The National Food Strategy – Skating Over the Conflicts

July 22, 2021 by Lawrence Woodward

Last week a task force and team headed by British entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby produced its National Food Strategy.

It has been a massive and impressive undertaking, resulting in two reports, the second of which – rather grandly titled “The Plan” – is clearly the product a great deal of investigation, discussion and wide participation.

In many ways it is an admirable, inspiring and thoughtful report, but it is not a strategy or a plan – at least not a coherent one.

In one of the launch interviews Dimbleby likened it to “a manifesto” and this seems more accurate, although it is far more detailed, reasoned and better referenced than anything in any political party manifesto.

The Plan has been widely – and uncritically – welcomed by NGOs, food commentators and the alternative food and farming community. Some might even see it in the same aspiring light as the Beveridge Report published in 1942, which, together with the 1944 Education Act, were the foundations of the transformative Welfare State and post-war education system.

Its declared strategic objectives are on a similar scale:

  • Escape the junk food cycle
  • Reduce diet-related inequality
  • Make best use of the land
  • Create a long- term shift in food culture

Placing them in the context, as it does, of the planetary threats of climate collapse, biodiversity destruction and global ill-health is, likewise, an appropriately epic perspective. Nevertheless, The Plan is fundamentally flawed.

A wish list not a strategy

According to Dimbleby, the report deliberately avoids, for the most part, addressing ‘trade-offs’. It does note some polarities: e.g., production vs consumption and domestic vs outsourced greenhouse gasses. But, apart from the question of trade deals, it specifically leaves aside those systemic trade-offs which involve differences in values and world views that underpin socio-economic structures, political choices, technology developments and pathways, ownership and access to capital – including natural capital, oversight and regulatory frameworks.

In an ideal world, trade-offs can be made by consensus but, in reality, they often involve fundamental differences and are driven by power or lack of it, democracy and participation or lack of it, consent and equity or lack of it. As such, these are essentially conflicts rather than trade-offs and they cannot be ignored in any strategy or plan that aims to be transformative.

Dimbleby highlights that his priority was to get across the complex and systems-oriented nature of food and land globally and in this country. Laudable and necessary. He also wanted to get people to think about how different players fit and can change within those complex systems. Also, critically necessary.

However, a number of recommendations in this report have been made before, many of the insights and policy proposals have been around for a long time. So why have they not been implemented or taken up by government, industry, farmers, individuals and families?

The answers are almost certainly to be found in the interactions between the players, the power structures, the points of leverage, the conflicting values and goals which decide the balance of trade-offs.

What is it that has changed which gives the recommendations in The Plan any chance of uptake now? The report is silent on most this. It is a gap running from its beginning to its end and ultimately makes it a manifesto or wish-list rather than a strategy.

Inherent conflicts

This might be dismissed as pettifogging pedantry. However, the report is built on some crucial values and assumptions which fundamentally shape it and its conclusions. These and the conflicts inherent in them are skipped or skated over.

Firstly, it accepts without question or qualification the Climate Change Committee’s perspective of Net Zero Carbon with its emphasis on emissions reduction, primarily based on production efficiencies within the existing economic framework and a reliance on undeveloped carbon capture and sequestration technologies and policies. In other words, ongoing economic growth rather than a no-growth and sufficiency policy.

Secondly, it accepts, again without question or qualification, that agriculture and land use should accept the burden of taking the carbon emissions of other industries and sectors out of the atmosphere. It proposes fundamental structural change to some aspects of agriculture without any reference to the responsibilities of other grossly emitting activities on the basis that woefully inadequate public money for public goods payments and dubious carbon credit offset schemes will provide income streams.

Thirdly, although it says that it tries not to, it far too closely links biodiversity improvement with carbon sequestration. It’s ‘three compartments’ of land use proposal is driven primarily by carbon sequestration and less by nuanced biodiversity management and not at all by a consideration of local food production and consumption. It is right to acknowledge that such a broad-brush scenario outline inevitably omits important detail but the omission and the possible mechanisms for working out the details are not recognised. Reference to the appallingly under detailed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) just does not cut it.

Finally, the report assigns an importance to innovation and a series of technologies as if they are values neutral without socio-economic, ethical or cultural distinctions. This has been, historically, the case with established agricultural approaches. Now, once again, key parts of agroecology’s socio-political aspects and how they might apply to rural communities, as well as organic farming’s contribution to food quality and positive health, are ignored. In the case of new technologies – those which are seen as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the report embraces them without any qualifying comments about health and environmental risks, regulatory oversight, corporate control, lack of transparency and the further industrialisation and centralisation of the food and farming sector.

Junk innovation

These assumptions and underpinning values are clearly seen in the report’s treatment of meat and meat alternatives.

The health benefits of eating meat, the different uses of meat and meat products, the hugely variable types of meat production systems and their benefits and downsides are mentioned. However, the primary consideration relating to meat is its role in climate-relevant emissions.

Most people accept that for health and environmental reasons, meat (and dairy) consumption – and therefore production – should be reduced. What is unclear is what it should be replaced by, if indeed it needs to be replaced at all (the assumption that we need meat ‘replacements’, which seems largely based on creating markets rather than creating health, is not challenged in the report).

The report’s enthusiastic espousal of “alternative protein clusters” – including plant-based substitutes for fast food products, “precision fermentation proteins and cell cultured meat based of gene editing, synthetic biology and nanotechnology” is troubling and at odds with much of the rest of the report.

Junk food is junk food whether its origin is a plant or a petri dish in a lab or a bio-fermenter. Such products do nothing to create a food culture which links quality food with the biodiversity and the ecological base of our planet. It does nothing for rural and regional regeneration and will only encourage greater corporate control of our food system.

The same is true of the report’s attitude to innovation. It embraces a hi-tech, global entrepreneurial approach which has no roots in or allegiance to place, scope, culture, community, intrinsic quality and wholistic health.

The report is lyrical about the global opportunities of a range of fake foods and the technologies and structures which foster them. It speaks glowingly of “emerging technologies such as gene editing, synthetic food production, nanotechnology, microalgae bioreactors, the internet of things (IoT), robotics and sensors, 3D food printing, and artificial intelligence.”

It does make the point that innovation “should be directed in the public interest” and should be “a force for social change as well as economic growth.” Fine, but saying it doesn’t make it so. Frustratingly, the report offers no analysis or view as to why almost all technological innovation in land management and the food system, which has arisen within a framework predicated on economic growth over the last 50 years, has taken us to the parlous state we are in now.

No context for change

This omission is another reason why the national Food Strategy is a wish list and not a strategy. It is, perhaps cleverly, a wish list which almost everyone can take something from. It contains recommendations which are commendable, ideas which are valuable. Some of them might even come to fruition.

The report, although independently authored, has been funded by Defra and Sciencewise (which is led and funded by UK Research and Innovation, with support from the government’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), which is a context to be noted when considering its attitude to innovation.

Nonetheless, it does challenge the government – which is good – though it is not challenging enough. It is radical in parts, though not nearly radical enough.

Importantly, much of The Plan fits comfortably within the government’s innovation and bioeconomic strategies as well as within existing farming, food and land use and technology structures and paradigms, all of which are demonstrably inadequate.

For all these reasons, once the fanfare dies down and sober reality takes hold, it is unlikely to be the foundation for the transformative changes needed for the health of our planet and its people.