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Government’s UK Food Strategy White Paper lacks ambition and action on diet and food insecurity

Professor Bob Doherty, School for Business and Society, University of York. Director of the FixOurFood Programme and the N8 AgriFood Policy Hub.

In July 2021, Henry Dimbleby was commissioned by the UK Government to publish an independent review of England’s food system to produce recommendations for a National Food Strategy. The UK Government, led by Defra, has just published its White Paper response.

Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector worth £114b and employs nearly 4 million people with world-class farmers, food businesses and a world leading research base. However, our food system causes terrible damage to both human and planetary health. Our food system is the number one contributor to biodiversity loss, river pollution and deforestation. One in three people over 45 suffer from a dietary related disease and about 6 in 10 UK adults live with overweight or obesity. This costs the UK economy a staggering £74 billion in NHS costs, loss productivity and early retirement. Also, obesity quickly emerged as a leading risk factor for Covid-19 mortality. We have one of the worst diets in Europe dominated by High Fat Sugar Salt foods (HFSS) and do not eat enough fruit and vegetables.

Furthermore, due to the significant reduction in working age social security and the increase in precarious work (zero hour’s contracts etc.) we have a rapidly growing problem in the UK with food insecurity, compounded by the pandemic and the current geopolitical situation. In 2008, the UK only had 60 food banks and now we have over 2,400! In March 2022, 14% of UK families still reported being going hungry, skipping meals etc.

The plans outlined by the UK Government include incentives for industry and investment in research.  One example of how this will be used is to support farmers to harness innovation to boost home-grown fruit and vegetable production. We welcome the £270m investment in horticulture to drive sustainable farming techniques and increase the production of fruit and vegetables. However, there is no point increasing this production without being able to harvest this produce so we welcome an independent review to tackle labour shortages and review the seasonal worker scheme. We also support the plan to consult on an ambition for 50% of public sector expenditure on food procurement to be on food either produced locally or to higher standards. We also welcome the new partnership between the public and private sector to provide consumers with more information about the food they eat. However, this puts responsibility to consumer to make healthy choices, rather than tackling the issue of the huge array of high fat salt and sugar foods. We also fully support the continued funding of the Holiday Activity Food Programme for a further 2-years announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn statement.

However, the Government’s White Paper lacks ambition on improving our diet and food security – failing to listen to Henry Dimbleby’s Independent National Food Strategy. First, on dietary health there is no mention on market interventions to tax those companies producing HFSS foods. This tax on companies was going to be used to fund fruit and vegetable subsidies for those experiencing food insecurity. This is surprising bearing in mind the economic cost to the UK of dietary ill-health. The Government says it’s going to deal with this in the Health Disparities White Paper later in the year but we need urgent action now! Dimbleby’s review also called for action on Free School Meals and there is no action in the Government’s White paper to extend the provision of Free School meals or to review the current combined income eligibility threshold for Free School meals which is a £7,400 per year. Furthermore, there appears to be no mention in the White Paper on protecting UK farmers in international trade agreements on imports from countries with lower food and animal welfare standards. In summary, the UK Government is failing to use the full range of policy tools to both improve the Nation’s Health and tackle household food insecurity in the UK. We call on the Government to implement the recommendations of the National Food Strategy in full!