As Defra secretary Ranil Jayawardena heads to party conference, one of the major issues on his mind should be the shaky state of food policy.
The UK is in the throes of a multipronged crisis – sky rocketing costs of living, a backlogged and overwhelmed health service, and climate change. This winter, families could end up having to choose between heating their homes or feeding their families, over six million people are waiting for treatment from the NHS, and a heat wave over the summer sparked wildfires and damaged infrastructure across the UK.
Yet when it comes to the policies aimed at solving these crises, the role of the food system is largely ignored.
The response to last year’s National Food Strategy – the first independent review of England’s food system in 75 years – was described as inadequate by its own advisor. Many of the recommendations have not been taken up by government.
It is time for politicians to form a serious policy agenda for the food system, instead of ignoring advice and failing to consider the impact of the food system in many of the challenges facing the UK. Such an agenda would have a strategy for UK food security, a comprehensive plan for tackling climate change, and focus on tackling diet-related, preventable diseases.
Cost of Living and Rising Food Insecurity
British food prices have risen at their fastest rate since the financial crash of 2008, reaching a 9.3% annual increase as of August this year. And while overall inflation rates eased last month, food inflation continues to rise.
The war in Ukraine has disrupted supply chains, increased input costs, and contributed to rising food prices. But while the disruption caused by Putin’s war is widely acknowledged, there has been far less political attention on the threat to food security caused by Brexit and the climate crisis. A report published earlier this year showed that new trade barriers as a result of Brexit have caused a 6% increase in food prices in the UK. And this year’s climate change-induced drought means there could be food shortages this winter.
Brexit has also exposed a key weakness in the UK’s food infrastructure: a shortage of available labour. The National Farmers Union has called for a more robust approach to post-Brexit labour availability, citing a lack of labour as the reason for £60m worth of wastage as otherwise viable crops are left unpicked.
Prime Minister Liz Truss has pledged that she will plug the labour shortage with a short-term expansion of the Seasonal Worker Visa scheme, while Defra has announced an independent review of the UK’s labour shortage in the food supply chain. Although this may help to address future labour shortages, food security is at risk today.
When it comes to soaring food prices, it would be misguided to believe that the UK’s position will immediately strengthen following the easing of the shock to food systems caused by the war in Ukraine. It’s clear that Brexit has led to gaps in the UK’s food security, and the disruption caused to food production by climate change will only intensify. An immediate response to the cost-of-living crisis and food inflation, as well as long-term strategy for the UK’s food security, is urgently needed.
In response to the immediate cost-of-living crisis, the government should revisit the recommendations in Part 1 of the National Food Strategy, which set out how the government could ensure that the most vulnerable people have access to food in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. Many of these recommendations (such as expanding the healthy start scheme) remain relevant during the current cost of living crisis – to ensure a generation of our most disadvantaged children don’t get left behind and to reduce pressure on our health service.
Preventable, Diet Related Diseases and the Health System
Food and diet play an undeniable role in our health. It’s also clear that preventable, diet-related conditions, from malnutrition to obesity, are placing an avoidable burden on an already over-stretched NHS.
For example, a 2018 report found that treating malnutrition cost the NHS about £23.5 billion across the UK, which was about 15% of the total expenditure on health and social care that year. The NHS costs attributable to obesity across the UK are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050. The wider costs to society are estimated to reach £49.9 billion per year according to Public Health England.
With less money to spend on food this winter, people may be forced to purchase less-healthy options than they may like to. The Food Foundation’s 2021 Broken Plate Report found that healthier foods are nearly three times as expensive as less healthy foods calorie for calorie. Both obesity and malnutrition are caused at least in part by poor, often nutrient deficient, diets.
Making strides towards a healthier Britain requires a serious look at the relationship between the food system, the UK’s food policy, and public health. Prime Minister Liz Truss has insisted that one of her three key priorities is the NHS, yet her plans to scrap the obesity strategy suggest that in ignoring the link between the health of the nation and pressure on the NHS, she is prioritising ideology over evidence.
Any reforms to the NHS, whether long-term plans or emergency packages to work through the backlog, should also include health and nutrition focused policy actions to address the preventable, diet-related conditions that are taking up a significant percentage of NHS capacity and funds. As a start, government should progress with the anti-obesity strategy to protect the NHS. This, as stated in a recent letter from 26 former health ministers, will also help to drive economic growth. It should also consult on the role of technologies like precision nutrition to tackle rising obesity.
Getting to net zero and tackling the climate crisis
A credible climate strategy must address the food system. Agriculture contributes around 10% of the UK’s emissions, which must be tackled for the UK to meet its net zero target. Yet, unlike other sectors, agricultural emissions have changed very little over time.
The government’s climate advisor, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), has repeatedly stated that agriculture and land use have seen slow progress on net zero. Recent reports suggest the government is now going to scrap the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), which would have paid farmers and landowners to enhance nature. And while there has been a commitment from government to help scale the technologies that can help us decarbonise our energy system, far less attention has been paid to the innovations required to decarbonise our food system.
The government will not be able to successfully tackle emissions from our food system without addressing the impact of our meat-heavy diets. Livestock alone is responsible for around 5% of the UK’s total emissions, and most farmland used to feed the UK is used for beef, lamb or dairy. Meat production is relatively inefficient; livestock takes up 85% of the UK’s land for food production but gives us just 32% of our calories. As a result, both the CCC and the National Food Strategy highlight the need to reduce our meat consumption. Unfortunately, many politicians repeatedly fail to acknowledge this fact or admit the need for solutions.
As well as contributing to climate change, our food system is also affected by climate change. While the focus of the current food inflation crisis has been driven predominantly by the Ukraine war, the next major threat to our food security is likely to be caused by the climate crisis. This year’s droughts have damaged harvests and are likely to drive prices up further. Today’s politicians can’t afford to ignore this threat and must start acting to build resilience in our food system today.
A staggering 70% of the UK’s land is currently used for agriculture, but by increasing the efficiency of food production and scaling innovations, we can optimise land use, reduce emissions and build resilience in the face of a changing climate. It’s vital that the government progresses with ELMS and updates its net zero strategy to set out a clear and robust pathway to net zero across the agriculture and land use sectors.
The challenges we face – from food security to poor public health and the impact of the climate crisis – will not go away by themselves. Unfortunately, the government now seems to be largely ignoring independent reviews and rowing back on previous policy commitments at a time when food policy is so vital to tackling some of our biggest challenges – both short and long term.
All of this points towards the need for clear leadership and accountability across the whole of food policy. The government should give an existing minister overarching accountability to ensure that all its work on food – which currently sits across 16 departments in England – is coordinated.
The government doesn’t have to choose ideology over evidence. The prize for getting this right is huge: healthier people and a healthier planet.