The case for a UK Minister for the Food System

Posted: 2 January 2024 | | No comments yet

Clive Black calls for a Minister of the Food System, as he claims that the current structure in the UK Government isn’t working for food.

The food system in the United Kingdom, from farm to fork, is the largest industrial segment of the nation’s economy. It is the country’s biggest employer from shepherds to waitresses. It utilises more land than any other industry, making it central to the future energy and net zero agendas as well as the built and unbuilt fabric of the nation. And, obviously, it is the source of more than half of the country’s nourishment or otherwise. It could and should be more.

That industry has immense potential to add to the well-being, look, and wealth of the United Kingdom in my view. The ubiquity of food means, however, that to me, the food system also needs joined up thinking from perhaps the most important structural context and conditioning factor of all; government. Indeed, I believe that there is a strong case for a Minister for the Food System in the United Kingdom, who reports directly to The Prime Minister. 

I will come on to the rationale and what such a person may do in a moment. First, however, it is important to state that I do not see the need for a new ministry nor bureaucratic monolith to be created in order to assist the functioning and prospects of the domestic food system. Indeed, as an important aside, there is to me a strong case for a fundamental reform of the central civil service making it more digital, streamlined, effective, and ultimately efficient for citizens, colleagues and taxpayers alike. The UK absolutely does not have the best civil service nor civil servants in the world as is often trotted out. Rather, the country is in dire need of a bureaucracy that works for the people

So, what I am proposing is a compact unit in Whitehall for England, that has a supportive secretariat plus appropriately brought in resource as needed, that oversees the development of a national food policy but also, critically, oversees, drives, and coordinates. That food policy should in my mind have food security and safety its forefront. In this respect, from an implementation perspective, there are directorates and wider agencies that do not need to be re-invented, such as the Foods Standards Agency (FSA). However, other key matters of the food system such as animal welfare, economic growth, environmental enhancement, health and wellbeing, labour process and sustainability are central to the working of the food agenda but too often sit in isolated departmental silos across government with seemingly little coordination. 

The development of a holistic, joined up and dynamic national food policy would, in my view, help galvanise the immense importance, challenges, risks and opportunities of the nation’s food system. The issues to hand are immense, but within the right framework with the British State acting in a progressive and coordinated manner, there is the scope to deliver so much incremental benefit in my view.

Enough of the hypothesising, what about practical examples to encourage thought-processes? The lines of thought are really endless, but let’s start at the farm and think about a 25 year strategy to improve the soil health of the UK so that it can become more productive, sequest more carbon and yet contribute to an increase in agricultural and horticultural tonnage, not the managed inertia of decline that some officials in the Department for Food and the Environment (DEFRA) seemingly spew out from time-to-time but something wholly more ambitious and exciting. 

Such a policy to me would involve thinking about corralling and funding academic research in the UK’s fine institutions in everything from agri-food to health & well-being, so potentially helping our international reach and relevance in this respect. It would involve thinking strategically about what we should rear and grow and where, noting our comparative advantage in pastoral farming, whilst kicking into the world of animal welfare standards too.

From a processing perspective, questions such as what technology does the UK food industry need to progress in the future, where can we find it and implement it to best effect, and what human capital is required to succeed; all of which kicks into tax allowances, education and skills, labour availability (eg permits) and that massive supply-side failure of the UK – planning.

Matters are not just about supply though. From a demand perspective, what about public procurement and the role of British sourced goods in feeding State institutions? Can we think about more home produced food made to high standards of animal welfare, where the UK is world-leading, and environmental care, a well-provided labour process, and sectors contributing to economic activity and growth? The state can mandate what and from where public bodies procure when it comes to the food consumed in government departments, hospitals, prisons and schools. 

In a joined up manner, such a food policy can also work to change the nation’s diet for real, rather than just the concept of the at times well-meaning but naively issued Dimbleby document, so that like the issue of the soil health opportunity, the wellbeing of the UK changes to the point that the NHS notices a real difference. 

The role is not about a power grab, demarcation silos and political empire-building, as opposed to an end-to-end approach that yields better outcomes across the board. Reporting into the Prime Minister, a Minister for the Food System is a key appointment as it can bring a necessary focus and a can-do, will-do approach to the ubiquitous cross-departmental realities of food as opposed to the present costly, discoordinated, siloed fiefdoms that just do not work in Whitehall today. 

At a time when political leaders of all hues retort that economic growth is the priority to sustain public services, never mind improve living standards and the quality of lives, and so be re-elected, unleashing the potential for good growth from the British food system is something that a Minister for the Food System should be appointed to harness. 

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