UK food strategy reads more like the beginnings of a plan

The highly anticipated document is high on goals and aspirations but fails to set clear roadmaps for reaching its targets.

In the summer of 2019, the UK government commissioned restauranteur Henry Dimbleby to lead a landmark independent review of the whole British food system – the first in 75 years – to inform a decades-long national food strategy following Brexit.

Part one of the report was published in 2020 – covid-19 meant the review shifted gears to become an urgent response to the issues of hunger and ill-health caused by the pandemic – with the second and final instalment arriving in July 2021, which made 14 recommendations specifically aimed at informing the new national food strategy.

Now, it generally does not bode well for government policy when your lead independent adviser, in this case Dimbleby, talks to the national press on the day of the food strategy’s announcement (June 13) to speak out against it and say, in fact, “It’s not a strategy.”

“It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done,” Dimbleby told The Guardian.

And the Leon co-founder does have a point. The food strategy reads more like an aspirational document filled with good ambitions and intentions – a more prosperous food sector, better sustainability and establishing supportive trade relations are its three central planks – but it is light on details of any fresh policies that will enable England to reach its long-term, food-related goals.

Among the other recommendations Dimbleby’s report made that were not taken up include increasing the number of children eligible for free school meals to tackle food poverty, a sugar and salt tax to fund healthier food options and a commitment to prioritize food imports with higher animal and environmental standards.

Some of the new policies introduced by the strategy – the document spends a lot of time signposting ways in which its aspirations are aligned with pre-existing legislation and government investments funds – include plans to spend more than £270 million ($324 million; €311 million) across farming innovation through to 2029.

The strategy also makes a commitment to factor in the energy needs of new greenhouses as part of energy policy reviews, to address the fact the UK only produces 15 percent of its tomatoes and 23 percent of its cucumbers.

This latter policy note is probably the most illustrative of what the food strategy appears to be most concerned with – enhancing self-sufficiency and protecting food security.

And in time of high inflation rates, war between two hugely important food exporting nations and the economic aftermath of a global pandemic still with us, it is not altogether too surprising that security of supply has taken precedence over environmental and health-related concerns.

Yet the lack of engagement with the long-term issues present in the industry cannot persist for too long.

In its current guise, the strategy is at best the beginnings of a plan that can be honed and built upon over time. And at worst, it is a short-term response to immediate challenges and has little-to-no chance of achieving its decades-long goals.