The first major review of the UK food system in 75 years has been undertaken with Part 1 of the National Food Strategy published on 29 July 2020. The review was headed by Henry Dimbleby who co-founded the Leon restaurant chain, before going on to become Director of London Union, which runs some of London’s most successful street food markets.
He was a co-founder of the Sustainable Restaurant Association and co-authored The School Food Plan (2013), which set out actions to transform what children eat in schools and how they learn about food. Henry Dimbleby was appointed lead non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in March 2018. Henry previously worked as a Strategy Consultant at Bain & Company (1995-2002) where he advised businesses on strategy, performance improvement and organisational design.
The advisory panel assisting the review includes representatives from agriculture, industry, NGOs and campaigners as well as academics and experts.
Part 2 of the National Food Strategy is expected to be published in 2021 and will present a comprehensive plan for transforming the food system in England. It is worth noting that the Government has committed to producing a White Paper six months after Part 2 is published.
The National Food Strategy Recommendations
Part 1 of the National Food Strategy contains urgent recommendations to support this country through the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prepare for the end of the EU exit transition period on 31 December 2020. The report has two main themes:
- ensuring that all children get the nutrition they need in the context of post-lockdown recession; and
- protecting high standards in food, environmental and animal welfare when negotiating new trade deals, whilst subjecting prospective deals to independent scrutiny.
The National Food Strategy report states that one of the miserable legacies of COVID-19 is likely to be a dramatic increase in unemployment and poverty, and therefore hunger. The effects of hunger on young bodies (and minds) are serious and long-lasting and exacerbate social inequalities. To address this the report recommends:
- Expand eligibility for the Free School Meal scheme to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits).
- Extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of Free School Meals.
- Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week and expand the scheme to every pregnant woman and to all households with children under 4 where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.
- Extend the work of the Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force for a further 12 months up until July 2021. It should collect, assess and monitor data on the number of people suffering from food insecurity at any time, and agree cross-departmental actions, where necessary, to support those who cannot access or afford food.
Sovereignty, Standards and Scrutiny
The report acknowledges that UK farmers and food producers have some of the highest environmental and animal welfare standards in the world. This is something to be proud of. There is justifiable concern about opening up our markets to cheaper, low-standard imports which would undercut our own producers and make a nonsense of our progressive farming policies.
However, negotiating trade deals is hard. Any blanket legislation requiring other countries to meet our own food guidelines would make it nigh-on impossible. We already import many food products from the EU that do not meet UK standards. A blanket ban would make it impossible to continue trading even with this most closely aligned of partners. Therefore, in respect of future trade deals the report recommends:
- The Government should only agree to cut tariffs in new trade deals on products which meet our core standards. Verification programmes –along the lines of those currently operated by the US Department of Agriculture to enable American farmers to sell non-hormone-treated beef to the EU – should be established, so that producers wishing to sell into the UK market can, and must, prove they meet these minimum standards. At a minimum, these certification schemes should cover animal welfare concerns and environmental and climate concerns where the impact of particular goods are severe (for example, beef reared on land recently cleared of rainforest). The core standards should be defined by the newly formed Trade and Agriculture Commission.
- The Government should adopt a statutory responsibility to commission and publish an independent report on any proposed trade agreements. The Government should decide whether this impact assessment function requires the establishment of a new body – similar to those which exist in many mature trading nations, including Australia, Canada and the USA – or whether it could be performed by an existing body or by independent consultants (as is the case in the EU).
Scrutinised decisions are likely to be better decisions. The scope of the impact report should include:
- economic productivity;
- food safety and public health;
- the environment and climate change;
- society and labour;
- human rights; and
- animal welfare.
The report would be presented alongside a government response when any final trade treaty is laid before parliament. It is important that government decisions – especially those with such profound consequences as new trade deals – should be properly scrutinised.
- The Government should adopt a statutory duty to give Parliament the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal. It must allow time for relevant select committees to produce reports on any final deal and allow a debate in the House of Commons.
It is anticipated that Part 2 of the Strategy will introduce a framework to address the integrated food system and develop the headline recommendations made in Part 1. With Part 1 of the National Food Strategy published, the food and drink sector will be able to start future planning for the introduction of the framework which should protect food safety standards whilst opening the UK market and foreign markets for trade.
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