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No part of our economy matters more than food. Food is vital to life and, for one in eight of us, it is the source of our livelihoods. And no decisions have such a direct impact on our lives and wellbeing as the choices we make about what we eat.
Food shapes our sense of ourselves, too. Cooking and eating together is perhaps the defining communal act. The character of the English landscape and the culture of many rural communities are defined by the way farmers use the land. And although the vast majority of us now live in cities, growing food, seeing how it is grown, knowing that we can feed ourselves – these are all important to our sense of national belonging.
The free market performs a million daily miracles to present us with an abundant choice of safe and reasonably priced food, creating millions of jobs and providing us with an ease of consumption unimaginable to our grandparents’ generation.
But the way we produce, distribute, market and consume food raises a series of difficult policy questions which government cannot shirk. The state already regulates in minute detail how food is grown, and livestock are reared, in order to safeguard both human health and our natural environment. We subsidise food producers to an extent no other industry enjoys. We regulate the sale and marketing of food for health and other reasons. From the national curriculum to hospital meals, the availability of migrant labour to the public health impacts of obesity, government is responsible for a myriad of actions which shape the nation’s relationship with food.
And the need for government to review and rethink its influence and role is only increasing. It’s not just the case that we need to reconsider how our biggest manufacturing industry, food and drink, fits into the government’s broader Industrial Strategy; there are other urgent and inescapable policy questions with which government must grapple.
Globally, we are the first generation more likely to die as a result of lifestyle choices than infectious disease. Diabetes, cardiac disease and other obesity-related conditions are costing the NHS billions and drastically harming the lives of millions. Obesity is a particular issue for poorer communities and young people. Children from the most deprived areas are three times as likely to be obese as those from the least deprived.
Intensive farming, of the kind that has increased production so much since the Second World War, also generates environmental problems. The impacts on soil health, air quality, river freshness, biodiversity and climate change have raised urgent questions about how we can make food production genuinely sustainable.
And we cannot afford to ignore new challenges to food security. The world’s population is growing, with mass migration to cities, resource competition intensifying between nations, huge stress on water supplies and climate change altering what the land is capable of supplying. Trade barriers are re-emerging and new public health dangers growing, from anti-microbial resistance to viral mutations. It is critical to review how we secure the food of the future.
To address these growing problems, to ensure the security of our food supply and to maximise the benefits of the coming revolution in agricultural technology, the government proposes to develop a new integrated National Food Strategy.
The National Food Strategy will build on the work underway in the Agriculture Bill, the Environment Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Industrial Strategy and the Childhood Obesity Plan. It is intended to be an overarching strategy for government, designed to ensure that our food system:
- delivers safe, healthy, affordable food; regardless of where people live or how much they earn
- is robust in the face of future shocks
- restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation in this country
- is built upon a resilient, sustainable and humane agriculture sector
- is a thriving contributor to our urban and rural economies, delivering well paid jobs and supporting innovative producers and manufacturers across the country
- delivers all this in an efficient and cost effective way
We have a moral, as well as practical, responsibility to consider the role and impacts of the food system. The purpose of the National Food Strategy is to set out a vision for the kind of food system we should be building for the future, and a plan for how to achieve that vision.
The scope will be England, but the strategy will consider our relationships with the devolved administrations, the European Union and our other trading partners.
The strategy will cover the entire food chain, from field to fork: the production, marketing, processing, sale and purchase of food (for consumption in the home and out of it), and the consumer practices, resources and institutions involved in these processes.
The strategy will consider the role of the central government departments, arms-length-bodies, local councils and city authorities. In doing so it will also consider the roles that individuals, the private sector and social enterprises should play.
3. Reporting, activities, and timing
Defra’s Secretary of State has invited Henry Dimbleby to lead an independent review to inform this strategy. The purpose of the review is to consider how the UK’s food sector operates currently, and to set out options (underpinned by detailed evidence, including in respect of the associated pros, cons, and trade-offs) for adjusting government policies to achieve the objectives for the strategy set out above. Subsequently the government will develop a National Food Strategy white paper informed by this independent review, among other things. This is planned for six months after the publication of the review.
The review will be led by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon restaurants, the lead non-executive director at Defra and co-author of The School Food Plan.
Henry will be supported by Defra officials. Henry will also consult stakeholders across the country and from all relevant government departments. An advisory group selected from across the food system will support him. The recently formed Food and Drink Sector Council will also be a source of close advice and counsel.
Henry will report to ministers on content which concerns their departments, as the review progresses.