Opinion: ‘The Strategic Food Policy has been castrated by the government — and our children will pay the price’

Our columnist has strong words after what could have been a meaningful change for the better has been 'hijacked by the big food companies'.

In 2021, Agromenes joined the general welcome for Henry Dimbleby’s Strategic Food Policy. Now, after more than a year of cogitation, the Government has castrated it and the resulting ‘strategy’ has been widely condemned. Even that trenchant voice of the food industry, The Grocer, could find little to commend. Mr Dimbleby himself said the report had been hijacked by the big food companies, which used fear of higher prices to lobby ministers and avoid regulation.

The Climate Change Committee stressed that none of the food and agricultural policies to meet net zero and our international commitments had been addressed; Diabetes UK was horrified at the failure to act on the obesity crisis — latest figures show a 46% rise in child obesity; and the NFU, in welcoming the Government’s warm words about the importance of agriculture, still warned about the lack of detail on delivery.

The only real milestone established in a document that was supposed to signal a fundamental change of direction is to be found in a recognition of the need for Britain to grow as much of our own food as possible. Food production is back as a primary public good; the Ukraine war has killed off the easy metropolitan view that we could always feed ourselves from the international markets. Even our most urban politicians now stare food shortages in the face. Sadly, there is still no overall strategy, no committed programme and no details to give farmers and growers the confidence they need.

“A real strategy would would link food with the soil, the land with the consumer, procurement with health, climate change with increased biodiversity, schools with nutrition and international trade with high standards of environmental protection”

Instead of a comprehensive programme with detailed policies, dates and proper structure, the paper relies on hopes of technological advance, proposes schemes without long-term commitments and announces consultations and future reports. Worse still, right at the last minute, between the leaking of a draft document and its publication, No 10 apparatchiks removed the commitment to reform the trading system to provide for differentiated tariffs so imported food products that don’t meet British standards would incur more and thus be uncompetitive. Without this protection, farmers will have to meet those high standards and yet compete with foreigner producers who don’t.

Now, it may be that the Government will partially redeem itself in publishing another document that will cover the responsibilities of the Department of Health. This is promised within the next few weeks and the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, is known to be seriously concerned at the effect of poor eating habits on the ballooning costs of the NHS. Nonetheless, the lack of joined-up thinking shown in separating health from food strategy distorts the picture and makes it difficult to measure the necessary trade offs. Healthier food and more help for poorer schoolchildren, breakfast clubs and nutritious free school meals cost money, but, at the same time, these measures cut the huge and increasing NHS obesity bill, provide farmers with incentives to produce more food at home and encourage an agricultural industry with high safety, animal-welfare and environmental standards.

That’s what a real strategy would be. It would link food with the soil, the land with the consumer, procurement with health, climate change with increased biodiversity, schools with nutrition and international trade with high standards of environmental protection. With such a strategy, this Government would be seen to have a programme and a purpose.

Of course, it couldn’t do everything at once, but there would be a clearly defined pathway with a series of milestones, not merely one that notes the value of food production. It would signpost the route to a healthy, sustainable future. Instead, we have lost the opportunity and our children will pay the price.