Food plan for England condemned by its own lead adviser | Health policy
The government’s lead adviser on food issues has condemned what ministers have billed as a landmark national plan to combat food poverty and obesity, saying it is “not a strategy” and warning it could mean more children will go hungry.
Henry Dimbleby’s verdict is further bad news for Boris Johnson as the white paper is a direct response to last year’s wide-ranging review of Britain’s food system, which was led by the restaurateur.
Johnson’s plan was billed as the first such blueprint since rationing 75 years ago, positioning England as a leader on food and environment in a post-Brexit world. But the final plan strips away many of Dimbleby’s key recommendations.
“It’s not a strategy,” the founder of the Leon food chain said of the final document, which he has been shown. “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.”
The document, to be introduced into the House of Commons by the environment secretary, George Eustice, on Monday, is virtually unchanged from a leaked draft revealed by the Guardian last week.
In his document, Dimbleby made a number of high-profile suggestions, including a significant expansion to free school meals, greater environment and welfare standards in farming, and a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption.
Instead, the few specific policies chosen by the government include an increase in domestic tomato production, and making it easier for deer stalkers to sell wild venison.
Dimbleby said the cost of living crisis meant there was even more need for free school meals than when he produced his plan, which called for up to 1.5 million more children in England to receive them.
“With inflation as it is, both the amount spent on free school meals is significantly less in real terms than it was a year ago and the number of people who need it is significantly more – we need to tackle that,” Dimbleby said.
“I do hope it is being looked at, people are being inflated into poverty and food providers are being inflated into not producing healthy meals,” he warned.
He was also critical of one thing that did change between the draft seen by the Guardian and the final version, involving the removal of commitments to make it easier to import food with high animal welfare and environmental standards.
He said: “Yet again the government has ducked the issue of how we don’t just import food that destroys the environment and is cruel to animals – we can’t create a good fair farming system, then export those harms abroad. I thought the government would address this but it didn’t.”
Recommendations by Dimbleby on diet and public health, such as using a sugar and salt tax to fund healthy food options for those in poverty, were also ignored, with the issue shunted into an upcoming health inequalities white paper. “There was nothing really there on health,” Dimbleby said.
The plan also includes no ambition to reduce meat consumption, with Dimbleby’s report noting that 85% of farmed UK land is used to either grow food for livestock, or to rear meat.
“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,” he said.
Opposition parties also expressed disquiet. Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow environment and food secretary, said the government had “absolutely no ambition” to tackle crises over food prices.
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.”
Tim Farron, the rural affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said the lack of protections over food standards for imports risked being “an utter betrayal of British farmers”. He said: “Time and again Boris Johnson has promised one thing then gone on to do the opposite. It just shows this government can’t be trusted to stand up for rural communities.”
The food TV presenter and climate campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall condemned the lack of any plan to reduce meat and dairy consumption, calling this “just lazy and spineless and pandering to the food industry’s status quo”.
Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said: “It seems that what broke this strategy was not a lack of good intent but a narrow-minded ideology which believes government should not intervene to reshape diets.”
Louisa Casson, head of food and forests, Greenpeace UK, added: “By ignoring climate scientists and its own experts in favour of industry lobbyists, the government has published a strategy that, ultimately, will only perpetuate a broken food system and see our planet cook itself.”
Announcing the food plan, Johnson called it “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”.