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A national food system to combat the climate, nature and health crises?

What does the National Food Strategy recommend for the national food system?

The National Food Strategy, published today, has called for the widespread uptake of agroecological, nature-friendly farming, as part of a suite of measures designed to transform England’s food system.

While the details of the strategy will be discussed and debated for weeks to come, the strategy provides welcome recognition of the vital government role in transforming how and what we eat, and the way we farm. The overarching message is clear – transformative change will be needed if we are to resolve the climate, nature and health crises, with agroecology and sustainable diets in the vanguard of that change.

What is the National Food Strategy for England?

The National Food Strategy is an independent review commissioned by the government to set out a vision and a plan for a better food system. It 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. All eyes are now on the government, which has committed to responding within the next six months via a white paper.

A transition to nature-friendly farming must be supported

The strategy recognises that the climate and nature crises must be resolved together, with farmers in the driving seat. This includes agroecological practices such as increasing tree planting alongside crops and livestock (known as agroforestry), improving soil organic matter, and regenerating on-farm biodiversity. The strategy outlines a vision of English land-use characterised by a mosaic of wilderness and extensive, agroecological farming, implying a central role for organic and farmer-led tree planting. This would be “a landscape in which many of our now-endangered species of insects and animals would thrive”, where farmers and producers are rewarded for their efforts to promote ecological and human health.

Critically, the strategy calls for investment in farmer-led innovation, especially for agroecological methods which “have been starved of investment up to now.”

Plate of healthy food

What does the National Food Strategy ask of politicians, farmers and citizens alike?

The vision is not fully agroecological, and the strategy poses difficult and potentially controversial questions: To what degree should wilding and ecological regeneration be pursued in the uplands?  How can production be maintained and intensified without undermining the transition to agroecology? Are newly proposed farm payment schemes such as the Environmental Land Management Scheme fit for purpose? Has the government thought through its trade agenda? Perhaps most controversially: What actions should be taken to incentivise the adoption of healthier and more sustainable diets?

As the Soil Association has been highlighting through the ‘Ten Years for Agroecology’ project with IDDRI, livestock – especially ruminant animals – are integral to agroecological and organic farming, but dietary change will be required for a sustainable future. With so much arable land committed to crops grown for animal feed, a shift towards ‘less and better’ meat will be required, with diets moving rapidly away from intensively produced grain-fed meat, especially poultry. It’s essential that any efforts to encourage ‘less meat’ acknowledge the value of ‘better meat’, such as pasture-fed and organic red meat, with the onus placed on curtailing intensive production.

How can the public sector help deliver the recommendations in the strategy?

The strategy makes bold recommendations aimed at improving the food served in public settings, in line with the priority actions the Soil Association and Food for Life have been championing for years. We welcome the call for buying standards to be updated and mandated across the public sector, and for monitoring and verification of compliance. This would ensure that young people especially would have consistent access to healthy, affordable and sustainable food each day. We also welcome the recommendation that schools and hospitals should be incentivised to adopt a 'whole setting approach' to good food.

The strategy explicitly recognises the impact of the Food for Life programme and the pioneering work of Food for Life cooks and caterers, citing evidence showing that for every £1 spent on Food for Life Served Here menus, £3 is generated in social, economic and environmental value in the local community. The strategy also highlights that students in schools engaged with the Food for Life School Award – which incorporates menu accreditation, alongside food education and practical food activities – are twice as likely to eat their five-a-day and eat a third more fruit and veg overall, compared to children in other schools.

Food for Life is named as a key partner for the government in developing an approach to public setting food that both monitors compliance and incentivises uptake of a ‘whole setting approach’, a task (and challenge) that we welcome and look forward to.

Roast dinner in schools

A reduction in ultra-processed foods for healthier diets

The Soil Association has been campaigning for action on ultra-processed foods for the past year, and we were pleased to see the strategy highlight the damaging contribution that ultra-processed foods make to the national diet. The recommendation pitched in response – a tax on salt and sugar used as ingredients in processed foods – is welcome and should be enacted, but will need to be bolstered by actions that target more directly the manufacture and overconsumption of ultra-processed foods.  

The UK can learn from other nations here. The Soil Association is calling for the introduction of a percentage reduction target for ultra-processed foods in the diet. This target should be pursued in the context of a ‘ten-year transition’ to agroecology, with a shift in emphasis towards dietary diversity and nutrient-dense fresh foods, with healthy processed foods manufactured using environmentally sustainable ingredients, such as organic.

How and when will the Government respond to the National Food Strategy?

The government has committed to responding to the strategy with a white paper within six months. It’s essential that the response is robust and ambitious. We will be working over the coming weeks and months to unravel the detail of the strategy, and to influence the government’s response.

Please consider joining our newsletter where we will share updates on the National Food Strategy, including any actions to be taken to help influence the Government response.