed in Henry’s rigorously researched plan, will give the government confidence in taking action on more challenging aspects of the Strategy. Our research shows clearly that citizens want government to act – I hope they hear that call.”
Jamie Oliver, chef and campaigner, said this is “no time for half-hearted measures”. “If both government and businesses are willing to take bold action and prioritise the public's health, then we have an incredible opportunity to create a much fairer and more sustainable food system for all families,” he said.
Soil Association chief executive, Helen Browning, said: “The meat question will spark debate, but the evidence is clear that dietary change will be needed to enable more nature-friendly farming.
“We will need to eat much less industrially farmed meat, which can drive deforestation and land use change through its reliance on imported feed crops, and ensure that the meat we do eat is produced in regenerative systems that support biodiversity. The debate in farming shouldn’t be about whether this is so, but about how to make this transformation quickly and fairly, for both farmers and citizens.”