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Political Print: Comical food policy is no laughing matter

A scathing attack on ministers by a leading financial analyst reveals the depth of despair felt at the government’s failure to deal with food system challenges. Nick Hughes reports.

“The UK food system, the largest industry in the country by a country mile, is a puppet of a failing, shallow, ignorant and low capability UK government.” It’s the kind of brickbat you’d expect to hear from a firebrand opposition MP but in this case the accuser is one of the food industry’s most respected financial analysts.

Shore Capital vice chairman Clive Black has never been afraid to speak his mind but in his latest industry update, Black channelled the righteous rage of a comic book superhero as he laid waste to the Whitehall establishment.

“Mistakenly we thought [Rishi] Sunak and [Jeremy] Hunt may be non-idiots, non-detached, non-delusional, and totally incapable.” BAM! Defra’s “policy making capabilities would make a failing kindergarten look good.” POW! “[Defra secretary of state Therese] Coffey and [Defra minister David] Kennedy are beyond comedy and laughing stocks.” BIF! “Lions led by donkeys is harsh on donkeys.” KABOOM!

As a journalist it’s easy to be critical of the government of the day, especially when you cover a subject like environmental affairs which (still) struggles to compete for political bandwidth. Campaigners tend to shout loudest when they want something changed; for every press release received in praise of government policy another five will attack policy with varying degrees of vehemence.

The fact that policy making is time-consuming, messy and, well, political can often be underplayed – intentionally so when lobbyists are trying to push a particular agenda. As a general rule of thumb ministers should perhaps be given more leeway than they tend to be afforded.

United front

But criticism of the current administration feels entirely justified. Sunak (and Liz Truss and Boris Johnson before him) has pulled off the hitherto impossible feat of uniting campaigners, farmers and financiers like Black who have the ear of industry CEOs in full-throated opposition to a policy programme that treats food as a subject best left to others.

I can’t recall a single conversation I’ve had over the past two to three years where the tone of the discussion has been favourable towards the government. Farmers remain angered by unsustainable returns, inadequate supplies of labour and trade deals that failed to honour the government’s promise of upholding UK standards. Campaigners are exasperated over backsliding on health policies and snail-like progress on those policies (such as packaging) designed to deliver environmental improvement. Business leaders are frustrated that ministers are tin-eared when it comes to the concerns of industry while many view the current policy platform as a barrier to delivering their own CSR commitments, such as net-zero, rather than an enabler.

Earlier this month food giant Danone broke ranks among its corporate brethren and called for higher taxes on unhealthy foods. It said some UK suppliers have not shown “enough appetite to change” adding that “meaningful intervention from the government is a necessary course of action”.

All of this tells me that opposition to the current government is not shaped by political bias but a clear consensus that the current crop of politicians are simply not up to the job; that job being to create a policy framework that supports citizens in accessing a nutritious, sustainable diet and enables businesses to make a reliable return on their investments and plan for the future with certainty.

It’s true that individual governments alone cannot solve all the problems associated with the food system. It’s also true that some businesses (and their representatives) are broadly satisfied with the status quo if it means less ‘red tape’ and eschewing of principles such as the ‘polluter pays’. Moreover the UK government has had to cope with an unusually dynamic and disruptive set of geopolitical challenges of late; some self-imposed like Brexit, others unpredictable like the covid pandemic and war in Ukraine.

Yet there is nothing in the government’s response to these crises, nor in its long-term approach to food policy, that suggests it has grasped the scale of the challenges facing our food system – the loss of critical ecosystems, the threat to harvests posed by a warming climate, the obesity epidemic, the high environmental footprint of current diets, and the unsustainably low returns received by those who produce our food – that have been detailed at length in these pages and in countless books, academic papers and reports.

Ministers even had the rare gift of someone spend two years investigating these systemic flaws on their behalf and serve up solutions on a plate; yet Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy looks destined to remain a blueprint for what might have been possible had our leaders been prepared to think seriously and soberly about the issues at hand.

Serious summit?

The recent food summit at Downing Street was a microcosm of the government’s attitude towards food policy. The prime minister attended fleetingly before flying to his next appointment. The ‘stars’ of Clarkson’s Farm were invited but the heads of leading NGOs were not. Following the event, Defra put out a press release detailing how it was backing British farmers with a new package of support but inevitably these never strayed beyond piecemeal policies (mostly aimed at boosting exports) alongside a vague promise to put farmers’ interests at the heart of trade policy.

A few carrots tossed to the horticulture sector in the form of new worker visas and measures to boost production and extend the growing season came with a delicious serving of irony from a government that had just canned its promise to create a dedicated long-term strategy for the sector.

‘Overlooked and undervalued’

Indeed, the situation facing the horticulture sector serves as a useful exemplar for how the government has failed to rise to the task of putting in place the building blocks for a sustainable future food system. The House of Lords horticultural sector committee is currently holding an inquiry into the sector’s future. (There’s a strong argument that House of Lords and House of Commons select committees should be your first port of call if you’re looking for genuine attempts to engage thoughtfully with the questions of food security and sustainability within Westminster). Launching the inquiry in February, committee chair Lord Redesdale said: “Horticulture is worth billions to the UK economy. From healthy fruit and vegetables to the multitude of crop and plant varieties that can be grown in the UK, it is a fundamental component of a secure food supply, supports the wellbeing of millions of people, and could provide innovative solutions to the challenges presented by climate change. Despite this, horticulture has been continually overlooked and undervalued.”

During one oral evidence session, Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, and horticulture farmer Ali Capper, who also acts as executive chairman of British Apples and Pears, detailed the litany of challenges facing the sector. These ranged from a lack of sustainable market return for home grown fresh produce; growers forced by buyers to shoulder too much of the risk of production; insufficient numbers of seasonal workers; and greater weather volatility exacerbated by climate change. This all impacted on business confidence, according to Capper, who said of government policy: “[…] a lot of [it] seems to be quite last minute, reactive and difficult for businesses that are trying to plan”.

Reactive measures

Perhaps more so than any other descriptor, the word reactive neatly captures the current government’s approach to food policy. This month, Sunak has been talking up the “game-changing” potential of the weight loss drug Wegovy which has been approved for use by the NHS after research suggested users could shed over 10% of their body weight. It’s yet another example of a government that focuses its energies on treating the symptoms of the problem – in this case diet-related ill health – rather than the cause (the ‘junk food cycle’ meticulously mapped out by Dimbleby).

Shore Capital’s Black ended his four-page diatribe with an attack on another reactive proposal said to be under consideration by Sunak’s government: the imposition of price controls on essential food items, something Black dismissed as “madness”.

It is tempting to charge the current administration with knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing; but if ministers truly knew the price of a failing food system they would stop with the policy inertia and start acting with the urgency and seriousness the situation demands.