Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Check your privilege

By Elliot Kett

5th August 2020

The dust has settled since Henry Dimbleby launched the much-awaited first instalment of the National Food Strategy a week ago.

This of course wasn’t the report he’d expected to write: coronavirus made sure of that. But it was right to change tack and address the immediate problems and cracks in the food system, shown up by pandemic. Paraphrasing Leonard Cohen, “it’s the cracks where the light gets in”.

It is a compelling read. The excellent storytelling weaves in anecdotes from history and paints a vivid picture of the UK’s food system, its strengths and its failings. No matter how many times I read, ‘one in seven deaths are caused by diet-related ill health,’ I still find it an arresting statistic, and cause for serious reflection. It’s great to see health put front and centre – particularly as the burden of poor health is so unequally distributed, shown up with unsettling clarity.

Responses from NGOs and businesses alike appear to have been positive and encouraging. It’s hard to disagree with the proposed measures to ensure better access to healthy food for those on the lowest incomes – the government now needs to implement those recommendations at pace. There is more divergence around the knotty topic of trade and standards – is the new Trade and Agriculture Commission really the right body to advise on standards if doesn’t have teeth nor transparency? Is a dual tariff system really suitable?

But whilst affirmation from the non-governmental audience is positive, it is within government that fast, far reaching and joined up action must be taken. And here’s the thing. This report was launched as the first independent review of the food system in 75 years. Maybe it was this that caught our attention, since here at FFCC, we thought we had just conducted an independent review of the food system. Reporting back in 2019, funded by charitable foundations and led and directed by independent Commissioners (a couple of whom are also on the NFS Advisory Board) it was well received and launched by the then Secretary of State and Henry himself. No one is doubting Henry’s independence of thought and deed. But he is also Defra’s lead Non-Executive Director, was appointed by the then Defra SoS, the NFS is funded by government and staffed by civil servants. And that’s a good thing. In fact, it is precisely why the work of the National Food Strategy is so promising and important – since it is commissioned by government should mean that it has power and teeth to make real changes. We do hope that this new state of independence is not signalling that the government is rowing back from its commitment to it…

Government departments are known for their siloed working, and it is making government work better together across these notional boundaries is where the real and hard work lies. This is alluded to in the report – that recommendations for limiting the advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods had to be removed at the eleventh hour because they were adopted in the Government’s National Obesity Strategy from Department of Health and Social Care.

We’ve experienced this recently here at the Commission. Sending our Learning from Lockdown survey results to Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, with its recommendations for investing, via LEPs, in rural and food sector businesses, we received this short response; "For DEFRA to respond as Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is a stakeholder of theirs and this is DEFRA policy”.

So, whilst we welcome Part One, the strength of the National Food Strategy is that it was established by government, can work across government and reports to government. It has to really hold the Government’s feet to the fire. This administration claims to want more radical and practical ideas; it would be a crying shame if – like many governments before – it fails to appreciate or acknowledge the critical importance of a fair and sustainable food system, to citizens and to the environment, in the UK and internationally. In the run up to Part Two, government support is crucial if it is to reach its full potential.

There’s lots more to be unpacked between now and then, and we look forward to contributing where we can. The question still remains, how will government create the conditions needed for business, public bodies and civil society to connect and develop fair and sustainable food production with sustainable and healthy diets for all. Our upcoming work programme explores this further here: https://ffcc.co.uk/what-we-do