Thirty three pages. The government’s white paper in response to the National Food Strategy (NFS) is short. Were it decisive, this brevity would be a virtue. After all, it doesn’t need to be long, the detailed evidence is out there: the white paper endorses and claims to build on the 500-odd pages of detailed analysis in the NFS and its evidence pack.
Instead, the white paper offers vague nostrums. For example, it says government is “working to increase global food security in the long term through increasing the sustainability and resilience of agriculture and other areas of the food system.” The goal is laudable, but the action is missing. There are many similarly elusive sentences peppered throughout.
People notice when policy doesn’t match rhetoric
One comes away with the impression that the government likes the ends that the NFS proposed policy to achieve – affordable, healthy diets and a nature positive, carbon negative food system that safeguards rural livelihoods – but is baulking at providing the means to achieve them.
This is risky. People notice when policy doesn’t match up to rhetoric, and there’s a political vacuum opening up for politicians who can set out not just distant environmental goals but how to achieve them.
The strategy behind two of the white paper’s three goals is beset by a basic lack of realism: the goals of a prosperous agri-food sector providing secure food and good jobs, and of a trade regime that secures exports, consumer choice and no compromise in regulatory standards.
Most well paid jobs in the food sector are in food manufacturing, but too many of these are locked into the junk food cycle, manufacturing food high in fat, sugar and salt. To address this, the NFS proposed a sugar and salt levy designed to make food manufacturers reformulate. This would keep the high value jobs without the appalling cost to public health. But the White Paper has no policy to help retain high value jobs while escaping the junk food cycle. Nor is there anything immediate to level up the third of farms that depend on poor pay and long hours. There is, however, hope in the form of an endorsement of the NFS’s three compartment model of land use, more of which below.
The US proves cheap imports aren’t the answer
On trade, the white paper talks up UK exports, most of which, by value, are from Scotland, in the form of salmon and shellfish (£1.3 billion) and whisky (£4.5 billion), not England. But exports are a distraction from what’s at stake in trade: the power to assert UK food standards in imported food, and the principle of a level playing field with food produced in the UK.
Some argue we need cheap imports to keep food costs low but, if cheap imports were the answer, the free trading United States would show the way. Instead, it is in its 12th month of runaway food price inflation, with prices increasing by ten per cent in May 2022. A legal commitment to prevent food that wouldn’t meet UK standards from being imported – like deforestation-associated beef from Australia – is overwhelmingly popular, but the white paper again asserts the goal of high UK standards without any means to enforce them.
The third goal of a nature positive, carbon negative, affordable food system fares a bit better. This hinges on dietary change, lower carbon food and land use change.
The government’s squeamish approach to meat meant nobody expected Defra to advocate eating less, and the endorsement of alternative proteins is meaningful: about half the meat we eat is processed or in ready meals, and British ingenuity in precision fermentation and cultivated meat could replace these industrial meat products at low price and with radically better environmental and animal welfare outcomes. But while the NFS proposed a £125 million fund and a facility to support British startups in these industries, the white paper offers only a promise to develop a proposal.
Similarly, feed additives to cut methane from cattle, which look essential to cutting carbon in the beef and dairy sector, are relegated to a call for evidence rather than a funding or regulatory commitment. Still, these are baby steps in the right direction.
Perhaps the strongest endorsement is for a land use framework in 2023. Done right, this would guide Environmental Land Management (ELM) funding to support farmers on less productive land to diversify into nature restoration and carbon removal, offering good incomes in exchange for these public goods. It is a major step forward, but it is a strategy deferred (to 2023), not a decision made today.
Insider politics are at odds with public attitudes
What changed in the past year, from the National Food Strategy to the white paper? In short, insider politics. Number 10 is embattled. The ERG has its tail up. Both are gambling that food price rises will shift public attention away from health, nature and climate. Defra is resisting the Punch and Judy framing of rewilding vs food security put forward by intensive farming lobbyists, but it will be tempting for those ERG types who have always opposed environmental policy to blame a loss in the forthcoming Tiverton byelection on being too green.
The twists of insider politics can make for quixotic policy. Lib Dem proposals to keep the environmentally harmful EU farm subsidy scheme, rather than the government’s greener approach, as a wedge issue in the Tiverton byelection, puts them in coalition with the ERG. Both are defending the worst EU policy against a British alternative which is a clear improvement. Both are choosing to continue to give taxpayers’ money to landowners just because they own land, against the government’s proposal to only pay for activity that leads to public goods.
None of this matches what the public wants. The most recent polling shows that, amongst the public broadly and blue wall voters particularly, two thirds want to see environmental regulations maintained or increased, with the majority saying they’ll vote for the party with the most ambitious environmental plans.
Outside the Westminster bubble, there’s a political vacuum for politicians who want to grab the mantle of nature, climate and health leadership championed in the NFS. They could build on the best bits of the white paper: a land use framework that draws on the NFS’s three compartment model to reconcile nature, climate, livelihoods and sustainable food; clean technologies like alternative proteins and methane-reducing feed additives; procurement rules that require all government food spending to go only to healthy, sustainable food; and a Food Data Transparency Partnership with teeth, that keeps food companies honest about the progress they are making to create a nature positive, carbon negative, healthy food system.