How Britain’s food system is set to change

Critics claim ‘half-baked’ proposals will do little to improve food security, standards or sustainability

Boris Johnson talks to a farm manager in Hayle, Cornwall
Boris Johnson talks to a farm manager in Hayle, Cornwall
(Image credit: Justin Tallis/PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

The government’s long-awaited plan to transform England’s food system has faced widespread criticism from environmental groups, health experts, farmers and even its own food tsar.

The white paper unveiled today covers food security and sustainable production, healthier eating and the role of the UK in a global food system.

The plan “was billed as the first such blueprint since rationing 75 years ago, positioning England as a leader on food and environment in a post-Brexit world”, reported The Guardian.

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What is in the white paper?

Under the proposals, farmers are set to produce more home-grown food to help guard against future economic shocks.

The Evening Standard reported that officials have put food security “at the heart of the plan in the wake of the Ukraine war, to strengthen the resilience of supply chains and reduce reliance on foreign produce”.

The report also recommended investment in automated farming methods to improve productivity, including an injection of £270m across farming innovation programmes until 2029 to help drive sustainable farming techniques.

Unveiling the plans at a farm in Cornwall, Boris Johnson promised that by “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”.

The strategy also includes plans to consult on an ambition for 50% of public sector food spend to go on food produced locally or certified to higher standards, and to publish a framework for land use in England next year.

What is not in the white paper?

However, the proposals, which were virtually unchanged from a leaked draft revealed by The Guardian last week, have been criticised for not including a tax on salt and sugar or doing more to tackle food poverty.

The most stinging reaction has come from the government’s own adviser on food issues, who said the white paper was “not a strategy” and could mean more children will go hungry.

Restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, who last year published a wide-ranging review of Britain’s food system, told the BBC the document rejected many of his own recommendations and failed to “set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now” or what needs to be done.

Among a series of high-profile suggestions not included in the final report are a significant expansion to free school meals, greater environment and welfare standards in farming, and a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption.

The reaction

Johnson’s plans to help British farmers increase food production, create jobs and unlock growth in the rural economy have been branded as “half-baked” and “bordering on preposterous” by critics.

Farmers Weekly reported that “despite mounting fears that global shocks, especially Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, had left Britain’s food supply vulnerable, there is no mention in the strategy of setting a minimum target for domestic food production – something the NFU has been calling for”.

According to the NFU (the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales), the UK’s overall food self-sufficiency was around 60% last year, compared to 78% in 1984.

The plan has also received short shrift from green campaigners, who claimed it failed to honour previous commitments to improve environmental food standards.

“By ignoring climate scientists and its own experts in favour of industry lobbyists, the government has published a strategy that, ultimately, will only perpetuate a broken food system and see our planet cook itself,” said Louisa Casson, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK.

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