Does government have the appetite for Dimbleby’s food fix?

The first national food strategy in a generation makes the crucial connection between health and the environment, but is it destined to end up on the shelf? Nick Hughes reports.

“The UK has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the food system.” So says Henry Dimbleby, the man whose seminal national food strategy seeks to seize the opportunity presented by Brexit and the post-covid ‘build back better’ agenda, and set out a blueprint for a sustainable future food system.

Part two of the strategy was published last week. While part one focused on the urgent response needed to address food insecurity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, part two attempts to present the holistic vision for food systems change that Dimbleby was first tasked with delivering.

Has he succeeded? To an extent he has. At the heart of the food strategy for England (Dimbleby notes he has worked closely with food strategy teams of the devolved authorities) is recognition of the intrinsic link between the ecological disaster of climate change and nature destruction, and the societal disaster of diet-related ill health – disasters precipitated by the current way we produce and consume food.

That the food system both makes humans and the planet sick won’t come as news to most Footprint readers, nor anyone with a passing interest in food policy. Indeed, in many ways Dimbleby’s report amounts to a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of NGO campaigns of the past decade or more, taking in overconsumption of processed foods, unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions from food production, habitat loss and the loss of food system resilience due to monocultures and reliance on antibiotics in livestock.

What is commendable, and has won the strategy widespread support among health and environmental NGOs, is how Dimbleby joins the dots between these parallel threats coherently and accessibly in a government-commissioned report.

NGO reports, while valuable, are all too easily ignored by those in power. But a government-commissioned review must at the very least be acknowledged by the government of the day, even if ultimately it is left to collect dust on the shelf.

And that is the great question with this document. Is there any appetite within government to act boldly and adopt Dimbleby’s recommendations (more on these later) for a more sustainable food system? Or will we continue on the well-trodden path of warm words followed by ineffective piecemeal interventions that treat issues such as obesity and nature loss as discrete challenges rather than symptoms of the same ailing system?

The early signs are not promising. Although this is a government-commissioned strategy it is not a strategy commissioned by this government. Theresa May was the prime minister when Dimbleby was set his task by Michael Gove back in June 2019, during his all-too-brief incarnation as green evangelist while environment secretary. Gove remains a key member of the cabinet but you’d be hard-pressed to find many other examples of consistency between the May and Johnson administrations, certainly not in philosophy or attitude towards governance.

Tax blow

The current prime minister has already appeared to rule out implementing one of Dimbleby’s key recommendations: the introduction of 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. Following a speech on “levelling up” the UK, Boris Johnson said he was “not attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hard-working people”.

Perhaps an even greater signal of the government’s intention to disregard Dimbleby’s work is in its approach to trade.  In part one of the strategy Dimbleby recommended the government only give preferential market access to imported food products which meet the UK’s core animal welfare and environmental standards. The trade and agriculture commission (also government-appointed) subsequently made the same recommendation, however in the UK’s trade agreement in principle with Australia no such guarantees are given prompting Dimbleby to write that “at a time when the government is asking our own farmers to raise their environmental standards higher than ever, this would be an extraordinary failure of joined-up thinking”. A government wedded to the idea of implementing Dimbleby’s strategy in full would surely have put trade negotiations on hold until he reported his findings, or at the very least worked closely enough with his team to ensure both ambitions were compatible?

But let’s for a moment indulge the idea that the government does accept Dimbleby’s strategy in full. The implications for businesses are significant and wide-ranging. On the contentious issue of the salt and sugar tax, sections of the business community have already cried foul. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said the taxes would “impact those families who are already struggling to make ends meet”.

But in framing its response this way, the FDF only served to strengthen one of the strategy’s core arguments: that mainstream economic thinking is failing us because it doesn’t value nature or health. While the FDF frames the cost of food as the price on the packet, Dimbleby frames it as the cost to society, citing estimates that put the hidden cost of food in the UK at £40bn to £96bn per year. “When no one pays for the damage everyone does,” he writes, alluding to the harm that is already being caused by climate change and future life years that will be lost to ill health.

More fundamentally, the FDF position ignores the fact that the proposed tax is on inputs rather than consumers. It is designed as an incentive to reformulate products so that they do not fall under the scope of the tax, much in the same way the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL) has done with significant success. Some companies may choose to pass on the cost to shoppers but others will innovate and undercut their competitors with healthier untaxed alternatives. The consumer will then choose whether to shell out more for the unhealthy option.

Citizen engagement

Indeed, Dimbleby and his team have astutely neutered the objections of libertarians by holding a series of “deliberative dialogues” with citizens across the country in which they found a higher tolerance for state intervention than they had anticipated. And where they found resistance this is reflected in their recommendations, hence there is no meat tax to help stimulate the 30% reduction in consumption that the modelling shows is needed by 2032 to hit climate and nature goals. Instead, Dimbleby calls for the government and businesses to “nudge” people towards eating less meat through product reformulation and serving more plant-based alternatives.

Many foodservice businesses are already doing this by increasing the choice of vegan options and reengineering dishes to include a blend of plant and meat ingredients, although it remains to be seen whether nudging alone will be sufficient to cut meat consumption by a third in just a decade, not least since ministers continue to show zero appetite for promoting a less meat message.

Elsewhere, Dimbleby recommends there should be a statutory duty for all food companies with more than 250 employees to publish an annual report showing total food and drink sales, and broken down within that figure sales of food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) as well as sales of protein by type and origin, sales of vegetables and fruit, and sales by major nutrients like fibre, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

Retailers, including Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have already offered their support to the proposal, reflecting Dimbleby’s assertion that companies recognise the need to tackle problems with the food system but want government legislation to ensure a level playing field.

Foodservice companies have historically been less able (or prepared) to publish internal data on metrics such as nutrients, emissions and waste, however the support of the retail sector will make this particular measure, which also includes a requirement to report on food waste, that much harder to resist.

Also relevant to the out of home sector is Dimbleby’s call for a greater focus on food education and skills in schools and colleges (with one eye on the post-Brexit skills shortage in hospitality), and his championing of a “whole school approach” to food.

As expected, there is a recommendation for the government to redesign the government buying standards for food (GBSF) to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on food that is both healthy and sustainable. New public procurement standards should be mandatory for all public institutions and should be based on an updated reference diet (replacing the Eatwell Guide) based on sustainability as well as health criteria.

The new reference diet should be developed by a beefed up Food Standards Agency (FSA) which should also work with Defra and industry body IGD to develop a harmonised and consistent food labelling system to describe the environmental impacts of food products (much as the label recently launched by Foundation Earth is attempting to do).

Strategy gaps

Inevitably, there are gaps in Dimbleby’s strategy. The health of our seas and oceans barely gets a mention – a point the author acknowledges – and seafood isn’t considered in the debate about future proteins.

The livelihoods of those working in the food system, often in low-paid, insecure work, are also mentioned only fleetingly, and Dimbleby has little to say on the issue of power in food supply chains and the concentration of that power among retailers and commodity traders in particular.

Some campaigners including the Soil Association wanted to see Dimbleby take action against all ultra-processed foods, not just those qualifying as HFSS, with a percentage reduction target in the diet.

Perhaps the most significant omission is a detailed plan for implementation. Dimbleby puts his 14 recommendations on the table and largely leaves government to get on with the delivery.

You can understand why since it will take the whole mechanics of government pulling in the same direction to realise his vision.

The prospects for that happening may for now appear dim, but that doesn’t mean the two years spent developing the national food strategy has been wasted effort. As Food Ethics Council executive director Dan Crossley says: “If food business bosses, NGO and community leaders, chefs, head teachers, farmers and farm workers, local authorities, growers, local food networks, investors, academics and food citizens can unite behind it, then it stands a chance.”

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