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Political Print: Will food issues reach the election summit?

Rishi Sunak’s decision to call an early vote has scuppered a number of planned policies despite signs that food is rising up the political agenda. By Nick Hughes.

Tick tock, tick tock… and so continues the countdown to a UK general election on July 4th.

The timing of the prime minister’s announcement may have caught pundits and politicians off guard but the content of the campaigns to date has been far more predictable. The economy and matters of security (though not of the food variety) have dominated the narrative as the two main protagonists, the incumbent Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, tour the UK making their pitch to lead the next government.

The rules governing election campaigns mean we’re in for a period of posturing and ‘retail’ politics, designed to capture the imagination of voters, rather than the altogether more knotty business of turning policy into practice.

That means a number of previously promised policies will not see the light of day this side of the election. Parliament has now officially prorogued so there will be no land use framework, a pledge that dates back two years to the government food strategy, nor will be there be reform of public sector food and catering policy, which was consulted on back in 2022 but not acted upon, save for a recently published independent review from outgoing Conservative MP Will Quince (the findings of which will be explored in Wednesday’s Footprint analysis).

Long-awaited deforestation regulations, which would have banned the purchasing of palm oil, cocoa, beef, leather and soy sourced from land used illegally, remain stuck in the policy pipeline, while the Foodservice Packaging Association noted in a circular to members how the pre-election period of purdah could disturb the timetable surrounding packaging and waste legislation, including simpler recycling regulations for England.

Penny drops

At the time of writing the main political parties have yet to launch their manifestos, but there have been tentative signs in recent months that the penny has finally dropped regarding the challenges facing the food and farming sector and threats to the UK’s food security.

A week prior to calling the election Sunak had hosted the second annual Downing Street farm to fork summit following which he announced a series of new measures to help producers. Perhaps most eye-catching of these was a new blueprint to help grow the UK fruit and vegetable sector amid evidence of structural decline (the area of UK land used for vegetable production decreased by 10% between 2020 and 2022 and outdoor fruit production fell 6% during the same period).

There was also a commitment to deliver regulations to improve fairness in the fresh produce and egg sectors, following the adoption of new rules for the dairy sector, as well as financial support for embattled farmers affected by persistent wet weather.

Piecemeal policies they may be rather than the holistic food strategy stakeholders have been crying out for, but it constitutes progress of sorts.

Risk assessment 

Yet the over-riding feeling as we reach the end of Sunak’s tenure (if current polling proves accurate) is of a government still not fully attuned to the risks facing the food system. Defra recently published the first of a new, annual UK food security index designed to complement (rather than replace) the more detailed, three-yearly UK food security report(UKFSR). The index assesses UK food security as “broadly stable” based on key indicators selected from the wider set used for the UKFSR due to their ability to capture shorter-term trends.

Most of the indicators relate to production and trade, such as total global food supply for human consumption and share of global cereals and soyabeans internationally traded; but there is no assessment, for example, of farmer incomes or profitability, or people’s ability to access a healthy diet.

Nor is there consideration of the ecological health that underpins the food system such as soil fertility, water quality and availability, and biodiversity; while climate change is referenced only in the context of “longer-term risk”.

The government promises such factors will be considered when the second UKFSR is published later this year, but given the exceptionally wet weather experienced during the winter and spring of 2023 and 2024 and the knock-on impact on plantings of key arable crops like wheat, barley and oilseed rape it feels incongruous that the climate is still not considered a short-term risk for the purposes of an annual food security report.

Playing catch-up on climate

The sense of a government in perpetual catch-up mode was strengthened by the news, broken by The Grocer, that food industry bosses and the government have agreed to hold a series of talks to discuss measures to tackle risks to the food supply chain from the climate crisis. A new ‘resilience group’ is being set up by Defra and the Food and Drink Sector Council and will include senior figures from supermarkets, suppliers, hospitality and agriculture.

That the government is finally taking the link between the climate crisis and food security seriously should we welcomed, yet a blueprint for responding to the coming threat is detailed meticulously in reports by the Climate Change Committee, Henry Dimbleby’s food strategy and all manner of other painstaking analyses by NGOs, academics and think tanks. What can possibly be gained from another series of talking shops between government and industry? When are we going to stop talking and start acting?

Hope springs eternal

It’s not just the usual coterie of environmental NGOs demanding that politicians grasp the nettle on the challenges facing the food system. The continued lack of a cross-cutting food strategy is a bugbear for many progressive businesses within the food industry. That was the subtext behind the recent Hope Farm statement from a group of food businesses, farmer organisations, civil society, and membership groups in which they urged the next government to prioritise an ambitious food and farming strategy within its first 100 days of taking office.

Coordinated by former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, the statement has been a year in the making and is supported by the leaders of Bidfood, Nestlé and Danone alongside NGOs like the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and Soil Association.

Among their asks are the adoption of clear and legally binding national food systems targets linked to long-term objectives such as access to healthy, sustainable diets; the safeguarding of food resilience; tackling and adapting to climate change; protecting and restoring nature; ensuring water security; and ending household food insecurity.

They call too for a multifunctional land use framework to support local decision-making that meets climate, health, nature and food resilience goals, including targets for sustainable food production.

Mandatory nutrition and sustainability standards for all public food procurement are also on the wish list, alongside mandatory public reporting by food companies of sales data on health and sustainability metrics.

It’s the type of big, bold reform that is increasingly seen as critical to putting the food system on a more sustainable trajectory, but rarely gets an airing during election campaigns tailored to generate a positive front-page splash in the next day’s papers.

Food matters

The evidence suggests the electorate considers issues concerning food and the environment to be worthy of debate. Results from the ONS’s opinions and lifestyle survey covering the period from May 8th to 19th found climate change and the environment (61%), fourth among the issues considered most important by respondents, behind only the cost of living (87%), the NHS (85%) and the economy (68%), and ahead of crime (59%), housing (58%), immigration (54%), international conflict (50%) and education (46%).

Food, meanwhile, features prominently among people’s cost of living concerns. Just over half of adults (55%) reported that their cost of living had increased over the last month, with the rise in the price of their food shopping (94%) by far the most commonly reported reason.

We can deduce from the data that this stuff matters to people. Does it matter as much to politicians? We shall soon find out.

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