The ‘stars align’ for an English food strategy

Attempts to deliver a national food strategy for England haven’t succeeded in the past, but with Henry Dimbleby now in charge of finding a solution, there are reasons to be optimistic of a positive outcome this time around. Nick Hughes reports.

It’s difficult to dispute the notion that Theresa May has the toughest job in politics right now, but in a competitive field Henry Dimbleby could stake a reasonable claim for occupying second place.

In his role as lead non-executive board member at Defra, the Leon co-founder has been handed the unenviable task of navigating an array of different, and often competing visions, to create a coherent, deliverable food strategy for England.

We’ve been here before, of course, with national food strategies that promise radical change before slowly withering and dying due to a lack of cross-party support or an absence of genuine political will to change a system that, for all its faults, ticks the political priority of providing cheap, safe food for the majority of the population.

At the recent City Food Symposium in London, Dimbleby presented the case for why this time things will be different.

Indeed, there are reasons to be optimistic that Dimbleby can deliver the “radical solutions” he believes are required to put the food system on a fairer, more sustainable path, not least among which is the fact that, in the shape of the School Food Plan, Dimbleby was a key architect of one of the most highly regarded and effective government food strategies of recent times.

Other evidence too suggests the time is ripe for change. Presenting research that sought to understand how ready England is for a national food policy based on in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, including from government and industry, Dr Kelly Parsons, research fellow at the Centre for Food Policy, talked about the “stars aligning”, with political will and stakeholder support growing at a time when Brexit can act as an enabler to deliver a food policy that is genuinely game-changing.

Yet many of the barriers that have thwarted previous cross-government strategies remain in place. Conflicts still exist between different departments representing different interest groups, while Parsons found that a lack of transparency over roles and responsibilities means approaches from NGOs to non-traditional government departments on food-related issues still largely get pushed back to Defra.

Then there is the thorny question of how a food strategy for England would align with strategies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland: there’s nothing businesses dislike more than inconsistent policies between countries through which goods flow freely.

What came across loud and clear, however, from a subsequent panel session was that stakeholders across the food divide – publicly at least – share an ambition to support Dimbleby in delivering the sustainable, affordable, healthy food system of the future.

NFU president Minette Batters said getting a food policy right represented “the opportunity of our time”.

Former Tesco and FSA chief executive Tim Smith suggested the government must use all the levers of state to ensure the necessary buy-in across departments. This, he said, meant leadership from the very top, including a dedicated cabinet committee.

The writer and conservationist Ruth Davis said “the status quo isn’t an option” and called on Dimbleby and his team to find the common ground to exploit the opportunity to deliver change. Pointedly, she added it was necessary to “abandon notions that we can’t tell people what to eat”.

There were other important contributions too, but the overall message to Dimbleby was clear: his strategy needs to be big, bold and cognisant of the fact that issues of food insecurity, poor nutrition and environmental degradation are shaped by forces and policies that extend well beyond the food chain.

His task is enormous, but if Dimbleby can deliver a food strategy fit for the future, his next call may be from an embattled prime minister looking for a saviour to lead Britain out of its Brexit bedlam.

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