Close but no cigar: the National Food Strategy fails to tackle corporate control of our food system

Today sees the publication of the long-awaited National Food Strategy. Thorough and analytical, there is much to commend and welcome in Henry Dimbleby’s long-awaited opus on England’s food system — and more importantly, what policy makers should be doing about it.

Many of Feedback’s core issues, some of which we have been campaigning on for over a decade, feature prominently in the strategy: the need to reduce meat consumption for climate change mitigation, food waste prevention as a necessary intervention to enable land sparing, and the imperative to address unacceptable health inequalities linked to poor diets.

Dimbleby has clearly done his homework, toured the nation and spoken extensively with experts and the public alike. However, for all his diligence and obvious passion, and many excellent recommendations, I can’t help but think the strategy falls short in two troubling ways.

Problem 1: Who’s got the power?

The first concerns the striking absence of analysis of power structures and dynamics in the food system — how they manifest, and how they impede the move towards the healthier and climate-friendly food system Dimbleby rightly calls for.

He recognises the critical importance of land use planning to meet the threefold goals of food production, space for nature, and greenhouse gas removal. But he does not address how this shift can happen in the context of England’s extraordinary concentration of land ownership in a few gilded hands — in a way that is equitable, provides access to land to new entrants in the sector, and does not perpetuate dispossession of land workers.

We must ask questions of ownership, financing,and structure of England’s major food and agricultural business. Disappointingly, Dimbleby does not discuss these issues at all, despite it running to over 200 pages. Let’s consider how these issues manifest in two areas: sugar and food waste.

British Sugar — Too much of a bad thing

The strategy outlines the devastating impacts on health and the NHS of the ‘Junk Food Cycle’. It’s clear we must escape the cycle, but how? Dimbleby proposes a tax on wholesale sugar (and salt) — the idea being that this will push food manufacturers to reformulate their products and lower sugar content, thus improving the health. As a bonus, the proceeds of the tax would go to fund healthy food initiatives in poorer communities.

But a critical part of the picture is ignored: production. The UK produces vast amounts of sugar in the form of sugar beet, enough to exceed our Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) three times over. This cheap oversupply is what is making its way into so many of our food products. There may be historical reasons for England’s outsized sugar industry, such as early 20th century beliefs in the nutritional value of sugar and the need for strong domestic production, but with today’s understanding of the impacts of sugar, we must reconsider the current situation.

Ignoring the role of overproduction in enabling and driving overconsumption is tempting because addressing it raises difficult questions. Sugar grown in the UK is produced by a corporate monopoly, British Sugar, a subsidiary of Associated British Food, owned by several institutional shareholders, and still majority controlled by a Canadian family and their family foundation. As a corporation, it’s clear that British Sugar is primed for growth, to maintain and increase sugar production and generate healthy profits. It’s also clear that this increasing supply conflicts with attempts to decrease demand through sugar taxes — unless British Sugar attempts to export England’s sugar problem.

The strategy should have addressed sugar production in the context of decreasing demand. If, as a corporation, British Sugar is structurally unable to plan for decreased production, what should replace it? Should it be re-nationalised (Covid has made nationalisation no longer such a fanciful throwback idea)? Sugar raises all sorts of difficult structural questions of ownership, legal forms, and financing of companies — so difficult, in fact, that Dimbleby ignores them altogether.

A food system dominated by supermarkets is synonymous with food waste

On food waste, we get some reassurances relayed from WRAP that we can relax and that all is in hand with food waste reduction targets. We need to consider this with some scepticism; food waste is simply too central a part of the land use puzzle to be left to optimistic interpretations of England’s reduction achievements. But neither WRAP nor Dimbleby are willing to get to the root cause of England’s food waste problem: an extremely concentrated groceries market, entirely dominated by a handful of corporations seeking to maximise their profit.

Food waste is the perfect example of a corporate ‘externality’. Our wasteful food system forces farmers to produce more food than they need to secure contracts with large supermarkets. Conveniently for supermarkets, we don’t know how much food is wasted on farms or how much is attributable to their own supply chain, but we know there’s a vast amount of food left to rot or unharvested on fields (WRAP estimates 3.6 million tonnes a year).

On the customer side, to make more profit, supermarkets are incentivised to sell their customers more food than they need, resulting in vast amounts of food waste. Feedback has estimated that Tesco sold £4bn worth of wasted food in 2015. Despite clearly acknowledging the problem of food waste, but avoiding its true causes, Dimbleby fails to identify why food waste is endemic in our system: a retail market composed of a handful of corporations.

Source: When there’s no waste, there’s a way (to net zero) A call for policy for food waste prevention

Essentially, I would have liked to see an acknowledgment in the strategy that the corporate food economy — arranged around the principle of profit maximisation for shareholders, with any health or environmental considerations secondary, if at all — is behind the issues Dimbleby highlights. Perhaps he didn’t want to sound too ‘radical’ in the current political climate, perhaps he wanted to avoid difficult questions with City financiers. Either way, his failure to call out the corporate profit paradigm renders the strategy unable to put forward the truly transformational propositions that are required to move us towards the next food economy.

Problem 2: The private sector to the rescue

The second concern with the strategy is the foundational belief that much will be solved through innovation and entrepreneurship. There’s no doubt that new businesses will be part of the puzzle and must be supported, but Dimbleby’s enthusiasm for the private sector obscures what could be done by a government who took this agenda seriously and fails to mention what might be the broad social justice implications of his preferred market innovation approach to change.

Failing to meat the challenge

Dimbleby’s stance is particularly troubling with regards to meat reduction. He comprehensively sets out the need to reduce meat for climate mitigation and land use optimisation. He refers to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) meat reduction target of 20–50% by 2050 before settling on his own target of 30% over the next decade. Meat reduction is critical to meeting our goals — the CCC knows this, so does Dimbleby — but his recommendations on meat are disproportionate to the issue’s importance. In earlier parts of the strategy, Dimbleby does a great job at countering the individual responsibility narrative on healthy foods, instead showing that multiple, complex factors create environments that lead to diets lacking in fresh fruit and veg. But he is unwilling to extend this accurate analysis to meat, to recognise the critical role food environments play in stoking the flames of the BBQ.

I’m talking supermarkets again, and their role in shaping our diets and fuelling meat overconsumption through selling large volumes of low-cost meat. There’s a sentence somewhere about the ‘vital’ role supermarkets must play in the protein transition but no indication of what that might mean. He does recommend mandatory reporting of sales categories, including protein, on the odd chance that this might drive a reduction in animal sourced protein despite scant evidence that reporting achieves anything by itself. Reporting is only useful as a mechanism to monitor progress towards mandatory targets. But here, Dimbleby disregards the idea that supermarkets ought to be legally compelled to reduce their meat sales through a target.

This is extremely jarring, given the developed case he makes for meat reduction. He justifies this position by saying ‘the public don’t want it’, as if political leadership is about opinion polls rather than making the right decisions for the public good. Regardless, it turns out that the public does want it (unless I misread or there is an error in Figure 13.1). The figure is titled ‘The public is suspicious of mandatory measures to reduce meat consumption’, which is, actually, not at all what I’m getting from the numbers. Nearly half of respondents (48%) are supportive of taxes on processed meat, with a further 26% not fussed either way. Even more interestingly, half the public agree that there should be a target set for supermarkets and fast food chains to sell 10% less meat by 2030 to tackle climate change, with a further 25% neither supporting nor opposing. I’m no statistician, but I’m not reading deep public suspicion with regards to government interventions to reduce meat for the climate from this data — more like some enthusiasm, some opposition, and a fair amount of people open to the idea.

As for the supermarkets, turns out that they’re also clamouring for government intervention: with regards to reducing sugar and salt, Dimbleby relays private conversations with the CEO of major food companies, where they say, ‘they cannot make these changes without government intervention’ and ‘need a level playing field’. While this is in the context of sugar and salt, surely the same logic applies throughout the dietary transition to healthy and sustainable diets.

Perhaps it’s not the public nor the management of the big food companies that don’t want to see government intervention to drive the dietary transition but Dimbleby himself. If so, he needs to own this position.

Can ‘Food Tech’ exist beyond corporate control?

Instead of starting with meat reduction — eminently achievable and highly impactful — Dimbleby focuses on ‘alternative protein’. Food tech including cellular agriculture, precision fermentation, and plant-based protein ‘fake meat’ burgers. Never mind the fact he has repeatedly warned against the health perils of ultra-processed food a few chapters earlier. The real appeal of food tech is not for the public, nor farmers, not lovers of English landscapes, but investors. As the tech sector has lost its edge, food tech is increasingly becoming ‘the next big thing’ amongst investors. And sure, there may well be big bucks to be made from faux steak for a lucky few, but the emerging food tech sector raises all sorts of questions that Dimbleby doesn’t address. Perhaps these questions simply sit outside of Dimbleby’s world view, given the strategy’s silence on the effects of a corporate food system, as mentioned above. They include: Do we really want our food to contain dozens of patents? Is there a way to structure food tech so that environmental benefits are reaped, while avoiding the financialization of food? Would a community-owned, open-sourced or public version of food tech be possible? It’s imperative that these questions, and many others, are examined before going full steam ahead down the technofix route.

These strong reservations about the strategy may not matter in the end, and the extent to which the government will take notice of Dimbleby’s efforts remains to be seen. Evidence to date is not promising, given the uproar over free school meals during a bleak pandemic Christmas, or the more recent Australia trade deal, a renegade on previous promises to farmers.

Aside from these reservations, Dimbleby has produced a sweeping plan that many of us can get behind and that accommodates many diverse interests — in that sense, quite a feat. Given the strength of the vision and the evidence provided, let’s hope the government takes notice and that the specific, far-reaching recommendations across health, inequality, farming, trade, and environment feature prominently in the upcoming white paper and emerging policies across government departments. Despite my reservations, I truly hope that this represents a key moment towards a food system that is good for the planet and its people.

Carina Millstone, Executive Director of Feedback

Further reading:

Feedback’s Meat and Climate Scorecard

Meating the climate challenge: Why supermarkets must urgently cut their meat and dairy sales

When there’s no waste, there’s a way (to net zero) A call for policy for food waste prevention

Too much of a bad thing: The use and misuse of UK soil and land to grow sugar

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