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National Food Strategy reaches Whitehall

It is probably the most important report on the health of our nation for decades. The wide-reaching impact of The National Food Strategy could be felt across farming, education, food production and the health services.

The National Food Strategy is an independent review commission by the government and led by Henry Dimbleby, founder of food chain Leon. Behind the commissioning of the report is the issue of food production in the UK and how we can ensure that everyone, no matter their background, has access to healthy, sustainably produced food.

The report was debated in the House of Commons on 15 December, with Jo Churchill (parliamentary under secretary of state at DEFRA) indicating that the government would be issuing a white paper response early next year.

Among issues raised during the Whitehall debate were the need for a holistic and lasting solution to food system failures; the key role of schools both teaching about healthy eating but also providing healthy food within the school day.

A recommendation for a 30 per cent reduction in meat consumption and a £3 tax per kilo on sugar and a £6 kilo tax on salt were the incendiary parts of the report. People working within the food industry expressed concern that the tax would have an impact on price inflation, hitting a sector already reeling from the pandemic.

Away from the political chambers, the report has drawn widespread support from people across the food sector.

Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘An analytically tight, empirically thorough, masterly study of the UK’s food problem. It also constructs a framework wide enough to be deployed for studying the food problems societies face everywhere.’

UK chef and healthy food advocate Jamie Oliver said: ‘If both government and businesses are willing to take bold action and prioritise the public’s health, then we have an incredible opportunity to create a much fairer and more sustainable food system for all families.’

The report examines at length what has gone wrong with the food system, but what should be of more interest to everyone at this point, is ‘what can we do to put things right?’

In the final chapter of the report, four goals are identified as being key to a sustainable food system of the future. These are:

Make us well instead of sick

Be resilient enough to stand local shocks

Help to restore nature and halt climate change

Meet the standards the public expects on health, environment and animal welfare

Among measures to reach these targets are things such as using more of the countryside to sequester carbon and restore nature, which means encouraging diverse methods of land management. As the report stresses, this does not mean turning everything over to rewinding but giving a small amount of existing farmland over to native woodland, peatland, heath and species-rich grassland. On the remaining farm land, it should be a balance between low intensity agroecology and farms that yield high intensity produce, using the latest technology to raise yields without polluting. 

The report makes a number of recommendations, which include: education of children on the importance of a healthy diet; providing financial support to low income families so they can buy fresh fruit and vegetables; introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies; guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use; invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system.

These are just a few recommendations but at the heart of the report is the relationship between food and health, with much emphasis on escaping the junk food cycle, reducing salt and sugar in the diet; eating less meat and making healthy food available to everyone. 

While the ambitions of the plan are social, the Dimbleby Report does include a balance sheet to demonstrate the economic sense of a sustainable food strategy.

Over three years, if all the recommendations were implemented, the average annual cost to the government would be £1.4 billion. There would be a one-off cost of £250 million yo launch innovative projects. A Salt and Sugar tax would yield £2.9-3.4 billion per year. Over the long term, the economic benefit would be worth up to £126 billion. The reduced cost to the NHS of less diet-related disease is not included in the figures but would be huge.