Government Food Strategy: A strategy without a plan

Posted: 15 June 2022 | | No comments yet

Following the reveal of the Government Food Strategy, Professor Chris Elliott explains why the whitepaper is such a disappointment to the UK food and agricultural sectors – and actually for all of us.

Chris' CornerOn Monday, I put aside quite a bit of time to read the Government Food Strategy (GFS) but I needn’t have bothered. A barely 30-page flimsy document in terms of length and substance has been published.

When Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy was published, it’s fair to say it had mixed reviews. I was more positive about this proposal than other reports. I have a good understanding of how complex the UK food ecosystem is and how difficult it is to navigate around the various government departments that have some role in agriculture and/or food – departments that rarely, if ever, talk to one another.

Like many others, I watched Dimbleby on the TV earlier this week putting on a brave face, but ultimately admitting that the GFS was not a strategy.

It’s impossible to go through all the shortcomings I have identified in the GFS, but I will attempt to cover enough that you should get a feel for what was written and for whom the intended audience was. I will stick mainly to the topic of food security, which was inexplicably absent in the Dimbleby document but since the war in Ukraine started has gained more attention – although apparently is not important enough to warrant a shift in the way we manage our food in the UK.  

The Government Food Strategy is just words…

The word ‘Brexit’ appears 15 times in the GFS, which focuses on all the wonderful opportunities this will present to the UK’s agriculture and food sectors. I have no doubt the members of the European Research Group (of which George Eustice is a proud member) and in particular its leader, Jacob Rees Mogg, will have smiles the size of Cheshire cats.

When I state the strategy includes no plan, I really mean this. No less than 20 times are the words ‘explore’ and ‘consult’ used. This is how Whitehall kicks things into the very long grass when there is no appetite to do anything. In fact, I can see all the hallmarks of a scramble around Whitehall to get contributions from the disparate government departments to let us know the wonderful job they are all already doing to deliver a sustainable and healthy UK food system and that there’s actually no need for a new strategy in the first place.

Skewed statistics

We all know the importance of using evidence to make policy. I didn’t even manage to get past the foreword written by George Eustice to spot the first poor use of statistics…in this he claims we are 75 percent self-sufficient in the foods we can produce as a nation. This isn’t just a slant on data, it’s a total misrepresentation of where food production sits in the UK. While on page 13 under the ‘Ensuring security and sustainability’ heading, a much more appropriate figure of 60 percent appears in terms of the level of food produced in the UK to meet our needs.

When it comes to numbers, here’s a few to dwell upon: the UK is only 40 percent self-sufficient in pork, 18 percent in fruit, 40 percent in apples, 55 percent in fresh vegetables and 70 percent in potatoes. Quite staggering low numbers. However, the GFS tells us we need to try and maintain our current levels of food production whilst growing the horticulture and seafood industries – let me explain why this is ludicrous suggestion.

First of all, both horticulture and seafood industries have been badly affected by Brexit in terms of labour and loss of European markets. This has led a lot of our crops to be wasted, left rotting in the ground…with this in mind, how can any sensible government think about growing our levels of production when we cannot process what we produce at the moment? Then of course, we need to understand the impact on the UK livestock sector. If the UK Government wants our food production to remain static but grow the horticulture and seafood sectors this must mean that by stealth they wish the livestock sectors to decrease in size…? This is despite the fact we need to import so much meat into the country.

The National Farmers Union welcomed the GFS report and I really struggle to understand why. Perhaps this is because the loudest voices within this organisation are the ones set to benefit from this strategy? Or perhaps any commitment from government not to continue the contraction of the UK farming sector overall is seen as a win?

I could write pages on the GFS’ shortcomings, in particular its failure to tackle obesity and encourage healthy eating. The UK Government has pretty much rejected all the major recommendations from Dimbleby, especially around the sugar and salt taxes. In my opinion, this is most likely due to a lack of imagination, a gross failure of a government to work across departments, and the fact Conservative administrations do not like the ‘nanny state approach’ and, where possible, don’t want to interfere with businesses.

No progress for the UK

So overall, it seems that our national food security is a much ado about nothing and consequently, very little will actually get done. Meanwhile, many other countries are and will be developing policies that will protect their citizens, drive the agri-food economy in a sustainable way and promote better health for all. It really is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

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