Experts flag concerns about Government’s food policy plan reversal

Posted: 28 September 2023 | | No comments yet

Academics from numerous universities have expressed concern about the Government’s “U-turns” regarding food policy in the UK.

uk food

In a report, academics from various universities in the UK have claimed that the UK Government’s “abandonment” of promises to transform the national food system will mean that it will “struggle to meet its own targets on health, climate and nature”.

Published in the journal Nature Food, academics from the Universities of Sheffield, Cambridge, Reading and York have argued that the UK Government’s “U-turns and lack of ambition” regarding food policy leave the nation “increasing vulnerable”, specifically in relation to rising food prices, diet-related health conditions and a decline in biodiversity.

Back in 2021, Henry Dimbleby, former UK Government Advisor, published an independent review to explain how the national diet needed to change over the next 10 years in order for Government targets on health climate and nature to be met.

Dimbleby resigns and takes aim at Government’s food policy

Fast forward to May 2023, Mark Spencer, Minister of State for Food, Farming and Fisheries announced the decision to develop a strategy for horticulture would be reversed. Then, in June 2023, the UK Government updated the industry, saying it now wants to focus on a labour review in the food sector and a farming innovation programme.

Following this back and forth, the academics have called on the government to develop a “more coherent, coordinated and collaborative approach to food policy”.

As part of their guidance, they have proposed a five-point plan, something they claim will support the UK in its transition to a more sustainable, healthier food system. To inform their plan, the experts say that they have utilised recommendations from the Dimbleby review, as well as evidence from several UK Government funded policy research programmes.

The five key points in the plan are as follows:

  • Setting up a cross-government commission that joins up population and planetary health in order to make policy decisions about future systems
  • A full economic analysis of the recommendations evidenced in Dimbleby’s review,
  • Free school meals made available to all primary school children in England, something they claim will “[revolutionise]” catering in schools
  • Integrating mandatory health and environmental metrics into the Food Data Transparency Partnership. This partnership promotes the use of data when making decisions about the production and sale of healthier and more sustainable food and drink.
  • A comprehensive framework for how land should be used for food production, something the academics say would help to reverse the UK’s status as the worst-performing G7 country in terms of species depletion.

Commenting on why she believes “The Dimbleby Review” was an integral piece that the UK Government should still be taking into account, Professor Carol Wagstaff, Professor of Crop Quality for Health, said: “The Dimbleby Review paved the way for the Government to devise and enact a Food Strategy that would at last underpin a food systems that could provide healthy and sustainable diets that were accessible to all UK citizens.

“Sadly, this opportunity has been missed and instead we have seen an increase in food poverty and a shortening of life expectancy due to the prevalence of diet-related diseases.”

Wagstaff went on to note that she believes global events involving conflict, climate change and the cost-of-living crisis have “exposed the vulnerabilities in our present food system”, something she thinks “has resulted in farmers being unable to afford the costs of production so that the quantity of food being produced in the UK has declined, and conversely an increase in the number of people who cannot afford to eat and who are becoming more and more dependent on food aid”.

“Rescuing the UK food system by implementing our key recommendations would improve the lives of citizens, boost the economy through supporting the agri-food sector, and would make a significant contribution to preserving the health of our planet.”

In addition, the academics claim that there has been a series of “shelved government policies and reversed decisions since the 2022 Food Strategy was published”, with lead author of the report, Professor Bob Doherty from the University of York, commenting: “Although the Government’s 2022 Food Strategy was not as robust as the Dimbleby Review, it was a critical step in the right direction.

“Just one year later, Government have reneged on their responsibility to implement change across the whole agri-food sector. We are now seeing a gradual decline in food security, diet, soil health and biodiversity. To prevent the UK falling further behind other G7 nations, we need action to tackle diet-related health, improve school meals for the 800,000 children in poverty, increase the consumption of fibre, fruit and vegetables, and to better measure the environmental impacts of food production so the UN goals on Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions can be met.”

Doherty concluded by stating that, “rather than stalling and making U-turns, if the UK Government implemented their own food strategy it would boost our agri-food sector and save the country a lot of money in terms of GDP, as well as improving the health of soil, and make a valuable and long-term contribution to human and planetary health.”