What should we make of the government's food strategy?

CLA Chief Land Use Policy Adviser Susan Twining analyses the government's newly-published National Food Strategy for England in this latest blog
Orchard fruit

The government's National Food Strategy for England was published by Defra on 14 June. There were high expectations that the strategy would make some bold changes following the recommendations in Henry Dimbleby’s Independent Review in July 2021. The Independent Review was a comprehensive, 302 page long, examination of all aspects of the UK food system including diets, inequality, nature, food and climate, complexities of meat, food security and trade. The review recommendations were ambitious, setting out to change diets, make best use of land and create a long-term shift in food culture with government leading the change. The point was made that ‘we cannot build a sustainable, healthy and fair food system by doing business as usual’. However, the Government Food Strategy appears to have come up short, disappointing almost all stakeholders who expected more. More ambition, more detail, more concrete plans, more creativity, more radical changes, more new policies, more action.

The big gaps were mainly diet related – no sugar and salt tax, no expansion of free school meals, and nothing beyond current commitments on supporting school and early year food education. For some, the lack of action on reducing meat consumption to meet climate and environment goals is an omission, although it is only a pause while research is conducted on the best ways to influence dietary choice and for research on ways to reduce methane emissions from ruminant livestock.

There is a plan to set up a Food Data Transparency Partnership that will champion consumer interests around information on sustainable, ethical and healthy food choices. It will collate data on the food system that will help drive future policy such as on sustainability and animal welfare labelling in retail and food service. As well as this, something that the CLA has championed, there is an ‘aspiration’ that 50% of public food procurement will be produced locally or to higher environmental standards – it is a starting point at least.

On the farming and land use side, the most interesting point to note is a more forthright positioning of the importance of farming and food, more so than we have seen in many Defra statements (although none of the policies have changed). The focus is on longer-term goals rather than the crisis response to recent events, and on the food system in total rather than just on farming. While there is a commitment to ‘broadly maintain’ current levels of domestic production (which may not go far enough for many), this is not a free reign to carry on as normal, as there is also recognition that addressing greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts on biodiversity and water are part of a move to a more sustainable food system.

There are a number of measures that are of direct relevance to the farming sector, although not all are new. These include:

  • A commitment to enable growth in key sectors such as horticulture – and importantly, government recognise the need to have streamlined planning permission, a constant challenge that the CLA makes;
  • Investment in research and innovation through the Defra Farming Innovation Programme which is part of the Agricultural Transition Plan, and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – see CLA Guidance Note GN29-21 for details;
  • Reviewing regulatory framework for key areas such as gene editing legislation, which is currently going through Parliament;
  • Increased number of seasonal workers, something that the CLA has highlighted to government;
  • Working with industry to deliver a ‘What Works Centre’ to support adoption of innovation; and,
  • Working with industry to set out a plan for skills needs.

The transition to more sustainable farming practices will largely be delivered by the Agricultural Transition Plan through farming investment grants, environmental land management schemes and the animal health and welfare pathway. The CLA policy team and many CLA members are actively working with Defra on the co-design of these scheme. There is also a plan to prioritise key areas for research such as regenerative farming.

There is a new commitment to publish a land use framework in 2023, which will be designed to balance the demands for food production, nature and climate action. The CLA has given evidence to a recent House of Lords Land Use Enquiry on this topic and continues to engage with Defra and other stakeholders in helping to define what is needed and how it will operate.

The trade issues are covered, and while there are promises of ensuring regulatory standards are upheld, the document does not go far enough to provide any real assurances. Similarly, the mentions of food waste focus on a household level, which is where the largest amount of food is wasted, with only a passing reference to the need to address fair supply chain contracts to ensure primary produce is not wasted before it gets to market.

As the last paragraph in the strategy states – ‘this is the beginning of this conversation’.

Key contact:

Susan Twining
Susan Twining Chief Land Use Policy Adviser, London