Henry Dimbleby has a huge challenge. In June of 2019, Michael Gove, then Secretary of State at Defra, asked him to form an Advisory Panel to consider the UK’s food and farming system and to write a National Food Strategy. That, in itself, is a significant task, bringing together many different critically important aspects including food security, the health of the population, nature conservation and environmental protection, climate change and international trade. But partway through the process, the coronavirus pandemic hit and caused major disruption.
Last month, Part One of the National Food Strategy was published. This concentrates only on two of the most urgent elements, the impact of the pandemic and trade relations after the UK finally leaves the European Union. It is hard to imagine the extent of disruption caused by the virus and yet, for many, life continues much as before.
In terms of food, restaurants, cafés, pubs and takeaways provided a quarter of the nation’s calories before lockdown but, with a few exceptions, closed overnight. This caused huge problems, especially for those who supplied them, Freshways dairy just one example. Many gave food away to food banks and others rather than throw it away. The consequent effect was that the grocery retail sector grew by 11% in a month, threatening supplies and causing massive demand for home delivery. There was also a threat to imported food, especially where it comes in by road from the continent. And yet, after an initial hiatus, largely caused by stockpiling, the system coped remarkably well.
Nearly four million people work in farming and the food chain, around half of them in the hospitality sector. Most of those have been furloughed and have effectively had a pay cut of 20%. Even though many pubs and restaurants have now reopened, the events sector has not and there is the prospect of bankruptcies and mass redundancies. This leads on to the other impact discussed in the report, food poverty.
There is a clear link between poverty, bad diet and poor health. Those on low incomes tend to eat more junk food and are thus vulnerable to those conditions associated with poor diet. This is obviously a Government priority and several of Dimbleby’s recommendations have been foreshadowed by initiatives. Nevertheless, he advocates an extension of free school meals and the Holiday Activity and Food Programme that runs during the summer holidays. There are further recommendations relating to Government action to minimise food poverty amongst the unemployed and low paid.
The other major issue discussed in Part One of the National Food Strategy is potential trading relations after the end of this year. The Government has repeatedly said that imports of food produced at lower standards to ours will not be allowed but have so far refused to put that into law.
The problem as analysed by Dimbleby is that if we ban all imports of food produced to lower standards of animal welfare or environmental protection, we may find that few countries will agree new free trade agreements. The US, for example, will not sign a free trade deal unless we are prepared to buy their beef and chicken.
Equally there are those who advocate scrapping all tariffs and allow total free trade. That would simply export the problems we seek to eradicate in this country and drive many of our farmers out of business. There are also WTO rules to consider. Imports cannot be banned purely because of production methods unless certain public health or environmental protection threats can be proven.
The solution suggested by Dimbleby is pragmatic and ingenious. We would not ban hormone-fed beef or chicken washed in chlorinated water from the US but such products would attract the full tariff allowed under WTO rules. That will make them comparatively expensive and should not undercut British producers. In any case, meat imported from the US would have to be frozen and 94% of the total take-home volume of poultry and game in this country in 2019 was fresh.
Beef produced without hormones or chicken not washed in chlorinated water would be allowed in tariff free provided the status can be verified. There is already a scheme operating in the US to allow beef certified as hormone free to be imported into the EU. It seems likely that UK Government negotiators are working along these lines. The full set of core standards should be defined by the newly formed Trade and Agriculture Commission and any trade deal should be approved by Parliament after adequate scrutiny.
Part One of the National Food Strategy is an interesting and thought-provoking document, a timely first course. But the main course is still to come and, if Part One is any guide, will be far-reaching and make significant recommendations that, if adopted, will change our food system for many years to come. The Government has promised a White Paper and appropriate legislation so public reaction to the final report will be interesting!