Last week saw the long-awaited publication of the UK’s National Food Strategy. It aspires to bring about low-carbon farming and to change our eating habits. These are two quite different objectives, writes Victor Hill.
Good intentions, poor logic
Why would a country that has a thriving agricultural sector, a huge food and drinks industry and a dynamic food distribution network (that is, well-managed and profitable supermarkets) need a national food strategy? It turns out that the impetus behind Henry Dimbleby’s much anticipated report, published on Thursday last week (15 July), came from two quite unrelated forces.
On the production side of the equation, the issue is how to feed the nation while reducing carbon emissions to minimal levels. As everybody knows, the UK has set itself the target of becoming net carbon neutral by 2050. (The net part of that concept is important because it allows some carbon emissions to be offset by carbon capture and storage (CCS)). Agriculture is one of the biggest causes of CO2 emissions; thus, while carbon emissions will never be entirely eliminated in the production of food, there is abundant scope to reduce those emissions by incentivising farmers to adopt greener practices.
This is especially pertinent as, in the wake of Brexit, UK agriculture is currently transitioning from the previous subsidy regime determined by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to a new regime devised in Whitehall under the banner of the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS). There are in fact three such schemes: the sustainable farming incentive, the local nature recovery programme and the landscape recovery programme, the latter being largely concerned with re-wilding. Henceforth, national food strategy or not, farmers will be paid in accordance with how they manage their land, and not just how much food they produce.
On the consumption side of the equation there is the problem that many UK citizens eat poorly and thus put a strain on the sacred National Health Service (NHS) – the state agency which, so we learnt at the beginning of the pandemic, must be protected from the tiresome British public who are apt to get sick. To put it more crudely: a lot of British people are fat – three adults in ten to be precise; and indeed, many are morbidly obese. Excess body fat is the cause of multiple health disorders, of which diabetes (cases of which have rocketed in recent years) is just one.
Obesity is reckoned to cost the NHS £4.2 billion a year – and rising. If people could eat (and drink) more sensibly and healthily then they would live happier, more productive lives and they would save the state much money and aggravation. The pandemic has also taught us that obesity is an important risk factor in survival from Covid-19.
These two sets of issues are entirely unrelated, having quite separate causes and consequences. That is why combining them in a National Food Strategy is misconceived.
The report’s conclusion is a call to eat less meat and more meat alternatives – and to tax sugar at a rate of £3 per kilogram and salt at a rate of £6 per kilogram. A tax on sugar in fizzy drinks has already induced manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of their pop. And a salt tax is nothing new: in ancien régime France it was called la gabelleand has often been cited as one cause of the French Revolution.
But the matter is not straightforward. Mr Dimbleby wants to tax every kilo of salt and sugar supplied to food-processing businesses, restaurants and caterers. Revenues so raised would be used to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income families – possibly by enabling GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to patients suffering from obesity and diabetes. While there would be no levies on sugar and salt purchased in supermarkets for consumption in the home, popular staples such as a jar of strawberry jam or a bottle of soy sauce could leap in price.
Three think tanks (the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs) jointly reckon that the average family food bill would rise by £172 annually. In view of that, Mr Dimbleby would like to see free school meals made available to more children. Currently, only children living in households with an income of £7,400 or less are eligible; he proposes that the threshold be raised to £20,000.
The report fell short of recommending a tax on red meat but proposed a target to reduce meat consumption by 30 percent nationally by 2030.
Mr Dimbleby’s 290-page report is the 14th such government-funded analysis of British eating habits in the last 30 years and will not be the last word. But, as the food writer William Sitwell argued last week, coming as it does at the tail-end of a global pandemic which has changed us all, this report might just make a difference. Others are more sceptical.
Down on the farm
Mr Dimbleby and his supporters want to encourage sustainable or low-intensity farming. He wants to ban imports of low-quality foreign foods, often produced with poor standards of animal welfare. And he wants to find alternatives to meat. In the latter respect he is on the same page as our Chairman, Jim Mellon. Mr Dimbleby, like Jim, is an enthusiast for lab-grown meat. Less appetisingly, he also favours insects as a source of protein. (Will there be enough left for the birds to eat? – and who wants to eat insects anyway?)
He wants to foster the creation of more independent food shops, including farm shops. That is one of the themes advanced by national treasure Jeremy Clarkson in his excellent recent Amazon Prime TV series, Clarkson’s Farm.
The report also considers how farmers might benefit from blending ancient and modern techniques such as using mixed crop rotations with modern no-till systems. Part of the report carries the sub-heading Making the best use of our land.
Mr Dimbleby admits that intensive farming – for example, of poultry – can have a lower carbon footprint than free-range farming. But when he speaks about the high carbon output of livestock farming, he fails to discriminate between grass-reared meat (which can claim to be carbon neutral because much of the CO2 is sequestered in the soil) and climate-unfriendly foreign meat imports.
And he is fashionably inclined against dairy – at the very moment that dairy alternatives are coming into question. The image of cows grazing in lush meadows is a quintessentially British one. Yet a vocal minority has become anti-milk and has been aggressively pushing alternative “milk” made from almonds, rice, oats, soya, coconut or hemp.
But as farmer Adam Henson of the BBC’s Countryfile programme argued recently, these alternatives are disastrous for the environment because they cause deforestation (often in South America). These products, as per US producer Oatley, are sold at around six times the price of real milk and carry huge margins. According to the data firm Nielsen UK sales of oat milk doubled to £73 million last year. And they can be just as fattening as dairy. The columnist Bryony Gordon recently shared with her readers how she lost 20 pounds in weight by kicking her addiction to oat milk – the ultimate processed food.
The national waistline
Britain last had a national food strategy back in the extreme conditions of World War II (WWII). Lord Woolton (1883-1964), a self-made grammar school-educated retail millionaire, served as Minister of Food and a member of the War Cabinet under Neville Chamberlain and then Winston Churchill. The aim was to make Britain as near self-sufficient in food as possible at a time when normal supply lines were disrupted by enemy action.
Under Woolton, food rationing was imposed across the nation. Nutritionists were tasked to calibrate exactly what food a typical person would require. They came up with a meagre diet of essential proteins, dairy foods and pulses. There were no limits on the consumption of potatoes and bread – although indulgence in the latter was discouraged. Just a little sugar was permitted (partly because it was mostly imported at that time).[i]
By the end of the war Britons were healthier than ever. Obesity was negligible; child mortality was lower than ever, and children were taller. Photographs of the VE Day celebrations suggest there were very few fat people around.
Food rationing was only finally ended in 1954. The revolution in British gastronomy began thereafter with the works of Elizabeth David, who introduced British consumers to the delights of Mediterranean cookery. David was the first of a line of succession of superstar (TV) cooks which leads via Fanny Craddock to Nigella Lawson. Then there was the restaurant revolution, pioneered largely, it must be said by entrepreneurial immigrants: first the Italians, then the Indians followed by the Chinese. The range and variety of British food culture has expanded beyond the imagination of my whippet-skinny grandfather – but so have our waistlines.
The problem is not that good nutritious food is difficult to come by: one can now buy all the essentials of the world’s great cuisines in an average British supermarket. The problem is not so much how to cook but – to borrow Ms Lawson’s phrase – how to eat. People no longer sit down with family and friends to enjoy meals cooked in the kitchen from scratch and served at the dining table with love. Twenty percent of my compatriots don’t even own a dining table. (That would partly explain the decline of the dinner or lunch party – still the main form of social interaction across the Channel in France.)
Rather, increasingly, people snack (graze) and eat solo TV dinners made from pre-prepared ingredients made up of ultra-processed foods. Most pre-prepared microwave meals contain high levels of fat, sugar and salt – as do most take-aways. People also (when not locked down) eat and drink on the hoof – the rise of coffee chains such as Costa, Starbucks and Café Nero and of sandwich outlets such at Pret (private) and Greggs (LON:GRG) is evidence of that. In fact, the whole concept of mealtimes has been lost for many. We have become largely a nation of convenience eaters – even though good quality food has never been so readily available.
No doubt the time-poverty of many working-class households with both parents working full-time contributes to the Junk Food Cycle. Then there is the impact of the decline of manual labour which forced men to stay fit. Or the fact that employers have chosen to close work canteens and point their staff in the direction of McDonald’s.
What is to be done? Personally, I would encourage families quite literally to break bread together around a table as a matter of routine. (As in breakfast, lunch and dinner.) Eating together is inherently sacramental – and not just in Christianity, much of the iconography of which arises from the Last Supper. I would discourage people from snacking in public places and especially on public transport. (I know there are some who will be outraged by my writing that.)
But I accept that that is a big ask in an age when it is almost impossible to separate young people (and many of their parents) from their smartphones for more than a few minutes. If more children are to enjoy free nutritious school meals, maybe they could take their parents with them to school. Woolton and Churchill in WWII rolled out a network of British Restaurants where wholesome food could be had at affordable prices. Why not a New British Restaurant for every school? At least they might engender the joy of communal eating.
The Dimbleby report was published in a week when extreme weather events were causing havoc on four continents, making the so-called climate catastrophe the lead story in global newsfeeds. This makes the issue of low-carbon farming all the more urgent.
As the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz and parts of Belgium started the clear-up after the devastating floods that began on 14 July, firefighters in the US state of Oregon were battling a wildfire that swept through nearly 500 square miles of forest. At least 170 people are now known to have perished in the German floods. At the same time, Russian firefighters in Siberia were dealing with a series of wildfires around Yakutsk. In China, torrential rains in the north-western region of Inner Mongolia caused two reservoirs to burst their dams near the city of Hulunbuir.
And this week, hundreds of passengers were narrowly saved from a flooded subway tunnel in Zhengzhou, a city of 12 million people that sits on the Yellow River in China’s central Henan province. In India, 35 people died as extreme monsoon rains fell across the nation, triggering landslides. In New Zealand, a state of emergency was declared in Buller District on the South Island after torrential rains.
Inevitably, many commentators have cited these events as evidence of global warming stroke climate change. In fact, none of these events is unprecedented. Some years ago, I cycled down the River Moselle from Trier to Cochem and was astonished to see the height of flood marks displayed in every public space. This beautiful part of Germany experiences devastating floods several times a century, most recently before the current episode in January 1995. Because we are all connected to newsfeeds which report extreme weather events in real time, we may be developing a distorted sense that the climate catastrophe is already upon us.
That said, in the temperature inversion earlier this month in Washington and British Columbia, temperatures of 50 Celsius were recorded for the first time. The notion that the Earth is heating up is now received opinion – though we don’t know how rapidly. In Switzerland, melting glaciers have created 180 previously unrecorded lakes in the last decade. According to a study published by the Swiss Academy of Science, Swiss glaciers lost two percent of their volume last year alone.
A number of celebrity chefs have endorsed the findings of Mr Dimbleby’s report, including Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Prue Leith. The Soil Association and the College of Medicine also expressed approval.
The consensus is that the age of cheap food is over and that food prices should rise to reflect the true value of the product and to ensure that it is produced in a climate-friendly way. The WWII obsession with self-sufficiency led to over-production and thus falling prices. That era is well behind us.
My concern is that the forthcoming wave of food price inflation will coincide with the rocketing costs of heating homes and motoring. And with more aviation taxes airfares will rise – budget airlines will largely cater for those with business expense accounts. The annual package holiday is already a thing of the past for many lower-income families. Yes, and – as we learnt this week from a calculated Treasury leak – taxes will rise, initially in the form of increased national insurance contributions.
The bottom half of median earners – including Mrs May’s now forgotten just about managing class – will not take all this lying down. The big story of the rest of this decade will be the collapse in the living standards of ordinary people. And here in the UK, the Dimbleby Tories could pay the price. As Mr Dimbleby admits in his report: Nothing brings governments down quicker than soaring food prices.
Mr Dimbleby’s report, while a useful contribution to the national conversation, has only a marginal chance of getting us to zero carbon agriculture – and an even slimmer one of achieving zero diabetes.