The Farming Social Hub - a voice for the farming community

National food strategy hard to swallow

The second part of the National Food Strategy was released on 15 July to mixed reactions from the agricultural sector. This is the first major review of our food network in more than 70 years.

Co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain Henry Dimbleby chaired the report, which was commissioned by the UK government.

Within the report, the high quantities of salt and sugar contained in many food products came under fire, with the report suggesting a £3/kilo levy on sugar and a £6/kilo levy on salt sold wholesale for used in restaurants, catering and processed food. This could potentially release £3bn back into the economy, which the report suggests could then be used to promote healthier eating. There has been no response from British Sugar so far, but it is largely felt that the tax will hit the consumer far harder than the producers.

A beef with the report

A big talking point among livestock farmers is the reports emphasis upon the extent of the meat industry’s effects on the environment. The report recommends a reduction in meat consumption that it is more balanced than previous government reports, which many in the sector felt was unduly biased. This report says: ‘Careful livestock farming can be a boon to the environment, but our current appetite for meat is unsustainable’

The National Food Strategy reports recommendation is 30 per cent meat reduction over ten years, which it acknowledges would be exceedingly difficult to achieve. The report categorically ruled out any form of taxation on meat, which would further limit poorer families access to a balanced diet and further undercut British farmers by imports.

The NFU responded to the document with praise for the emphasis on a balanced healthy diet, but some concern over the way meat is categorised and perceived in the report. NFU President Minette Batters commented;

‘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.”

Five a day

Fruit and vegetable growers may be delighted that the report suggests an increase of 30 per cent fruit and vegetable production and consumption. However, elsewhere, the report suggests more farmland be given over to carbon-capturing as opposed to production, so there are concerns that this force a return to high-intensity farming. With so many farmers having adapted to lower intensity farming to help do their bit for climate change, to suddenly be asked to produce 30 per cent more on less land will seem thankless of the efforts already being made to help the environment.

The Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G) body has expressed its concern already, pointing out the mixed messaging in this second report, Roger Kerr, chief executive said; ‘The original review set out with an intention to address the negative impacts from energy-dense foods on the nation’s health, climate change and food waste. Yet, this new strategy effectively promotes high yield, high volume cropping.’

The report’s Field to Fork ethos means also looking at the inequalities in consumer habits. Highly processed food high in sugar and salt are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods. Highlighting the growing wealth divide in our diets. Unhealthy food is cheaper and more accessible to lower-income families putting strains on both our health and the planet.

OF&G did note in its response that: ‘The report fails to recognise that any price premium paid by consumers seldom makes its way back to the farm. This means ‘expensive organic food’ is as much a market dynamic as a reflection on production costs.’

‘Senseless’ trade deals

The report’s main focus is the effect human consumption is having on the planet. It highlights the pressures of modern farming and is critical of the government’s current net-zero goals, pointing out that the plan laid by the government does not account for the carbon footprint of imported food. This is negatively affecting farmers as their carbon footprint is being constantly assessed, they are putting in huge investments and time to try and make the industry as sustainable as possible, only to be undercut by imports where carbon is not accounted for at all. The report says: ‘It makes no sense for politicians, farmers and manufacturers in this country to put in all the work necessary to create a sustainable domestic food system, only to find the market flooded with food imports produced in ways that cause environmental devastation abroad.’

What now?

The government has accepted the report and will be responding within the next six months.