Back in 2018, the Government commissioned food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby to conduct a full, independent review of the UK’s food system. Now, in 2022, DEFRA has released its long-awaited response to that review, setting out a plan to “transform our food system to ensure it is fit for the future.”
But the political environment in 2022 is very different to the environment in which the Dimbleby review was launched back in 2018. The impact of Covid, war in Ukraine, and an ongoing supply chain and labour crisis caused by Brexit uncertainty cannot be underestimated. So, the full-scale system reform that we were promised in 2018 hasn’t really materialised.
Instead, the Government’s Food Strategy is pretty politically sensitive. It needs to balance competing interests, from the all-powerful farming lobby to increasingly noisy health campaigners, as well as ensuring the strategy is politically saleable – with a firm eye on the impact of any measures on the cost of living.
There are several recommendations from Henry Dimbleby’s independent review which have not been taken forward. The most notable – but least surprising – omission is the proposed HFSS reformulation tax. The plans would have added a levy on salty and sugary foods, but have been shelved by the Government in direct response to the increased cost burden on consumers.
In its current state, the Strategy outlines an ambition to improve health, sustainability, and resilience through targeted interventions that minimise the impact on consumers’ back pockets. It’s not wholesale reform, but there are enough measures in there to ensure businesses pay attention:
- Increased reporting requirements for businesses: there’s been a general trend towards increased accountability for businesses, continued in the Food Strategy with the introduction of a Food Data Transparency Partnership. The requirements will mean businesses need to report on health, sustainability and animal welfare, as well as on food waste. The measures follow on from existing requirements to report on supply chain sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions – and add to an ever-increasing reporting burden for businesses.
- Encouraging healthy eating: In the absence of a reformulation tax, the strategy puts the onus on consumers to make healthy choices. It says the role of government should be to promote healthy choices rather than tax unhealthy ones. We’ve already seen the start of this approach with the introduction of mandatory calorie labelling on menus. Emphasising the role of health in the Levelling Up agenda, the Strategy reaffirms the Government’s commitment to introducing a Health Disparities White Paper, which will contain measures on nutrition.
- Tackling labour supply issues: The Government has already announced the expansion of the Seasonal Worker Visa Route to 2024. Noting the particular shortage of seasonal workers in the turkey processing industry, DEFRA will extend the Seasonal Worker visa route to include poultry.
- Driving sustainable food production: Two key battlegrounds on sustainable food production are land use and carbon. On land use, Henry Dimbleby recommended significant changes to the UK’s approach to land use to increase biodiversity, sequester carbon, and maintain food supply. DEFRA will publish a land use framework in 2023 to inform farmer incentives and agri-innovation schemes, but appears to have watered down its commitment to invest in land-use schemes that encourage landscape recovery. On Carbon: The Food Strategy emphasises the Government’s existing Net Zero strategy designed to tackle emissions but contains no significant new commitments on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
With competing interests around the food industry, not least from a powerful agricultural lobby and health campaigners, the Government will struggle to keep everyone happy with its approach. Already, the plans have come under attack from environmental campaigners who say that the sustainability proposals in the Strategy have been watered down to such an extent as to make them pointless. And Henry Dimbleby, author of the Government-commissioned review, has said that the document “is not a strategy”, and that it doesn’t set out a “clear vision”.
But the Government should be broadly happy with the political response to its proposals. Because while health campaigners, Labour MPs, and even Henry Dimbleby himself have slated the strategy as a damp squib, its key constituency is Conservative backbenchers, who have responded to the strategy with either broad ambivalence or tempered enthusiasm. In the current political environment, DEFRA should chalk this up as a win.
To discuss the Food Strategy or FMCG policy, get in touch with Jack Spriggs.