Food strategy for England is a recipe to make you sick

Reading the government’s much vaunted food strategy released on Monday, I was remined of the school dinners of my youth. Bland. At times lumpy. And flavourless and unsatisfying. The only way you could eat the main course was with an unhealthy dose of salt, though the deserts were usually sprinkled with sugar. There are no restrictions on salt or sugar then (late fifties and early sixties) and there are to be none now.

Boris Johnson’s true instincts were made clear 16 years ago when, as shadow education spokesman, he praised parents who defied healthy eating moves: “If I were in charge, I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they liked.” He is now in charge and he has all but dismissed another chef, Henry Dimbleby, whose government commissioned report on a National Food Strategy recommended expanding provision of free school meals, a 30 per cent reduction in the amount of meat we eat and taxes on sugar and salt. But although Johnson seemed to be more interested in obesity after he caught Covid-19, the food strategy published on Monday shows he doesn’t have the stomach for dealing with it.

Faced with criticism at the weekend after the report was leaked last Friday, Boris Johnson said the solution to was not to “start whacking new taxes” but “to eat less”. The era of nudge policies seems long gone.

Food Active said the publication of the food strategy “is a very sad day for public health and the UK’s relationship with overweight and obesity, as the Prime Minister has made a shocking U-turn to delay policies designed to take junk food out of the spotlight across TV, online and retail.” The Social Market Foundation also criticised the report for not tackling obesity: “The Government’s food strategy is yet another missed opportunity to alleviate the UK’s growing obesity challenge.” Almost one in seven children start primary school obese – that has risen almost 50% in a year. More than a quarter are obese by the time they finish primary school.

Food consumption is not the only factor driving up obesity rates, and it sits along with lack of exercise as the two prime factors driving up weight gain. Eating food is not a bad thing of course. But eating too much food with high fat, salt and or sugar (HFSS) is known be unhealthy. Dimbleby wanted a 25% reduction in HFSS within ten years but there are no targets for reduction in consumption the government’s food strategy. And earlier, it was announced the government’s commitment to banning HFSS multibuy deals along with HFSS ads on TV before 9pm and paid-for adverts online have been delayed for a year until  January 2024.

The government has not only lost its will to tackle poor diets and obesity, it looks as though it is also abandoning its commitment to tackling environment issues. Dimbleby called for a 30% reduction in meat consumption by 2022. It almost goes without saying that there is no mention of eating less meat in the government’s policy.

This is a government that is only committed to the environment (or anything else for that matter) when it suits its political ends. It is only a year since ministers trumpeted a post-Brexit scheme that would pay farmers up to £800 million a year to transform agricultural land into nature-rich forests, coastal wetlands, peatlands and wildflower meadows. But now, using the excuses of the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine the landscape recovery scheme has been slashed to just £50 million over three years. Any hopes of an agroecological future for our farmland has been ploughed up.

There are of course, some good points in the strategy. There will be a land use strategy by 2023. That is urgently needed as farmers turn their eyes to renewable energy as the government cuts their basic income payments before additional payments through the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) are available. Solar farms in particular often take up land that can be used for arable crops. The planning system needs a steer on how to balance the competing demands of energy production, food production and environmental protection.

At a time when food, or a growing lack of it is in the world’s eye because of the war in Ukraine and climate change, it is more essential than ever that England and the UK as a whole has a coherent food strategy. This document and the government’s ambitions fall far short of that. As Henry Dimbleby remarked:

“It’s not a strategy. It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done.”

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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2 Comments

  • George Thomas 16th Jun '22 - 4:53pm

    “Faced with criticism at the weekend after the report was leaked last Friday, Boris Johnson said the solution to was not to “start whacking new taxes” but “to eat less”. The era of nudge policies seems long gone.”

    The solution is to create a more balanced and healthier diet based on health-focused choices. Unhealthy food always appear to be less expensive and while one might not agree with taxing this to subsidise more healthy alternatives, saying the solution to obesity is to eat less is particularly cruel for those unable to afford to eat as often as they need or people with eating disorders.

  • Andy,

    When Boris Johnson seemed to be more interested in obesity after he caught Covid-19, it was because he saw the opportunity for a headline and to pretend he was a new man. However since then he has reverted to the old fatty Boris, and now just gets people to say they think hes losing weight, but unless my NHS Specs are faulty, the eyes don’t lie.

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