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30 July 2020

The British government’s national food strategy is a step in the right direction

The proposals would help eliminate childhood hunger and guarantee agricultural standards after Brexit.

By Stephen Bush

Henry Dimbleby has published the first phase of his year-long review of the United Kingdom’s food network. The report focusses on two areas: the problem of childhood hunger and the shape of British trade policy for food and farming after Brexit. While many of the policy levers contained within Dimbleby’s scope are devolved  and form the basis of Scotland’s Good Food Nation aims, and the Welsh government’s Food For Wales, From Wales, because more than 600 farms cross the Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Welsh borders  the UK food strategy has implications for both. Indeed, one reason why Food For Wales, From Wales, which was devised in 2010 to be completed by 2020, is now a dead letter is that decisions taken in England helped to contribute to the strategy being largely abandoned. But Food For Wales, From Wales enjoys, as Dimbleby acknowledges, a fruitful afterlife in his report. 

The “National Food Strategy” contains seven proposals – four to tackle childhood hunger, and three to ensure that Britain’s trading policy doesn’t result in a race to the bottom as far as food and agricultural standards are concerned. Instead, the suggestion is that trade policy can drive standards up.

On childhood hunger, the proposals would expand eligibility for both the “Healthy Start” voucher for expectant and new mothers and free school meals to include every household in receipt of universal credit. It would also extend the holiday activity and food programme to all of England, avoiding the problem of “holiday hunger”, where families who receive support to feed their children in term time go hungry when term ends.

These are all good policies. My one question – and it’s definitely possible the commission has looked at the facilities available to schools in England and concluded that this is not the case  is, once you’ve extended free school meal eligibility to every household that is eligible for universal credit, you might actually be better off going the whole hog and making them universal. This is particularly because extending the reach of free school meals means that you lose their distinct benefit as a (crude and undesirable) way of measuring policy effectiveness.

I’d be inclined to go a bit further than the commission has done. I would make it a statutory obligation to provide the recommended basket of goods to children on free school meals who cannot attend school at the moment. I think there’s a hard limit on what you can achieve solely through policy levers designed exclusively to benefit children – ultimately the condition of a child is intimately bound to the condition of their parents or carers. But for a report aiming to command broad cross-party support this is an excellent first step. It’s also sensible to recommend that the government’s taskforce on food for the vulnerable continues to monitor the problem for another year.  

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The proposals on trade are very sensible, too. Two would increase the transparency of our trade treaties here at home, and are therefore, I think, highly unlikely to happen under this government, which has a strong allergy to scrutiny and disclosure. But they are good policies for others, whether those currently on the Conservative backbenches or in the opposition parties, to pick up and champion.

The third would see the government opt only to cut tariffs on food when it meets certain core standards. This is, in my view, a better legislative approach than simply vowing to use European standards as our benchmark. While the EU’s food standards are better than those of the United States, and better than what I fear we may end up with, they aren’t perfect and there’s no reason not to be more ambitious. Using our trade policy as one lever to try to reduce the amount of antibiotics in the food supply chain, and to increase the amount of rotational farming and sustainable farming practices worldwide, is a good idea. Support for these principles in general is a better starting point than simply using the EU as our foundation.  

What exactly those standards will be will, inevitably, have to be informed by the second phase, which will cover the operation of Britain’s food networks, the implications of that for biodiversity and sustainability, and its potential to be a source of new diseases and novel pandemics. It will report at the end of the year.

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