Was the UK’s Food Summit a missed opportunity for climate and nature?

The UK Government convened hundreds of representatives from the food sector this week to address some of the food system’s biggest risks. But observers are concerned that Ministers are opting for “sticking plasters” rather than long-term solutions to challenges such as soil degradation and public health.

Was the UK’s Food Summit a missed opportunity for climate and nature?

News broke late last week that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was to convene the food sector for an urgent summit on Tuesday (16 May).

It has since emerged that the summit was a 3.5-hour series of speeches and workshops, with workshop results relayed back to Downing Street and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). There was also a showcase of innovations.

The names of some high-profile attendees like Jeremy Clarkson have been revealed in the media, and some organisations, including the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and UKHospitality have announced their attendance. But the Government is not giving out a full list of those invited without a freedom of information request.

The aim of the Summit was to address some of the British food system’s most pressing challenges. These include a shortage of labour post-Brexit, the impact of the energy price crisis and volatility of supply. On this latter point, the UK experienced shortages of produce such as tomatoes and peppers earlier this year.

Sustainability had been slated as a key theme for the conference. But many observers from green groups, academia and the food sector have warned that the need to respond to the climate and nature crises in the long term was not high enough on the agenda.

Here, we round up what was – and what was not – announced from the Food Summit.

NOT ANNOUNCED – A National Food Strategy overhaul

The UK Government published a Food Strategy last summer, around a year after receiving recommendations for inclusion from a review led by Henry Dimbleby. The vast majority of these recommendations were not included and, as such, the Strategy has been widely criticized.

Environmental recommendations that were not taken up included a target to reduce meat and dairy consumption by 30% and measures to strengthen environmental standards in fisheries.

Another criticism was the fact that the Strategy was not backed with a Bill to make its inclusions legally binding.

Dimbleby announced earlier this year that he would no longer work with the Government, over his frustration over the current approach to both environmental issues and public health. On health, the Strategy ditched Dimbleby’s recommendations to increase salt and sugar tax, expand free school meals and scale up plant-based proteins.

Most were not expecting a full overhaul of the National Food Strategy this week but, nonetheless, it would have been a welcome surprise.

ANNOUNCED – A pledge for more sustainable trade deals

“Without exception, we will continue to protect food standards in the UK under all existing and future free trade agreements,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in an open statement to British farmers. “There will be no chlorine-washed chicken and no hormone-treated beef on the UK market. Not now, not ever.”

The UK Government has agreed to a string of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) post-Brexit and, each time it has, concerns about environmental and ethical standards have been brought up. Concerns were flagged over the Australia and New Zealand trade deals by bodies including the NFU, as well as prominent environmental groups.

Ministers have, to date, resisted calls for a unified set of environmental requirements for FTAs. But Sunak’s pledge means this may well be back on the agenda. The Tories had committed, in early 2022, to enhanced assessment of the environmental impact of future FTAs, but implementation was marred by two successive changes in Prime Minister.

This week’s summit was held less than two months after the UK confirmed plans to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after some two years of negotiations. This is the UK’s biggest post-Brexit trade deal to date and paves the way for increased trading with nations including Australia, Japan and Mexico.

NOT ANNOUNCED – A Horticulture Strategy

We do know about some of the people who were not in attendance on Tuesday; the Horticulture Alliance dropped out in frustration over Defra’s decision not to develop a dedicated horticulture strategy.

The UK imports more than half of its produce and there is evidence that worsening soil quality and changing weather patterns could bring new risks in the future, both home and abroad.

Beyond resilience, the Alliance wanted a strategy to boost public campaigning and education on eating more fruits and vegetables, plus increased financial support for farmers.

The Alliance stated that the need for a strategy was “greater than ever” and that the decision not to produce one was “indefensible”.

In lieu of a full strategy, Defra has pledged to assess how the horticulture sector is classified and to consult on interventions to break down other barriers to its access to Government support.

POTENTIALLY ON THE HORIZON – Support for farmers adopting renewables

Defra has stated that it will “cut the red tape currently holding farmers back from delivering projects on their land to diversify their income”. It will host a call for evidence later this year.

Detail is sparse at present. Defra has only confirmed that it will definitely look to make it easier to help farmers add shops on site. However, observers have remarked that this is an opportunity to make it easier for farmers to cut their operating costs and potentially boost earnings by producing biogas or renewable electricity on-site.

NOT ANNOUNCED – Support for plant-based diets

As noted above, Dimbleby had recommended that the Government targets a 30% per-person reduction in red meat and dairy consumption. The UK’s climate advisors had recommended a 20% target.

The Conservative Party has repeatedly shown itself to be reluctant to take any moves it believes will be seen as telling people how to live their lives. This was Liz Truss’s justification for not introducing a public advice campaign on energy efficiency.

It was, therefore, not expected that this week’s summit would result in a new pledge here. Upfield Europe’s president Dominic Brisby said the lack of commitment was “disappointing, but unsurprising”.

He said: “While it’s necessary to address short-term issues facing the sector, the government has again missed an opportunity to think longer term about the UK’s food supply chain. We need to urgently reconsider our relationship with dairy and high-carbon animal products.

“Plant-based foods play a huge role in improving food security and addressing the climate crisis. A typical plant-based alternative to dairy butter has, for example, 70% less greenhouse gas emissions. This has never been more pertinent, against a backdrop of recent crop failures, food insecurity and shortages on shelves.”

ANNOUNCED – Water supply infrastructure

Last summer was the UK’s driest in almost 30 years and most regions entered drought. At the Summit, Ministers made pledges to improve water infrastructure for farmers.

The Government highlighted the recent Plan For Water, which will accelerate the delivery of £1.6bn of new infrastructure. £10m of this will go to farms in England, helping to improve on-farm water storage and make irrigation more efficient.

Building on this, the Government pledged to develop new national and regional Water Resource Management Plans for water. A timeline for completion has not yet been announced. Defra will also make abstraction licence decisions more flexible.

ANNOUNCED – Funding for sustainable seafood innovation

Defra confirmed the recipients of £6.2m of funding though the Seafood Innovation Fund.

The money is being split across 22 projects, including a project in Cornwall seeking to grow seaweed on land, improving growing efficiency. This project is being led by the Cornish Seaweed Company, which aims to promote seaweed as part of a low-carbon diet. Similarly, Mara Seaweed is assessing new breeding techniques and optimal growth conditions for two species of seaweed.

A cumulative total of £17m has now been allocated through the Fund, under four rounds.

Click here for the Government’s full update following the Summit.

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