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Dimbleby keeps us waiting over food system fix

Those hoping for a 10-point plan to fix the food system will have been disappointed by Henry Dimbleby’s much-anticipated food strategy for England, launched last week.

But the Leon co-founder should be forgiven for the absence of a grand vision, not least since he lost the core of his team over the spring as civil servants were redeployed to support Defra’s response to the covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis, and its effects on the most vulnerable in society, has clearly had a profound effect on Dimbleby. That, and the imminent end of the transition period for the UK’s EU exit, is largely why we have a strategy in two parts (not an interim report as Dimbleby is keen to stress) with part one eschewing lofty recommendations in favour of urgent, deliverable policies that will help those struggling to make ends meet put food on the table for their families.

The end product is far from a typical government strategy document. It is elegantly written, reflective, passionately argued, and underpinned by a robust – and at times damning – evidence base that teases out the links between food insecurity and social inequality.

It contains pages of sober economic analysis befitting someone who has built a successful high street food business and recognises the bleak prognosis for jobs and revenues in the hospitality sector.

As a resource, it would have just as much value in a school library as that of the House of Commons so accessibly does it diagnose existing food system faults and illuminate how successive governments have allowed us to reach the point where a poor diet is almost as great a threat to life as cancer or old age.

While Dimbleby is strident in certain areas, especially on what he perceives as disingenuous marketing tactics by sellers of unhealthy foods (spoiler: Percy Pig does not emerge with his porcine reputation in tact), there is also pragmatism on display. He resists the temptation to side with campaigners in demanding the government legislate to protect UK food and environment standards under future trade deals, noting that “in practice […] few countries would be willing to trade with the UK on such terms”. Instead, he proposes a compromise solution whereby certification schemes are established so that producers wishing to sell into the UK market tariff-free can prove they meet minimum requirements on animal welfare, environmental and climate protections.

The recommendation has already proved contentious among NGOs with Sustain warning of the creation of a “dual tariff system” whereby products currently banned from the UK market would be authorised for sale if exporters are prepared to foot the bill.

As a non-executive director at Defra, Dimbleby knows as well as anyone what recommendations will fly with the government. But a certification-based approach has its risks: who will administer and police the scheme? And how will their independence be assured?

The government response to Dimbleby’s initial set of recommendations, which he urges should be implemented quickly, will tell us much about the seriousness with which those in power take his contribution. The food strategy, lest we forget, was commissioned under Theresa May’s administration, albeit by then environment secretary Michael Gove whose influence within 10 Downing Street has since grown (he is now cabinet office minister).

There were warning signs during the briefing with journalists when Dimbleby joked he had been forced to redraft the document at the eleventh hour after the government’s new obesity strategy included two policies – on the restriction of junk food advertising and promotions – that he himself was preparing to propose. Dimbleby says communication with the Department for Health and Social Care, along with other departments, has been good throughout his review, but his admission suggests food policy is still being developed in siloes.

Delivery of a national food strategy will require collaboration across multiple government departments and agencies (at least 16 according to a recent Food Research Collaboration briefing paper). If the final product does not become a fulcrum for policy development across the whole of Whitehall it is surely doomed to fail.

It can be done. Dimbleby points to the success of covid-19 response groups such as the Food and Other Essential Supplies to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force, led by Defra minister Victoria Prentis, and including ministers from every relevant government department, as “an excellent example of cross-government coordination”. But can the same level of urgency and collaboration be applied once the immediate threat of covid-related catastrophe has subsided? Or by holding back his full diagnosis until next year has Dimbleby missed a rare opportunity to focus political minds on what he refers to as “the mother of all sustainability issues” – the way we produce our food?

Dimbleby rightly singles out the next looming threat to the food system as climate change – an altogether stealthier, more abstract challenge but one he identifies as “the biggest threat to food security: perhaps the most serious the world has ever seen”.

Next on his plate is the gargantuan task of developing a blueprint for a sustainable, resilient food system “that no longer makes us, or our planet, sick”. Part two, due in 2021, promises to present a comprehensive vision for the future of food and farming in England. It will consider “the central tension of the food system: how to resolve the link between the cost of food and the harm it does to our health and to our environment”.

Specifically, we can expect a comprehensive recommendation on what the government can do to ensure that the food it pays for directly – for example in schools, hospitals, prisons, and in government offices – is both healthy and sustainable.

Part two will also examine in detail the issue of self-sufficiency and whether there is an optimal percentage of home-grown produce we should be targeting.

It will seek to redefine terms such as productivity and efficiency so that benefits and costs are understood “not just in terms of pounds, euros or dollars, but in terms of carbon emissions, biodiversity losses or the exhaustion of scarce water resources”.

It will address how different government departments intervene in the food system (or not), and the structural changes required to make these interventions more cohesive.

And it will undertake the “critical task” of attempting to measure the negative externalities, such as biodiversity loss and diabetes treatment, that are not factored into the price people pay for food at the till.

It’s a tall order by any measure – Dimbleby will have to continue plotting a careful course through competing interests and narratives as well as imperfect science.

His research will inevitably take him into areas beyond food policy, such as welfare, housing and macro-economics. A food strategy cannot adequately address issues of food (in)security without examining the structural reasons why people cannot afford to eat healthily and sustainably. Yet it feels unreasonable, and unrealistic, to expect a restauranteur to propose sweeping economic and welfare reform (indeed Dimbleby has already sought to manage expectations in this regard).

Still, the largely positive response to part one of his strategy from across industry and civil society suggests there is a critical mass of stakeholders willing him to succeed.

Part one has prepared the ground, part two needs to begin the work of building a food system fit for the future.

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