Tim Lang’s Field Notes: More politics than policy in the Government Food Strategy

Field Notes

More politics than policy in the Government Food Strategy

Professor Tim Lang

Wednesday 15th June 2022

Food policy is no exception to Harold Macmillan’s rule that the challenge for politicians is “events, dear boy, events”. We are seeing just how important the politics of food are in the latest phase of the now three-year English saga of the National Food Strategy. The case study file continues to grow!

To recap… In 2016, the British voted to leave the EU. Negotiations ensued about what form ‘leaving’ would take. On January 31 2020, the UK formally left with a transition period extended to 31 December. Meanwhile preparation for post EU agri-food politics were split into three policy zones: agriculture, the environment and trade. Coherence was always going to be a problem after that.

In 2018, an agriculture Green Paper (an outline of policy thinking) had been published. This said little about food. Reminded of this, Michael Gove MP, Defra Secretary of State, appointed Henry Dimbleby to the Board of Defra and asked him to prepare a food strategy.

Covid struck in early 2020 and the Dimbleby team was deviated but an emergency first report was produced in July 2020 stressing the need to tackle food poverty. Its recommendations were largely brushed aside. It took a footballer to kick the Government where it hurts.

A year later in July 2021, Dimbleby’s big summative report, THE PLAN (his capitals), was published. This spelled out key market and societal dynamics that need to be addressed to put England on a better track. The lock-in to junk food cycles was particularly important. A White Paper was promised within six months but took a year. The draft was subject to much internal wrangling. It was published finally on 13 June, after days of discussion about an earlier leak.

The document is worth reading not just for what it says but for what it ducks, and for how the government wants it to be seen, which can be different to what a policy actually becomes.

The image

Without doubt, the Conservative government wants this to be seen as part of the Prime Minister’s reset. Battered by a serious loss of confidence within his own party,  and much of the country, he and it want to be seen to get a grip on people’s troubles.

The difficulty here is that before the White Paper even emerged, the NGOs were like a pack of hyenas, snapping at Government’s heels in support of the Dimbleby Plan. They are now mostly disappointed, particularly the health and poverty campaigners. Rightly so. That the White Paper offers little ought now to be subject to deep NGO reflection. Why is this? They have been well organized, particularly pushing the case for food justice and especially for children. Why did they lack support inside Whitehall? The environmentalists among them took a slightly different line. They didn’t want to lose environmental gains they believed they’d won from the Agriculture Act’s shift on post Common Agriculture Policy public subsidies.

The new principle is ‘public funds only for public goods’ but as I argued a few years ago, it’s madness that somehow food is not a public good. No surprises then that the White Paper has nothing on school meals, or even about obesogenic food marketing.

The food politics now will be whether the English government will be seen to be getting the food system on the right track. Here, businesses are unlikely critics. With their food prices going up, they don’t want to be blamed. They will back more welfare. It comes out of taxes, not their profits.

The ducking

There is to be no future food legislation from the White Paper. This might seem unimportant but is actually terminal for much that’s in the thinking. Unless built into targets by law, how serious are the commitments? It barely even cross-references to the climate crisis despite food being a major source of CO2e emissions. The funds mentioned for this or that project are small.

Talking about the White Paper on the day of its launch, Henry Dimbleby was forthright, as he is allowed to be as a non-exec on Defra’s Board. The White Paper, he said, is not a strategy but a collection of policies. The implication being it lacks coherence. That incoherence is the result of what Dimbleby called on BBC Radio 4’s Today progamme an “arm-wrestle” between free-market ideologues and those who believe in protecting standards. In effect, the case that food prices should internalize their full costs is lost; the ideologues won. To be fair, few governments want to increase the price of food in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. Critics need to learn from this. The public will only be won to the case if taxing is seen to discriminate against junk food not good food.

Ominously, the White Paper does little to improve intra-UK relations. This is a strategy only for England. Scotland and Wales don’t feature. Northern Ireland features only to rattle the EU cage by threatening a unilateral rewriting of the Brexit-EU trade deal. The UK launched this dangerous move on the same day. I hope someone in Defra realizes that the UK’s food imports are overwhelmingly from the EU. Threatening the NI Protocol might appease the DUP, one NI political party, but will do little to win friends either in Brussels or Washington DC.

For any people left who believe food policy moves in rational straight lines, this is a useful case study to disabuse them.

The morsels

There’s no shortage of promises in the White Paper. If I was a policy neophyte, I’d say ‘but look, it mentions sustainability’. Alas, mentions don’t shift an entrenched unhealthy, gas-guzzling food economy, or trouble a powerful food elite.

I’m glad there’s to be a new inquiry into food labour, and that a new food data transparency approach might include more comprehensive labelling. As a co-founder of Omni-Action, I get that. But I also know labelling is among the weakest of interventions. And it needs to be now, not at some indeterminate future date, shaped by desperate trade deals ahead.

A desire to restart intensive horticulture and a new Institute of Agriculture and Horticulture are trumpeted but actually the written commitment is NOT to increase UK food production. This bodes ill for two reasons. Firstly, it means trade will be the likely vehicle for Government’s claim it is tackling food prices; and secondly, climate change means many sources of UK imports will be further stressed. The UK ought to be planning to produce more, but better quality and sustainably, because, as a rich country, it can afford the investment and because it ought not to be following a neo-imperialist food strategy, using cheaper land and labour to feed itself.

Perhaps the most glaring failure of the White Paper is that Defra absolves itself of any responsibility to tackle Britain’s lamentable dietary health challenge. This was admirably addressed by Dimbleby. Defra simply passes this to the Department of Health & Social Care, as though production and manufacturing are nothing to do with health.

In sum, the White Paper makes for rich study but poor politics.

Tim Lang is Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, and a Special Adviser to the Food Research Collaboration.

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