The Government Food Strategy: Old Thinking for New Crises

In late 2021, a number of the CCRI team along with external colleagues met to discuss the ‘National Food Strategy’ and wrote a blog sharing their thoughts on it. Over recent weeks, some of those involved in that discussion (along with others) have been discussing the Government’s response to that strategy, ‘The Government Food Strategy’ and have once again written a blog.

Authors: Philippa Simmonds, Damian Maye, Théo Lenormand, Matt Reed, Janet Dwyer, Mike Goodman, Charlotte Chivers, Lucy Barkley.

During 2022’s summer of mounting and interrelated crises, you may be forgiven for overlooking that the UK government published a white paper in response to Henry Dimbleby’s 2021 National Food Strategy (NFS). With significantly less press coverage, and coming in at a sparse 28 pages, the June 2022 Government Food Strategy (GFS) didn’t make quite as much of a splash as the independent review it was responding to.

The GFS was, however, met with widespread disappointment by those in the agri-food space, with the head of Sustain labelling it “a feeble to do list”. Meeting to chew things over during the middle era of Liz Truss’ premiership, colleagues from the CCRI and beyond attempted to make sense of the strategy’s approach.

As you’ll recall, we met last year to discuss the NFS, finding it innovative in places (the attempt to develop systems thinking, for example) but overall lacking in ambition. Unfortunately, the GFS makes the NFS look positively radical; failing to engage with the latter’s extensively researched approach, incorporation of more deliberative approaches, and application of systems thinking to the UK food system. Above all, the GFS features a highly selective engagement with the 14 recommendations set out in ‘The Plan’, part 2 of the NFS. There is no new legislation in the GFS. Responsibilities are shifted to future government work streams and white papers, most notably the Health Inequalities white paper due in 2023.

These concerns noted, we agreed (disappointing though it is) that this is a fairly typical blueprint for a government response to an independent review. A defensive stance is to be expected, and these documents often dedicate a lot of space to describing what they are already doing, rather than engaging with independent recommendations.

It’s also clear that the strategy was produced within Defra. Despite Dimbleby’s call for a systems approach, the GFS seems firmly siloed within the farming sector. The emphasis is on improving domestic food production, self-sufficiency, and how the food produced gets traded, with recommendations relating to the “Junk Food Cycle” passed along to the Health Inequalities white paper. The strategy claims policymakers “will join-up within government to collectively drive progress”- yet there is no explanation as to how this will be achieved.

Meanwhile, the GFS makes frequent reference to the successive crises that have impacted UK food security: particularly the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. However, beyond highlighting existing programmes, there appears to be little appetite to address the cost of living crisis, which has led to 18% of UK households experiencing food insecurity in September 2022. Presumably this is to be dealt with in the Health Inequalities paper too. Some of us felt that references to food security threats were strategies to justify focus on production, and swerve difficult conversations around, for example, climate change and how we use our land in the UK.

So what does the strategy do? Well, it sets the following three objectives:

  • Objective 1: To deliver a prosperous agri-food and seafood sector that ensures a secure food supply in an unpredictable world and contributes to the levelling up agenda through good quality jobs around the country.
  • Objective 2: To deliver a sustainable, nature positive, affordable food system that provides choice and access to high quality products that support healthier and home-grown diets for all.
  • Objective 3: To deliver export opportunities and consumer choice through imports, without compromising our regulatory standards for food, whether produced domestically or imported.

It also sets out some key activities that will be taken forward. There will be a consultation on methane-inhibiting feed additives for ruminants (of most relevance for dairy cows), and alternative proteins get mentioned several times. There is a totemic focus on seafood, with a £100 million UK Seafood Fund in the pipeline, likely driven by the negative impact of Brexit on the UK seafood sector. The funding is welcome news, of course, but feels like a distraction from dealing with the substance of the NFS recommendations. A Land Use Strategy is on its way, due to be published in 2023, although what form this will take remains unclear.

Blackboard signs with menus - primarily fish items

Meanwhile, there will be a consultation on mandatory public reporting by the food industry against health metrics, and policymakers will “explore a similar approach” for environment and animal welfare. The government will also consult on public sector food and catering policy, proposing tentatively that public sector organisations (schools, hospitals, and prisons) might aspire to 50% of the food they serve being produced locally or to higher environmental production standards. This, of course, “while maintaining value for money for taxpayers”. These aspirations are welcome, yet they fall far short of the leadership that was called for in the independent review, necessary to future-proof England’s food system.

The language throughout the GFS indicates a preoccupation with growth- a “prosperous” agri-food sector that will employ people and allow them to “enter and progress in work to lead fulfilled lives”. Never mind that work is not necessarily a route out of food insecurity. This mantra of economic growth as the answer to the current polycrisis (rather than a major factor in generating it) is predictable but outdated. It fails to grasp the systemic nature of the crises and hobbles any real engagement with more transformative recommendations.

The problem is illustrated in the following quote:

“Whilst we strive to transform the food system in the long-term and unlock the benefits of healthier and more sustainable diets, we will, at all phases of policy development, champion consumer interests and seek to minimise food prices impacts.” GFS, page 5

Rather than viewing the public as citizens who might take an active role in shaping their food system given half a chance, the GFS sees them as one-dimensional consumers, whose only concern is a plentiful supply of cheap food. The can is kicked down the road, relying on outdated tropes and minimising the increasingly tangible threat of climate change.

So where can one look to find imaginative and radical ideas for transforming our food system? Dimbleby’s plan is still relevant, and could be implemented by a government with the political will. Meanwhile, the UK’s devolved nations are experimenting with some innovative approaches. In Scotland, the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act, passed in 2022, requires Scottish ministers and other public bodies to create Good Food Nation Plans. This is underscored by international human rights legislation, including the right to adequate food. Meanwhile, the foundational economy approach in Wales considers food as one of the key goods that citizens rely on for everyday life, while the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act provides a mechanism for greater long-term thinking across departmental siloes- highly relevant for addressing climate change. These and other examples offer a powerful reframing and vision of food systems as part of wider social well-being.

Internationally, France has prioritised greater re-localisation of food systems through cooperative territorial planning across a region to improve the sustainability and quality of the food offering. Further north, the Norwegian strategy for urban agriculture shows how a joined up government document can be developed, with input from seven different ministries.

Fruit and vegetables in boxes

Turning back to England, models such as community supported agriculture (CSA) are becoming more popular, and a vegetable box scheme in Cumbria is creating opportunities for livestock farmers to safely diversify their land use. Urban communities have been getting involved for years in growing food through approaches such as community gardens, while organisations like Brighton and Hove Food Partnership offer a model for greater collaboration and joined-up work to improve urban food environments. These kinds of approaches offer different ways for citizens to connect with where their food comes from, and even to contribute to how that food is produced. Furthermore, deliberative approaches offer a mechanism for greater citizen involvement in policymaking, enhancing understanding of the trade-offs while increasing support for net zero policies. The UK’s Climate Change Committee recently called for more deliberative processes in climate policymaking, and co-organised a citizen’s panel that came up with net zero solutions for household energy. In 2022, a CCRI team organised two participatory “Climathons” in rural communities, showing this method could enhance deliberation among agri-food stakeholders and increase understanding between farmers and non-farmers. Applying more of these approaches to food policy challenges, as advocated in the NFS, could help democratise the UK food system.

To conclude, we can be heartened that transdisciplinary research in the agri-food space is more relevant than ever, and work to improve the UK’s food system never stops. However, greater engagement and leadership from government will be necessary to drive the scale and pace of change we need to deliver meaningful food system transformation.