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Our response to the government's response today to the National Food Strategy review

"Thin gruel" but with some silver linings - Soil Association reacts to government food strategy

The government’s food strategy looks broken, but there are fragments of policy that offer hope

Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy has not yet had the serious Government response it – and the people of this country - deserved. This is no ‘Strategy’, even though nothing could have been more relevant to leading the nation through today’s perfect storm of climate, nature, health and cost-of-living crises.

It is deeply disappointing that a PM who was so personally affected by the link between Covid outcomes and poor diet should turn away from the opportunity to break the ‘junk food cycle’ and give people a food system that supports rather than undermines their health and wellbeing. 

But we can none of us afford to concede defeat on the transformation of our food system. Some hope remains with the Health Secretary, reportedly a convert to Henry Dimbleby’s analysis, and his promised Health Disparities White Paper. This could yet rise above internal party politics to sanction action on two of Dimbleby’s flagship recommendations: extending free school meal access and making healthy fruit and veg more affordable with the revenues of a salt & sugar levy on processed foods.

And there are fragments of policy in today’s Government’s response that could unlock change if done well.

Henry Dimbleby’s strategy called on Government to emulate our Food for Life model for school and hospital food procurement and food education, and there is ambition here for 50% of public food spending to be on local food or to higher environmental standards like organic. The promised requirement for school leaders to report on their ‘whole school approach to food’ in line with Food for Life was welcome, even if this had already been trailed through the Levelling Up White Paper.

Mandatory reporting by food retailers, manufacturers and foodservice companies on the health and sustainability profile of what they sell could be transformative – this remains one lever that could support a transition to ‘less and better meat’ if reporting includes country of origin and welfare standards.

The Government also makes a surprise and welcome commitment to introducing a national land-use framework to guide farming and land use for climate, nature and food security, a step recommended originally by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. How this is implemented alongside George Eustice’s Environmental Land Management Scheme will be a key test for the achievement of Henry Dimbleby’s vision for a ‘3-compartment model for farming’. In this vision, most farmers on most land would be farming agroecologically and even the ‘higher intensity’ compartment would see a radical reduction in input use. The absence of a bold national reduction target for pesticide use remains a key gap in achieving this farming vision, and the government’s trade policy still threatens to undermine it.

Henry Dimbleby said the government should introduce a set of core standards for trade, covering animal welfare and the environment. But the approach to trade in the government’s new food strategy is vague and core standards have not been developed.

The Soil Association stands ready to work with the Government to convert the fragments of hope from today’s Food Strategy response into genuine transformative policies. This will not be the last word on Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy.

I know we are not alone in committing to keeping that full vision alive and finding the leadership and solutions and collaborations from the ground-up where Government fails to lead.