The National Food Strategy – what you need to know

The long-awaited Part Two of the National Food Strategy, a wide-ranging government-commissioned review led by food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, was published this morning (15th July 2021). What’s it all about, what is it recommending, and why do you need to know about it? Clare Finney investigates – read on to find out more…

The National Food Strategy – what you need to know

What’s the National Food Strategy all about?

It’s an independent review, commissioned by the government in 2019 with the aim of analysing the UK’s entire food system from farm to fork, then offering clear recommendations as to how the government can meet its targets on health, climate change and the natural landscape.

Part One of the National Food Strategy was published in July 2020, with the pandemic raging and Brexit a reality. Its seven recommendations involved helping disadvantaged families eat better and protecting the UK’s food standards. The government has agreed to implement four of those recommendations.

Part Two was published this morning (Thursday 15th July). In it, the report’s author Henry Dimbleby says: “Our high obesity rate has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate [from Covid-19]. The pandemic has created a momentum for change – in government and in industry, as well as among the public. There is widespread recognition that we need to change our national diet as a matter of urgency.”

The intention of the National Food Strategy has been to set out a series of measures that, if implemented, Dimbleby believes will ensure our future food system:

  1. Makes us well instead of sick.
  2. Is resilient enough to withstand global shocks.
  3. Helps to restore nature and halt climate change.

How’s our food system doing at the moment?

Well, let’s just say it’s doing none of the three things above. In fact it’s doing the opposite. After the energy industry, the global food system is the second biggest contributor to climate change. It’s also the single biggest cause of biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought and freshwater pollution.

Apart from the devastating impact these are having on our landscape and wildlife, they in turn threaten our food security and – directly and indirectly – our health. Extreme weather events mean harvest failures. Polluted waters mean disease. And given that over 40% of today’s medicines are extracted from plants, micro-organisms or animals, the loss of biodiversity means the loss of untold medical potential – not to mention culinary potential.

“While 300,000 species of plant have edible parts, just 20 species account for 90% of the world’s food, and three – wheat, maize and rice – supply more than half. To be so heavily reliant on a tiny handful of crops puts humanity in a precarious position,” writes Dimbleby.

Our food system poses more immediate health threats, too. As the pandemic has sadly highlighted, poor diet is a major factor in death and disease. Around 64,000 deaths every year in England can be attributed to poor diet, which costs the economy an estimated £74 billion – around £409 per person. The UK is now the third fattest country in the G7.

You might say obesity is a question of individual responsibility – but the report argues that’s not the case. The world might look very different to when humans were hunter-gatherers, enduring periods of abundance followed by scarcity – but genetically we haven’t changed much. We’re genetically predisposed to seek out and gorge on foods that are high in fat and sugar.

Factor in the economies of scale with fatty, sugary foods – there’s a bigger market, so they are cheaper – and you have what the National Food Strategy team have dubbed the Junk Food Cycle, out of which it has become almost impossible for us as individuals to escape.

What’s the answer, then?

Henry Dimbleby describes his review as an “interventionist strategy”, which means a lot of the National Food Strategy’s recommendations are directed at government. level. These are grouped under four key goals:

  1. Escape the Junk Food Cycle – by taxing sugar and salt The report recommends a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold wholesale for use in processed foods, or in restaurants and catering businesses.
  2. Reduce diet-related inequality – via free school meals and fruit ’n’ veg-prescribing GPs Revenue from the salt and sugar taxes, says the report, would go towards measures to reduce diet-related inequality. This should include extending the eligibility of Free School Meals, providing holiday support to eligible children and trialling a Community Eatwell Programme to enable doctors to prescribe fruit and vegetables to patients suffering the effect of poor diets.
  3. Make the best use of the land – by subsidising eco-farming Farmers can’t afford to develop and adopt more sustainable practices, says the review, without adequate recompense and protection from unfair competition. As well as shoring up trade protections so UK farmers can’t be undercut by cheap imports, the National Food Strategy recommends that the Environmental Land Management scheme – under which farmers receive payments for activities such as nature restoration, soil improvement, animal welfare and carbon sequestration – is sufficiently generous for farmers to afford to manage their land more sustainably. This will include regenerative farming – the introduction of livestock into crop rotation to improve the soil and reduce dependency on fertilisers – but it will also need to include returning some land entirely to nature, or using it for carbon sequestration. This means investing in the latest science – AI, robots, new breeding techniques and more – to increase yields without pollution.
  4. Create a long-term shift in our food culture. This, says the National Food Strategy, will require investment. It recommends investing £1 billion in research and development on everything from methane-reducing additives in feed for grazing animals to supporting entrepreneurs and scientists in their quest to develop and produce alternative proteins in the UK.

"There is widespread recognition that we need to change our national diet as a matter of urgency"

Is there anything in it for me?

One recommendation that, if implemented, will benefit all of us is that the government strengthen its procurement rules to ensure schools, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons and government offices are providing healthy, sustainable food.

Children in education will see the reintroduction of food lessons, and potentially a Food A-level to guide students interested in the food industry. If you suffer from a diet-related condition you may be prescribed specific foods by your doctor, and if you’re from a low-income household you will, so the review intends, have access to more help.

A visible benefit, should the recommendation be taken up, is that we’ll see a clearer, more universal food labelling system, enabling us to make more informed decisions around health and sustainability. We should with any luck see more UK-made alternative proteins on the market, as entrepreneurs take advantage of government investment. The strategy doesn’t, however, recommend taxes on meat (for fear it would penalise the most deprived). The intention is that the taxes on salt and sugar will be borne by businesses rather than consumers.

Can we afford all these recommendations?

Yes, says the review – in part because we can’t afford not to. Our current system costs us £74 billion every year. The National Food Strategy report estimates that the recommendations will cost around £1.4 billion per year and bring in £2.9-£3.4 billion each year of direct revenue to the Treasury. Over the long term, the exchequer will have an economic benefit worth up to £126 billion.

Who is Henry Dimbleby?

Though he is many things – strategist, entrepreneur, policy maker, philanthropist – Henry Dimbleby is probably best know for co-founding the healthy fast-food chain Leon. His background is in strategy and consultancy, but since leaving the consultancy world in 2002 he has immersed himself in improving the standard, sourcing and culture of British food. He was a co-founder of the Sustainable Restaurant Association; co-author of The School Food Plan, which set out to transform what children eat and how they learn about food; and since 2018 he has served as lead non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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