What does a Conservative government means for food policy?
There’s been a discernible sense of euphoria emanating from Conservative MPs and their supporters ever since the party won a surprise victory in the general election in May. Indeed, judging by Liz Truss’s assertion that it was the Tory’s support for the food industry that won the day, despite food barely featuring in the campaign, such rapture risks spilling over into outright delusion.
Thankfully, the summer break has arrived to give us all a rest from the political bedlam of the past six months and we can begin to reflect on what a Conservative government means for food policy over the next five years?
The two exhibits that provide the greatest evidence are the Conservative manifesto and July’s emergency budget.
In the former, food was presented primarily through an economic prism with a narrative around supporting British farmers, reducing red-tape and opening up new export markets. While the Lib Dems manifesto promised a National Food Strategy and Labour vowed to resurrect their Food 2030 plan, both of which would have seen health and environmental issues take a leading role, the Conservatives offered up a Great British Food Unit that will help trademark and promote local foods around the world and back British food at home.
This is consistent with the party’s unashamed focus on securing the recovery and the recognition of the economic importance of food will surely be welcomed by a majority of businesses as will the unexpected cut to corporation tax announced in this month’s budget along with policies to double the Annual Investment Allowance and cut employer National Insurance contributions. More divisive is George Osborne’s promise to implement a compulsory national living wage of £9 by 2020, which may prove burdensome for employers in a sector that offers a high proportion of low-skilled, seasonal jobs.
The removal of the Climate Change Levy exemption for renewables, meanwhile, coupled with continued concessions to the oil and gas industries has left environmental groups questioning the government’s commitment to delivering a truly green economy.
What we’ve yet to hear from the Conservatives is a strong position on the environmental and health issues associated with food, leaving us to assume a continued preference for market and technology-based solutions and voluntary measures carried over from the last administration. Whether the Conservatives can continue to get away with such a light touch approach in the longer term is open to debate. Pressure is mounting for regulators to take decisive action to tackle obesity with Jamie Oliver taking the bull by the horns and imposing a soft drinks tax of his own in the hope of getting government to sit up and take notice. With the government’s own independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) now saying that the recommended daily intake of sugar should be halved to 5% of energy, the issue will not simply go away. The ‘do or die’ nature of forthcoming climate talks in Paris, meanwhile, means governments the world over will face intense scrutiny over the ambition of their environmental commitments. Food can, and should, have an important role to play.
With hard policy lacking, the greatest insight into the Tories’ food vision may have been glimpsed in Truss’s recent speech at Tech City on the future of food and farming. As part of a plan to release Defra’s vast treasure trove of data she sought to position Britain as a country capable of becoming a global leader in food and farming by using science and data to unleash its productive potential and in the process making the food industry an attractive sector both for graduates and apprentices. Truss’s vision will be delivered through Defra’s industry-led Great British Food and Farming Plan, which was launched in July.
It’s undoubtedly a compelling vision for the UK’s food economy; but major questions remain to be answered on how this government plans to tackle the big societal challenges of our time, such as climate change, food poverty and health inequalities, if the Conservatives’ food plan is to morph into a fully rounded food policy.
* A version of this blog was first published in August's issue of Footprint magazine http://www.footprint.digital/features-2/downing-street-keeps-food-industry-waiting