The head of a landmark review of England’s food system has called for “much bolder” action to address climate change and obesity after government proposals focused on production were attacked by campaign groups.
“We’re moving forward but it’s not radical enough,” said Henry Dimbleby, the founder of the Leon restaurant chain who has produced two government-commissioned independent reports.
He called for new measures and targets to be enshrined in law, adding: “We need to be much bolder if we’re going to shift the food system into a different mode of production.
“I think at the moment the unsustainable food system is going to cause much more harm than it needs to before it changes.”
Ministers on Monday unveiled a food strategy white paper responding to Dimbleby’s review, but a version leaked to the Financial Times and other publications last week was met with disappointment by organisations such as Greenpeace and the Soil Association, which called its approach “really negligent”.
Dimbleby said that around half of his ideas had been taken up, including the proposal to produce a framework setting out how different areas of English land should be used — a move he said was an “absolutely critical part of the environmental transition”.
He said he was pleased to see ministers adopt his advice to establish a food data service and require at least half of food procured for the public sector to be cultivated locally or to higher standards, such as organic.
“On the environment it definitely takes us forward but there is a big gap still on trade, where they haven’t explained how they are going to protect our standards from cheap imports,” he said. “A lot of this stuff needs to be put into statute for it to work.”
New legislation should include targets for health, environmental progress and food production levels and should be monitored by an independent body like the Climate Change Committee, Dimbleby said.
The strategy does not propose a statutory framework, saying ministers believe they have “existing powers in primary legislation” to implement changes.
It also ignores proposed targets such as a 30 per cent cut in meat consumption by 2032 and does not guarantee farm subsidies until 2029, as Dimbleby advised.
As the strategy was released, Dimbleby warned of a potential “double disaster” if farm subsidies did not shift to mainly rewarding environmental work.
“You won’t get any of the environmental benefits. And if you get to the next spending review and haven’t shown you can produce public goods with public money, the Treasury will cut it [farm funding],” he warned.
His warning follows an emphasis on food security in the government paper, and a shift away from plans to fund large-scale rewilding projects. Prime minister Boris Johnson has ordered ministers to scale back environmental initiatives and focus on core cost-of-living issues, including food production.
“The narrative from Number 10 has changed,” admitted one government official.
Writing in Farmers Weekly on June 2, environment secretary George Eustice said that less than 1 per cent of the farming budget, or below £50mn over three years, would be spent on big landscape recovery projects that had been intended as the most ambitious tranche of new environmental subsidy schemes.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said the future of farming budgets remained “slightly undefined” but welcomed the fresh push on food security. The strategy “sets out a lot of positive aspirations . . . the challenge now is the policies to deliver all of these things”, she said.
Further measures are expected in a health disparities white paper, but Dimbleby said he was not optimistic that taxes on salt and sugar proposed in his review would feature. He said officials thought it was “not politically possible”.
Johnson said the food strategy “sets out a blueprint for how we will back farmers, boost British industry and help protect people against the impacts of future economic shocks by safeguarding our food security.
“Harnessing new technologies and innovation, we will grow and eat more of our own food — unlocking jobs across the country and growing the economy, which in turn will ultimately help to reduce pressure on prices.”
Jim McMahon, shadow environment secretary, said: “This is nothing more than a statement of vague intentions, not a concrete proposal to tackle the major issues facing our country.”