Government leaves our diet in the uncaring hands of Big Food

Green peer Natalie Bennett muses on the Government’s long-awaited but inadequate Food Strategy, which sweeps aside essential carbon-cutting measures.

Supermarket shelves
Natalie Bennett

We are in a climate emergency and nature crisis, with the UK one of the most nature-depleted corners of our planet. We have a crisis of poverty and inequality in our society, food security is perilously threatened and public health is in a terrible state, with poor diets forced on families a major factor.

But there are plans and proposals to tackle these issues. The Dimbleby Report – commissioned by the Government – offered a route toward a healthy food system, tackling our obesity crisis and moving us away from a diet dominated by ultra-processed pap. The Government is legally committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (albeit that date is far too late). There are pilot projects running to restore nature at scale.

But the signs – and announcements – show that the Government is planning to throw out all of those plans and proposals, to instead double down on industrial agriculture, with all of its destruction and ill health. To continue to allow multinational companies to dominate our food and farming choices – a few profiting while the rest of us pay. To force farmers, already struggling to stay in business, to compete with food produced under far worse standards from around the world.

Out yesterday was the long-awaited Food Strategy White Paper, following the very well-received proposals from Henry Dimbleby, as commissioned by the Government as a guide. Finally, it appeared, well behind Wales and Scotland, England was abandoning its long-term, unwritten, food strategy, of leaving deciding what we eat to the supermarkets – who are, of course, driven by profit, not public health and wellbeing. Now it is clear this is business – definitely business – as usual.

Henry Dimbleby is horrified, asking where are the public health measures? Expert opinion is also scathing – concluding that the White Paper demonstrates the Government is in the pockets of the food industry. As evidence, look at the introduction to the executive summary:

“The food and drink industry has an important part to play in the Government’s levelling up agenda. It is the UK’s largest manufacturing industry.” This isn’t a report on growing food, or on cooking food, but on manufacturing it – which reflects our current reality, with 67 per cent of British adolescents’ calories coming from ultra-processed food (64 per cent for children).

Our overstretched NHS faces more and more pressure from rising obesity, at spectacularly dreadful rates among children, while poverty provides no choice at all for families but to subsist – certainly not thrive – with few fresh vegetables and fruit. BOGOF on the worst pap is to be allowed to continue – just one of a number of significant reversals of government promises – raising, evidence shows, food costs for families desperate for a little comfort in a frightening world.

On the farming side, it appears the Government plans to effectively abandon the land recovery scheme. The plan, to transform farming land into nature-rich forests and meadows, peatlands and wetlands, was to be funded to the tune of £800 million a year – a third of the subsidy budget. But that figure has been slashed to £50 million over three years, and is expected to be abandoned when that period ends, despite there being 51 applications for the first tranche of 15 funding pots.

Some are billing this as a victory for the ‘farming lobby’, and some in that quarter have undoubtedly been lobbying for the change. But that doesn’t mean that many farmers don’t understand that their land is unsuited, inappropriate, for the uses to which it is now put.

Drainage schemes – more tax minimisation scheme than production aid – continued well into the 1970s, on land that was – and should be – wetland, land that is extremely difficult to farm, relying on high levels of chemical inputs and fossil fuels, uneconomic in the new age of input inflation. Destruction of peatland is a major contributor to climate-warming carbon – and restoring, as we eventually must, it will cost far more the longer it is thrashed.

Joining together the farming and food issues, the Government is failing to follow environmental and medical advice to work to reduce meat production. Most of it comes from factory farming, which is massive food waste – perfectly good grains, oil and protein that could feed humans going to produce not only poor quality meat and dreadful animal welfare, but also massive air and water pollution, and a massive threat of new pandemics and the loss of the antibiotic drugs essential to modern medicine.

Albert Einstein probably never actually said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity. But the saying is dead accurate nonetheless.

And that is what this government – bankrupt of will and in the hands of desperate, failing populists and corporate funders – is intent on doing. Industrial agriculture, supermarket dominance and multinational companies have given us food poverty, ill health, a trashed countryside and a fast-warming world. More of the same approach will only give us more of the same.