The government is today facing fierce criticism over its new Food Strategy with critics from both the food and farming industry and the environmental movement accusing Ministers of producing a document that is “flatter than a pancake and missing most of the crucial ingredients needed to truly ensure our long-term food security”.
The Department for Food, Environment, and Rural Affairs (Defra) will today publish its long-awaited Food Strategy, which is a response to the recent government-commissioned review led by restaurateur Henry Dimbleby.
The government today said that the new strategy would seek to drive innovation and technology deployment across the farming strategy in order to boost domestic production while enhancing sustainability across the sector. The plans include proposals to boost domestic fruit and vegetable production, incentivise increased investment in agricultural technologies, and encourage the use of renewable energy across the farming industry.
However, a draft version of the report leaked late last week, sparking fury among campaigners who accused Ministers of ditching many of the proposals at the heart of the Dimbleby Review, including plans to boost demand for plant-based foods, enhance environmental and welfare standards , including for imported food, and expand the UK’s free school meal programme.
The Sunday Times also reported yesterday that the final version of the strategy is set to confirm changes to the budget for the farming subsidy schemes that are set to replace the Common Agricultural Policy, which would drastically reduce the amount of funding earmarked for the most ambitious rewilding and nature recovery projects.
The post-Brexit farming subsidy reforms had originally proposed splitting the overall budget in three with a third of the total funding – up to £800m a year – reserved for a Landscape Recovery Scheme that would transform areas of agricultural land into nature-rich forests, coastal wetlands, peatlands and wildflower meadows. But according to The Times the fund has been quietly slashed to just £50m over three years, representing less than one per cent of the budget.
The government said the changes would ensure the subsidy reforms could help meet farmer with sources indicating Ministers had demanded concerned across the industry that taking land out of agricultural production could general food security at a time when food prices are rising in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, green campaigners branded the proposals as a “betrayal”, arguing that by diverting funding to schemes that require farmers to make much more modest changes to protect nature Ministers were diluting their promise to ensure farming subsidies are only paid where landowners deliver public goods, such as expanded carbon sinks and improved biodiversity.
Writing on Twitter over the weekend, financier and non-executive board member at Defra, Ben Goldsmith, hit back at accusations that rewilding projects would impact UK food security. “Varied vested interests, useful idiots and other pallid souls are bleating out the trite argument that we cannot restore vibrant nature in Britain (one of the most nature-depleted places on earth) ‘because food security’,” he wrote. “It’s nonsense, and they will lose the argument.”
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “It would be a complete and utter disgrace if the government broke the promise that it has made time and time again to restore nature across large areas as part of the post-Brexit agricultural transition There is no such thing as food security if nature is in decline.”
However, officials remained at Defra insisted the government committed to the reforms and that significant funding would remain available for the Landscape Recovery Fund.
Writing on Twitter, Jonathan Baker, a senior official at Defra working on the reforms, said there were “no plans to delay” the introduction of the new subsidy schemes, which also include the accompanying Environmental Land Management (ELM) and Sustainable Farming Incentive ( SFI schemes.
However, he acknowledged the government was planning to have more flexibility in the way the budgets for the different schemes are allocated. “We don’t know what the right split of funding is at any point in time,” he said. “But we do know what we need to do to meet our targets. The reason we don’t know/don’t want to commit to the split for Landscape Recovery now is because so much is uncertain now.
“For example, we don’t yet know: what sorts of applications we will get for Landscape Recovery (in scale, quality, focus, effectiveness, cost to run / deliver) [or] how much private finance we might raise… Making this works means being clear on what we want to achieve, rolling out the offers as we are doing and learning and adapting as we go. Rather than be constrained by fairly arbitrary rigidity on funding split. We want to be compelled by very real rigidity of out targets.”
Meanwhile, in an interview this morning with the Guardian, Dimbleby slammed the final version of the Food Strategy, which he argued did not amount to a credible strategy. “It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done,” he told the paper.
He also accused the government of further watering down the draft version of the strategy seen by multiple media outlets late last week, revealing that the final version would remove commitments to make it easier to import food with high animal welfare and environmental standards.
“Yet again the government has ducked the issue of how we don’t just import food that destroys the environment and is cruel to animals – we can’t create a good fair farming system, then export those harms abroad,” he said. “I thought the government would address this but it didn’t.”
The Food Strategy will also reject Dimbleby’s proposals for a sugar and salt tax to help fund healthy food options for those in poverty and ducks and repeated calls for a concerted strategy to encourage lower levels of meat and dairy consumption.
“They have said we need alternative proteins but they have not mentioned the unavoidable truth that the meat consumption in this country is not compatible with a farming system that protects agriculture and sequesters carbon,” Dimbleby said.
The government this morning defended the new strategy, insisting it would help catalyse investment in innovation technologies and practices that would help enhance food security and curb environmental impacts.
Defra announced this morning that the Strategy would see £270m invested across farming innovation funding programs through to 2029, alongside measures to incentivise the sector to invest in renewable energy generation, waste heat and CO2 utilization, and embrace emerging additives that can reduce methane emissions from livestock. It also confirmed plans to consult on both an ambition for 50 per cent of public sector expenditure on food procurement to be on food either produced locally or to higher standards and new rules to require large businesses to report on food waste levels.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the strategy “sets out a blueprint for how we will back farmers, boost British industry and help protect people against the impacts of future economic shocks by safeguarding our food security.”
“Harnessing new technologies and innovation, we will grow and eat more of our own food – unlocking jobs across the country and growing the economy, which in turn will ultimately help to reduce pressure on prices,” he said.
His comments were echoed by Environment Secretary George Eustice, who said the Strategy would also “increase the focus on skills in the food sector, and the roles and career pathways available”.
“In particular, we will seek to boost our horticulture industry and ensure the expertise needed to develop the sector here in the UK,” he added, pointing to a new commitment to review the planning permission process to support new developments of glasshouses.
But both farming and environmental groups lined up to condemn the new Food Strategy.
NFU President Minette Batters told The Observer that the Strategy had been “stripped to the bare bones” and lacked the detailed new policies necessary to deliver on its pledges to enhance food security.
“We want to be eating more British and more local food but again I just ask how,” she said. “It’s all very well to have words but it’s got to have really meaningful delivery and we aren’t seeing that yet in this document.”
Louisa Casson, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK accused the government of “ignoring climate scientists and its own experts in favor of industry lobbyists”.
“The government’s food strategy isn’t just half-baked, it’s flatter than a pancake and missing most of the crucial ingredients needed to truly ensure our long-term food security,” she said. “Instead of listening to the warnings from climate scientists on the urgent need to reduce meat production, ministers seem to be goading UK farmers into producing even more of it. With the cost of food soaring, the government should be promoting the most efficient use of Our land to produce healthy and affordable food for people, rather than wasting vast amounts of cropland to grow animal feed. Yet even tentative plans to rethink land use have been kicked into the long grass. of importing millions of tons of soya to feed UK chickens and pigs, driving climate-critical forests to the brink.”