National Food Strategy: Part One – an initial assessment by Prof. Michael Winter
This eagerly anticipated NFS report does not disappoint. As the report makes clear at the outset, this is not a comprehensive plan for transforming the food system, which will follow in Part Two in 2021. Rather, “it contains urgent recommendations to support this country through the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prepare for the end of the EU exit transition period on 31 December 2020.” So a bold endeavour then! Henry Dimbleby has grasped the nettle of COVID and assembled a thoroughly useful analysis of the impact of COVID. Below are just a few of the key phrases that stood out to me in his analysis:
Our food system has just endured its biggest stress test since the Second World War. As COVID-19 swept through the UK, the entire machinery of supply and distribution had to be recalibrated, fast. The fact that, after a wobbly start, there were no serious food shortages is a testament to the flexibility and entrepreneurialism of so many food businesses, and the resilience of the system as a whole.
There have, however, been heavy losses. Workers in the food production and retail sectors have suffered some of the highest death rates from COVID-19.
Those in the hospitality sector have taken the biggest economic hit, with a higher proportion of furloughed staff (and expected redundancies) than any other profession.
At the same time, the virus has shown with terrible clarity the damage being done to our health by the modern food system. Diet-related illness is one of the top three risk factors for dying of COVID-19. This has given a new urgency to the slow-motion disaster of the British diet.
There is a lot of work to do if we are to rebuild a food system that delivers safe, healthy, affordable food to everyone; that is a thriving contributor to our urban and rural economies; that restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation; that is built upon a resilient, sustainable and humane agriculture sector; and that is robust in the face of future crises.
Many of the data presented on COVID impact are familiar to those of us working on the topic but not all, at least not to me. For example, I had not realised the extent to which restaurants, cafes, pubs and wholesalers donated food to charities rather than see it go to waste – 237% increase on 2019 total donations by May 2020.
Two contrasting data sets about retail also struck me forcibly. On the one hand, relative changes in market share within the retail sector favoured convenience stores and some local outlets. Of the big retailers, only the Co-Op increased its market share under this measure. Convenience stores share of the market grew by 63% between January and June from 1.6% to 2.6% of the total. In January 2020, ten major retailers held 97% of the market, and by June this had declined marginally to 96%. But, of course, the overall market was much larger, and as the report rather graphically puts it, ‘food purchased from over 100,000 small restaurants is now being purchased from ten large grocers’.
In addition to the COVID analysis, the report considers in detail the negative health impacts of our food system and, turning to Brexit, looks in some detail at trade. And in a final chapter on ‘A New Green Revolution’:
This crisis, painful though it is, may soon pale into insignificance compared to the turbulence created by climate change and the collapse in biodiversity.
The current food system does terrible damage to the environment. Building a better future – one where our food no longer makes us, or our planet, sick – will be the biggest challenge of all.
Earlier I described the report as bold. Perhaps nowhere more so than in the call to speed up agricultural policy change:
There have been calls to delay ELM on the grounds that farmers already have too much on their plates with EU exit. I would argue that now is the moment to act. Not only should the Government press on with the scheme, it should accelerate the implementation.
Be bolder. Go faster. And get as many farmers as possible onto the pilots before the full planned roll out in 2024. This will be critical to ensuring we are on track to meet our net-zero goal prior to COP26.
This boldness worried me because it was unaccompanied by a sense of the scale of change facing farmers with the phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme. In the second report, I hope to see careful attention given to the challenges facing farmers in these uncertain times.
Finally, the key recommendations are as follows:
- Expand eligibility for the Free School Meal scheme to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits).
- Extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of Free School Meals.
- Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week, and expand the scheme to every pregnant woman and to all households with children under 4 where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.
- Extend the work of the Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force for a further 12 months up until July 2021. It should collect, assess and monitor data on the number of people suffering from food insecurity at any time, and agree cross-departmental actions, where necessary, to support those who cannot access or afford food.
- The Government should only agree to cut tariffs in new trade deals on products which meet our core standards.
- The Government should adopt a statutory responsibility to commission and publish an independent report on any proposed trade agreements. The Government should decide whether this impact assessment function requires the establishment of a new body – similar to those which exist in many mature trading nations, including Australia, Canada and the USA – or whether it could be performed by an existing body or by independent consultants (as is the case in the EU).
- The Government should adopt a statutory duty to give Parliament the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal. It must allow time for relevant select committees to produce reports on any final deal, and allow a debate in the House of Commons.