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What Works Network: Centre for Food

Volume 709: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2022

I will call Alex Norris to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as that is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the addition of a centre for food to the What Works Network.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. I have brought today’s debate to bring attention to what would be a terrific addition to the What Works Network and a significant opportunity for the Government to help make the national food strategy report a success. I suspect that the Minister might be glad that for once I am taking a break from pressing her on fish mawl, although I am grateful for all the work she has done in that area. So we will move on to food more generally.

The agrifood sector is a crucial part of British life. It is a major driver of our economy. In 2018, the wider system employed 4.3 million people and contributed £121 billion—nearly 10%—to our national gross value added. It is an anchor sector in our economy and it touches all of us every day. However, we are living in a challenging period when it comes to food.

People are struggling to meet their living costs, of which food is a major part. According to the Food Foundation, 4.9 million adults, or 9% of the population, are affected by food insecurity. In comparison, 5.6% of the population experienced food insecurity five years ago, based on the threshold set by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. At the time, the FAO also considered that 2.5% of the UK population would be considered undernourished, with 1.8% facing severe food insecurity.

We know from global trends, as stated in the food strategy report, that the food we eat and how we produce it can damage both the planet and our health. Globally, 37% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system. Here in the UK, the sector engages 70% of our land, contributes 45% of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in our rivers and creates 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging every year, less than half of which is recycled. Turning to our own bodies, 80% of processed food sold in the UK is unhealthy and we get 57% of our calories from processed foods rich in fat, salt and sugar, with 35% of the population overweight, 27% obese and nearly 5 million people suffering with diabetes due to the over-consumption of processed foods.

Market factors end up turning this into a vicious circle—the junk food cycle. The market for processed foods makes them cheaper and more accessible, which makes them more desirable. All the while, we get unhealthier and unhealthier, and the planet suffers. I am a sinner in this regard, so I do not cast the first stone on policing my constituents’ diets—I do not feel that that is my role, and I am not sure that I would have complete credibility—but it is hard not to see that we live in an obesogenic environment.

We owe our constituents leadership that tackles the situation and gives them true, informed choice and a range of options. We see elements of that in the Government’s obesity strategy. I was keen to support that strategy as shadow Public Health Minister, but it remains quite modest and what I am suggesting today could turbocharge that approach. The incredible contribution the sector makes to our economy, as well as some of its challenges, shows both positively and negatively why it is vital that we have an understanding of the best developments in food, so that we can harness them to improve the system. That is why I am enthusiastic about a What Works centre for food.

The network of nine independent What Works centres, three affiliate members and one associate member currently cover policy areas that account for more than £250 billion of public spending, to allow decision making to be supported by an evidence base worthy of the decisions that have to be made in this place and will be made, going forward, across the country. As puts it:

“What Works is based on the principle that good decision-making should be informed by the best available evidence. If evidence is not available, decision-makers should use high quality methods to find out what works.”

That is a very noble principle that commands cross-party support.

Examples of such centres include the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. The current network of What Works centres has transformed the use of evidence in public services across medicine, policing, schools, hospitals, GP practices and care homes. The Government have been wise in listening to them in the way that they have.

I feel that I am in good company, because the Early Intervention Foundation is also part of the network, and my predecessor, Graham Allen, was instrumental in its development, so we are perhaps re-establishing a tradition for Nottingham North MPs today.

The networks follow the six impact principles: they are independent, methodologically rigorous, practical, accessible, capacity-building and transparent. Those are noble pursuits that would enhance our food policy.

As with most ideas, I have stolen this one from someone else: the Government’s own food strategy report recommended that the Government establish two What Works centres, modelled on the Education Endowment Foundation, to collect and analyse evidence on the effectiveness of food-related policies and business practices. One would focus on diet, and the other on farming methods. Although my instinct and preference would be to have a single centre, I am concerned not with minutiae today but with the wider importance of the principle of establishing such a centre.

People far more qualified than me are already working on the details. Academics from the University of Nottingham, the University of Leeds and the University of Newcastle, led by Professor David Salt of the University of Nottingham’s School of Biosciences, have recently proposed a project to blueprint such a centre, in line with the recommendation. There is significant interest in this space. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board is also working on some of these ideas in a farming context. The Food Standards Agency is thinking about a What Works centre in the diet space. That shows the traction that the idea is getting, and that there is great interest in it across academia, business and industry. My view is that it should be under one roof.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and thank him for giving way. He mentioned the University of Nottingham, which is doing fantastic research into food sustainability, and its Sutton Bonington campus, where lots of that work takes place, is in my constituency. He makes a compelling argument for evidence-based policy that gives us healthier food and is better for our planet. I am sure he will extend an invitation to the Minister to visit, and I will take this opportunity to second that invitation and to invite her to see the fantastic research and work being done at Sutton Bonington.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I absolutely endorse such a visit. I went on a half-day visit to the Sutton Bonington campus to meet David Salt and colleagues and to hear about all sorts—it was a kind of speed dating with different academics to hear about their research. It was absolutely fascinating. I extend such an invitation to the Minister and I hope she will feel able to accept it. I know that the hon. Lady wants to be there, and I am more than happy to be there myself. My first visit to Sutton Bonington was 19 years ago, when I went to play football. It is an agricultural mechanical school so they were bigger than those of us from the school of history and politics, funnily enough. I nearly had my head taken off by a centre back who was about 10 feet taller than me, but I can promise the Minister that that will not happen to her.

This is probably a good moment to reference the work of the University of Nottingham’s Future Food beacon, which is led by Professor Salt. It is a cross-discipline programme to bring together the highest-quality academics from across the world, working with industry, to resolve the thorniest problems in our food systems. The research themes include future-proofing agricultural systems, which is so important in the context of climate change; food for sustainable livelihoods, which I think we in this place are all concerned about, at home and abroad; food for health, which as I have mentioned is a major area of public policy interest; and smart manufacturing for food. That is not the sort of stuff that gets the newspaper headlines, but it is really fascinating. As I said, I spent half a day there and it was great, so I really hope the Minister will do the same—she would really enjoy it. I will not go off on a tangent about my love of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, but that beacon project is an example of where we want Nottingham and Nottinghamshire to be: at the forefront of crucial development to change our world. Our two universities do a great job in that, and I am proud to have the chance to showcase that.

I am conscious of time, so I will use the remaining time to align what I have said with what I think the Government also want in the broader context of the national food strategy. The report was a massive wake-up call to fix our food system. The Government’s reaction to it should be to make sure that every family can afford a healthy hot meal for their children every day, protect our high food and farming standards in law, make our food system environmentally friendly, deliver a radical obesity strategy that ensures that families can access healthy food, support access to local leisure facilities and tackle rising child poverty. What we are talking about today is a really good part of being able to do that. This is an area of significant change, so staying ahead of some of the trends is really valuable.

The Government commissioned the national food strategy, which provided key recommendations to fix the food system, reduce food inequality, make the best use of land and improve health. I have no doubt that in those endeavours the Government will have Opposition support. I hope that the Minister will clarify that ideas on the recommendations in the food strategy report, and perhaps a White Paper in that area, will be brought forward soon.

The report’s 16 recommendations broadly fit into four areas: escaping the junk food cycle, reducing diet-related inequality, making the best use of land and creating a long-term shift in our food culture. I have picked up on one recommendation, recommendation 11, which is a lynchpin for fulfilling all those strategic objectives, increasing the pace of change towards fixing our food system and going a long way towards protecting our health and our planet.

We know that consumers are the key to driving change, and a shift in consumer behaviour to more plant-based foods and fewer foods from animals will be beneficial for both our health and our environment. I am on my own journey on that, as I know other people are. We have shown in the past that, when we lean into public policy changes that we know will have a positive impact on health—such as the sugar tax or changes to smoking laws—they can have great success. Consumer behaviour will perhaps not be an area for significant legislation; rather, saying that the policies need to follow the evidence will have the greatest impact. We know that consumer behaviour does not exist in a silo. There are three factors to be considered: dietary change, sustainability, and social and economic priorities. All of those have to work together for people to be able to sustain the changes that they wish to see.

In changing consumer behaviour, there is a really big place for food and agriculture. The centre or two centres—whatever the preferred model—would provide precisely the scope needed for food, as well as the ability to gather, assess and synthesise the evidence needed to develop the right policies, practices and standards, which would pull all that together and subsequently drive the required food system change towards more healthy and sustainable diets.

I mentioned the work of Professor Salt and his colleagues earlier. At the moment, they have a project proposal awaiting review from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The proposal provides a blueprint for how a centre will work, and I hope it will be successful. Obviously, I am not asking the Minister to intervene on that individual project, but I hope to hear that there is support and a keenness to bring in experts and academics on a What Works model. They are doing great work and can make a really significant difference.

I end with a really important point. A What Works centre for food is something that academics want. It is something for which there is growing political support. It is something that business and industry are really into—they want to be part of this partnership too. There is a really exciting partnership growing behind the concept, and as such we can make a big difference. I look forward to welcoming the Minister, if she is minded to visit, and I hope to hear a little more about her views on a What Works centre.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on securing the debate. I very much hope that it will be part of a wide series of debates about quite specific but important issues around the publication of the Government’s White Paper in response to Henry Dimbleby’s food strategy. The good work that the Government will do in response to his work will be in the details. Yes, there will be headlines, but I suspect that most of the nudge behaviours that change the way in which we as a nation eat, and that help us to eat more healthy and sustainable diets, will come in the kind of work that we are discussing this morning and in careful, thoughtful policy making of the sort that the hon. Gentleman has set out.

It is a great delight to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), whose constituency I had the great pleasure of visiting recently, when we were able to taste some delicious cheese. I would be delighted to come again, as long as the quality of the lunch is as good as it was last time.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North is clearly passionate about the need for a What Works centre for food. I am convinced that What Works centres can add real value in increasing the supply and demand for evidence, tailoring outputs to the needs of the respective decision makers and helping Departments and stakeholders access and interpret evidence to inform policy questions, as well as longer-term strategic priorities. Really good examples, as the hon. Member said, include NICE and the Education Endowment Foundation. I share the hon. Member’s passion for making good policy and working out how things work best. I am sure that What Works centres have a place in that, and I too am pleased that the Government are willing to use them. However, I cannot promise that they are the answer to every question.

Let me set out the current Government thinking on this issue. For the past 18 months, we have been working across Government to develop the food strategy White Paper. We have been considering the recommendations of Henry Dimbleby’s independent review into food, setting out the Government’s ambition and priorities for the food system and, we hope, taking a truly one-Government approach to the food system. Some 16 Departments have an interest in food—as do we all, frankly. It is important that we consider food strategy in the longer term in a joined-up way. We will be publishing our strategy in the coming weeks after putting the finishing touches to it.

Our strategy will build on existing work across Government and identify new opportunities to make the food system healthier, more sustainable and, given the enormous challenges we have had to cope with over the last couple of years, as resilient as possible. Issues around governance and data in the food system will be a critical, though possibly not the most headline-grabbing, part of the food strategy White Paper. We want to examine how, in this fragmented landscape, we can ensure that evidence is generated and shared and then becomes part of a greater whole. The gap is often not so much in the generation of evidence—particularly in the food space—but in its effective translation into policy.

In his independent review, Henry Dimbleby recommended that two What Works centres be set up—one focusing on agricultural production and one on diet shift. Turning to the What Works centre on diet shift, we are fortunate enough to benefit from the huge wealth of evidence on healthy and sustainable diets that is already available to us, even if we do not all follow it every day. The key challenge is how we translate and make better use of that existing evidence to encourage a healthier and more sustainable diet shift.

The newly established Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will bring together expert evidence and analysis with policy development and implementation to shape and drive health improvement and equalities priorities for Government. Piloting real-world interventions is the way forward in this space. Professor David Salt is already doing valuable work on the ways in which we can all change our behaviour going forward. The hon. Member for Nottingham North was right to reference the great work being done by academics and universities across the nation in this space, but our priority is to make sure that we use this work properly.

Piloting and interventions are the way to go. In these circumstances, we think What Works is not the answer to this particular issue, but we are keeping the matter under review. I am sure we will be discussing it with the Food Standards Agency and others in the coming weeks when we concentrate on the food strategy.

As for the recommendation for a What Works centre on ag production, the AHDB delivered a pilot known as the evidence for farming initiative in 2020-21. The aim of the pilot was to develop a prototype of the What Works centre for ag and horticulture that would demonstrate how evidence could be brought together to inform best practice uptake in farming. The work is now informing AHDB’s new proposal for a What Works centre in this space, and officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are in close collaboration on that work and are actively considering it.

On production, of course we recognise the importance of supporting farmers to access and adopt best practice. Farmers often work alone, and innovation sometimes needs encouragement from the Government and experts in academia and elsewhere. Indeed, as in industry, as the hon. Gentleman referenced, we are targeting our new work at encouraging real progress. Much of the data work that I talked about earlier will be done hand in hand with industry. The issues are difficult. We are talking about diet shift and accurate and transparent labelling. The Government cannot do this in a top-down way. It has to be done in lockstep with industry at every stage of the food supply chain. We will spend over £270 million across our farming innovation programme to stimulate research and development in agricultural innovation. We are looking at that programme closely and exploring what the barriers are to innovation and how best to address them.

I look forward to updating the House on our plans as they develop, and we in DEFRA will continue to champion the best farming practices and to promote healthier, more sustainable diets. I thank the hon. Gentleman for this discussion. As we publish our food strategy White Paper in the coming weeks, I encourage Members from across the House to engage with DEFRA to help us identify new opportunities for best practice and joined-up working for our food system going forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.