The Friday Digest: Food strategy exposes deep divisions

The government released its long-awaited food strategy for England this week to a mixed response that pitched trade bodies (broadly in favour) against NGOs (strongly against).

Launching the strategy, which is in response to Henry Dimbleby’s independent national food strategy, the government said it would back farmers by helping to increase domestic production, spread jobs and grow the economy. “Harnessing new technologies and innovation, we will grow and eat more of our own food - unlocking jobs across the country and growing the economy, which in turn will ultimately help to reduce pressure on prices,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Some stakeholders agreed with Johnson’s boosterish rhetoric. The Food and Drink Federation called the strategy “an endorsement of the success and centrality of the UK’s food industry, from farming to food manufacturing, retail and hospitality” and welcomed “the commitment to put British food and drink at the heart of UK Government policy”.

The National Farmers Union was also broadly supportive of what it saw as “a clear milestone” with the government “recognising the importance of domestic food production, maintaining our productive capacity and growing more food in this country”.

Other groups responded positively to specific proposals. The IGD said it supported the ambition to work with industry to create a more transparent food system and to work with the food industry to develop a reliable set of metrics and methodologies for data collection. “It will be important to ensure that in doing so, data collection is simple and consistent, but importantly, adds value,” added Susan Barratt, CEO of IGD.

Wrap, meanwhile, welcomed the proposal to consult on making food waste reporting mandatory for larger businesses, noting that more than 200 food companies already measure their food waste as part of the Wrap-IGD food waste reduction roadmap.

Organisations working on health and sustainability were altogether less charitable in their assessment of a strategy many felt lacked ambition and depth. The Food Foundation said hopes were high that the strategy would “set out a long-term plan for incentivising the food system to shift towards the provision of nourishing, sustainable and affordable food, and away from food which makes us sick”. In the event, it concluded that the document “misses the mark” and is “a pale imitation” of Dimbleby’s strategy.

The Food Ethics Council pulled no punches when it declared the strategy to be “not just piecemeal and weak, but unethical”. It said the government had presented “a hotch-potch of initiatives, primarily for the agri-food sector” and the strategy was “seemingly devoid of the values our food systems need – like respect for fairness, compassion and dignity”.

The Eating Better alliance highlighted how there was “nothing on reducing meat consumption”, while Sustain said the food strategy “has nothing to say on how to ensure people can afford to eat well in the current cost of living crisis and pushes all consideration of the impact of the junk food cycle into the forthcoming health disparities white paper”. Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain added: “This isn’t a strategy, it’s a feeble to do list, that may or may not get ticked.”

The Soil Association said the government’s response to Dimbleby’s strategy was “thin gruel” and criticised a palpable “absence of leadership”. It did, however, welcome “fragments of policy that give us hope” especially proposals that half of public sector expenditure should be spent on food produced locally or to higher environmental standards, like organic, which it said could be “transformational”.

The final word goes to Dimbleby himself who told The Grocer that the plans amounted to “not a strategy but a list of policies”, adding that in his view industry lobbyists were “using the cost of living crisis to try to protect their vested interests”.

Footprint’s full analysis of the food strategy is available here.

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