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Fred Searle

BY FRED SEARLE

Friday 16th July 2021, 11:55 London

Food industry reacts to National Food Strategy

Key food and farming organisations broadly welcome landmark report on future food policy in England

Food industry reacts to National Food Strategy

The report recommended extending free school meals to more children

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Prescribe fruit and veg on the NHS and tax sugar and salt ­– these were two of the key recommendations from England’s National Food Strategy, a major independent review of the UK's food system.

The report, led by co-founder of the Leon foodservice chain Henry Dimbleby, said the taxes raised could be used to extend the provision of free school meals and support better meals for the poorest people in England.

Published on 15 July, the strategy also recommended that GPs try prescribing fruit and vegetables to encourage healthy eating.

But Boris Johnson said he was not “attracted” to “the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people”. The PM added that he would study the report and respond with proposals for future laws within six months.

The 290-page document proposes four main objectives: escaping the junk food cycle to protect the health service; reducing dietary inequality; protecting the environment and making best use of Britain’s land; and generating a long-term shift in UK food culture.

The report’s key recommendations are as follows:

1. Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income families. 

2. Introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies. 

3. Launch a new 'Eat and Learn' initiative for schools. 

4. Extend eligibility for free school meals. 

5. Fund the Holiday Activities and Food programme for the next three years. 

6. Expand the Healthy Start scheme. 

7. Trial a 'Community Eatwell' programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets. 

8. Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use. 

9. Create a rural land use framework based on the 'Three Compartment Model'. 

10. Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them. 

11. Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system. 

12. Create a National Food System Data programme. 

13. Strengthen government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food. 

14. Set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change. 

Here’s how some of the leading organisations and experts in food and farming reacted to the report:

The Food and Drink Federation’s chief scientific officer, Kate Halliwell, said: “This report will help inform the wider conversation around the future of the UK’s food and drink industry. Food and drink manufacturers welcome the intent to bring forward measures which will help to increase access and affordability of food and drink for children and families on lower incomes.

“In contrast to this, a salt and sugar tax will ultimately impact those families who are already struggling to make ends meet, by making food and drink more expensive. After many years of cost pressures, businesses in our sector are already operating on very tight margins, and any further costs would simply have to be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher food prices.

“These taxes will not drive reformulation. Food and drink manufacturers have been voluntarily lowering fat, salt and sugars in recipes for decades as well as reducing portion size, but it takes time to change much-loved products. Furthermore, the Government’s proposed advertising ban and promotions restrictions would limit the ways in which companies can let families know about exciting new options.”

NFU president Minette Batters said: “This food strategy should act as a wake-up call for us all that we need to value the food we eat. We need to put balance back in our diet and have a renewed emphasis on eating natural, whole foods – the kind British farmers produce in abundance.

“I agree that we should be supporting everyone to eat more fruit and veg, something our farmers can support by growing more, and there should be more focus on educating our children about valuing and understanding the food they eat and how it has been produced.

“However, it is important that we do not throw meat into one blanket category and that we all make a clear distinction between grass-fed British meat and cheap imports.

“We should be considering British meat in its own category, recognising its sustainability and dense nutritional value. After all, scientific and medical communities agree it is a key part of a healthy, balanced diet, chock full of essential vitamins and minerals.

“This strategy says major reform is needed of the food system. I would suggest we first look at the actions our government is taking by agreeing to trade deals that welcomes in imported meat in limitless amounts.”

Tim Lang, Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at London City University and CIEH vice president, said: “Whilst I welcome the report, it is arguably long overdue.

“The recommendations are good, but the document is light on detailed implementation. What is crucial now is what the government does next.

“It is of some concern that the Prime Minister appears to have already discounted a key recommendation of his own advisor on the day that the report has been published and ironically in a speech about ‘levelling up’.

“We also question how the UK Government’s apparent intent to pursue trade deals that could potentially undermine our food standards, as well as our farmers, fit with the laudable recommendations in this strategy.

“We shall follow the progress from this strategy to the white paper promised by the Government in January 2022, with close attention.”

Professor David Barling from the Food Systems and Policy Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire said: “The Strategy gives a welcome prioritisation to the urgent issues of poor dietary health, health inequalities, and environmental damage caused by the current food system. And it is refreshing to see these social challenges being prioritised over economic growth of the food sector, as is often the case with national food strategies. 

“At the same time, there we see a missed opportunity to address the issue of the low paid, precarious and often simply dangerous jobs in the food sector, and to make the links between these conditions and some of the dietary health and food insecurity issues which are being so commendably addressed by the report.”

Dr Kelly Parsons from the Food Systems and Policy Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire said: “It is great to see the Strategy recommending several novel policies, including the world’s first sugar and salt tax, a Land Use Framework aimed at supporting net zero ambitions by using land wisely, and a £500 million Innovation Fund for a ‘better food system’ which looks beyond the usual technological innovation and embraces the role of social innovations like community kitchens. 

“Other positives are mandatory reporting for food companies on the healthiness and sustainability of their sales, and a commendably bold stance on the government’s approach to trade policy and food standards, making clear that not honouring a manifesto commitment to protect standards – by laying out what those standards are and creating a mechanisms to enforce them – would potentially bankrupt the domestic farming sector. 

“It also suggests some useful improvements to current interventions, for example making food public procurement more robust, and enhancing our health-focused dietary guidelines to incorporate environmental considerations too."

Gary McFarlane, CIEH Director for Northern Ireland, said: “This report, although billed as a “National” Food strategy, applies only to England as food is a devolved matter. However, the challenges which the report seeks to address are shared across the UK. 

“The challenge of building a sustainable and resilient food system for the future cannot be achieved for England in isolation from the UK as a whole given the interconnected nature of food supply chains. We are aware of work in both Northern Ireland and Wales that occupies the same space as this Food Strategy for England, but we would urge all jurisdictions across the UK to collaborate on this crucial issue. This work must be joined up.

“Not only must the four governments of the UK work together, there is also a need for the UK to work with our nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, with whom we share not only a land connection, but also a highly integrated food supply chain. This is even more important considering the future challenges around food supply and the need for a much more circular food economy for these islands in the future.”

Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers & Growers, said: “Thankfully, the National Food Strategy (NFS) outlines opportunities for systematic reform, while promoting a holistic approach to addressing the challenges we face. 

“Government leadership in this area is vital to support a move towards a new system for food production; where sustainable and nutritious food is the norm, and the true cost of our domestic and imported food is reflected in the price we pay. 

“Building a robust and diverse farming sector is therefore fundamental if the NFS proposals are to succeed. The review supports a three-compartment model for agricultural land: semi-natural land, high-yield and low-yield farmland.

“One concerning aspect of the NFS is that farmers who adopt a ‘land sharing’ approach (organic, high nature value, agroecological) have been categorised as low yielding and ‘blurry at the edges’. As the UK’s first organic certification body, this has not been our experience of organic farming over the past 29 years.

“Additionally, the NFS affords considerable weight to ‘Sustainable Intensification’, which is even more ‘blurry’ and ill-defined. ‘Sustainable Intensification’ has the potential to be far more damaging to the environment and its validity has been called into question by many.”

Soil Association CEO Helen Browning said: "The meat question will spark debate, but the evidence is clear that dietary change will be needed to enable more nature-friendly farming. 

“The wider uptake of agroecology, as recommended in the strategy, would see livestock, and particularly ruminants, reintroduced into rotations and animals playing an important role on the land, but our diets must adapt for such an approach to be viable. 

“We will need to eat much less industrially farmed meat, which can drive deforestation and land use change through its reliance on imported feed crops and ensure that the meat we do eat is produced in regenerative systems that support biodiversity. 

“The debate in farming shouldn’t be about whether this is so, but about how to make this transformation quickly and fairly, for both farmers and citizens.”

Susan Barratt, CEO of IGD, said: “While many of the recommendations from the National Food Strategy will prove challenging, for parts of the food system, we believe they are a constructive step in the right direction. We know from our conversations with businesses across our industry that there is a real desire to find a clear way forward and to help deliver a long-term positive change to Britain’s food system.

“There is now more to be done, as the government works through the details of how the recommendations will be implemented in a way that is both practical and achievable for our industry. IGD stands ready to play our part in that process; we have a unique ability to bring stakeholders together from across the whole food and grocery industry. We are ready to work with organisations across the food system to help them navigate through the implications of the National Food Strategy.”

Caroline Drummond MBE, chief executive of LEAF, said: “As referenced in the report, it is vital that we make the best use of our land, but farmers need to be given the skills, resources and know-how to accelerate the uptake of more climate positive solutions. Our UK wide network of exemplary Demonstration Farms and world leading research centres are leading the way in this crucial area of knowledge development and exchange.

“The development of more sustainable methods of farming has to be backed by robust science, which is then translated to farm level – this is exactly where the LEAF Network has a huge role to play. Cutting edge IFM research, generated from our Innovation Centres, is tested in a practical, farm setting on our Demonstration Farms, which is then promoted to the wider farming community through farm visits, talks and training. This ‘Science into Practice’ approach ensures that new sustainable farming innovations and approaches, evidenced by rigorous, scientific research, reach farmers on the ground.

“Incentivising and recognising farmers for what they are doing to protect, manage and enhance our environment and build biodiversity also has to be part of the jigsaw. This is where LEAF Marque, one of the world’s leading environmental assurance systems, plays a key role as a catalyst for change.”

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