Today the National Food Strategy was launched (1). This independent review was commissioned by the government to set a vision and plan for a better food system, and the government is expected to respond with a white paper in the next six months (2). The review outlines some of the major problems associated with our current food system – it is a major driver of environmental harm and ill health, with the effects of these harms being felt unequally. The review considers two key feedback loops from a systems perspective – what it calls the “junk food cycle” and the invisibility of nature. 

The problems set out and the vision

Through a range of research, analysis and modelling the review outlines the need for the food system to be carbon negative if we are to achieve net zero – in that some land must be removed from production to enable carbon sequestration. The report outlines problems related to waste in the system – from traditional food waste to productivity loss, and the potential for more effective use of land.

In setting out a hopeful vision for reform to the food system that spans every step from production to consumption, the report provides a unique opportunity to consider how the UK transitions towards a healthy and sustainable food system and culture. The report outlines the need for a reduction in meat consumption of 30% and a concurrent 30% increase in vegetable and fruit consumption by 2032 if this is to be achieved – along with changes in fibre and unhealthy foods. Past polling has shown that two thirds of health professionals support changes to diets to make them more environmentally friendly, including through reduced meat consumption (3).

Policies

The report proposes a range of policies to achieve these objectives – the breadth of the approach taken is impressive, covering diverse domains such as production, inequality and governance. I here highlight several recommendations in the report in relation to the Alliance’s previous recommendations on food (4).

The proposed “Eat and Learn” initiative for schools is an important initiative that takes forward the need for more information and advice around healthy and sustainable diets that has previously been highlighted by the Alliance. The focus on minimum trade standards is to be welcomed – it is one of the red lines of the Alliance that environmental and animal welfare standards must be at least maintained and should be improved including through agriculture and trade deals. The recommendations around public procurement and the need for standardised labelling around environmental impacts are both policy recommendations supported by the Alliance.

An annual review by the Food Standards Agency comparable to the work of the Climate Change Commission as set out in the review would be a helpful step, but it is vital that policy is owned by and driven by the government. It is vital, as the Alliance has called for before, that a cross-departmental, ministerial working group be established to bring together thinking on food and farming, health, climate change and trade, with clear accountability – for example through Cabinet or such a body. 

Author

Yannish Naik, Interim Director, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. 15/07/21

References

  1. https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/National-Food-Strategy-The-Plan.pdf 
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/developing-a-national-food-strategy-independent-review-2019/developing-a-national-food-strategy-independent-review-2019-terms-of-reference#reporting-activities-and-timing 
  3. http://www.ukhealthalliance.org/all-consuming/ 
  4. http://www.ukhealthalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/UKHACC-ALL-Consuming-Building-a-Healthier-Food-System-for-People-Planet.pdf