Boris Johnson’s new food strategy for England contains virtually no new measures to tackle the soaring cost of food, childhood hunger, obesity or the emergency climate, a leaked version of the white paper shows.
The strategy, seen by the Guardian and due to be published on Monday, was supposed to be a groundbreaking response to recommendations from the restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, who wrote two government-commissioned reports on obesity and the environment.
Dimbleby made a number of high-profile suggestions, including the expansion of free school meals, increasing environment and welfare standards in farming, and a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption.
But the slim 27-page document makes few recommendations, and declines to address the contribution of food prices to the cost of living crisis or address calls for consuming less meat and dairy.
Among its few policy proposals are the suggestion there could be more fish farming, which is environmentally controversial, and an increase in the use of “responsibly sourced wild venison”.
The strategy was described as “bordering on preposterous” by Labor over its lack of concrete proposals on food prices and “worse than half-baked” by the environmental campaign group Greenpeace.
Johnson recently delayed measures to tackle obesity and has come under fire for failing to do enough help families with the cost of living, with inflation running at 9%.
Although the white paper accepts food prices are a major part of the squeeze facing many families, and that many people on low incomes struggle to afford to eat, it suggests this is not the business of a government food strategy.
The white paper instead focuses on “longer-term measures” to support the food system rather than “duplicating work on the cost of living” – citing the Treasury’s £15bn support package focused on lowering energy bills. It sidesteps growing calls from teachers and others for an extension of eligibility for free school meals to an extra 1 million children in poverty, although it says the idea will be “kept under review”.
It boasts it “has made it easier” for young low-income families to apply for and use the Healthy Start fruit and vegetable voucher scheme – though it ignores Dimbleby’s critique of the scheme’s inadequacies, his call for it to be expanded, as well as overlooking recent problems with the digital part of the scheme.
“The government is committed to a sustainable, long-term approach to tackling poverty and supporting people on lower incomes, helping them to enter and progress in work and lead fulfilled lives,” it says.
The white paper also ignores Dimbleby’s proposals for a tax on sugar and salt used in processed foods as a way of escaping what he called the “junk food cycle”. Dimbleby insisted bold regulatory measures, rather than relying on educating consumers and voluntary agreements with the food industry, were needed to tackle the huge and growing market for unhealthy foods.
But while the white paper accepts that obesity is prevalent, with 64% of adults and 40% of children overweight, it makes clear there is no great desire for state intervention, and insists on the importance of individual responsibility and choice in influencing demand for healthy foods.
Experts had also urged the government to cut meat and dairy consumption in order to improve land use and tackle the climate emergency. Dimbleby called for a 30% reduction, and Greenpeace a more ambitious 70%. In his executive summary, Dimbleby stated: “Careful livestock farming can be a boon to the environment, but our current appetite for meat is unsustainable: 85% of farmland is used to feed livestock. We need some of that land back.”
However, the government makes no such commitment, instead opening a consultation about new technologies to help cattle produce less methane. There is also a focus on regenerative livestock farming, which uses more land than intensive farming to produce less protein.
It says: “Sustainable sources of protein do not have to be new or novel or displace traditional sectors. Regenerative farming will also provide a more sustainable production of traditional protein sources. Using livestock to benefit the environment in balance with food production is already being championed by many small-scale farmers.”
One new announcement made in the white paper is regarding animal welfare. Ministers plan to make it easier for countries to trade with the UK if they have strong animal welfare legislation.
The report also mentions an expansion of aquaculture – fish farming – to potentially replace some meat in the diet. This is despite fish farming being found to be often very damaging to the environment.
Deer stalkers will also enjoy a boon from the report, as one of the few new announcements it makes that the government will “look to increase the use of responsibly sourced wild venison, which would have otherwise been disposed of, in the food chain” .
Environment experts who fed into the strategy said it was “worse than they expected” – and they did not have high expectations.
There are also fears that the report signals a watering down of the environment land management scheme (ELMS) as there are no targets for land use change mentioned.
Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, was heavily critical of the leaked strategy. “The UK is in a cost of living crisis with food prices spiraling, real wages falling, growth plummeting and taxes up. It is clear now that the government has absolutely no ambition to fix the mess they have created,” he said.
“A food strategy is of vital importance, but the government has dithered, delayed and now failed to deliver. This is nothing more than a statement of vague intentions, not the concrete proposals to tackle the major issues facing our country. To call it a food strategy is bordering on the preposterous.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on environment, food and rural affairs, added: “The Conservatives’ food strategy has no solution to solve the cost of living crisis and nothing for the millions of people struggling to put food on the table.
“By failing to do anything to help farmers across the country the government are all but guaranteeing a generation of higher food prices.”
Louisa Casson, the head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, said: “The government’s food strategy isn’t just half-baked, it’s flatter than a pancake and missing most of the crucial ingredients needed to truly ensure our long-term food security . Instead of listening to the warnings from climate scientists on the urgent need to reduce meat production, ministers seem to be goading UK farmers into producing even more of it.”
Ben Reynolds, the deputy chief executive of the food and farming charity Sustain, added: “Our understanding is that the government’s food strategy white paper will acknowledge the many issues our food system but fall short on strong policies, underpinned by legislation, needed to make wholesale change.
“The Dimbleby review generated considerable understanding and appetite for change. Health campaigners, businesses, food enterprises and investors have all called for government intervention to help avert the health, climate and nature crises caused by our food system. We would welcome any responsibilities on industry and the public sector mandatory that help make healthy and sustainable diets the norm, but if the government publishes a white paper with little more than reheated commitments, consultations and reviews, this will just kick the can further down the road.”