The architect of a major review of England’s food system has poured cold water on the Government’s vision for the industry, saying its new plan is “not a strategy”. Boris Johnson has pledged the blueprint, being launched on Monday, will “back farmers”, after a leaked draft of the document was condemned by critics as “half-baked”.
Ministers are aiming to strengthen the resilience of the nation’s supply chains and increase domestic production, so “we will grow and eat more of our own food”, to help guard against future economic shocks and crises. But the Government’s food tsar said the response to his wide-ranging review of the system fell short of what was needed.
Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby told The Guardian the document was “not a strategy”, saying: “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.”
It comes after ministers were accused of concocting a blueprint “bordering on the preposterous”, as it apparently failed to implement key recommendations from the review.
A leaked draft of the strategy, published by The Guardian on Friday, caused a stir when it appeared to reveal calls for a sugar and salt reformulation tax had been snubbed. The newspaper said Mr Dimbleby had been shown the final document, and said “there was nothing really there on health”. The review also urged the Government to “nudge” consumers into changing their meat-eating habits.
But while the draft paper said ministers would “support progress on a wide range of issues, including alternative proteins”, it suggested sustainable sources of protein did not have to “displace traditional sectors”, pointing to “regenerative farming”.
Mr Dimbleby said: “They have said we need alternative proteins but they have not mentioned the unavoidable truth that the meat consumption in this country is not compatible with a farming system that protects agriculture and sequesters carbon.” The National Farmers Union said ministers had “stripped to the bone” proposals from the Dimbleby review, while Labour said the document was “nothing more than a statement of vague intentions”.
Launching the strategy on Monday, the Government said it had accepted “the majority of recommendations” from the food tsar’s report, with policy initiatives to boost “health, sustainability and accessibility of diets, and to secure food supply”. One clear priority for ministers is to reduce the distance between farm and fork, with a vision for 50% of public sector food spend to go on food produced locally or certified to higher standards.
The strategy also sets out plans to create a new professional body for the farming and growing industry, to boost training and develop clear career pathways, equipping people and businesses with the skills needed to run sustainable and profitable businesses.
Mr Johnson said: “Our food strategy sets out a blueprint for how we will back farmers, boost British industry and help protect people against the impacts of future economic shocks by safeguarding our food security. Harnessing new technologies and innovation, we will grow and eat more of our own food – unlocking jobs across the country and growing the economy, which in turn will ultimately help to reduce pressure on prices.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “The food industry is bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined, offering employment opportunities, apprenticeships and investment in research and development. The strategy we are setting out today will increase the focus on skills in the food sector, and the roles and career pathways available. In particular, we will seek to boost our horticulture industry and ensure the expertise needed to develop the sector here in the UK.”
But Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow secretary for environment, food and rural affairs, accused the Government of failing to deliver “much more than a new slogan”.
“The Government themselves say the food industry is bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined, yet all they have done is re-announce existing funding,” he said.
“This is nothing more than a statement of vague intentions, not a concrete proposal to tackle the major issues facing our country. To call it a food strategy is bordering on the preposterous. Yet again this tired, out-of-ideas Conservative Government is failing to show the ambition our country needs.”
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of farming group Sustain, said: “In the face of multiple crises in the cost of living, rocketing obesity, climate change and nature loss, the Government food strategy looks shamefully weak. Government was given crystal clear analysis and a set of recommendations by the Dimbleby food strategy, and has chosen to take forward only a handful of them.
“This isn’t a strategy, it’s a feeble to-do list, that may or may not get ticked.”
The Food Foundation called the paper “disappointing”, saying it “misses this mark” as many of its commitments will “flounder without new legislation to make them stick”.
The charity’s executive director, Anna Taylor, said: “Despite its name, the whole document is lacking a strategy to transition the food system towards delivering good food which is accessible to everyone. And without a commitment to a new Food Bill, many of the commendable commitments made are in reality toothless.
“It is a feeble interpretation of Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations, which will not be sufficient to drive the long-term change that we know is so urgently needed.”
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