Historic reform to food system needed to protect the NHS, improve the health of the nation and save our environment

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The National Food Strategy today calls on the Government to commit to a historic package of reforms in order to build a better food system for a healthier nation. 

In a landmark report, food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby sets out in stark detail how poor diets contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year in England alone and cost the economy an estimated £74 billion. Dimbleby also warns that our eating habits are destroying the environment, which in turn threatens our food security. The food we eat accounts for around a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and is the leading cause of biodiversity destruction.  

The independent report, commissioned by the Government in 2019, calls for the introduction of the world’s first Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax, with some of the money being used to expand free school meals and support the diets of those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods. It also calls for food education to be central to the national curriculum, and for food standards to be protected in any new trade deals.

Dimbleby also recommends measures to restore and protect our natural environment, by investing in sustainable farming techniques and new food technologies such as novel proteins. (See full recommendations below in Notes to Editors)

Major backers of today’s report include chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver, social welfare expert and former senior civil servant Dame Louise Casey, the economist Partha Dasgupta, and the chef Prue Leith. 

The National Food Strategy report sets out how our diets will need to change over the next ten years in order to meet the Government’s existing targets on health, climate and nature. By 2032, fruit and vegetable consumption will have to increase by 30%, and fibre consumption by 50%, while consumption of food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar will have to go down by 25%, and meat consumption should reduce by 30%. 

Author of the report Henry Dimbleby said: The food system is a logistical miracle, full of amazing, inventive people. With the right leadership from government, it is well within our power to change the system so it makes both us and the planet healthier.

Currently, however, the way we produce food is doing terrible damage to the environment and to our bodies, and putting an intolerable strain on the NHS.

Covid 19 has been a painful reality check. Our high obesity rate has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate.  We must now seize the moment to build a better food system for our children and grandchildren.” 

Jamie Oliver, chef and campaigner, said: “This is no time for half-hearted measures. If both government and businesses are willing to take bold action and prioritise the public’s health, then we have an incredible opportunity to create a much fairer and more sustainable food system for all families. Of course it’s right every child should have access to healthy and affordable food, no matter where they live – and last year has been a stark reminder that nutritious meals are vital in keeping us all healthy and resilient.” 

Louise Casey, Baroness Casey of Blackstock DBE, social welfare expert and former senior civil servant, said: “The pandemic has turned the divide between the rich and the poor into a gaping chasm. A terrible legacy of this time will be the exponential growth of food banks and hand-outs. Sadly the fact is that the less well off you are, the more likely you are to be prey to unhealthy food. There is a nutritional gap between rich and poor in this country, and it’s a slowly unfolding tragedy. Dimbleby not only recognises this – he has a plan to do something about it. Measures like extending free school meals to more children and trialling prescriptions of fruit and veg could kickstart the change we need to see. I trust the Government will act on his advice.”

Prue Leith, chef and judge of The Great British Bake Off, said: “There is so much to celebrate about our food, but we do need to act urgently to protect our health and that of the environment. This is a compelling and overdue plan of action. If the Government adopts it, we will, at last, be putting our food system on the right path to health and prosperity.”

Sir Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge and author of The Economics of Biodiversity, said: “Analytically tight, empirically thorough, the Dimbleby Report is not only a masterly study of the UK’s food problem, but it also constructs a framework wide enough to be deployed for studying the food problems societies face everywhere. The Report’s recommendations are detailed, convincing, and would be entirely implementable if we cared about ourselves and the world around us.”

Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association, said: “Everyone knows farming has to change if we are going to meet our climate and biodiversity goals and improve the health of the nation. But it is far, far easier said than done. Dimbleby offers a nuanced and imaginative way forward, one which harnesses the capacity of farmers and land managers to be a major part of the solution in tackling these challenges, while being fairly rewarded for their hard work and ingenuity. Many farmers are up for the challenge, but will need these recommendations to be implemented to make this possible.”

 Dr Michael Dixon, Chair of the College of Medicine, said: “This report is visionary and courageous and also much needed. It provides hope at a time when Covid 19 has exposed our vulnerability as a nation, which is in part the result of our poor diet. It is also deeply practical, offering solutions that can reverse a broken system and vested interests that currently result in healthy food being least available to those who most need it.

“The Community Eatwell Programme, in particular, recognises the huge potential role of empowered local communities working with primary care to radically change our eating habits and our health.”

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London and author of Spoon Fed, said: “The Dimbleby report is a wake-up call to this country and government to do something about our food system and the epidemic of obesity and ill health destroying our country. We eat more ultra-processed unhealthy food than any other European country and it is getting relatively cheaper and more deadly each year.”

Sue Davies, Which? Head of Consumer Rights and Food Policy, said: “The National Food Strategy’s ambitious proposals are long overdue and starkly set out the challenges the UK faces and how our current food system is harming our health and the planet. The Government must act on these recommendations and support consumers in making healthier and more sustainable food choices. 

“The report highlights some key questions for the UK’s trade policy. Given the Government’s commitment to upholding standards and tackling climate change, it is essential that ministers heed the report’s warning on the worrying precedent the Australia deal could create and set core food standards for imports. The UK can’t work to transform its own food system and support people in making food choices that are better for their health and the environment if we allow foods to be imported that are produced to lower safety, environmental or welfare standards.”

Stephanie Slater, Founder and Chief Executive, School Food Matters, said: “There is so much to be excited about in the National Food Strategy. Henry and his team have spent two years listening and learning from families to work out the best way to support them to live healthier lives. We wholeheartedly support this bold and ambitious strategy, particularly the recommendations to extend eligibility for free school meals, to commit to at least three years funding for the Holiday Food and Activities programme and to reframe food education as a subject worthy of the same attention as English and Maths.”

Mark Bridgeman, President of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “The National Food Strategy is a welcome addition to the debate about the future of land use and food production in the UK.  The strategy highlights the need to properly reward farmers for environmental improvements above and beyond what they already do, and rightly recognises the world class environmental and animal welfare standards of British food.  It is precisely because of these standards that Government and industry can argue with confidence that consumers should buy British meat, fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy and environmentally conscious diet.”

Tom Kerridge, Michelin-starred chef, said: “The Dimbleby Report has worked through an incredibly complex landscape and resulted in a set of comprehensive, eminently workable recommendations that are practical and will have a direct impact on our lives.  I take great heart in several recommendations that particularly resonate and relish the opportunity to see a new generation of children given the opportunity to learn to cook.  A fundamental skill no child should be without.  I applaud the findings and recommendations of the report.”

Thomasina Miers, chef and co-founder of Wahaca, said: “An incredibly important body of work with some real solutions to some of the thorniest questions around public health and climate change (and how they are inextricably linked).  Part 2 of the National Food Strategy at last gives us a chance to transform both for the better and be leaders in this field, through a thorough overhaul of how we approach food and farming.”

Bill Granger, restaurateur, said: “The culture of food in Britain has changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years, and it has been amazing to witness. But it’s time for the next step.

“We all hate the idea of anyone telling us what to eat, and it never ever works. But simple measures like a sugar and salt tax that reflects the true cost of these foods will help us as food producers to look at our recipes and adjust them with more sustainable and healthier alternatives.”

Responding to the publication of the second part of the National Food Strategy, the FDF’s Chief Scientific Officer, Kate Halliwell, said: “This report will help inform the wider conversation around the future of the UK’s food and drink industry. Food and drink manufacturers welcome the intent to bring forward measures which will help to increase access and affordability of food and drink for children and families on lower incomes.

“In contrast to this, a salt and sugar tax will ultimately impact those families who are already struggling to make ends meet, by making food and drink more expensive. After many years of cost pressures, businesses in our sector are already operating on very tight margins, and any further costs would simply have to be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher food prices.

“These taxes will not drive reformulation. Food and drink manufacturers have been voluntarily lowering fat, salt and sugars in recipes for decades as well as reducing portion size, but it takes time to change much-loved products. Furthermore, the Government’s proposed advertising ban and promotions restrictions would limit the ways in which companies can let families know about exciting new options.

“It is hard to view the proposals that the taxes raised will pay for additional health plans, with anything but scepticism. The same promise was made ahead of the introduction of the soft drinks industry levy, but was quietly dropped shortly afterwards.

“We look forward to contributing our own ideas to Defra, including via the Food and Drink Sector Council report due in September. We also look forward to seeing the Government’s White Paper in six months’ time which will have considered a wide range of inputs.”