Food strategy for England likely to be watered down | Farming

The government is expected to water down its upcoming food strategy for England, ignoring the ambitious recommendations proposed in two government-commissioned reports, campaigners say.

The white paper, due later this month, was supposed to be a groundbreaking plan to tackle the nature and climate emergencies in response to eye-catching recommendations urged by the restaurateur Henry Dimbleby in his reports.

Campaigners also expected it might tackle the obesity crisis, by making healthy food more accessible, including expanding free school meals.

There were hopes that there would be a food bill introduced, bringing measures such as the reporting of nutritional content in food served in schools and hospitals into law. Experts consulted on the strategy pushed for a reduction in intensive animal agriculture and mandatory reporting for retailers on how much animal protein, compared with plant protein, they sell.

This, they said, has become even more crucial considering the cost of living crisis, and the war in Ukraine putting pressure on international food supply chains.

However, those who have been working with the government on the strategy say that none of this is happening, and any critical points of the government such as its record on poverty will be removed. There will also be no food bill, so none of the recommendations will be enshrined in law.

Even measures on child obesity already announced, such as the junk food advertising ban, are likely to be watered down, delayed or removed altogether after pressure from a small group of rightwing backbenchers, those familiar with the report said.

The independent National Food Strategy, drawn up by Dimbleby, was commissioned in 2019 by the then environment secretary, Michael Gove, and has produced two reports.

Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said: “We worked closely with Henry and the team throughout the process to shape his recommendations. I can’t say we are hugely confident we are going to see an ambitious response from the government or even an adequate response to be honest.

“The government’s already said they’re not going to offer a food bill, which is hugely disappointing. This would have been a way to bring recommendations into law. We don’t have any confidence the government is going to follow through on our recommendations.”

Ambitious measures have been proposed by experts, including a change in where people get their protein.

Greenpeace has called for a shift towards plant-based protein, and the Soil Association agrees, arguing that any meat should be produced in a regenerative system, with more land being used to grow crops for human consumption rather than to be fed to animals or used for intensive animal agriculture.

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said: “Our long-term food security relies on a healthy natural environment and resilient soils, with wide reductions in agro-chemicals, a 70% cut in meat and dairy production and consumption by 2030 , and land used efficiencies to produce healthy, largely plant-based food for people, rather than grains for animal feed or crops for biofuels.

“To achieve this, land that can grow food directly for people should be used for that purpose, and much more financial and technical support is needed for farmers to transition to sustainable methods.”

Percival agreed, adding: “We are wasting so much grain, feeding it to animals in intensive farm systems, when we are in a cost of living crisis. A sustainable system would require us to eat less, better quality meat and more unprocessed plant proteins like beans and pulses.”

However, it is understood that this recommendation will not be included in the strategy and instead all changes other than those already covered by the already-announced environmental land management schemes (ELMS) will be voluntary.

Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of farming NGO Sustain, said: “Any government food strategy that fails to deal adequately with both the cost of living and the climate and nature crisis will be woefully inadequate.

“Government intervention is needed to achieve a secure and sustainable food system that makes good food available and affordable for everyone, while supporting farmers and businesses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and restore nature. What we fear will be a small shopping basket of measures designed to grab headlines for the PM while achieving little for our families, health or the environment.”

Dimbleby declined to comment, and Defra did not respond to a request for comment.