What does the National Food Strategy say?
The National Food Strategy was commissioned by the government and has been developed in consultation with policymakers, the food and farming sectors, NGO’s, citizens and the public sector, whilst taking into account the most up to date research and evidence available.
I was asked to join a diverse group of people from across the food system as a member of the Advisory Panel, providing the opportunity to review and influence the work in progress and provide strong independent challenge over the last 18 months.
What does the national food strategy say about agroecology?
There is much to welcome in the strategy. I'm very proud that the practical and policy work we have been doing at the Soil Association over many years has had significant influence. As we always emphasise, the strategy confirms that the climate, nature and health crises must be tackled together, with farmers in the driving seat. There is strong support for agroecological production and nature-friendly practices such as agroforestry, improving soil organic matter, and regenerating on-farm biodiversity. Organic farmers have been spear-heading a nature-friendly approach for decades, and it is heartening to see the strategy call for agroecology to enter the mainstream.
Among the most important recommendations are those related to the food served in public settings, such as schools and hospitals. It recognises the pioneering role the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme has played in reconnecting children with where their food comes from and helping to deliver healthier and more sustainable menus that include British and higher welfare meat. The strategy calls for the food served in all schools and hospitals to be required to match these standards, and for enhanced food education in schools. Food for Life is named as the model to emulate, and a key partner for the government in developing the next steps through a mandatory scheme.
There are other successes. The strategy:
- highlights the threat of antimicrobial resistance, associated with intensive animal farming, an agenda that we have been leading on for decades.
- calls for greater investment in farmer-led innovation and agroecological methods, citing our Innovative Farmers programme.
- endorses our call for more local and organic produce to be available in schools, following our School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme campaign.
The Government should consider its role in shifting the UK away from ultra-processed foods.
The Soil Association has been campaigning strongly on ultra-processed foods, calling for the government to take action to rebalance our diets, so I was pleased to see ultra-processed foods positioned within the strategy as the new frontier in the battle against obesity and chronic disease. The proposed tax on salt and sugar is hugely important and should be enacted by the Government, but we would urge further action more squarely targeting ultra-processed foods. The French government has introduced a percentage reduction target for ultra-processed foods in the diet, and we should be introducing a similar target in England. Our Head of Food Policy, Rob Percival’s excellent letter in the British Medical Journal makes the case; reformulation is not enough. Substituting sugar for artificial sweeteners may get us nowhere. We need real food.
What does the national food strategy say about meat and dairy consumption?
The meat question will likely spark debate, but the evidence is clear that dietary change will be needed to enable more nature-friendly farming. We will need to eat much less industrially farmed and grain fed meat, which can drive deforestation and land use change through its reliance on imported feed crops. Looking past polarised media headlines, the strategy recommends a wider uptake of agroecology, which would see livestock, and particularly ruminants, reintroduced into rotations and playing an important role revitalising soils and biodiversity. The public must feel confident that meat and dairy, if produced from regenerative organic systems and consumed in moderation, can make a positive contribution to the environment. The debate in farming shouldn’t be about whether this is so, but about how to make this transformation quickly and fairly, for both farmers and citizens.
What are the next steps for the National Food Strategy?
The recommendations of the National Food Strategy offer genuine hope that by embracing agroecology and regenerative farming; making space for nature and carbon sequestration in areas that are less important for food production and by adopting a healthier and more sustainable diet, we can address the climate, nature and health crises. It is now crucial that the Government responds positively and implements the strategy, ensuring that farmers are in the vanguard of this good food revolution. I look forward to working with the national food strategy team and with the Government to this end.