As I type, a young roe deer is nervously grazing in the field opposite my house. As much as I enjoy seeing deer on the farm, they have killed so many trees this year that I would happily eat it. Indeed, eating more wild venison was a leading element of a leaked early version of our government’s food strategy – later removed after widespread ridicule.
This scrapped idea (a bit of red meat to throw to disgruntled Tory backbenchers) was an early sign that the report would be all about politics, and very little about considered strategy; a fear confirmed by the release of the final report last week.
The report was supposed to be a response to Henry Dimbleby’s well-considered National Food Strategy, published in 2020-21. Many expected it to contain firm actions framed in legislation, to drive the changes that Dimbleby recommended.
But it turns out there will be no extension of eligibility for free school meals, no Eat & Learn scheme in schools to teach young children about food, no expansion of the Healthy Start fruit and veg voucher scheme for young families, no sugar and salt tax, and no action to reduce meat consumption in line with climate goals.
Perhaps most alarmingly, there are fears that the strategy may signal a watering down of the proposed environmental land management schemes (ELMS) which were to be the basis of the UK’s new farming policy, replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (which pays subsidies to farmers).
These ELMS were going to pay farmers for environmental improvements – but the new strategy mentions no targets for land-use change. There is also no guarantee of minimum standards for the food imports that farmers must compete with.
Despite the junk food cycle feeding an obesity and diabetes epidemic; despite the desperate need for a considered, long-term policy to tackle climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and food insecurity; despite the call for government action from every food policy expert I have met; despite previous failures of self-regulation. Despite all this, we are going to leave the future of our food and farming to market forces, and to the choices of consumers who are surrounded by foods that are killing them. As Dimbleby himself has commented, this report “is not a strategy”.