A Food Systems Strategy for England: Twice Bitten, Thrice Shy.

Last week, the UK government announced a year-long review of the food system, which will lead to a new National Food Strategy for England. With the launch of a new website, Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon and the Sustainable Restaurants Association,  said ‘There are urgent challenges with which we must grapple. Populations are growing, diet-related conditions are harming the lives of millions, and climate change is altering what our land will yield.’  and that he hoped ‘the review would lead to an ambitious and long-term rethink of our food system’. The announcement has been greeted with widespread support and excitement by many within the farming, food and drink and environmental movements.

I really hope, that on this occasion, this level of optimism and enthusiasm is justified, but having been involved in two previous government initiatives, The Green Food Project (2013)  and Food 2030 ( 2009) which set out a government strategy for a sustainable food system for 2030, although optimistic, I am cautious and wary. Perhaps it’s a case of ‘twice bitten, thrice shy’. I really hope that this new food strategy does not end, repeating history, promising much and failing to deliver.

Reflecting on my experiences from the past, I think there will be 3 key acid tests for the success of this review:

  • Across party political buy in and support – Both previous attempts at developing a comprehensive food strategy for the UK were axed as a result of the short-term nature of policies and politics. Food 2030 was axed when a new government came to power and the Green Food Project was wound up when a new Minister came to power. In the context of huge uncertainties surrounding Brexit, a new Prime Minister and with potential changes with Defra, these are real risks to the new food strategy before it is even reports. The strategy team need to ensure that cross party buy-in and support from day one.
  • Engage those with lived experiences – Past attempts have too often been developed without seeking the views and opinions of those most impacted by our food system, particularly smaller scale farmers, small and medium sized businesses (SME’s) and citizens. As a result they can fail to address some of the underlying drivers and determinants of unsustainable and unhealthy food systems. Its great to see the new review promising to consult experts and people working through the supply chain and include a Citizen’s Assembly where a representative set of randomly selected people will listen to the evidence, debate it and make suggestions for next steps.
  • Transparency of Process – Previous processes have been very opaque and there needs to be clarity in terms of process, decision making and engagement.

I really hope that this review bears fruit this time. Initial signs and engagement are promising, I just hope short term politics does not hinder longer term needs. The UK food system is in need of reform to ensure it meets the health, nutrition and sustainability challenges of the 21st century. I wish Henry Dimbleby and his team every success over the next 12 months.

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