Published today, The National Food Strategy report attempts to set 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
Prof Jane Memmott, President of the British Ecological Society, said:
“As the report highlights, the way we currently produce our food is one of greatest threats to biodiversity. However, if we address these issues urgently and make changes like those recommended in the report to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use, there is considerable hope. We stand at a rare window of opportunity where large change is possible due to a combination of Brexit, the Agricultural Bill and the public being much more interested in where their food comes from.
“The proposed Environmental Land Management scheme replacing the Common Agricultural Policy is one of the most exciting changes for a long time. It will bring several challenges, but if properly implemented it can help stem the loss of biodiversity and, very likely, begin to restore it.
“To implement the changes needed, we will need to draw on diverse methods of agriculture, use them in the right places and be informed by scientific evidence. In our recent Nature-based Solutions report from the British Ecological Society, we highlighted how practices such as increasing field margins and hedgerows and incorporating trees into farmland can benefit biodiversity, carbon uptake as well as reduce soil erosion and flood risk.”
Dr Simon Griffiths, Group Leader at the John Innes Centre, said:
“The new National Food Strategy makes an important point. We have concentrated on growing enough food to feed the population, but we have sometimes prioritised quantity over nutritional quality. In fact we have to do both.
“We need fundamental change to the way we think about food production. We already have the knowledge, technology and tools to improve the nutritional quality of our staple crops. For instance it is possible to make crops with higher fibre, zinc or iron to meet the public health need.
“We are building deeper understanding of the genetic control of nutrient content, and a lot of this is still untapped by the sector. There is no area of crop research that would benefit more from increased coordination and innovation at this time. Urgent coordinated investment is needed to enable us to exploit this and develop healthier, more nutritious foods.
Professor Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre, said:
“I welcome this strategy, which is a comprehensive assessment of our complex food system. As Henry and the team outline, building a sustainable, healthy and equitable food system is a huge challenge.
“We must urgently address the fact that the food we eat is damaging our planet. The recommendation to invest £1bn in research and innovation to create a better food system is welcomed. We need to develop new agricultural technologies and practices to reduce the sector’s contribution to the climate emergency.
“The production and use of fertilizer and pesticides in agriculture are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Genetic approaches offer a real opportunity to decrease their use, and in turn reduce the carbon footprint of food production.
“The recent rapid expansion of genome sequencing, paired with technologies such as gene editing, offers an opportunity to improve the crops grown for food for the benefit of the environment and human health.”
Erik Millstone, Emeritus Professor in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said:
“Part 2 of the National Food Strategy recommends (page 161) that: “To maintain political focus…the role of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) should be expanded to cover healthy and sustainable food as well as food safety.”
“But, if the goal is to maintain a political focus, responsibility should lie with ministers, with one taking the lead. The FSA is primarily supposed to be a scientific, rather than a policy, body.
“Moreover, the FSA endured a ~54% real-terms purchasing-power cut in government funding between 2000 and 2020.
“Although in 2020 it did receive £19 m supplementary funding to help prepare for its increased post-Brexit responsibilities, but that extra funding still leaves the FSA seriously under-resourced.
“If the FSA mandate is to be broadened to cover public health nutrition and ecological sustainability, it will need to be far better resourced.”
Prof Alan Dangour, Director of Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:
“This important report should serve as a blueprint for other countries seeking to deliver sustainable and healthy food systems. By directly linking the environment, food systems and health, this report addresses a fundamental and critical concern for humans living on earth; ensuring everyone has access to a healthy diet while protecting the planet.
Various government departments across the world have raised this question, but few have taken strong enough action. We will only adequately tackle health and environmental issues if we combine the relevant sectors and transform the way we operate.
Many of the recommendations in the report are bold and will stimulate debate. While others are obvious and necessary if we want to live in a country that cares for people in the wider society and actively protects the natural environment.
The UK Government must now step up and fulfil its duty to protect people and reinvent a food system that is conducive for long-lasting health and environmental stability.”
Prof. David Barling and Dr Kelly Parsons from the University of Hertfordshire’s Food Systems and Policy Research Group, said:
On the food system holistic-ness:
“The Strategy gives a welcome prioritisation to the urgent issues of poor dietary health, health inequalities, and environmental damage caused by the current food system. And it is refreshing to see these social challenges being prioritised over economic growth of the food sector, as is often the case with national food strategies. At the same time, there we see a missed opportunity to address the issue of the low paid, precarious and often simply dangerous jobs in the food sector, and to make the links between these conditions and some of the dietary health and food insecurity issues which are being so commendably addressed by the report.” (Professor David Barling)
On the policy measures it recommends:
“It is great to see the Strategy recommending several novel policies, including the world’s first sugar and salt tax, a Land Use Framework aimed at supporting net zero ambitions by using land wisely, and a £500mn Innovation Fund for a ‘better food system’ which looks beyond the usual technological innovation and embraces the role of social innovations like community kitchens. Other positives are mandatory reporting for food companies on the healthiness and sustainability of their sales, and a commendably bold stance on the government’s approach to trade policy and food standards, making clear that not honouring a manifesto commitment to protect standards – by laying out what those standards are and creating a mechanisms to enforce them – would potentially bankrupt the domestic farming sector. It also suggests some useful improvements to current interventions, for example making food public procurement more robust, and enhancing our health-focused dietary guidelines to incorporate environmental considerations too” (Dr Kelly Parsons)
On the political pragmatism:
“The report’s recommendations are clearly made with a firm eye on what will ‘work’, firstly in terms policy measures it is confident will succeed in tackling the challenges, and secondly in terms of what is likely to be ‘winnable’ with the current political administration in place. They are clearly foregrounded in discussions with government ministers about what has a chance of being implemented. A meat tax is discounted as ‘politically impossible’ for example, and a more modest recommendation on free school meals is made than in Part One of the Strategy, in recognition of ‘extreme pressure on public finances’. Revenues from the sugar and salt tax are earmarked to pay for healthy food for those that can’t normally afford it; a tactic which has been shown to increase public – and therefore political – support for policy intervention.” (Dr Kelly Parsons)
On the proposed governance arrangements:
“The Strategy itself acknowledges a ‘desire for a more unified approach to food system governance’ and the need to ‘include more formal arrangements for bringing government departments together to plan strategically for food issues on, for example environment, health and social support measures’. Many stakeholders have been calling for a new minister for hunger, a cabinet sub-committee on food, and legislation on the Right to Food. The review team have instead opted for a Good Food Bill with statutory targets around diet-related health; an expansion of the current food safety remit of existing body the Food Standards Agency to encompass health and sustainability; better use of monitoring, data and evidence; and an obligation for local authorities to develop food strategies tailored to the local community. Will these proposals work? Expanding the FSA’s remit raises questions about whether it will have the capacity, but also the clout, to raise food up the Westminster political agenda, drive forward action in other departments? Can it successfully work in partnership with DEFRA to connect environmental objectives around production and consumption, or with the Department for International Trade on food standards?” (Dr Kelly Parsons)
On what happens next:
“The Strategy’s ambition, and innovation is highly commendable, and its political pragmatism too. Whether it has achieved the right balance between these two will be easier to gauge as the process shifts to its next phase; a White Paper response to be delivered by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs within six months’ of the Strategy being published. The recommendations will need to journey successfully through the political jungle of policymaking and implementation processes, and overcome many obstacles along the path; practical; bureaucratic and ideological.” (Professor David Barling)
Dr Cathrina Edwards, Nutritional Scientist at Quadram Institute Bioscience, said:
“The National Food Strategy is a wake-up call and I hope that this will be a catalyst for major transformative changes that are desperately needed to protect the health of the population and our planet for generations to come.
“Creating a long-term shift in food culture will not be an easy task, but with the right support, science and innovation can come together with food producers to create the next generation of healthier and more sustainable foods that fit into modern lifestyles.
“There are many opportunities to make big changes in the caloric value and metabolic effects of everyday foods, particularly at the level of food processing and formulation.
“Through a joined-up food systems approach, major societal challenges can be tackled together. For example, the improved use of pulses in everyday foods would boost fibre and protein intakes, and provide a source of low-glycaemic carbohydrate, while also reducing reliance on less-sustainable wheat and animal-derived ingredients.
“The UK has a strong inter-disciplinary community of highly motivated researchers who are eager to collaborate and will no doubt rise to this challenge.”
Dr Clare Pettinger, Lecturer in Public Health Dietetics at the University of Plymouth, said:
“The recommendations outlined in the National Food Strategy are welcome at this stage, where we have seen both COVID, massively affecting risk of food insecurity, and Brexit, which could also affect food supply. The new strategy goes some way to support the need for a massive overhaul to our food system – which currently fails the people most in need. It’s also important that we involve diverse communities and put their voices at the heart of more democratic decision making to transform our food system.”
Prof Amelia Lake, Dietitian and Public Health Nutritionist, Professor of Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University and Associate Director of Fuse, The Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, said:
“The National Food Strategy Part 2 is welcome and very timely as we, as a population, have understood just how fragile our current ‘just-in-time’ food system is. The last 16 months has shown consumers that they cannot take the food system for granted.
“What we need to see from this strategy is joined-up policy action, not simply cherry picking of the ‘easier’, more palatable options.
“Some of the points suggested in the strategy may make for some uncomfortable conversations.
“We need to acknowledge that food and sustainability need to be seen in parallel and that great inequality exists around access to healthy affordable food. Food and health are inextricably linked; food production and processing methods affects the health of us humans and our planet too!
“Tackling issues around food requires whole systems approaches and requires our government, food producers, the wide food industry, food retailers and us as consumers to have a role.
“Voluntary measures alone, for example the reduction of sugar in food, have proved to be much less effective than – for example – our sugar levy. This strategy with its systems-wide approach has the potential to revolutionise our food system and the health of our population. Let us see our nation’s food and health brought up high on the government’s agenda!”
Prof Angela Karp, Director and CEO of Rothamsted Research, said:
“Society will only successfully tackle the challenges laid out in this report by embracing scientific solutions – by developing more nutritious foods that are accessible to all, that are grown in harmony with the natural world, and that allow farmers to earn a fair living. The UK is home to some of the world’s foremost experts in agricultural research, experts who have already made great strides addressing the issues laid out in this report. What is needed now is for industry, government and civil society to help us to build on these breakthroughs and realise them in the wider world.”
Prof Mick Watson, Head of Genetics and Genomics at The Roslin Institute, said:
“In many ways, the report tells us what we already know – that eating ultra-processed foods, whether animal-based or plant-based, is bad for your health, and that we must encourage the public to eat a healthy, balanced diet including reasonable amounts of meat, fish, eggs, dairy, fresh fruit and vegetables, and fibre. Decades of research shows that food from livestock, such as meat, eggs, dairy and fish, provide essential vitamins that are important for health, and which are difficult or impossible to obtain from a plant-only diet.
“The focus on farmers is welcome, though the goal to reduce meat consumption by 30% is mis-placed. As with many similar reports, the authors do not take into account the significant improvements to come from animal breeding, genome editing, tackling livestock diseases, new feed additives, new probiotics, and new feed sources, all of which will drive livestock farming towards Net Zero without the need for consumers to change what they eat.
“Our World In Data (https://ourworldindata.org/emissions-by-sector) suggests livestock contribute just 5.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and this will shrink considerably simply through technological innovation in the livestock sector, in which the UK already excels.
“I welcome the report’s suggestion to invest in methane-reduction projects, however, the focus on alternative proteins risks directing consumers to the same ultra-processed foods that the authors rightly identify are poor for your health.”
Prof Susan Jebb, Chair of the Food Standards Agency, said:
“The National Food Strategy report deserves to be widely read and deeply considered by everyone with responsibilities for any part of our food system. Its compelling narrative focuses attention on the urgent challenges facing the food system and how we must work together, across government and industry, to create a system which is good for the health of people and the planet.
“I welcome the report, including its recommendations to expand the role of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The FSA is an independent regulator, trusted to make sure food is safe and is what it says it is. Our work is led by science and evidence, but places the interests of consumers at the heart of everything we do. We look forward to discussing the report with government and other partners and collaborating with them to create a resilient, healthier and more sustainable food system.”
Prof Sir Charles Godfray, Director, Oxford Martin School, Oxford University, said:
“The National Food Strategy proposed by Henry Dimbleby and his team is an important document that clearly outlines the challenges for England in developing a food system that is both good for our health and good for the environment. It does not shy away from difficult topics such as meat consumption, trade rules and the need to take some land out of agriculture if we are to meet our climate change and nature commitments. It cleverly outlines a mixed vision of British agriculture incorporating the best of conventional agriculture as well as organic and other approaches. The report is based on careful and quantitative analyses. There is a lot here, and everyone will want to debate specific conclusions and recommendations, but overall this is an impressive report that proposes concrete measures to improve the food system in England.”
Dr Marco Springmann, Senior Researcher on Environmental Sustainability and Public Health at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, said:
Regarding the health impacts of diets:
“It is surprising to see the health chapters focus almost exclusively on overweight and obesity. According to our estimates (https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2322), more than half of the diet-related health burden in the UK (that is 60-70,000 avoidable deaths) comes from imbalanced diets.
“For example, high consumption of red and processed meat and low consumption of fruits and vegetables are each associated with about 25,000 avoidable deaths each year. Not that overweight and obesity are not a problem, but I would have wished for clearer communication on the full burden poor diets impose on our health.
Regarding the environmental impacts of our food system:
“The National Food Strategy report clearly spells out the need to reduce meat consumption to preserve the environment and meet national climate-change targets. However, fulfilling this aim will require more than nudges. It is clear that decisive policies are needed to help citizens at all income levels adopt healthy and sustainable diets that are low in meat and dairy.
“The report shies away from recommending decisive policies that would help citizens reduce their meat consumption by highlighting the public opposition to meat taxes. However, its own polling indicated that three quarters of respondents either supported or were not opposed to taxes on some meats and setting clear meat-reduction targets for industry.
“I would have wishes for a stronger endorsement of such policies. The behavioural science literature (e.g. https://doi.org/10.1161/circulationaha.115.018585) suggests that targeted dietary changes are unlikely to be achievable without comprehensive measures, including fiscal incentives and mandates.
“There will always be some opposition to price interventions in the food system. That’s especially so when policymakers still fail to properly acknowledge that high consumption of meat and dairy, no matter where it is produced, impose such substantial costs on our health and the environment. Clear, consistent and evidence-based communication and policymaking are urgently required.
“The report rightly acknowledges the challenges trade can pose on national food systems. However, the issue is broader than just differing standards. New research we published in Nature Food in the last weeks (https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00306-9) found that trade agreements with the US and Commonwealth countries such as Australia could lead to unhealthier diets with more calories and greater red meat consumption.
“We also identified potential impacts from new trade agreements on national food production. But what would impact health in the UK the most are the kinds of dietary changes that are made easy by having greater access to unhealthy and high-calorie foods. According to our analysis, tariff and subsidy reforms could help avoid such a situation, for example if free trade agreements and subsidies focused on healthy and sustainable foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts.”
Prof Guy Poppy, Professor of Ecology at the University of Southampton, said:
“I am so excited to see the publication of a national food strategy. We have needed one for so long and the Covid pandemic has just amplified many parts of the food system which need urgent attention.
“I am particularly pleased to see that a system approach has been highlighted as important if we are to try and achieve human, environmental and economic health. Addressing health inequalities, junk food and the food environment is crucial as these areas have been ignored for too long and are at the heart of the wicked problem which will not be solved by changing farming or messaging consumers alone. I for one can’t wait to start on the work necessary to make the UK food system the best in the world for human and environmental health!”
Dr Duane Mellor, Registered dietitian and Lead for nutrition and evidence based medicine, Aston Medical School, Aston University, said:
“The National Food Strategy is a massive step forward as it attempts to link the complexity of our food system into an approach that benefits both human health whilst looking after the environment. It is revolutionary to include consideration of soil health as a vital part of our food system and hope that this will shape agricultural and food policy over the next decade.
“There are a number of positive suggestions linked to food poverty, including availability of free school meals being extended and provision over holidays as well as making fruit and vegetables more affordable. There are questions however if this will tackle the fundamental routes of food poverty – that is poverty itself. Cheaper fruit and vegetables are part of the solution, but adequate food storage and preparation facilities seem to be overlooked and are a significant issue for many, with a cupboard, a small fridge and a microwave with a hotplate, along with a few pots and pans being the extent of their kitchen at home. To reduce food security, we need to tackle the underlying issues of inadequate housing and poverty itself.
“As well as the underlying issues of poverty, ease and convenience of the healthier options need to be considered. This varies from shop layouts and displays which could be reconfigured so that healthier food shops were the quickest and easiest to do. We have come a long way with many shops removing sweets from the checkouts, a real step forward would be to make the easiest shop the healthiest. The same goes for our high streets, policies could be advocated to change takeaways into healthy food outlets which would help reduce the intakes of foods high in added fats, sugar and salt – which this report and others define as ultra-processed foods.
“The report also moves the discussion about ‘junk foods’ to ‘ultra-processed foods’ this in part is a step forward, but we need a rigorous definition of what this might mean for a U.K. diet based on scientific principles. Currently this labels a supermarket loaf of bread as ultra-processed food, whereas an artisan loaf is only processed. This risks food snobbery which will do nothing to achieve the reports aims of tackling food poverty whilst improving health. This needs to lead to an open discussion about how we can develop a healthy diet and healthy relationship with food in all our communities to lead ultimately to a healthier and happier society.
“With respect to reformulation taxes on sugar and salt, this could easily achieved building on VAT, which tends not to tax fresh ingredients but taxes many foods that have undergone processing. Perhaps using this mechanism, which is fully available following Brexit could provide a simple and effective tool to help shape our food system from farm to fork to benefit both planet and people.
“The idea of improving food skills to improve health in schools is a good step, but as a nation we need this across society as part of our grow back better approach as our nation recovers from the pandemic. The food sector before COVID-19 was one of the biggest areas of investment and growth, this is only greater now following Brexit. Therefore, a strong collaborative but regulated (so it prioritises public health and the environment) partnership needs to be built between the food industry and policy makers. This approach will include training and enterprise partnerships to train in healthy culinary and food production, to develop a highly skilled workforce, improve employability and ultimately if done in a targeted many, help reduce levels of poverty across our country. Although previously, this appears to have been to the interest of production and profit, this partnership is necessary as ultimately we need a food supply and we need the food industry as a major employer.”
Dr Janneke Balk, Group Leader, Department of Biochemistry and Metabolism, John Innes Centre, said:
“Reading the summary of the proposed National Food Strategy, and with my interest in mineral nutrients in crops, I can see that the reduction in meat consumption will be a challenge to not exacerbate levels of iron deficiency anaemia in the population.
“From nutritional surveys, we know that ~5% of females in the UK have sub-optimal iron levels and easily become iron deficient, e.g. during pregnancy. Meat is the ‘easiest’ source of iron, as it is very bioavailable in the form of haem. Plant foods can contain similar levels of iron (e.g. in wholemeal grains and pulses), but it is much less bioavailable, namely less than 15%.
“My research, in collaboration with Prof Sue Fairweather-Tait, shows that some vegetables, especially cabbages like broccoli are relatively rich in iron with good bioavailability. My group is also developing wheat with increased iron, in which the bioavailability is increased by relocating iron to a different part of the grain, or by increasing the level of a natural substance that increases bioavailability.”
Prof Michael Winter, Professor of Land Economy and Society at the University of Exeter, said:
“The National Food Strategy has been long awaited and does not disappoint. Its call for radical change to improve the nation’s health and build both food and environmental security and the actions proposed are timely and persuasive. I was pleased to see that global implications are to the fore and biodiversity is not neglected, and very relieved to see the avoidance of overly simplistic solutions regarding agriculture. The Government is asking farmers to change the way they farm for the public good. The NFS rightly insists that we must ensure farmers are properly recompensed for this and protected from unfair competition. The NFS recommends that the Government meet its manifesto commitment on free trade and sets out a core list of minimum standards for agriculture to be met in all free trade agreements. I hope the Government will welcome the report but more importantly that it will ensure that appropriate policy framework and governance structures are put in place to carry forward many of the report’s recommendations.”
Dr Duane Mellor: “I have worked to offer independent advice to a number of food companies and I am a member of the British Dietetic Association.”
Prof Guy Poppy: “Prof Poppy is the former Chief Scientific Advisor for the Food Standards Agency and is Director of the UKRI programme ‘Transforming the UK food system for healthy people and a healthy environment’.”
Prof Charles Godfray: “None to declare.”
Prof Amelia Lake: “No conflict of interest.”
Prof Naveed Sattar: “No conflicts.”
Dr Marco Springmann: “Nothing to declare.”
None others received.