The prospects for the UK's food system - insights from a recent Atticus panel event


Following the publication of the latest Food Strategy last week, Junior Consultant Chantel looks at the prospects for the Government introducing significant reform of the UK’s food system, drawing on the discussion at a recent Atlas panel event.

With all the current drama in Westminster, it’s probably unsurprising that food policy has slipped down the domestic political agenda over recent months (despite Jamie Oliver’s eye-catching ‘Eton Mess’ protest outside Parliament a few weeks ago!)

However, last week the Government finally published its highly-anticipated Food Strategy, responding to a review led by restaurateur Henry Dimbleby which concluded last summer. Unfortunately, many food campaigners, as well as Dimbleby himself, were unhappy with what was proposed (with flagship recommendations from Dimbleby’s review such as a sugar and salt reformulation tax rejected).

So does this represent yet another missed opportunity to reform our food system so it’s fit for the future? The current political weakness of the Government would suggest so, and the lack of action in this area couldn’t come at a worse time given how the food system is already being radically reshaped by factors varying from far-away wars to the transition to net zero.

This was revealed by a panel event recently hosted by Atlas Partners on the future of food policy, attended by Ian Wright (Co-Chair of the Government’s Food and Drink Sector Council), Fiona Harvey (Environment Correspondent at The Guardian), and Nick von Westenholz (Director of Trade and Business Strategy at the NFU).

As is still the case now, the panellists observed that the Ukraine-Russia war was already leading to shortages for many food products, from sunflower oil to fish. Ian reminded us that Ukraine and Russia produce around 30% of the world's wheat and about 75% of the world's sunflower oil. In light of this, the panel discussed how a resilient food sector needs diversity of supply, meaning that securing our food imports through trade relationships with reliable partners should be a key priority for the Government. Nick added that it looked likely the war will result in a long term form of global food insecurity, increasing the urgency of the Government moving forward with its plans to diversify supply.

Speaking on Radio 4 on the day of the Food Strategy’s launch, Henry Dimbleby said that the cost of living crisis was being used as a pretext by the Government to water down his recommendations. The role of spiralling food prices in the wider cost of living crisis also loomed large in our panellists’ remarks. Indeed, some of the issues raised in Dimbleby’s review will likely only be exacerbated by food price inflation. As Fiona Harvey stated during our panel event: “people who don’t have enough money will just have to choose what is cheapest”, which doesn’t help with the country’s public health challenges, for example.

When the discussion turned to the relationship between food and environmental policy, Fiona argued that food policy to date had been “shambolic” in this regard. She said that it was possible to attain good levels of productivity while pursuing environmental goals, but trade policy and the Government’s current approach to decarbonising agriculture were currently only acting to harm farmers.

On the Government’s trade policy, Fiona cited the risk arising from “...more trade deals that leave UK farmers subject to this cut-price new welfare competition from overseas.” Turning to the green transition, she said that “farmers have always looked after the environment in lots of ways, but they need encouragement to do so and they need adverse incentives to be taken away because farmers are business and they are not just there to keep the countryside pretty.” Following yesterday’s by-election defeat for the Government in formerly true blue Tiverton and Honiton, maybe this is a message that will start to get more resonance in the months ahead.

On a positive note, Nick observed that the conversations he’d been having on farming and the environment in the past three years had been more sophisticated and advanced than previously, and there’s starting to be serious engagement in the industry on how the UK can produce food sustainably.

From what the Government has said since our panel event, it seems that Henry Dimbleby’s assertion that there remains “no joined-up strategy” from Ministers on food is one that will be held by many working within the sector. Indeed, the winds buffeting our food system are only likely to blow harder.

However, maybe one silver lining is that the current salience of rewilding agricultural land (courtesy of Clarkson’s Farm, and others) and the impact of the war in Ukraine on food supply may well prompt, as Ian Wright said at our panel, a national conversation about where we get our food from and how this needs to evolve. Though no substitute for a Government willing to take the action required, it at least increases the chances of green shoots of progress emerging once the political weather changes. 

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