The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has published a Food Strategy for England, the first in 75 years. Produced in response to an ambitious, broad-ranging independent review by its lead food adviser, Henry Dimbleby, the strategy was a huge opportunity to create a more healthy, sustainable and equitable food system. Better food and farming are integral to climate goals, which the government has committed to deliver. Across the Eating Better alliance, the response is that the strategy is simply not good enough. Whilst it acknowledges the systemic problems set out in the Dimbleby plan, it is staggering that it stops short of adopting evidence-based policies to tackle them effectively. Instead, the strategy largely focuses on exploring potential solutions, paired with a slim range of measures of limited scope. Furthermore, it is unclear what the long term plan may be in the absence of binding commitments and the robust legal framework that a food bill would provide.
The opportunities: what made it into the strategy?
The Food Strategy acknowledges the need to reduce emissions from agriculture to meet net-zero targets, and plans to publish a land use framework to do so in 2023. The development of a comprehensive land use plan is a key ask of the Eating Better alliance, and it has the potential to optimise the use of the land to deliver on major strategic objectives, including biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution, food security and population health.
In the meantime, the strategy proposes to launch a call for evidence on using feed additives to reduce methane emissions. Our Sourcing Better framework argues that improving on-farm performance to lower emissions is a key element of farming better, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, the evidence shows that to achieve the methane reductions needed to meet net-zero, we need to eat substantially less meat and dairy than we do now, as outlined by both the Dimbleby review and the government’s Climate Change Committee. In the same vein, the strategy’s focus on alternative protein innovation as an opportunity for growth is another step in the right direction, although limited in ambition.
The launch of the Food Data Transparency Partnership, and the consultation on implementing mandatory food reporting for large companies, is another welcome development. Having better data would improve transparency and accountability, offering a level playing field for food retail, as well as support the development of targets and more effective policies. A lot will depend on what is measured, so our work will focus on holding the government accountable for the metrics they use to measure progress on health, sustainability and animal welfare.
There may also be an opportunity to improve public food procurement, another priority action of the Eating Better alliance. The food strategy promises (yet another) consultation to extend the government food buying standards to the entire public sector, and on introducing an aspirational target that at least 50% of food spend must be on food produced locally or certified to higher environmental production standards. Regardless of the outcome of the consultation, in the absence of binding commitments or extra funding the impact this will have is unclear. Aspirational targets previously proposed have not been effective at driving change in procurement in the context of budget constraints.
The challenges: who is responsible for driving collective progress?
The Food Strategy leaves critical areas untouched, from tackling excessive meat consumption to addressing inadequate access to healthy food and childhood obesity, seriously undermining how fast we can transition to sustainable diets as a society.
There is a fundamental unfairness in putting the focus of food system transformation on individual responsibility. People can only make healthy and sustainable food choices where they are available, affordable and convenient. Right now, they are largely not.
We must ask who is responsible for the way the food we buy is prepared, displayed, advertised and promoted, for the farm and animal welfare standards that apply, the farm subsidies in place, for how food is traded and how it is packed and transported. At the point of purchase, the individual has little control over any of this, and yet it will shape what foods they buy and eat, and the impact that their choices have.
A substantial body of evidence shows that providing people with more information, and relying solely on ‘responsible’ choices, is not enough. It is easy to see why. Are we being asked to weigh up differences in price and taste against salt content and carbon emissions for every item of food we put in our baskets? Is this a fair ask of the public? Passing the buck to individual citizens is a dereliction of duty on the part of those who make the rules that shape our food system. If we want to cut down emissions arising from the food system, addressing current barriers to more sustainable, healthier food choices is paramount. A better food environment is needed but it will not happen without decisive government action, rather than more consultation, and joined-up legislation rather than this piecemeal approach that lets us all down.
Elena Salazar is Policy and Knowledge Manager at Eating Better.