Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food

This week’s House of Lords Select Committee report is in many ways familiar reading. The UK’s food system results in shocking inequalities in access to good food especially in the context of COVID, an epidemic of chronic disease, and widespread environmental damage. What’s to be done?

The report makes around fifty recommendations, many of which have been made before, not least ending the five week wait on Universal Credit and doing more to regulate the food environment. It encourages a shift towards plant-based diets and away from people having to rely on food aid from charities. It’s good that these civil society asks are becoming more mainstream.

The most substantial fresh policy recommendation is to embed the cost of a heathy sustainable diet in the calculation of social security payments. It makes sense: there is no point in Government recommending an Eatwell plate if 20% of the population can’t afford to buy it.

Two factors make it more likely that at least some of the recommendations will be implemented.

First, food banks were the iconic response to the financial crash, a symbol of austerity. There is a short window of opportunity in the UK for a new social contract as part of the recovery from COVID, a genuine resolve to tackle the gross inequities which COVID has highlighted. Public intervention at a scale not seen since 1945 creates the scope for a historic disruption in our thinking about economy and society.

Second, England’s cross-cutting National Food Strategy led by Henry Dimbleby is due to report soon. This report recommends new governance mechanisms to support the strategy’s implementation: a cross-department group chaired by a senior cabinet minister, and an independent committee (like the UK Committee on Climate Change) to monitor progress and report to Parliament.

The report discusses the right to food – one of the key points in Nourish’s evidence to the enquiry – but dismisses it as unnecessary, seeing these governance mechanisms as a sufficient safeguard.

What does this mean for Scotland? The long delay in introducing the Good Food Nation bill meant that it has been shelved due to the pandemic. But the situation to which the Bill was a response has only become more acute. It’s time to pick up some of the central elements in that Bill and start work on a national food plan – and an independent food commission.

The right to food will be brought into Scots law either through a new Good Food Nation bill or as part of wider human rights law early in the next Parliament. We need to start delivering on that right by putting the food plan and the food commission in place.

The global lessons from COVID will bring a new sharpness to this plan: the importance of population health and nutrition equity in responding to this and future shocks, the need for a clearer contingency plan in the case of future supply chain interruptions, the resilience provided by a more diversified food economy, local storage capacity and short food chains.

Just as importantly, COVID has taught us the value of social capital. Trust, connection, looking out for one another, willingness to work together for the common good – these have been and will continue to be the most important resources during the recovery. Food creates social capital, and a more people-centred, nature-centred food system will create more.

Finally, the climate and nature emergencies haven’t gone away. Food systems and integrated food policies like the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy will have a high profile at CoP 26.

There’s a great opportunity in Glasgow to showcase a joined-up national food plan for Scotland. Food is key to climate, nature, health. It’s key to our recovery from COVID. It’s time for a whole of government plan to fix the food system.