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What has the Covid-19 crisis has taught us about the UK’s food system?

What has the Covid-19 crisis taught us about the UK’s food system?

The National Food Strategy interim report has been published today. Authored by Henry Dimbleby, the report explores what coronavirus has taught us about the UK’s food system, setting out ambitious recommendations for Government action.

If there is one message that comes through clearly in the interim National Food Strategy report, it’s that complex problems require joined-up solutions. The coronavirus crisis revealed the strengths and weaknesses of our food system, and the scale of food insecurity in the UK. 

Recovering from crisis

As we seek to recover from Covid-19, we also need to resolve the climate, nature and health crises. We will need to fix our food supply chains, level social inequalities, and ensure everyone can access and afford a healthy and sustainable diet.

The interim report includes some bold recommendations. While there is still far more that needs to be done – and we are already looking ahead to the final report, to be published in early 2021 – the signs are that the National Food Strategy means business.

Key recommendations of the interim report: 

  • Grasping the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decide what kind of trading nation we want to be. In negotiating our new trade deals, the Government must protect the high environmental and animal welfare standards of which our country is justly proud.
  • Making sure a generation of our most disadvantaged children do not get left behind. Dietary health inequalities must be tackled. A Government that is serious about “levelling up” must ensure that all children get the nutrition they need.
  • Expand eligibility for the Free School Meal scheme to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits). Extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England, so that summer holiday support is available to all children in receipt of Free School Meals.


Positive steps towards a joined-up National Food Strategy

The Soil Association has been calling for a joined-up National Food Strategy for years, and in the last few months we have been pitching our priorities into the strategy team. We’re delighted to see clear acknowledgement that trade negotiations must not undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards, and a call for greater transparency and democratic oversight of any future deal. We need to be raising the bar towards an organic and agroecological future, not creating a new ‘race to the bottom’ in food production. Read more about our vision for food security in the UK.

We are also delighted that the strategy has recommended extending Free School Meal eligibility. Our Food for Life programme has been showcasing excellence in school food for over a decade, and throughout lockdown, we saw both the scale of food insecurity and the importance of high quality and healthy school meals. Extending Free School Meals to all children in receipt of Universal Credit would be a positive step.

Perhaps as important as what is included in the interim report, is what the report notes as being deliberately excluded as outside of scope. The interim report does not suggest how we should resolve the climate and nature crises, and it makes few recommendations about farming and land-use, but it says that these will be addressed in the final report, to be published next year.

Looking ahead to the final National Food Strategy

There is still so much to be done. While we welcome the ambition on the interim report, we are already looking ahead to what needs to happen next. Among the priorities for the final National Food Strategy are:

  • Actions to support the UK in a ten-year transition to agroecology, where nature-friendly and organic farming and healthy and sustainable diets are the norm. This includes investment in farmer led research that can fast track the innovations that are needed.
  • Investment in UK horticultural production, with actions to double (or triple) UK production of veg, fruit, nuts and pulses.
  • A commitment to tackling the scourge of ultra-processed foods, with action to significantly shift UK diets towards more fresh and sustainable produce
  • Actions to make the UK a world-leader on public procurement, including by requiring procurement decisions to place a minimum weighting of 60% of quality relative to price.

Next week, the Soil Association will be publishing ‘Grow Back Better’, our post-Covid-19 manifesto, outlining our priorities for the final National Food Strategy in more detail. Stay tuned to learn more.

Read our Government asks to ensuring a resilient food and farming system in the UK