UK's new food strategy illustrates challenge of productivity and food security versus sustainable nutrition
Some £270 million will be invested in technology to increase productivity and profitability. The government will also consult on an aim for 50% of public sector food spend to go on food produced locally or certified to higher standard, and a framework will be published next year on how to help farmers grow more food while also meeting legally-binding targets to halt climate change and nature loss.
But most called the strategy a missed opportunity. The esteemed academic Professor Chris Elliott called it 'a strategy without a plan'. Soil Association head of food policy Rob Percival described the Government’s response as ‘like thin gruel’ that fell short of the aspirations set out in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy.
“At a time when people are going hungry and the climate, nature and public health crises are escalating, the absence of leadership is palpable,” he added.
“Sadly, the government lacks the ambition to step away from a flawed food system that’s been embraced over the last seventy years,” added Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers & Growers. “It has left us at the tipping point of an environmental and human health crisis which has the potential to be catastrophic unless decisive action is taken.”
Katie White, Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF, accused the government of watering down its climate and nature ambitions.
The government, for example, has also scaled back plans to rewild the country, called the Landscape Recovery scheme, to focus on the cost of living crisis.
“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,” said White.
“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.”
The most stinging response came from Clive Black, a research analyst at investment bank Shore Capital, who called the strategy a ‘missed opportunity from a failing state’.
“Food production for production's sake on an ongoing basis rarely ends in much joy,” he said, adding that prioritizing “food production to meet market needs, which fundamentally includes adequate supply, but embraces animal welfare - we have much to be proud about at a global level in the UK on this front - biodiversity, nutritional composition, provenance, soil, and water quality is, to us, the future.”
But others praised the strategy’s focus on food production and security. NFU President Minette Batters said: “The strategy represents a clear milestone. The government is 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.
"Food production will always be core to a nation’s resilience and I’m pleased the government has recognised this.
“We know the public want 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.”
Food and Drink Federation chief executive Karen Betts said the strategy was an endorsement of the success and centrality of the UK’s food industry and welcomed the commitment to put British food and drink at the heart of UK government policy.
“With the right policy frameworks and the right support from government, our industry can provide unmatched support for Levelling-Up, and benefit from growing exports while optimising imports,” said Betts.
“The Government also has the industry’s support in developing ways to help people live healthier and more balanced lifestyles, and the industry’s Action on Fibre initiative and reformulation programmes are evidence of our support to date.”
Rob Percival added that fragments of the policy did offer some hope, citing the ambition that half of public sector expenditure should be spent on food produced locally or to higher environmental standards, like organic.
“If implemented as part of a wider package of reforms to public procurement, this policy could be transformational,” he continued.
“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.”