The government’s food strategy – failure and fakery

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Photo by Kostiantyn Li on Unsplash, free for use

It really isn’t a strategy. A strategy is a clear plan with long term goals. This document is full of buzzwords and bullsh*t: little funding, little action, little that is concrete, an awful lot of empty “we will” promises that kick issues out into the long grass, and a great deal of ineffectual nothingness. All supported by vast quantities of hot air and fairy dust blowing around about mythical “post-Brexit opportunities” (like selling cheese to Japan – that doesn’t want it).

There is also a great deal of repetition of the meaningless phrase “world-leading” and blaming of the current food-insecure situation of the UK on the conflict in Ukraine, whilst Brexit’s contribution to the current state of affairs is not mentioned at all.

Just how self-sufficient is the UK?

The document claims that the UK “can” produce 60 percent by value of the food that we need. However, value is a completely different thing to volume when it comes to sales. You can’t base market share on value. Think about a Ferrari vs a Mini. A single Ferrari can cost up to £263,000. The most expensive Mini costs around £36,600. So you could buy seven Minis for the cost of a single Ferrari. Which one has the greater market share?

Although the UK does produce 88 percent of the wheat we “need,” much of that is not of the quality required by millers, so we end up importing a lot whilst the lower quality stuff goes into animal feed. Apparently, the UK is largely self-sufficient in “some” areas of vegetable production (carrots and swedes!) However, according to the British Growers Association, the UK is actually less than 60 percent self-sufficient in vegetables, and only just over 40 percent self-sufficient in fruit.

In fact, vegetable crops are being ploughed back into UK soil on a daily basis because there are insufficient workers to harvest them. EU citizens, who used to come and work in our fields no longer wish to do so. So now the UK government are flying in workers from Nepal, Indonesia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is not clear how this fits with the government’s claimed carbon budgets and environmental targets, or whether that has even been considered. 

A herd of cattle grazing on marshland
A herd of cattle grazing on marshland. Photo by margymarge, CC Attribution 3.0 Unported

This document claims the UK is 86 percent self-sufficient in beef and we produce far more lamb than we eat in this country. But our imports are increasing whilst our exports are falling. EU citizens do not wish to purchase lamb from a third country, which is what the UK is, courtesy of the vote for national suicide back in 2016. Instead, the shiny new trade deal signed last December with Australia will give Australian beef and sheep meat producers tariff-free access to the UK market with the potential to undercut local producers. It is not yet clear whether ‘country of origin’ labelling on meat will continue to be required as the bonfire of EU Regulation ramps up.

Sheep on a Devon hillside
Sheep on a Devon hillside. Photo by Veronica White on Unsplash

Not enough vets and falling numbers of farms

Unfortunately, there is a serious shortage of vets in the UK. Although not entirely because EU citizens who filled those posts have left the UK in the last six years, Brexit certainly isn’t helping. Meanwhile, the document claims the government will fund vet visits to farms to provide advice to farmers about ways to improve the health and welfare of farm animals. There is nothing in the document about where these vets are going to come from. Nor does it acknowledge that the UK already has one of the most mature and comprehensive regulatory frameworks around animal welfare and wellbeing, as well as a lot of industry supported quality assurance schemes.

Adding to the insecurity, the number of farms in the UK is declining. The number of full time UK farms is likely to fall by about 20 percent, from around 54,000 to 42,300 within the next decade because of lack of government investment. A decade ago, in 2012, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) invested £720 million into UK farming in a year.

Now, planned government investment into the farming sector over the next five years is £270 million. The decline in UK farming is likely to result in significant loss of skills: technical skills around machinery, stock management, and understanding of what crops grow well in the soil of a particular farm, as well as the ability to solve problems and adapt to changing climate and conditions. 

Nothing real on health or obesity

Meanwhile the document offers virtually nothing new around the issues of food, health and obesity. But then three decades of government obesity strategies have failed to achieve any useful results. And this government, like all governments over the last three decades, has not bothered to learn from past mistakes: they have not evaluated any previous strategies, nor have they set out an actual strategy that can be implemented. In a way this is not surprising.

There are 16 different government departments involved in food policy in England alone and communication between them is patchy at best. Add in the multiple agencies of the devolved administrations, and there are over 20 government departments, all trying to make policy and none of them succeeding in doing it effectively. 

Although the document acknowledges that poverty and obesity are intimately linked, the incumbents currently squatting on the government benches in Westminster are doing nothing to reduce poverty levels: indeed they appear to be doing everything they can to increase them, along with the gap between rich and poor. And, just as with farming, the document is full of “we will” promises to undertake programmes, research and consultations on obesity – with almost no commitment to specific actions. 

Cooking in schools – or not

Although it seems that the government is investing a whole £5 million into a “school cooking revolution” to ensure that children leave secondary school with “at least six healthy recipes” this amount of money will only equate to around £250 per head for secondary school pupils and most schools do not have the facilities or resources to teach cooking effectively.

So the government says that it will take “insights from Ofsted’s forthcoming research review into design and technology to support the teaching of cooking and nutrition.” How a review of a completely different subject area will inform teaching in the areas of cooking and nutrition is not explained. In addition, six  recipes is frankly inadequate. Could it be that the government is actively encouraging us to eat at least one takeaway a week? That will add nicely to the obesity crisis!

As a whole, the document does not contain much in the way of substance for delivering the objectives of a sustainable, nature positive, affordable food system that provides choice and access to high quality products to support healthier and British-grown diets for all.