The UK’s food strategy cannot be left to the market

This article first appeared in the Financial Times on the 16 July 2020

We face the worst public health crisis in generations. Economic contraction threatens the livelihoods of millions. And the point of no return on climate rapidly approaches. The government-commissioned independent review on a UK national food strategy will soon publish its first report – it must holistically address these pressing issues.

I worked in a company making food brands for 27 years, but it wasn’t until I joined Tesco that I really understood the intricacies of our food chains. What’s clear to me is we do not take a whole society approach to food. That damages our health, education, economy and environment.

The whole food industry – including retail and food service – must act by evolving ranges, driving innovation and engaging customers. But heavy-duty change cannot be left to the market. The right regulatory context, access to capital and incentives to innovate are critical. Previous governments missed opportunities: the UK’s Industrial Strategy didn’t focus enough on food despite the UK’s food and farming industry being worth £122bn1.

This crisis reminds us that food production, supply and consumption are crucial. They must be central to the Save government’s economic recovery plan. The review must take us closer to a more resilient, sustainable and equitable system – one capable of reducing the NHS burden, stimulating growth and serving those least able to afford food.

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The UK produces only half its food; we must ask tough questions about efficient land use. That means eating less meat and dairy, which uses 70% of agricultural land and emits 14.5% of greenhouse gases globally We cannot do this without incentives for sustainable farming and a strategy to help livestock farmers diversify. Measures are needed to help people adopt more nutritious diets, from fruit and veg subsidies, to a focus on nutrition and diet in education.

It’s time to get serious about advances like vertical farming that produce more food, on less land. They are cost-effective when running but set-up costs are a big barrier without government help.

A food strategy must also reward farmers who improve soil health. We cannot accept the prospect of UK soil infertility in just 30-40 years2. Action on soil health and biodiversity must be a condition of post-Brexit subsidies. A little nature around the margins is not enough; without genuine change in farming processes we’ll struggle to feed ourselves in future.

It must also protect forests and habitats. Government should mandate food companies to introduce effective due diligence across supply chains ensuring food sold in the UK is deforestation-free. Reporting food waste data should also be mandatory for retailers, food service and their suppliers.

We must hit the UK’s net zero target. Across food operations, from growing and rearing through distribution to stores and restaurants, government must mandate reduced emissions to accelerate the switch to renewables. It must provide capital to scale innovations like methane-reducing animal feed and supplements, and low-carbon fertiliser.

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Any food strategy must also address animal welfare, food safety and antibiotic use. It must uphold robust UK quality and welfare standards through trade negotiations. A double-tariff system that sets gold-standards for UK farmers, while welcoming low-quality, low-standard food imports will lead to a race to the bottom.

Finally, we must not compromise on affordability. In the UK, 8.4 million people tread the line between getting by and getting enough to eat3. A food system that doesn’t protect our most vulnerable doesn’t work for the nation.

There is a new context now. Covid-19 cruelly exposes the relationship between obesity and health outcomes. Brexit creates the opportunity to reshape production and standards. A growing consensus across business points to willingness to act on climate.

I urge the government now to finish the job of creating a comprehensive strategy for delivering affordable, healthy, sustainable food for all.

1 NFU 2019 State of the Farming Economy report, April 2019
2 Michael Gove speaking at the the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA), October 2017
3 FareShare: https://fareshare.org.uk/what-we-do/hunger-food-waste/

Read the Op-ed on the Financial Times

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