MPs demand cross-departmental review of ‘incoherent’ approach to food policy

Report calls on Cabinet Office to take action amid supply fears, cost-of-living concerns and obesity crisis
A fruit stall at Borough Market in London. Photo: Steffen Köhler/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Jim Dunton

28 Jul 2023

The Cabinet Office has been asked to launch a comprehensive review of departmental responsibilities and structures related to food policy after MPs accused the government’s current approach of being “incoherent”.

Members of parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee make the call in a wide-ranging report on food insecurity and healthy eating, which warns that the lack of affordable good-quality food for many people is fuelling an obesity crisis.

MPs said that while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is designated as the lead for food policy,  15 other departments and agencies have a hand in different elements of development and delivery.

They said evidence to their inquiry suggested that successful cross-Whitehall coordination on food policy built during the Covid-19 pandemic had not been maintained. Committee members said some departmental responsibilities had little logic to them and that witnesses reported conflicting views between departments and agencies were a threat to coherent polcy approaches.

In today’s report, MPs warn that while last year’s Government Food Strategy said Defra would need to “join-up within government to collectively drive progress”, the strategy had not elaborated on how this would happen.

“We have concerns that a siloed approach to food policy could hinder the successful implementation of the Government Food Strategy,” they said.

“Given the importance of food security, and the need for policy coherence and for strong leadership on this issue, we recommend that the Cabinet Office should undertake a comprehensive review of departmental responsibilities and structures regarding food policy and its various facets, and publish its findings within 12 months.”

The report contained stark predictions on the impact of poor-quality diets that are high in salt and sugars, such as the likely contribution to making 40% of the population obese by 2025. 

MPs added that on current trends the treatment of Type 2 diabetes resulting from poor-quality food will cost the NHS more than it currently spends on treating all cancers by 2035.

Among their recommendations, they called on ministers to publish a detailed response to all the recommendations in 2021’s Dimbleby Review.

Then-‘food tsar’ Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations included a tax on foods that are high in sugar and salt. The government did not adopt the tax.  MPs said they wanted to see the government’s assessment on the introduction of a tax on foods high in sugar and salt within three months.

Dimbleby, who founded the Leon food chain, quit his role as food tsar in March this year, complaining of an “insane” lack of government action on obesity.

Elsewhere, the report said that just 54% of the food eaten in the UK is home-grown or home reared, exposing the nation to international trade “shocks”, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Brexit. It added that labour shortages in the agriculture sector had led to some UK food production being moved overseas.

MPs called on ministers to develop a suite of key food-security indicators, ranging from farm inputs to retailer outputs, to monitor and ensure food security.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee chair Sir Robert Goodwill said food-security and the issues related to it were tough and multi-faceted. But he said they were topics central to the work of government and ones ministers needed to get a better grip of.

“Food security matters to us all. It is vital to farmers; it is vital to other food producers. And of course, it is vital for every citizen up and down the land to have a square meal at a reasonable price,” he said.

“But surprisingly, the government does not appear to be taking this very basic matter anywhere near seriously enough. 

“This report is calling, through its various recommendations, for much more attention to be paid to the guaranteed supply of good quality food – at prices which suit both producers and consumers. I know that is not an easy balance to strike. But that’s what government is for.”

Civil Service World sought a response to the committee’s report from Defra. It referred the request to the Department of Health and Social Care, which provided a government response.

“We know food prices are worrying for households across the country, which is why we’re sticking to our plan to halve inflation this year, and ministers are keeping in close discussion with the industry about the cost of food,” the government spokesperson said.

“We have introduced a number of measures to tackle obesity, recently implementing clear food labelling guidelines to help people make healthier choices for themselves and their family when eating out or getting a takeaway.

“We estimate there will be a reduction of 70,000 children and 300,000 adults living with obesity as a result of this policy.”

The government added that chancellor Jeremy Hunt met with regulators last month to discuss ways to ensure that falling costs are passed on to consumers, while the watchdog Competition and Markets Authority is looking at prices in the food sector.

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