Making the food system work for everybody’s health and the environment requires radical government policy addressing many areas of the food system – but England’s new Food Strategy fails to do this.
England’s new Food Strategy sounded promising with the right mindset, committed leadership and great enthusiasm from food practitioners. It was set to transform England’s food system so that it “Delivers safe, healthy, affordable food; regardless of where (people) live or how much they earn” and “restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation in this country.”
This felt appropriate in a context where Covid-19 exposed people’s vulnerability and precarity, and where many slipped into poverty and suffered from food insecurity during and post pandemic. The UK, overall, is also set to have a huge malnutrition problem in which over 21 million UK adults will be obese by 2040 – roughly 40 per cent of the adult population.
Any country would dream of such a comprehensive, systematic food strategy, right?
However, Monday’s Food Strategy for England was more than a disappointment. It failed to suggest how to tackle the systemic issues that make people – especially poor and vulnerable people — unhealthy, sees healthy food unaffordable for many, and results in our planet screaming from environmental damages.
What underlines all these issues is a consideration of equity: we need a food system that does not discriminate because of income, ethnicity, race or location. England’s Food Strategy, sadly, will not deliver such a food system.
When we think of food insecurity and malnutrition, we often think of people in remote places far away from England and the UK. The UK is a rich country with a lot of food available, and we are not starving.
Yet preventing malnutrition and enabling access to healthy food is not just about the quantity of food, but also the quality, and how we physically and emotionally feel from the food we are eating. For a long time, international and national policies have focused on producing a large quantity of starchy food such as bread, rice, and corn– to feed people with enough calories. These foods are also easy to store and transport, which allowed us to make sure that a few countries can produce these foods efficiently and sell to other parts of the world without spoiling.
Calorie overconsumption and unhealthy diets
We now know that the approaches above are not enough to support people’s health. Excess weight and obesity have become a huge problem over the last few decades, with rich countries like the UK, United States and Australia leading the way in overconsumption of calories. This is partly because unhealthy foods such as sweets and oily snacks are cheap to produce and heavily marketed by the companies that produce them.
We also know that being overweight or obese has serious consequences on people’s health – high blood pressure, risks of cancer, diabetes and heart diseases to name just a few. These are serious issues that many people in the UK are facing today. Government policies need to tackle them with urgency.
The way we eat in rich countries also adds to the worsening of our multiple and intersecting global crises. For example, evidence shows that the intensive animal farming needed to satisfy our demand for excessive quantities of meats and animal products both causes environmental damage and leads to disease outbreaks. The mass production of animal meat means animals are confined in small spaces with limited welfare. Encouraging people to eat less meat, and meat from more sustainable sources, is critical to reducing the environmental footprint of meat production, raising animal welfare and addressing global health challenges.
Alternative protein diets
The Strategy’s suggestion to support more venison and fish is not enough. People in the UK rarely eat venison and prefer chickens, beef, lamb and pork. It is also not enough to rely on ‘educating’ citizens to eat less meat: our food decisions are based on availability, prices and whether we have the time and resources to cook. Education alone will not change people’s behaviours.
England needs a concrete strategy that encourages people to reduce (but not necessarily give up completely) meat, and to make alternative protein sources such as beans, tofu, lentils and others as part of their everyday meal. This can be done with a combination of policies that set prices of meat and meat alternatives, expand school meal coverage and quality, and control foods.
Making our food system work for our health and the environment will require a radical government policy that addresses multiple areas of the food system. And we need a particular focus on the vulnerable communities in the UK – be it children, people living in poverty, racial or ethnic minorities or people in impoverished areas. A sustainable and just food strategy needs to serve their wellbeing, first and foremost, rather than an agenda of deregulation and free markets at all costs.
This will be only possible with radical thinking about the future of our food system and committed leadership to drive such changes. Can the UK be the world leader in such radical food systems?