Authors: Philippa Simmonds, Damian Maye, Charlotte Chivers, Janet Dwyer, Mike Goodman, Dan Keech, Moya Kneafsey, Théo Lenormand, Louise Manning, Matt Reed, Alex Sexton
“Sugar and salt taxes plan set out by food tsar” announced The Daily Telegraph on 15th June 2021. The long-awaited “Part 2” of England’s National Food Strategy had been launched that morning, and folks in the food research world suddenly found their social media feeds full of hot takes. From free marketeers outraged at the prospect of government actually (gasp) governing, to meat tax advocates frustrated by the report’s lack of teeth on meat reduction, Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations gave us a lot to digest.
Given that the UK government has a full 6 months to respond with a White Paper, we at the CCRI decided to take a leisurely approach to reading and ruminating on the 288-page document over summer. On 10th September a group of us, plus friends and colleagues from other institutions, gathered virtually to reflect on what we had read.
The report contains 16 chapters, with 14 broad recommendations divided into four categories (see figure 1). Dimbleby’s systems approach identifies two major destructive feedback loops in our food system: the “Junk Food Cycle” and the “Invisibility of Nature”, described in chapters 4 and 6 respectively. The former is explained as follows: “We have a predilection for calorie dense foods, which means food companies invest more time and money creating these foods, which makes us eat more of them and expands the market, which leads to more investment, which makes us eat more” (NFS Part 2, page 49). Meanwhile, the latter refers to the way nature is ignored in “almost all of the measurements we use to value human activity” (such as GDP), and thus becomes invisibilized by our economic system- with disastrous consequences. We collectively feel that the report does some excellent work, and that it has progressed the conversation around food systems in promising directions. The reflections below are distilled from our discussion in September, and aim to highlight these advances while also noting where we feel recommendations could be more ambitious.
Overall, those who had been working in the agri-food space for a while expressed a sense of déjà vu at some of the NFS’ proposed solutions. Many of the ideas and recommendations set out in the report (working in schools, taxes, changes in public procurement) have been around for many years – indeed we have evidence they can be effective. There just hasn’t been the political will to implement and scale them up. We were also reminded of previous food policy documents from the last 20 years: such as the Curry Report and the Sustainable Farming and Food strategy in 2002, and the Food 2030 strategy in 2010. These were also produced in the context of crises; the foot and mouth outbreak in the early 2000s, and the 2008 financial crash and subsequent recession. England therefore hasn’t had a new food strategy since the coalition government took power in 2010, beginning years of austerity. This latest strategy has emerged among multiple intersecting crises: poverty, public health, trade, climate change, and an ongoing pandemic.
A striking feature of the NFS is itsbroad and cross-cutting nature, thanks in part to Dimbleby’s dedication to “systems thinking”.This approach has advantages- not least bridging topics that are currently siloed, and being a useful tool for teaching and advocacy. However, given that the government currently deals with many of these issues within departmental siloes, our discussion raised questions over whether it will be able to respond in a similarly holistic manner. We also found some odd omissions (such as local food economies and the supply chain workforce crisis), which was felt to be a weakness of trying to take such a broad approach. Finally, the sheer scope of the report makes it difficult to communicate to the general public. We can’t expect everyone to read such a long document; in fact, a separate group of researchers have already taken the initiative to distil it into a 12-page policy brief. Furthermore, the way the report has been communicated via news and social media has focused on divisive aspects such as taxation and meat reduction. This speaks to broader issues with the media environment rather than the report itself – but will be a challenge to consider when communicating the forthcoming White Paper. What communication strategies can be used to generate excitement and enthusiasm about transforming our food system? Will this all be left to NGOs and activists?
Poverty and inequality
Turning to Chapter 5, we felt the report delivers powerful analysis; dispelling myth after myth around diet-related inequality. However, many of us felt it then pulled back from recommending transformative solutions. Our critique was that a focus on food poverty can obscure the causes of poverty and inequalities attributable to the wider socio-economic system; of which the food system is merely a sub-system. In an economy which produces many low-paid and insecure jobs, obliges many to live in sub-standard housing, and provides insufficient financial support to those unable to work, food poverty will always be an outcome. This is aggravated by social isolation and loneliness which certain groups (such as elderly people, or those with long-term health conditions) are more likely to experience, and which have been shown to reduce people’s ability to access and enjoy healthy food.
Dimbleby does realise this; in Part 1 of the NFS he described his conclusions from spending time at food banks and other services dealing with hunger: “These people’s stories had nothing to do with the food system: they were problems of poverty, mental illness, domestic abuse, and often revised or delayed benefits claims”. Yet, we felt the recognition that food poverty is primarily a symptom of poverty itself didn’t carry through to the recommendations in Part 2. One report isn’t necessarily going to shift our economic system, but it could certainly be bolder about mitigating its damaging effects. The lack of boldness leads to an approach of prescribing “special” food for the poor (such as free school meals), which many experience as stigmatising. The NFS actually highlights the extent of public support for universal free school meals, which would be the more equitable solution. Why, then, is this not a recommendation? Furthermore, in Chapter 16, the report makes claims that the cost to government of income-assessed free school meals will decrease in future “as earnings increase and fewer families become eligible” (page 151). This is to be hoped for, but does not constitute evidence-based advice. The recommended policies will certainly help to reduce socio-economic inequality, but they may prove to be “band aids” in the context of our current political economy and frayed social safety net.
Reflecting on these observations, one colleague remarked that ‘food becomes a weapon in a politics of not dealing with poverty’. Overall, this kind of approach legitimises solutions led by agri-food corporations in the name of ‘affordability’- with all its economies of scale and externalities. It is well-known that the UK already has cheap food when compared to other Western European countries– cheap food alone evidently does not address the root cause of ‘food poverty’. Speaking of corporate agriculture brings us to another contentious area in the report: agriculture and land use.
We discussed at length the report’s proposed ‘Three Compartment Model’ for land use- wondering how the juxtaposition of agroecological farms, rewilded areas, and high-tech, production intensive farms using AI and drones would work in practice. By combining these three approaches, the report seems to be side-stepping the fierce and controversial debates that take place around, for example, land sharing versus land sparing. Will this approach keep everyone happy, or is it unrealistic given the different values and ideologies underlying these solutions? One attendee pointed out that this sort of “hedging” might lead to selective reading of the report, with all camps believing their position to be supported. This could result in everyone pressing ahead with their approaches in isolation- rather than seeking to collaborate and build knowledge and consensus across ideological divides. Speaking of land use, participants had some beef with the way the UK land use was represented, given that this was not connected more explicitly to the realities of what people eat (see figure 3). For example, while a significant proportion of the UK countryside is used for raising sheep, much of this is exported to the EU and lamb comprises only a small and declining proportion of the UK diet (average 3.3g per person per day or 1.2kg a year in 2018-19). This issue is one component of a broader debate about what UK land is used for. Should feeding the UK population be prioritised- connecting land use more explicitly to mainstream consumer tastes? Or should we prioritise our comparative advantage for growing grass, and rear a lot of livestock more extensively, even if many are then exported? Most importantly: who gets to decide how we use the land?
Deliberation and democracy
The former question brings us to a final theme that emerged from our discussion. One attendee highlighted that a citizens assembly was originally planned as part of the strategy’s creation- however this was scaled down due to the Covid-19 pandemic (see Part 1, page 46). Yet the citizens’ Climate Assembly took place during the pandemic, so perhaps this could have been a feasible approach. We felt as a group that circumstances weakening the opportunity to allow citizens’ voices to come through more strongly meant this powerful narrative was sometimes lacking in the report. Although some of us liked the “systems” approach, others felt that it failed to connect the different sections adequately. We believe that more extensive critical dialogue and participatory engagement with the public would have allowed greater articulation of values and collective imagination of transformative solutions- in the spirit of “More, and better, democracy” (Willis 2020). Future food system research and policy would benefit from incorporating more participatory approaches and explicitly ensuring the inclusion of lost (or silenced) voices in our communities. A powerful research theme could be to increase understanding of how to access such voices, as well as how to retain their authenticity during the process of interpretation and re-communication. This is something we hope to discuss further the next time we meet.
On a related note, another colleague pointed out that a great deal of excellent work on poverty, and using food as a lever for community cohesion, takes place on a sub-national level. Many of the social objectives within the NFS will be realised (or not) through civil society networks and local councils, who have limited capacity. As the NFS alludes in Recommendation 11, the government cannot simply indicate local innovation- it must support it financially.
Coming together to discuss this important food system review was a valuable way to share knowledge within and beyond the CCRI. We were heartened to see the statement in Recommendation 11 that research funding needs to be directed toward practitioners as well as academics; endorsement for continuing the kind of transdisciplinary work taking place at the CCRI. We look forward to meeting and deliberating together again after the White Paper is released, and hope to develop a set of principles for UK food system researchers operating in this current era of crises.