We need to see more ambition on food

Mhairi Brown on whether the Party Manifestos demonstrate an aim to improve the UK food system.

14th June 2024

This week marked the release of a flurry of manifestos from the UK’s political parties. Laying out key policies and narratives, their headline pledges and slogans could help them make or break it come July 4th. But do the manifestos contain the ambition and vision to improve the food system?

FFCC has been working with citizens as part of The Food Conversation for the past year to ask them what they want from the food system. From our conversations, public appetite for change is high, particularly for policies that will move us towards a fairer, more sustainable and affordable system. But in sifting through the manifestos to identify the few areas linked to food, it is clear that the various political Parties have yet to fully grasp the nettle on the scale of action required.

Starting with a topic of high importance with citizens - the unfair targeting of children through manipulative advertising of unhealthy food and drinks. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats appear to agree that there is a need to restrict advertising, but they differ on the scope of those restrictions. The Conservative manifesto notes that they will legislate restrictions on products high in fat, salt and sugar - which in theory should be an easy win. Back in 2018, they committed to a 9pm watershed for advertising on TV, and online restrictions. After taking the policy through rounds of consultation and even introducing it into law, they delayed implementation in 2022 to October 2025 in response to food industry lobbying. The Liberal Democrats have a more ambitious scope in mind, looking to extend the restrictions due in 2025 to post-watershed restrictions on TV and an ambition to restrict outdoor advertising too.

Labour’s manifesto merely refers to a ‘ban’ on junk food advertising; it is not clear if this refers to the 2025 restrictions or grander plans. Indeed, there is little mention of the policies needed to improve food in the UK and yet they have pledged to increase access to dental appointments and recruit more dentists, highlighting that the most common reason children aged five to nine are admitted to hospital is to have rotting teeth removed. Given that excess sugar is the leading cause of tooth decay in children, their efforts would be better spent addressing the root cause, rather than relying on dentists to take on treating this preventable burden. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats have noted that they would extend the Soft Drinks industry Levy, which has already removed large amounts of sugar from soft drinks, to the drinks children consume most including milk-based and juice-based drinks.

Ultra-processed food has surfaced as a worrying issue for citizens across The Food Conversation. While it is heartening to see that the Conservatives have pledged to gather new evidence on the impact of ultra-processed foods, the manifesto highlights that this is intended ‘to support people to make healthier choices’. Citizens have already identified that there is little choice and they feel overwhelmed. They want to see a fairer food system that allows more room for local food producers and farmers, rather than the current unhealthy and profit-driven loop they find themselves trying to navigate.

School-based approaches are a feature, with the Green Party focused on expanding access to school meals for all children and additional access to free breakfast clubs for children up to year 6; free breakfast clubs in all primary schools also featured in the Labour manifesto. Yet it’s not clear how this will be implemented or funded. The Liberal Democrats took a more cautious approach, pledging free school meals to 900,000 more children in poverty and an ambition to extend this to all children in primary school ‘when public finances allow’.

Moving to public procurement to source food for public settings such as hospitals, the Conservatives have noted an aim of having at least 50% of food expenditure being spent on food produced locally or to higher environmental production standards. The Liberal Democrats echo the sentiment, pledging to ensure food is produced to high standards of environmental and social sustainability and is nutritious and healthy as well as locally and seasonally sourced. Admirable aims, yet neither manifesto mentions implementing necessary legislation and accountability mechanisms to achieve this.

Citizens envision a range of policies that work together to improve the food system, and have even suggested changes to government leadership, calling for a Food Minister and even independent advisory boards to implement strong measures and provide accountability. On this, there is some hope with the Liberal Democrats promising to set up a ‘Health Creation Unit’ in the Cabinet Office to lead work across government to improve the nation’s health.

The ambitious thinking shown by UK citizens is necessary: our food system is not fit for purpose. The range of manifesto pledges designed to improve our food system are welcome, but there is a lack of a systems view and the wider range of actions required to achieve change. It’s time for all parties to prepare to step in and give food the attention and investment it needs.