THE CONSERVATIVE election win has produced plenty of europhoria but little concrete policy on the big issues of climate change and health.
There's been discernible euphoria emanating from Conservative MPs and their supporters since the party’s surprise victory in the general election in May. Judging by Liz Truss’s recent assertion that it was the Tories’ support for the food industry that won the day – despite food barely featuring in the campaign – such rapture risks spilling over into outright delusion.
Thankfully, the summer break has arrived to give us all a rest from the political bedlam of the past six months and we can begin to reflect on what a Conservative government means for food policy over the next five years.
The two exhibits that provide the strongest evidence are the Conservative manifesto and July’s emergency budget.
In the former, food was presented primarily through an economic prism with a narrative about supporting British farmers, reducing red tape and opening up new export markets. While the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto promised a national food strategy and Labour vowed to resurrect its Food 2030 plan – both of which would have given a leading role to health and environmental issues – the Conservatives offered a Great British Food Unit that will help trademark and promote local foods around the world and support British food at home.
This is consistent with the party’s unashamed focus on securing economic recovery. The recognition of food’s economic importance will surely be welcomed by most businesses, as will the unexpected cut to corporation tax announced in the July budget along with policies to double the annual investment allowance and cut employer national insurance contributions. More divisive is George Osborne’s promise to implement a compulsory national living wage of £9 by 2020, which may prove burdensome for employers in a sector that offers a high proportion of low-skilled jobs.
Meanwhile, the removal of the climate change levy exemption for renewables, coupled with continued concessions to the oil and gas industries, has left environmental groups questioning the government’s commitment to a truly green economy.
What we’ve yet to hear from the Conservatives is a strong position on the environmental and health issues associated with food, leaving us to assume a continued preference for market- and technology-based solutions and voluntary measures carried over from the last administration. Whether the Conservatives can continue to get away with such a light-touch approach in the longer term is open to debate.
Pressure is mounting for regulators to take decisive action to tackle obesity. With the government’s own independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) now saying that the recommended daily intake of sugar should be halved to 5% of energy, the issue will not simply go away. The do-or-die nature of forthcoming climate talks in Paris, meanwhile, means governments the world over will face intense scrutiny over the ambition of their environmental commitments. Food can and should have an important role to play.
With hard policy lacking, the greatest insight into the Tories’ food vision may have been provided by Truss’s recent speech at Tech City on the future of food and farming. As part of a plan to release DEFRA’s vast treasure trove of data, she sought to position Britain as a country capable of becoming a global leader in food and farming by using science and data to unleash its productive potential, in the process making the food industry an attractive sector both for graduates and apprentices. Truss’s vision will be delivered through DEFRA’s industry-led Great British Food and Farming Plan, which was launched in July.
It’s undoubtedly a compelling vision for the UK’s food economy but there remain major questions that need to be answered on how this government plans to tackle the big societal challenges of our time, such as climate change, food poverty and health inequalities – at least if the Conservatives’ food plan is to morph into a fully rounded food policy.