Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, published last month, seeks to address the twin challenges of saving our health, and saving our planet. It delivers an excellent analysis of the problems in food and farming, and how we got here. The logical and well-thought-through recommendations that follow include:
- Taxes on salt and sugar, and large food companies to report on sales and waste.
- Extended access to free school meals and Healthy Start (the NHS food voucher scheme for parents). Plus, educational initiatives and changes to government food procurement rules, to reduce food inequality and our pervasive junk food culture.
- Driving more sustainable land use while ensuring our food supply, through regenerative agriculture, reduced waste, increased yields, and a 30 per cent drop in meat consumption. This would be combined with ongoing payments to farmers to fund the transition, and protection from unfair competition through foreign trade deals.
I agree with 95 per cent of the strategy – but with a sinking feeling that it is unlikely to be implemented, least of all by this government, in these economic circumstances. There is a tacit assumption that food must be cheap, despite acknowledging that were we to include health, environmental and subsidy costs, the real cost of food is double what we pay at the till. I find it hard to understand why cheap food rather than cheap housing (three to four times the spend for low-income households) is repeatedly argued as serving the needs of the poor, and questioning the quality of cheap food is deemed elitist. Is the (elitist) suggestion that the poor don’t care what they eat?
Food represents around eight per cent of household spend in the UK; the US is the only country where it is lower. The 18th and 19th century food riots, and even the Arab Spring, are cited of examples of why good governance requires cheap food; and the political right cry ‘nanny state’ at any suggestion of intervening in the divine free market. It is time to rethink the role of this dogma in shaping policy. Farming contributes less than 0.7 per cent of GDP, but causes around a third of environmental damage; the market has not led us in a sensible direction so far.
We urgently need brave, competent leadership to reform our failing food systems, via taxes, legal and policy interventions, and payment for the environmental benefits advocated in this report. Market-based solutions will not lead us out the mess they got us into.