‘A feeble to-do list’: Environmental groups and agriculture sector react to UK Government’s Food Strategy

The UK Government has published its long-awaited Food Strategy White Paper, outlining priorities for food system policy changes on the biggest scale in a decade. Here, we round up the key reaction, highlighting concerns around the lack of legal commitments on social and environmental sustainability.

‘A feeble to-do list’: Environmental groups and agriculture sector react to UK Government’s Food Strategy

The Government has today (13 June) published its food strategy, which was originally due to be launched this spring after a full review was presented to Ministers last July in the form of a White Paper. Leading the White Paper work was Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of restaurant chain Leon and the Sustainable Restaurant Association.

The UK Government has maintained that the documents presented today do address the biggest systemic challenges across the food value chain, including rising food costs, childhood hunger, public health and environmental sustainability. To this latter point, agriculture was the source of 10% of the UK’s emissions in 2019 and 47% of England’s methane emissions specifically in 2019, according to official Government figures. This makes it a key challenge on the road to net-zero. With 70% of England’s land used for farming, farming approaches also have a major knock-on impact on the state of nature across the country.

Dimbleby himself has noted that fewer than half of his recommendations have been included in the paperwork. Key exclusions include an extension of free school meals in England, a salt and/or sugar tax and measures to scale up plant-based protein production and consumption.

Moreover, the documents published today are not legally binding and do not constitute a finalised policy package, leaving many key industry groups questioning how the key financial and environmental promises will be delivered. There are also concerns about the fact that Dimbleby’s initial research was published before global fertiliser prices skyrocketed due to rising gas prices, and before the UK s entered a cost-of-living crisis.

Here, edie rounds up the key pieces of reaction to the Food Strategy, with an emphasis on its environmental aspects.

Henry Dimbleby, UK Government’s lead advisor on food:

“[This is] not a strategy. It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and what needs to be done.” – interview in The Guardian. 

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts:

“Out-of-date farming policies have caused degraded soils, polluted rivers, and extreme loss of wildlife including the disappearance of insects and pollinators. Surely taxpayers’ money should be used to reward farmers to grow food in a way that is good for nature, rather than harming it – otherwise, the Food Strategy will ultimately fail.”

Matt Williams, Climate and land programme lead at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU):

“In recent months, we have been reminded how vulnerable our food system is: to war, to extreme weather, and to the volatile price of oil and gas. This leaves both families and farmers exposed to the pain of higher costs.

“The Government wants to support farmers to restore peatlands and woodlands that can store carbon. But a leaked draft of the strategy suggested that funding for these net-zero measures may have been slashed. At a time when the extreme weather impacts of climate change on crops and on food prices are so clear, such a move would have been odd. But the final Strategy makes clear that working with farmers to restore nature remains at the heart of its plans, and that it understands that delivering for food security and net-zero go hand in hand.”

Marisa Heath, chief executive, the Plant-based Food Alliance UK:

“The Food Strategy is a missed opportunity, and ignores the potential that plant-based foods offer to progress the Government’s climate and health objectives. Plant-based food and drink has incredible potential to deliver on the Government’s aims, and we hope that Ministers will do more to embrace our sector in the months and years ahead.

“It is inevitable that plant-based food will be a part of the future food landscape, with just over a quarter of the UK population already describing themselves as flexitarian.  We should take the opportunity to become an international leader in creating a shift towards a more plant-based diet because doing so would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as creating economic opportunities and tackling some of the health problems faced by the overburdened NHS.

“We welcome plans to develop a separate horticulture strategy and we think the Government should go further and adopt a target for growing plant-based consumption in the UK. Scientists agree that the fastest, most cost-effective and least societally disruptive way to tackle the climate crisis is to reduce livestock consumption and accelerate the shift towards plant-based diets. We welcome the commitment to the role of alternative proteins, and call upon the Government to ensure this includes plant-based foods. If the Government is serious about this work, we need to map out the implementation of the reduction in meat and dairy consumption, as suggested by Henry Dimbleby to meet our net zero goal, and how this will be achieved in time.

“There are opportunities to take big strides towards better food systems. The Government intends to make funding available to farmers, to boost productivity and support the transition to low carbon farming practices and it is essential that we see farmers supported so they can meet the growing demand for more sustainable plant-based food and drink products as part of this funding.

“Additionally, the work around the methodology for eco-labelling offers another opportunity. It is essential that eco-labelling schemes should be holistic and help to pursue a fairer and more sustainable food system through transparency where consumers can easily compare the environmental impact of the plant-based and animal-based products being offered to them, to support people in lowering their carbon footprints.”

A spokesperson for the Landworkers’ Alliance said:

“The Government’s National Food Strategy White Paper is the policy equivalent of junk food, and fails to deliver the kind of interconnected and whole-system approach that we urgently need if we are to create a better food system for all. The trade-off between protecting the environment and providing enough healthy and affordable food for everyone is a myth – we can, and must, transform our food and farming system to do both.

“The LWA, in alliance with many other civil society groups and charities, is calling for a Food Bill, underpinning meaningful food system change with robust legislation, and enshrining a Right to Food which would put into the law the basic right of every person to affordable, nutritious and sustainably produced food, but this White Paper makes no mention of this and fails to deliver any new policy of value.

“The White Paper seems to focus heavily on hi-tech solutions and industrial farming, which the LWA believes is fundamentally the wrong way to go. Hi-tech solutions like automation in horticulture and genetically edited food are false solutions to the food systems crisis, the environmental crisis and the cost-of-living crisis. What we need is a whole system change – the White Paper totally lacks the ambition to achieve this.”

Sue Pritchard, chief executive, The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFC):

“There are elements of the Food Strategy to be welcomed – including more support for farmers to move to regenerative practices, investing in British grown horticulture, supporting local food enterprises, strengthening public procurement and adopting a land-use framework. Yet it also reveals the Government’s unwillingness to deal with under-regulated markets, risking the planet and citizens’ long-term health and wellbeing.

“Affordability is a critical issue, but a short-term focus on food prices alone is simply stacking up more problems for government. As Adam Smith himself argued, big corporations need clear boundaries to stop them from externalising the real cost of their business model. Without boundaries, governments subsidise those businesses in other ways – health care, environmental clean-up, benefits for low-paid workers – all of which taxpayers have to fund. This is the opposite of levelling up – those corporations both hoover up profits and drain the government coffers, taking away money that could be used to invest in a more sustainable food system.

“Responsible food businesses and citizens want the same thing. For governments to use their powers to legislate and regulate sensibly, to level the playing field for fairer, more sustainable food and farming. There is more for this government to do, to join up all the dots between food and health, farming and the environment, food security and progressive trade. They must continue to build on the extensive evidence in the Dimbleby report (and others) to do this, for citizens and for the planet.”

Mark Tufnell, president, Country Land and Business Association (CLA): 

“It is encouraging to see that the National Food Strategy has a significant focus on the agricultural sector. New data transparency measures, the aim for 50% of public sector food spend to be from local producers or certified to higher standards, funding priorities for horticulture, regenerative farming and alternative proteins are some of the long-term examples of steps in the right direction. However, it’s not clear how any of this is going to be implemented, in addition to not knowing details of the various funding required at this stage.

“There are issues which must be tackled in the short term, however. Domestic food security, fairness in the supply chain and workforce issues are key areas which need to be addressed immediately. The additional visas for the Seasonal Workers Visa Route are welcome, however it is crucial that the government drive innovation and work closely with industry to create stability in the farm-to-fork supply chain going into 2023.”

Dustin Benton, policy director, Green Alliance: 

“The white paper published today muddies the waters. It lacks a strategy to give confidence to farmers and land managers who want to restore semi-natural habitats. Without a clear plan, the risk is that we will slowly slide towards an EU-style subsidy regime that makes everyone unhappy.”

Minette Batters, president, NFU: 

“The National Food Strategy represents a clear milestone with the government recognising the importance of domestic food production, maintaining our productive capacity and growing more food in this country, particularly at a time when the war in Ukraine has focused attention on the importance and fragility of our global food security. Food production will always be core to a nation’s resilience and I’m pleased the government has recognised this.

“Domestic food production and environmental delivery go hand-in-hand and we are proud that British farmers have an ambition to reach net-zero by 2040, while still maintaining our current levels of food production.

“We know the public wants to be eating more local, British food and farmers are ready to play their part in producing high quality and climate-friendly food, all while protecting and enhancing our environment. We now need to see this strategy develop into clear delivery and investment to capitalise on the benefits food and farming delivers for the country, such as our world-leading standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety.”

Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns, WWF:

“Making UK farming good for climate and nature is the only way to fix a broken food system to ensure healthy, affordable, sustainable food is available for everyone, now and for generations to come.

“This is not the first time the Government has watered down its climate and nature ambitions. Putting nature and climate at the heart of our food system was a clear promise of this government at COP26 – now it must raise its game and prove it’s got the backbone to deliver for people and planet.

“We not only need cross-government action but leadership from the top to drive a shift towards more sustainable diets, support UK farmers as they adopt nature friendly approaches, and set core environmental standards for all food sold in the UK, so that we can be confident the food on our plates doesn’t cost the earth.”

Sophie Lawrence, stewardship and engagement lead, Rathbone Greenbank Investments:

“We welcome the plan to explore mandatory reporting in the Government’s white paper today, but, as members of the Government’s Food Data Transparency Partnership, we will be pushing for this commitment to be more ambitious.

“There are many risks and opportunities facing the food sector which are linked to issues such as health and nutrition and environmental impacts. We also recognise the urgent need to improve health outcomes and address rising food insecurity and inequality, and we cannot drive change in our portfolios without consistent, high quality and meaningful information on the nutritional and environmental performance of companies.

“That’s why our coalition has stressed its support for the National Food Strategy’s mandatory reporting recommendation for large companies in the food sector.”

Amy Browne, stewardship lead, CCLA Investment Management:

“Large food companies have a clear role to play in creating a healthy and sustainable food system, but voluntary action alone is not enough. Businesses require equal rights and opportunities if they’re going to thrive and remain competitive. Mandatory reporting – as recommended in the National Food Strategy review – would create a level playing field and represent the first step away from a future defined by the diet-related ill health that is destroying our planet and populations.  Creating a food system that is good for the health of people and planet is a prerequisite for a healthy financial future. Enabling that future should be a priority for all long-term investors.”

Rob Percival, head of food policy, Soil Association:

“Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy set out a bold and ambitious vision to make good food accessible for all, and the Government’s response feels like thin gruel, falling far short. At a time when people are going hungry and the climate, nature and public health crises are escalating, the absence of leadership is palpable.

“But there are fragments of policy that offer hope, especially the ambition that half of public sector expenditure should be spent on food produced locally or to higher environmental standards, like organic. Pioneering caterers working with our Food for Life programme prove that higher welfare and sustainable produce can be served on a cost-neutral basis if they are supported to redesign menus to include less and better meat. If implemented as part of a wider package of reforms to public procurement, this policy could be transformational.

“We also welcome the proposed land use framework aiming to set out how sustainable farming will feature in the UK landscape, but we are yet to see vital reduction targets with support for farmers to end reliance on artificial fertilisers and pesticides, which we know contribute to nature and climate breakdown.

“As key advisors to Henry Dimbleby and his team, we will continue to put pressure on government to adopt the National Food Strategy recommendations in other government plans that are due to come forward, such as the Health Disparities white paper.”

Mark Cuddigan, chief executive, Ella’s Kitchen: 

“The government’s decision to ignore crucial recommendations from Henry Dimbleby is deeply disappointing…To effectively address the nation’s obesity problems – as well as broader health and environmental issues – the evidence is clear that we have to start as early as possible. The strategy recognises early childhood food experiences have far-reaching implications for later life, yet still fails to offer solutions in the critical early years.

“We need government to work with industry and others to improve access and education around fruit and vegetables for little ones across the whole of society. This includes helping parents and caregivers as well as early years providers. Interventions aimed at secondary age children are important but ultimately not where the biggest impact can be had.

“Equally, for the good of future generations, we cannot approach environmental issues with diluted ambitions. The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to Britain’s food system and food security, which must not be overlooked in policymaking.

“It is understandable that the cost-of-living crisis has created pressure on government spending, which is why it is so important to direct tax-payers money to where the biggest impacts can be had – the early years. It is only through encouraging positive dietary changes in this vital window that we can achieve a fairer, greener, healthier society.”

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive, Sustain:

“In the face of multiple crises in the cost of living, rocketing obesity, climate change and nature loss, [this plan] looks shamefully weak. The government was given a crystal clear analysis and a set of recommendations by the Dimbleby food strategy, and has chosen to take forward only a handful of them. This isn’t a strategy, it’s a feeble to do list, that may or may not get ticked.

“The commitment to publish land use strategy in 2023 is welcome, which could better balance our food production and responsibility to our natural environment. Support for sustainable UK horticulture could improve affordable access to healthy fruit, veg and pulses. The push to include more local and sustainable food in public sector food, if implemented, could have a powerful impact. And a move to introduce mandatory reporting for food businesses on health would be a step forward. But none of this is underpinned by legislation.”

Marcus Gover, chief executive, WRAP:

“Henry Dimbleby has done a great job looking holistically at our food system.  As he said in his reports, food is both a miracle in that we can feed our growing global population but also a disaster in that the way we produce it causes so much environmental damage.  The way we feed ourselves feeds climate change – causing around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We must change that, as we will not fix climate change if we don’t fix our broken food system.

“The Government Food Strategy has made some important recommendations.  More than 200 large food businesses already measure their food waste as part of the WRAP-IGD Food Waste Reduction Roadmap and are realising both financial and environmental benefits by minimising that wastage.  We welcome the proposal to extend this with a consultation on improved reporting for larger businesses. We estimate a further 400 food businesses could be brought onboard.  The availability of robust data is core to businesses achieving climate and other environmental goals and WRAP welcomes the Food Data Transparency Partnership as a means of ensuring a consistent approach to measurement across the sector.  Last month, WRAP published draft Protocols for measuring Scope 3 GHG emissions, which we are piloting with 15 food & drink businesses.  We anticipate the new Partnership will provide the framework for wide adoption of these Protocols.

“If we want to tackle climate change, improve UK agriculture, help people eat more healthy food and drive the rural economy, we need to take heed of all the recommendations in the National Food Strategy.  It is good to see policy measures being implemented as a result of the strategy, but food is critical in so many ways that we need to make sure we are doing all we can to drive system change and deliver a sustainable food system for the UK.”

Jim McMahon, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs:

“The UK is in a cost-of-living crisis with food prices spiralling, real-wages falling, growth plummeting and taxes up. It is clear now that the Government has absolutely no ambition to fix the mess they have created.

“A food strategy is of vital importance, but the Government has dithered, delayed and now failed to deliver. This is nothing more than a statement of vague intentions, not the concrete proposals to tackle the major issues facing our country. To call it a ‘food strategy’ is bordering on the preposterous.”

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavillion:

“The Food Strategy has become another victim of the ‘Save Boris Strategy’, whereby red meat – in the form of deregulation and free markets at all costs – takes precedence over protecting health and environment in order to appease the group of ultra-right-wingers on whom his future depends…. No sugar or salt tax, no extension of free school meals, no reduction in meat consumption. An unforgivably wasted opportunity.”

Louisa Casson, head of food and forests, Greenpeace UK:

“By ignoring climate scientists and its own experts in favour of industry lobbyists, the government has published a strategy that, ultimately, will only perpetuate a broken food system and see our planet cook itself.”

Comments (1)

  1. Anthony, Veg Geek says:

    Hi Sarah, great summary on the feedback received so far to this strategy. They also completely forgot to get their Citizens involved in growing more nutrients-rich Vegs themselves, at home, with more simpler and more natural methods!
    and when comparing to other countries, it’s not that ambitious or showing the signs of commitments and actions (see Singapore’s 30 by 30) – I shared a summary here https://www.veg-geek.com/newsletters/13062022

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