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Soil Association calls on new Prime Minister to get food right to build a better future

An open letter to Liz Truss

Today, 6 September 2022, the Soil Association has written an open letter to the new Prime Minister calling on her to wake up to the connection between hunger and diet-related poor health, and the climate and nature emergencies.

In her letter below, Chief Executive Helen Browning calls on Liz Truss to back our vision of a future where everyone has access to affordable, healthy and nutritious diets, underpinned by a resilient food system that protects nature and climate.

Five things the Soil Association is calling on the new PM to do now:

  1. Immediately implement universal free school meals for all Key Stage Two children across England.
  2. Immediately increase funding for school meals so that caterers are not forced to cut standards with ingredients that undercut British farmers, as part of a wider package of reforms to school food policy.
  3. Alongside providing greater provisions for school caterers, also commit the hundreds of millions spent on school food to be spent on British, sustainable farm produce, with the revised buying standards introduced at the earliest opportunity.
  4. Commit to continuing the rollout and development of the Environmental Land Management Schemes and Sustainable Farming Incentives with funding for protecting soils and a farmer-led tree revolution
  5. Work with the Soil Association’s Food for Life scheme to roll out a “whole-school approach” to food that promotes healthy, sustainable food, and food education from an early age.

 

Dear Prime Minister,

You enter office with a vast range of challenges awaiting you. People across the United Kingdom need and expect you to act with urgency to secure their wellbeing. Alongside the energy crisis, the nation’s ability to feed people healthily and sufficiently must be a crucial priority.

As the country reels from the sweltering heatwave and continuing drought, food banks become overwhelmed by demand and millions of people brace themselves for soaring energy prices, there has never been a more important time for strong leadership from Government. We need a bold vision for farming, food and forestry; one built upon compassion and optimism, for this and future generations, and we need that vision backed by immediate action.

At the Soil Association, we remain grounded by the work we do across the country with citizens, communities and businesses working on the front line. Our Food for Life Programme brings schools, nurseries, hospitals and care homes, and their communities, together around the core ethos of healthy and sustainable food. The Innovative Farmers Programme works with farmers and growers to share practices and knowledge to make farming sustainable and resilient. It’s through this work that we’ve gained insights into how to make the world a better place, and we remain optimistic because the people we work with already have the solutions we need; our job now is to harness and scale them.

Our goal is regeneration. A future in which everyone has access to affordable, healthy and nutritious diets, underpinned by a just, diverse and resilient food system that rejuvenates nature and stabilises the climate.

We know that this is what people from all walks of life seek and aspire to. But it’s clear that in recent times the situation is getting worse, not better. Urgent action is necessary to help the millions who are desperately struggling with the cost-of-living crisis; solutions must deal both with the current crisis and protect our future.

Our food system

And to build a better future, we must get food right; it underpins our health and wellbeing and that of the planet. Yet, as highlighted by Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, poverty is on the rise, food choices are not simple and our diets, short of fresh vegetables and fruits but high in ultra-processed foods, are undermining our health. It may not be the job of Government to tell people what to eat – but that does not mean you cannot act. Making good food the easy choice will help to tackle ill health and reduce the financial and physical burden on the NHS. Good health underpins prosperity and lowers health care costs. You have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that everyone can enjoy and reap the benefits of good food. 

One easy and popular way to do this is through public sector procurement whereby you can provide millions of people with healthy, local and sustainable food. Our public sector caterers, many of whom are struggling so much right now, hold the keys to unlock this opportunity, and must remain fully supported with adequate funding. Government has made a step in the right direction by consulting on a target for 50% of public food spend to be on food produced locally or certified to higher environmental production standards, such as organic. To deliver on this bold ambition, action will be needed to ensure the viability of the catering service over the months ahead.

As a matter of urgency, Government should introduce universal free school meals across primary schools in England, a policy that would be transformational in ensuring all children have access to at least one healthy meal every day. This would need to include an investment in school catering services to accommodate additional service, while providing caterers with the economies of scale which should help to balance budgets.

And urgent action is also needed to reverse the devastating impact of poor diets on our health service, where more than 10% of the budget is already spent on treating type-2 diabetes and conditions associated with obesity. The economic and wellbeing burden imposed by our diets is severe, and we have the most ultra-processed diet in the whole of Europe, with these largely ‘discretionary’ foods making up over 50% of our shopping baskets.

We urgently need to re-balance diets, and the government should lead this effort by introducing a percentage reduction target for ultra-processed foods in the national diet. At the same time, the National Food Strategy and the Climate Change Committee have been clear that we must consume less and better meat if we’re to meet climate, nature and animal welfare targets. Yet this shift isn’t going to happen on its own, and Government must show leadership by setting out a clear strategy for how it will be achieved.

Our farming system

With the global food system in crisis, British farmers will need to become increasingly resilient. Economic and environmental shocks are now so commonplace, it cannot be business as usual. This year’s rising input costs coupled with drought conditions, as devastating as they’ve been, are symptoms of the disrupted climatic and political environment that are unlikely to stabilise and farmers are going to need help to adapt, and then thrive.

This means nurturing a resilient and diverse agricultural sector, one underpinned by the principles of agroecology which allows us to move away from the use of toxic agrichemicals and synthetic nitrogen inputs. Setting ambitious pesticide and nitrogen reduction targets in law would send a bold signal about the direction of travel in this regard.

The Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS) concept of public money for public goods is therefore the right one, and a necessary precondition to securing our future food security. It is essential to build on the commitments of support for a transition to whole farm agroecological systems rather than risk an ineffective piecemeal approach. Recent research, commissioned by the Food Farming and Countryside Commission has demonstrated how a wholesale uptake of agroecology in the UK, with an accompanying shift in diets, can generate significant benefits for our health, biodiversity and climate, whilst also enhancing our food security. Furthermore, we’ve shown recently that agroecology is a good business choice provided that farmers are properly rewarded for the public goods they deliver across the farm. Our newest initiative, Soil Association Exchange, is tackling this head on by monitoring the outcomes of farming systems which will assist Government and the private sector in evaluating and rewarding land managers for the public goods they provide.

And at the core of this whole farm approach we need a ‘farmer-led tree revolution’. By offering the right advice, alongside financial support and investing in markets and supply chains, Government could increase and revitalise farm woodland and agroforestry on farms across the UK. We’ve recently calculated that it would be possible to deliver 355,000 hectares of farm woodland and agroforestry cover in England alone, with little impact on food production, whilst also improving farm business resilience.

If we don’t get food and farming right, we’ll fail on all our other ambitions too. Promoting the right solutions is an investment in the health of our nation and the future of the natural world on which humanity depends. As millions across the country struggle with the cost-of-living crisis, this investment has never been more crucial.

We welcome the opportunity to show you some of our work in action, in schools, on farms and in communities across the country.  Even as you start your job you are defining your legacy.

Will we look back and know you led us to rebuild a system that is resilient in the face of adversity? A system that truly works for all? As a nation, we look to you to succeed – for all of us.