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Boris Johnson’s food strategy fails to address food poverty and the cost-of-living crisis

Instead of tackling the root causes of poor diets, the government places responsibility for healthy eating on individuals.

By Tim Lang

Three years ago, Henry Dimbleby was asked to review British food policy and practices by Michael Gove, who was then secretary of state at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). With Gove gone and Defra now led by George Eustice, the Government Food Strategy white paper, which was published today, has been filleted to the point of abstraction. Britain will grow more tomatoes, but food production overall will be static, there is nothing for food poverty, no extension of free school meals, and dangerous sabre-rattling over Northern Ireland’s protocol. I have sent Henry Dimbleby a note of condolence.

Those of us who worked on an earlier process in 2007-10 creating the comprehensive Food 2030 strategy, have sympathy. The exhausting process of data gathering, producing position papers and organising consultations in public and private, can be easily sidelined. In the summer of 2010, Food 2030 was jettisoned quickly after Tory ministers took over Defra in the coalition government.

At least Food 2030 won the full support from the former prime minister, Gordon Brown. Dimbleby’s second report, grandly titled “The Plan”, which was published a year ago, received much less support from the current Prime Minister. A mere few hours after its launch, Boris Johnson dismissed one of its central ideas – to tax foods high in salt, sugar and fats – as an unwarranted interference in people’s lives. This lack of support from Johnson put the whole policy rethink on the back foot, which the cost-of-living and Ukraine crises have cemented.

Today’s white paper confirms this government’s disinterest in food policies. It is a mix of weak proposals with few hard commitments and it completely ignores the cost-of-living crisis. While Dimbleby recognised and enumerated some, but not all, of the deep food fissures in British society, he ducked labour and whether to raise home production; the government says it is content with current levels of production. About 54 per cent (by value) of food on plates is produced in the UK, which is stupid for a country cutting itself off from the EU which feeds it. The white paper is silent about how food supply chains have been disrupted, and made more expensive, by delays, red tape and costs at borders. Simultaneously, the government has launched its unilateral proposal to alter how the Northern Ireland protocol is to work. It wants new “streams” at the border to differentiate between goods intended for Northern Ireland and those intended for the Republic of Ireland (the EU). This is a classic move of the Johnson administration, it wants it both ways while denying any responsibility for causing the difficulties in the first place. 

The Second World War prompted the state to recognise its duty to create conditions for good health for citizens. It’s depressing that the Government Food Strategy could fail to address the evidence that poor diet drives public ill-health and NHS costs. Labour was warned to face this dietary damage by the former NatWest banker Derek Wanless in his reports published in 2002 and 2004. I hoped Johnson might remember acknowledging his own obesity as a factor in his brush with Covid in April 2020. 

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If we did want change, the white paper retreats to individual responsibility as the lever. It says nothing about distortions in marketing and pricing or the refusal to create what academics call supportive environments that normalise health and sustainability. A major failing is power. How can consumers wield power if they don’t have it and giant food companies dominate markets? How can they tame saturated fats in saturated markets? The white paper says favourable things about food manufacturers but nothing about all-powerful retailers who, jointly with caterers, channel the avalanche of over-processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat towards consuming mouths. Yet, as Dimbleby and hundreds of scientists have pointed out, if the food supply chain churns out junk, it will be eaten by people somewhere.

Why is it that Conservative politicians mishandle food politics? In the 1980s and 1990s, Margaret Thatcher and John Major fumbled food safety. Since 2010, food poverty has increased. A constant politics is distaste for the nanny state. But flip the narrative and replace “nanny” by “parent” and suddenly everyone is in favour. Do you want you and your children to live healthy lives, yes or no? If yes, pricing, marketing and market controls could provide public protection. If yes, the UK could grow more food and flood shelves with wholesome goods, not ultra-processed obesogenic products. Cheap commodities – edible oils, grain, fats – are the infrastructure of junk food. When prices go up, even junk goes up.

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From 2007-2010 Labour was forced to rethink its policies towards oil, when its price rose to $100 a barrel. Today it is hovering around $140. The white paper should have mapped the great food transformation from oil-dependent to oil-free. Food 2030 had outlined the future as tackling carbon and calories. Evidence has shown for years that the post-Second World War agri-food vision is flawed. It is particularly oil-reliant for the fertilisers that raised output and the cars that consumers use to get to supermarkets miles from home for food bargains that are no longer bargains. Oil has reconfigured land use by unleashing intensive grain production, much of which feeds animals not humans, institutionalising waste and destroying natural habitats and biodiversity.

The white paper challenges opposition parties and MPs, including government backbenchers to fight back. A central problem, though, is George Eustice. Four weeks ago I heard him express pride that he’s been at the top food table in one guise or another for nine years. Judging by the white paper, he’s content to remain there while people struggle to put food on the table.

[See also: Jeremy Hunt: Tory saviour or “Theresa May in trousers”?]

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