National food emergency call as strategy launch meets with criticism

As The UK unveiled its food strategy for the future its contents have been slammed by academics and unions.

Prime minister Boris Johnson launched the new strategy describing it as “supporting great British farming” and putting money into modernisation and innovation.

Under the plans £270 million will be invested in technology to increase productivity and profitability.

The government has added it will also consult on an ambition for 50% of public sector food spend to go on food produced locally or certified to higher standard.

It has a pledge to publish a framework next year on how it will help farmers grow more food while also meeting legally-binding targets to halt climate change and nature loss.

“The food and drink industry has an important role to play in the government’s levelling up agenda,” according to the strategy. “It is the UK’s largest manufacturing industry, bigger than the aerospace and automotive industries combined. UK agri-food and seafood sectors create over £120 billion of value for the economy every year and employ over 4 million people.

“Working with government, they underpin our food security: demonstrating great resilience when dealing with disruption at national and international levels, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and most recently through the conflict in Ukraine.”

In 2018, the UK government asked Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of restaurant chain Leon and a non-executive director of Defra, to carry out a comprehensive review of our food system – ‘the independent review.’ He was asked to design recommendations so that our food system: “Delivers safe, healthy, affordable food; regardless of where (people) live or how much they earn” and “restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation in this country.”

“This strategy responds to the review, and includes policy initiatives to boost health, sustainability, accessibility of diets and to secure food supply, ensuring that domestic producers and the wider food and drink industry contributes to the levelling up agenda and makes the most of post-Brexit opportunities,” it added.

The government said the strategy comes at a time of significant increases in food prices, “largely because of energy prices and exacerbated by events in Ukraine, which is very challenging for people across the country”.

“We know the cost of food has real consequences for people across the country. The broader affordability of food, and individuals’ access to food, is a key element of the government’s approach to tackling poverty as we learn to live with recent events and manage the impact of cost-of-living pressures,” it added.

However the strategy has not met with the approval of academics in the Food and Work Network.

The network is a coalition of academics, public health professionals, trade unionists and community activists based at Birkbeck College, University of London described the strategy as “wholly inadequate”.

It warned “it’s time to declare a National Food Emergency” to reflect the gravity of the situation.

The Network has been convened at the initiative of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, whose members reported in a recent survey that they are struggling to afford some of the very products they work to produce.

BFAWU general secretary Sarah Woolley warned: “This White Paper won’t stop people going hungry.   We are clear that Britain is now currently experiencing a National Food Emergency. As things stand millions of people in the UK are today feeling insecure about food. Inflation is the highest it’s been in 40 years, with food prices, alongside energy costs, at record levels. Millions of people, including millions of children, are unable to meet their basic needs. Destitution is on the rise and reliance on food banks is normalised.

It’s time for politicians at all levels to deliver a plan to help feed people and ensure that their basic needs are met.  To develop this plan a National Food Emergency Summit should be urgently organised.”

The Food and Work Network’s coordinator, Professor Alex Colas (Birkbeck College, University of London), added: “This situation is not just caused by inflationary ‘cost of living’ pressures but is the result of a broader crisis in incomes and earnings owing to endemic low pay, casualisation of work and a punitive welfare system.

“What is largely absent from the white paper, as so often missing in considerations around food security, is the central role of work – both paid and unpaid, as well as its absence – in conditioning what and how the nation eats. You can’t seriously tackle the current food crisis without understanding the interplay between working patterns, pay, terms and conditions, and wider issues of care, transport, housing, and leisure time in determining food security across the country. Unless these issues are addressed seriously, people will continue to go hungry.”

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