England’s National Food Strategy – over to you, Scotland

The Independent Review of the National Food Strategy (the Review) was published today. It is recognised as the first comprehensive review of England’s food system in 75 years. We welcome the increased political and public attention and scrutiny of the challenges in England’s food system. Many of them are mirrored in Scotland, and have worsened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s not an easy task to deep-dive into challenges facing the food system; they are complex and deeply entrenched. There are many vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Food policy has historically been an under-loved area, so we commend this report for drawing attention to these urgent issues. 

What is the purpose? 

This Review aims to detail how the UK’s food sector operates currently. It also sets out options for adjusting Government policies to better achieve the objectives of: escaping the junk food cycle; reducing diet-related inequalities; making best use of land; and creating a long-term shift in food culture. Now that the Review has been published, the UK Government will develop a National Food Strategy White Paper. This is planned within the next six months. 

We won’t cover the whole 290-page report in this blog.  But it is certainly worth noting some initial reflections. 

Some positives: 

As the report finds, Government action is central to creating a food environment that protects and promotes nutritious and sustainable food.  

Salt and sugar tax: Focusing on individual behaviour change to tackle diet-related illnesses does not work. It places the responsibility on consumers to navigate food environments that promote nutritionally-poor products at cheaper prices. Bold action is needed to change the food environment. This is why we welcome the Review’s major recommendation to introduce new taxes on high salt and high sugar processed foods. The Review recognises the role that Government and Industry must play to address the deep-seated challenges in the food system. We’ve seen from the Soft Drinks Industry Levy the impact that fiscal measures can have to encourage food and drink manufactures to reformulate products and reduce sugar.  

Mandatory reporting: The Review recommends introducing mandatory reporting for large food companies and greater scrutiny of the nutritional and environmental impact of food sold. This will increase transparency and provide much needed data on the impact of large food companies, hopefully pressuring those businesses to review their practices.   

Procurement: The Review recommends ensuring that food served in public settings, such as schools and hospitals, has higher nutritional and sustainability standards. Additionally, the promotion of procurement schemes that support SMEs and more agroecological producers to gain access to public sector markets. We have long championed the importance of public kitchens leading by example, so it’s great to see this recognised. However, it’s a shame the Review doesn’t have more about the importance of local authority planning to remove geographical barriers to nutritious food.

Trade: The UK Government has repeatedly promised not to compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards in trade negotiations. However, it has also agreed in principle a trade deal with Australia, where environmental and animal welfare standards in farming are much lower. The Review’s recommendation that the UK Government define minimum core standards for food imports, and a mechanism for protecting those standards, is a base necessity. 

Reduction of diet-related inequalities: It is encouraging to see recommendations to expand eligibility of Healthy Start to more parents and children including 4 year olds, and expanding eligibility of free school meals. This includes making permanent the extension of eligibility to children of asylum seekers and other with no recourse to public funds. A number of these policies are already being acted upon in Scotland. 

Less exciting: 

There are some areas where the Review feels a bit luke-warm. We see ambitious proclamations on sugar and salt taxes. And the Review has an overarching narrative on climate change and biodiversity loss – in recognition of the integral role that food systems play in contributing to both issues. However, it shies away from any debate around a ‘meat tax’ – arguing instead that such a move would be too politically and publicly unpopular. Instead there seems to be an emphasis on innovation – suggesting, for example, that 20% reduction in meat consumption as a result of ‘alternative proteins’ replacing processed meats – but ruling out even a discussion on more ambitious measures on meat consumption feels a little gently-gently. 

The Review also emphasises the importance of food education – which isn’t the most innovative, exciting or impactful of ideas. It’s hard to be against kids learning about – or better still enjoying – food at school. However, in policy terms, it can be a red herring. Despite commonly-held assumptions, education is not the cure-all for complicated issues of food insecurity and diet-related illness.  

There are also a few gaps. Despite significant focus on workers and the precarious jobs in the food system in the first part of this Review (published in July 2020), today’s publication does not address the concerns faced by workers in the food system, including seasonal workers, who are amongst the most likely to face poor working conditions, high levels of food insecurity, and unstable employment practices such as zero-hours contracts. The Review also, by its own admission, skips over the fishing / marine discussion, an incredibly important area, particularly given Brexit disruption and uncertainty. Additionally, it is disappointing that the Review fails to put forward any new recommendations on junk food advertising, this could have been an impactful move with the recent attentions to the topic from the Prime Minister. 

Legislation: 

The Review concludes with a recommendation for legislation – the ‘Good Food Bill’.  We applaud that. We, alongside our partners in the Scottish Food Coalition, have long called for legislation on Scotland’s food system, the Good Food Nation Bill. We believe that the Bill must incorporate the right to food – this provides a robust set of principles as well as guidance on taking a whole-system approach to governing the food system 

 The Good Food Nation Bill has been in the works in Scotland for the past 7 years. While we’re glad to see similar direction being taken in England. Scotland cannot fall behind. Progress towards the Good Food Nation Bill has been stilted. With food policy in the political spotlight, we’re ready for renewed momentum and for the Scottish Government to keep pace.