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National Food Strategy Part Two: Why governments and not individuals need to build a better food system

 

Henry Dimbleby released the National Food Strategy Part Two in July, recommending a raft of radical actions that the Government needs to take in order to safeguard the UK’s food supply and halt the deepening health and climate crises caused by the industrialised global food system.

It’s taken roughly 70 years for the modern Western diet and lifestyle to take root, and in this time, rates of obesity, cancer and heart disease have sky-rocketed alongside massive environmental degradation. If it takes another 70 years to reverse the trend, we’re out of time. This is why it’s critical that Governments stop dithering and start investing in a food system that’s healthy, resilient, climate-friendly and fair for all.   

The National Food Strategy makes 14 recommendations for a massive food system reform based on four crucial goals, which we’ll get to in a tick. We at Better Food Traders welcome the progressive proposals, many of which align with our nine principles. We’re particularly encouraged by Dimbleby’s recommendations around farming and agriculture and healthcare reforms which could see GPs handing out prescriptions for nutritious fruit and veg.  

To us, these goals are no-brainers. To some, the radical and rapid approach might come as a shock; a Sugar and Salt Reformation Tax, for example, payable on sugar and salt sold to restaurants and processed food manufacturers. But a lot of people have voiced their support, which leaves us feeling optimistic. 

Importantly, The National Food Strategy puts the onus on those in charge to bring about fundamental change. We can all do our bit to help at a grassroots level, of course, but it strongly advocates for a top-down approach.  

It’s ambitious, but it’s doable. Here’s a run-through of the four core aims.   

 

Make the best use of our land  


We’re clear on our vision for land use. All of our Traders strive to follow the Growing Communities ‘Food Zones model, and we advocate for local-grown and seasonal, first and foremost, topping up what we can’t grow on home soil from overseas. This is a farmer-focused system driven by what’s best for the environment, UK citizens, and the people who grow our food. The current profit-first food system is about as far removed from that concept as you can get. 

This piece from our own Julie Brown, Growing Communities’ Director, illustrates the benefits of adopting a farmer-focused model.     

The National Food Strategy Part Two proposes that a Rural Land Use Framework be created, based on Rural Land Map data, to set out which areas of land are best suited to what purpose—with mixed-farming and agroforestry principles firmly embedded. And Dimbleby wants to see farmers properly incentivised for “giving up” a portion of their land for this purpose.  

It used to be the case that the biggest financial incentives went to those with the most land. Now that Britain has exited the EU, however, the Government is transitioning to a new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, which will offer financial backing to those who farm the land in a way that yields the best returnsover and above the economicalfor both people and the planet.  

Our network of organic growers and producers is doing just this, and we need this to become the norm rather than the exception to the rule. 

 

Escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS 


Poor diet is estimated to cause 64,000 deaths each year in the UK and cost our NHS £15 billion in the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes alone, placing a huge strain on healthcare resources. We’ve been led to believe that this is our fault for lacking the willpower to resist sugary, salty and fatty foods. But the truth is, with the best will in the world, most of us struggle to overcome the negative feedback loop, or “Junk Food Cycle”, we’re trapped in—both as individuals and as manufacturers.  
 

Sugar and salt which make processed food so tasty also happen to be dirt-cheap to buy thanks to the Green Revolution. So companies have spent many years and billions of pounds devising ad campaigns to get us all hooked. The more we eat, the more we want, the more is produced and so on. And it’s invariably those on the breadline that suffer the worst consequences of a cheap, highly processed and nutrient-poor diet. When junk food is generally less expensive per calorie than fresh produce, what choice do low-income households have but to eat rubbish? We’ll go into this in more depth later. 

Dimbleby’s proposed Sugar and Salt Reformation Tax would slap a financial penalty on manufacturers that stuff their products with these ingredients. And because it would level the playing field, the entire processed food market would become inherently healthier. We’re not on board with highly refined foods, of course, but this is a step in the right direction.   

The National Food Strategy also proposes that the Government ups its funding for the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme from £40.4 million to £80.8 million per year, recommending that it gives that money directly to schools and empowers them to source healthy produce from local suppliers. 

 

Reduce diet-related inequality 


The global food supply chain crumbled with the arrival of COVID-19. And, according to data from The Food Foundation, almost 40% of those who experienced food insecurity during the first lockdown said lack of supply was the main cause. What’s more, supermarket shelves emptied of fresh produce and household staples like rice and pasta drove a 41% increase in takeaway orders, further fuelling the “junk food pandemic”.  

The National Food Strategy presents some pretty stark stats around food inequality, including the fact that women in the UK’s poorest neighbourhoods are dying younger than they did back in 2010. Dimbleby also notes that obesity and hunger can sometimes, paradoxically, co-exist. This is because, as we mentioned earlier, the price per calorie of processed food tends to be cheaper than the price per calorie of fresh fruit and veg, leading to energy-dense but nutrient-poor diets. 

To tackle this, in combination with the proposed Sugar and Salt Tax Reform, The National Food Strategy wants the Government to use some of the estimated £2.9bn–£3.4bn a year raised by the tax to get fresh fruit and veg to low-income families and vulnerable individuals. Some suggestions on how to do that include expanding the free school meals (to include school holidays, too) and Healthy Start schemes, and trialling a “Community Eatwell” initiative. This would allow GPs to prescribe fresh fruit and veg to those facing hardship or food insecurity, alongside offering educational and social support around food. This could signal an unprecedented and long-overdue shift towards preventive healthcare in this country.  

Promisingly, the Eatwell initiative could link up with ethical local food retailers and veg box schemes, like those offered by our Better Food Traders, improving not only the health of the population at large but job prospects and sustainable food network infrastructure at a local level. 

Ben Reynolds, Chief Deputy of Sustain, echoes our enthusiasm on this point, commenting, “We wholeheartedly support the recommendation that this be used to support local food infrastructure and businesses, such as fresh food markets and box schemes, which have the added benefit of providing more jobs and money in local communities”.  

   

Create a long-term shift in our food culture  


This is a big one. On an individual level, it means that we all need to reduce the amount of meat we eat. On a governmental level, it proposes that data be used to track land use and “beyond the gate” metrics on food production, distribution, retail and health impacts; that farmers be the drivers of innovation in food production; that Government rethink its procurement strategy so that, rather than ethically-compromised corporations supplying food to our hospitals and schools, local and sustainable producers are the first port of call.
 

We want to highlight this point around switching to local, sustainable procurement because it’s what we’re all about. The only sustainable food system is one that’s decentralised and diversified.  

Around 95% of all the food we buy is sold via the nine big supermarket conglomerates and, according to the National Farmers Union, up to 45% of our vegetables and 84% of our fruit is imported from abroad where it’s cheaper to buy but standards aren’t as stringent as here at home. As long as this corporate, industrialised system exists, food will continue to be sourced at the lowest possible price to pay shareholders and directors the biggest possible salary, forsaking all else. UK growers who use more nature-friendly and labour-intensive organic farming practices will continue to be undercut in favour of those who can churn out the biggest yield quickest, and this will go on harming the environment, public health and workers’ rights—throughout the global supply chain.

Until we shift the balance towards small-scale forward-thinking retailers and growers, a handful of big businesses will continue to outsource our food production, promote over-consumption and determine how and what we eat, meaning we won’t be able to nourish our nation for generations to come.  

It’s not up to you to fix Britain’s broken food system. But if you want to do your part, find a local Better Food Trader and use your spending power to show the Government that big isn’t better when it comes to our food.  

 

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