Over the past 20 years, Sustain and our alliance have seen governments, strategies and pledges to transform the food system come and go. In an era of climate and nature emergency, and glaring disparities in health, the time has come for legislation in the form of a Food Bill, says Sustain’s Chief Executive Kath Dalmeny.
Food and farming are missing from the UK Government’s commitments to action on climate change. Biodiversity continues to be in freefall. Action to improve the food sold to us in supermarkets and foodservice have made progress but are hampered by voluntarism and growing disparities in accessibility and affordability that lock in diet-related disease.
The time has come for us to say, “enough is enough.” We need the rules of the game to change.
Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, published in the summer of 2021, was groundbreaking – the latest and arguably greatest effort to put food policy on the political plate. It has been refreshing and energising to see a compelling figure, acting independently but taking the message to the heart of government, take a whole systems approach to food.
Henry Dimbleby and his team spent two years reviewing evidence, interviewing people involved in and who engage with the food system and cultivated a lot of consensus about what needs urgent action. It is now time for the Government to respond with similar energy to deliver the sort of accountability, powers, resources and legislation needed to capitalise on the momentum generated by the National Food Strategy. Yet more guidance and voluntarism will simply not be adequate to stimulate the changes now required.
A Food Bill would bring food policy making into a coherent, integrated whole, coordinated across government. The Food Bill could relate to existing legislation, such as the Agriculture Act and Environment Act, and could include other key food system policies that require legislation, such as procurement reform, mandatory reporting and food labelling. It would enable the Government to take bold action and lead by example where it has a direct role in the food system, for example buying high quality, high-welfare, climate-friendly produce from British farmers and putting in place legally enforceable standards for public sector catering.
To drive innovation and embed long-term change, the Food Bill should set overarching goals and monitor progress against metrics. Mandatory reporting by business would also give us the information we need to support them to change.
Expanding the remit of the Food Standards Agency would mean they can report on progress and advise Government on the actions needed to deliver their goals.
Through investing wisely, setting the right standards and laws in food and food production, Government could also unlock innovation, driving economic growth in our largest manufacturing sector, supporting our horticulture sector, and improving access to good jobs.
The case for a Food Bill is crystal clear. All eyes are on the forthcoming White Paper in 2022 to see if government will be bold and seize its legislative opportunity to act.
Why we need to act
A key concept in the National Food Strategy is the ‘Junk Food Cycle’. We seek out energy dense foods, which in turn encourages supply and perpetuates demand for these foods, to the detriment of our health. The economics make the ‘Junk Food Cycle’ hard to escape, with highly processed foods cheap to produce, having a long shelf-life, and attracting high marketing budgets. It’s hard (and for increasing numbers of us, economically impossible) to choose the healthy option in a world where we are surrounded by highly processed, unhealthy calories that are convenient and possibly all we can afford.
Individuals cannot escape the Junk Food Cycle using willpower and exercise alone. We have tried policy approach for years and spent a lot of taxpayers’ money, but it has not worked. Education can help a bit, but it is not enough to break the vicious cycle that shortens people’s lives and hampers their life opportunities.
The Government needs to take a whole new approach, be bolder and set us all on a path to long-term change in order to break the cycle of obesity and ill health. I believe they can feel confident that there is support for this approach: the public want to see action and investors and business can see that customers expect them to do the right thing. They cannot simply continue to sell us foods that make us sick. But good businesses who want to do the right thing also need regulatory intervention to make that change possible, and not to be held back by an economic system skewed in favour of nutritionally poor food.
The challenges we could tackle through good food in law
How our food is grown, processed and made available to us is taking an enormous toll on people, the planet, animals and wildlife. Increasing numbers of people do not have the means to feed themselves and their families nutritious, sustainable food. We need action.
New National Child Measurement Programme figures published earlier this month show an alarming increase in child obesity prevalence in primary-age school children. Chronic conditions caused by poor diets (obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, etc.) are placing a vast and ever-growing operational and budgetary burden on the NHS, and are reducing the nation’s productivity. The NHS is already spending over £6bn a year on diet-related ill health, and according to the Government’s own estimates, this could rise to £9.7bn a year by 2050.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of our supply chains and how exposed our most vulnerable citizens are. Add in gas and commodity price increases, CO2 shortages, tighter border controls, and labour shortages and our national food security starts to look exposed. Global supply chains are coming under pressure from multiple fronts and a lot of food production takes place in areas on the front line of climate change, undermining their resilience still further.
Globally, food is responsible for 31% of greenhouse gas emissions and is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone being the identified threat to 86% species at risk of extinction. The UK cannot tackle its emissions without doing something about food production and diets. Both the Climate Change Committee and National Food Strategy have advised that we reduce our meat and dairy intake by 30%.
In the year that the UK held the presidency of the COP26 climate change negotiations, and in the lead-up to governments internationally making their pledges to action over the next year, we have an opportunity to reinforce our leadership in tackling climate change. We should encourage and incentivise more sustainable production at home, supporting our horticulture industry and taking a more agroecological approach to farming. We should also encourage our international partners to make different choices in how they produce food for us that allows nature to recover, promotes animal welfare and enables them to feed their populations too.
Good food law, in the form of a Food Bill, would demonstrate that the Government is serious about long-term change.
Having set the ball in motion by setting up the National Food Strategy the Government should show it is serious about maintaining momentum by articulating all the benefits a good food system could bring us, including to our people, our environment and the economy. They are not mutually exclusive. They could create the conditions for business and investors to be transparent and to do the right thing. They could create the conditions to introduce new products that help us all eat more healthily and sustainably and they could empower our Food Standards Agency to support this, setting a clear, coherent strategy for government and non-government actors alike.
The last two years have been devastating for our farmers and they face multiple challenges ahead. The public were baffled by the sight of farmers destroying food while they looked at empty spaces on the shop shelves. They understand the link between the risks presented by Covid-19 and obesity – particularly after our Prime Minister himself said his high weight had exacerbated his illness and contributed to his spell in Intensive Care. With fears of growing inflation and further supply chain issues predicted, they will feel the impact of food price rises and demand answers. Poll after poll shows they are passionate about maintaining high British standards and will take a dim view if food standards and farmer livelihoods plummet thanks to poorly negotiated trade deals.
Businesses themselves are calling for regulation in order to level the playing field. They hear their customers calling on them to create better choices which help tackle ill health and climate change. Further, the companies that invest need the intelligence on business performance in order to make appropriate investment decisions.
The Government should not lose the momentum created by the National Food Strategy. The White Paper due early in 2022 presents an opportunity. We hope the Government seizes it.
We have been working with others across the Sustain alliance to build a shared understanding of the importance of a Food Bill, and the insights in this blog draw from that work.
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Published 2 Dec 2021
National Food Strategy: Launched in two parts over 2020-2021, the National Food Strategy is an independent review commissioned by government to set out a vision and a plan for a better food system.
Kath is Chief Executive of Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming, since 2016 leading the alliance's response to Brexit and its profound implications for healthy and sustainable food, farming and fishing and developing the Campaign for a Better Food Britain. During the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Kath has been the alliance lead on Food and Vulnerability, serving on numerous liaison and coordination groups to support the emergency food response at local and national level. She was instrumental with the Good Law Project and Doughty Street Chambers in launching a judicial review of the government's approach to children's holiday hunger during Covid-19.
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