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Political Print: Johnson continues to swerve the pig issues

If only the prime minister showed as much enthusiasm for a promised national food strategy as he does for Peppa Pig. By Nick Hughes.

At least 16,000 healthy pigs have been culled and incinerated in the UK since the summer due to a shortage of capacity in abattoirs; yet it feels entirely in keeping with his persona that Boris Johnson’s most notable engagement with porcine issues has been of the cartoon variety.

While the prime minister was waxing lyrical to bemused business leaders over the appeal of Peppa Pig World last month, the ongoing crisis in the pig industry served as a jarring juxtaposition of how the seismic changes happening in food supply chains are rubbing up against the government’s on-going refusal to engage thoughtfully with them.

Pig farmers are facing a perfect storm of issues preventing them from getting a growing backlog of pigs off their farms and into processing facilities. These include a lack of butchers linked to the government’s post-Brexit migration policies and China’s refusal to lift covid-related embargos on pork exports.

In October, the government belatedly introduced a package of measures to help ease the backlog –including 800 temporary visas for overseas butchers to come into the UK for six months – but by the end of November the National Pig Association said the benefits from the support package were still yet to be seen.

It smacks of another case of the government doing too little too late to avoid a crisis situation (as has been its modus operandi for much of the period spent dealing with the threat from coronavirus).

Certain backbench Conservative MPs are said to be losing patience at an administration they view as intolerably interventionist across the wider economy, but on matters of food the default position of leaving it to the market has persisted throughout 2021. 

The recent net-zero strategy swerved the opportunity to tackle weighty issues relating to sustainable food and farming, including dietary change, while the environment bill – despite paving the way for key policies such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) and providing powers to charge for single-use items – has drawn criticism from campaigners over a lack of independence for the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and inadequate provisions around reducing deforestation in supply chains.

On health too, the government in England has been minded to take the path of least resistance save for some piecemeal, headline-grabbing policies to restrict promotions and advertising. When Johnson delivered his ode to Peppa Pig World at the CBI conference he praised the fictional land for its safe streets, discipline in schools and heavy emphasis on new mass-transit systems. He omitted to mention the surfeit of ultra-processed foods on-sale at its various food outlets (a situation by no means unique to Peppa Pig World among UK children’s attractions).

Research is increasingly linking ultra-processed foods not only to serious health conditions like type-2 diabetes but to environmental damage. And yet there remains little urgency to reform a system that food writer Bee Wilson described in a recent article for The Guardian as “stacked against healthy eating”, nor a clear sense for how ongoing programmes such as those on product reformulation will be delivered via the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities now that Public Health England has gone the way of the 16,000 pigs.

The government would no doubt point to the forthcoming publication of its white paper in response to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy for England as evidence of its commitment to engage with issues of food policy. But based on past experience can we really expect a coherent document that pulls together the various threads linking farming, health, the environment, livelihoods, culture and the myriad other issues that make up a food system? The odds surely are that we will be served up a smorgasbord of existing policies and vague ambitions.

Kicking the can further down the road on a joined-up policy would not serve the interests of responsible foodservice business or the millions struggling to put food on the table this winter. Figures released by the Trussell Trust in November showed that on average more than 5,100 emergency food parcels were provided for people every day from April until September this year by food banks in the charity’s network. That represents an 11% increase compared to the same period in 2019. The Trussell Trust said many families faced destitution, meaning they are unable to afford the absolute essentials to eat and stay warm, dry and clean.

Household food insecurity is a symptom of outright poverty as much as a failure of the food system to nourish those in need. Nevertheless, culling thousands of healthy pigs when there are thousands more people going hungry does not make for great optics for this government.

Will the Johnson administration resolve to engage seriously with food issues in 2022? Or will the prime minister simply give further succour to those who increasingly view him as a cartoonish caricature?