• Written by Andrew Davis
  • Posted on Aug 19, 2021
  • Articles

Henry Dimbleby’s long awaited National Food Strategy was published last month amid considerable media attention.  It was his comments on the nation’s diet and his recommendation for a tax on sugar and salt that attracted the most scrutiny but interest seemed to decline quickly.  The Government has pledged to produce a White Paper within six months but it is rumoured that Defra is attempting to distance itself from the report.

It is an extremely impressive document, not just its length at 290 pages, but the depth of the research that has gone into it.  The early chapters are devoted to an analysis of the deficiencies of the food system, in particular our appalling diet leading to obesity and avoidable disease.  It starts with the fear of starvation during and immediately after the Second World War and the work of Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution in increasing farm productivity.  That led to dramatic loss of habitat and biodiversity whilst the national diet deteriorated with ever increasing consumption of junk food.

There are a number of recommendations for improving diet, including for a tax on sugar and salt, expanding free school meals and for tackling food inequality.  A tax on meat consumption was considered but thought to be inequitable and unpopular.  But it is recommended that meat consumption should be cut by 30% over ten years, that highly processed food is reduced and replaced with more fruit, vegetables and fibre.

The later chapters cover the conflicting demands on land use, the impact of the recommendations on farming and the countryside.  It is clear that more land must be devoted to nature conservation and mitigating the impact of climate change, particularly within the context of the Government’s targets of net zero carbon by 2050 and 30% of land protected for nature by 2030.  This has led to the great debate over land sparing, where the most productive land is farmed intensively whilst the least productive is taken out of farming, or land sharing, where food production and environmental projects sit side by side.  Henry Dimbleby comes up with a compromise which he calls the Three Compartment Model.

A plethora of maps and statistics illustrate the point.  The most productive third of farmland produces 60% of output whilst the bottom third produces only 15%.  Devoting 10% of the least productive land to nature leads to a loss of only 1% of calories produced, whilst doubling that to 20% only increases the loss to 3%.  It is also helpful that the land most suitable for nature conservation and climate change mitigation happens to be the least productive with the major exception of the Fens.

The Three Compartment Model suggests that all rural land is categorised for one of three land uses.  Some will be devoted to climate change mitigation measures, including tree planting and peatland restoration.  Amongst the least productive land, it is estimated that some 425,000 hectares would be suitable for tree planting, mostly broadleaved woodland, which happens to be approximately the area needed for net zero carbon.

Other less productive land would be farmed very extensively with large areas dedicated to nature conservation and habitat creation.  This may well involve grazing animals for landscape reasons, sheep on the South Downs, cattle in wood pasture.  The most productive land would be used to feed the nation.  The question then arises whether this would be enough land to provide food security, a priority if we are to avoid exporting the problems we seek to solve.  It is essential to reduce the wastage of food, put at 9.5 million tonnes a year worth £19 billion and associated with 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.  85% of farmed land is devoted to grazing livestock or to growing arable crops to feed farm animals, much of which could be put to other uses if livestock numbers were reduced.

It is also assumed that innovation and technological advances would improve productivity.  Vertical farming and hydroponics, for example, are likely to increase in future.  Even conventional farming should improve with regenerative husbandry to improve soil health, plant breeding and new techniques allowing higher yields with less input of fertiliser and pesticides.  If waste was cut by 50%, yields increased by 15% and meat consumption reduced by 30%, the same amount of calories could be produced from 30% less land.

But the report poses as many questions as it answers.  The implementation of this strategy is still unclear.  Whilst it makes sense to map all farmland and put it into one of the three compartments, I doubt farmers will be too pleased if an official tells him how to farm his land.  Will the designation be done on a farm scale, can farms have land in more than one category?  It is fine to suggest that one way to cut meat consumption is to use alternative protein sources, plant or lab-grown, in ready meals but it is the lesser cuts of meat used in processed foods.  What would then happen to that meat?

The report recognises that grazing livestock have an important part to play in regenerative farming and in landscape management but how can that be squared with less meat and dairy consumption.  Methane production may be cut by selective breeding and feeding additives but animals used in extensive grazing are not fed supplementary rations.

Perhaps the biggest, and most surprising, omission is the lack of any consideration of the food supply chain, which is dysfunctional and in need of urgent radical reform.  Processors and retailers have far too much power relative to the producer which also results in waste. This is a well-researched and presented report that provokes thought rather than promotes solutions.  As such, it provides a useful context for further policy development.