8:30 PM June 14, 2022
Given the worldwide issues of food security, a severe cost-of-living crisis which means many Britons are having to choose between eating and heating, a chronic shortage of workers to bring in our harvests thank to Brexit, and a looming climate crisis which is caused in no small part by the food production industry, the fact that Britain doesn’t have a food strategy is breath-taking.
The government claims to agree, and on Monday they published a document which they claimed fulfilled that role. Sadly, like so much of what we are told is ‘world-beating’, the ‘plan’ which we have been presented with is inadequate, and doesn’t go anywhere near mentioning – let alone tackling – the country’s food issues.
The major proposal seems to be that we should be eating more venison. Oh deer.
The process of producing this plan started encouragingly. Perhaps realising the underwhelming track record of the current cabinet when it comes to running the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Liz Truss, George Eustice, Andrea Leadsom – it’s not a list to inspire confidence, is it?), the government turned to successful restaurant founder and food affairs expert Henry Dimbleby to write a report outlining what needed to be included in a National Food Strategy.
The Dimbleby Report makes a whole swathe of recommendations, broadly split into four headings: escaping ‘the junk food cycle’ and protecting the NHS; reducing diet-related inequality; making the best use of our land; and creating a long-term shift in our food culture.
Within those broad headings are some very specific actions, from using the taxation system to encourage manufacturers to reformulate products with less sugar and salt (and then using the money raised to help get fresh fruit to low-income families), extending the eligibility of free school meals, guaranteeing the budget for agricultural payments until the end of the decade to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use, and defining minimum standards for international trade in food.
Dimbleby’s report is a tremendous piece of work which was widely praised by anyone who knows anything about food and its production. Respected chef and food guru Yotam Ottolenghi said: “This fascinating report elevates food to where it belongs – at the forefront of public debate.”
Meanwhile, national treasure Prue Leith said: “This is a compelling and overdue plan of action. If the government adopts it, we will, at last, be putting our food system on the right path to health and prosperity.”
Unfortunately, Prue used an all too prescient phrase of ‘f the government adopts it’. Because with sad inevitability, despite the government’s white paper being hyped with the usual boosterish epithets, what has been brought forward bears little resemblance to Dimbleby’s almost universally-praised strategy.
Most of the best ideas – extending free school meals, a salt and/or sugar tax, measures to scale up plant-based protein production and consumption – do not feature at all. Instead, what we get is a limp, half-baked set of empty words which is no strategy at all.
Dimbleby himself – who let’s not forget, is the government’s own lead advisor on food – agrees. He is quoted as saying, “[This is] not a strategy. It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and what needs to be done.”
Perhaps the best expressed description of this pathetic document (I refuse to use the word ‘plan’, because it isn’t one) was from Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association. He said: “Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy set out a bold and ambitious vision to make good food accessible for all, and the government’s response feels like thin gruel, falling far short.
“At a time when people are going hungry and the climate, nature and public health crises are escalating, the absence of leadership is palpable.”
Quite frankly, Britain is a mess. The only country in the G20 doing worse economically than us is sanctions-hit Russia, our public infrastructure is falling apart, and now the government has failed to address surely one of the most vital issues of all: how we feed ourselves.
We may have waved the Jubilee flags earlier this month and kidded ourselves that our nation is one of the greatest in the world – but in the eyes of almost everybody else, we have become the basket case which is to be viewed, in equal measures, with pity and contempt.