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National Food Strategy Report

Volume 816: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the conclusions of the report by Henry Dimbleby National Food Strategy: Part One, published on 29 July; when they will publish their response; and what steps they intend to take to implement the recommendations of the report.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I refer to my interests in the register.

My Lords, the Government have already acted on the recommendations in Henry Dimbleby’s part 1 report with the announcement of the Covid winter support package and the recommendations on trade last year, which included putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on to a statutory footing. We thank Henry Dimbleby for his independent review, including his part 2 report, published this year, which we will consider in the forthcoming government food strategy to be published in early 2022.

It was an excellent report, and the national food strategy advocates upholding our own high standards in food production and that imports should meet these same standards. Given the fall in our self-sufficiency in food and the fact that tenant farmers will be in breach of their agricultural tenancies if they apply for any environmental schemes, will the Government ensure that these high standards of animal welfare and food safety that our farmers meet are met also in imported food products agreed under any free trade deals, to prevent substandard imports from putting our hill farmers in particular out of business?

I think I can give my noble friend some assurance here. Tenant farmers will be able to take out agreements under the sustainable farming incentive scheme, which begins being progressively rolled out next year. The Tenant Farmers Association has not raised any issues about tenancies preventing tenant farmers from entering into new environmental land management schemes. My colleague Victoria Prentis, the Agriculture Minister, met with the chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association this week, and my noble friend’s concerns were not raised.

My Lords, the food strategy emphasised the importance of free school meals for all disadvantaged children. Will the Government therefore commit now to making permanent, and widening, the welcome temporary concession which extended free school meals to children in some families with no recourse to public funds, as called for by the Children’s Commissioner for England, the Food Foundation and many others?

My Lords, the Government encourage all schools to promote healthy eating and provide healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink. Compliance with the Requirements for School Food Regulations 2014 is mandatory for all maintained schools, and efforts are always made to make sure that children from low-income families have access to good, nutritious school meals.

My Lords, more than half the calories the average person in the UK eats come from ultra-processed foods. Recent research has linked these foods to early death, poor health, weight gain and obesity. The national food strategy makes a clear connection between bad diet and poor health. One of its four strategic objectives is to escape the junk-food cycle in order to protect the NHS. While the move towards eating less meat is welcome for the health of both the individual and the planet, could my noble friend confirm that a vegan or vegetarian diet made up of mainly ultra-processed foods is just as bad for the individual’s health as for everyone else?

My noble friend is very knowledgeable on these matters, and she is absolutely right. Soya grown where rainforests used to exist and which may have also been the subject of many processes to make it palatable will be, by contrast, worse for the environment and the individual than locally produced meat from grass-fed animals that may be not only part of a healthy, balanced diet but good for the environment.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register. Given the Climate Change Committee’s advice that we will need to reduce meat consumption as part of efforts to tackle climate change, will Defra’s response to the national food strategy include a commitment to sustainable alternative proteins, including cultivated meat, and will it commit to streamlining the novel foods regulatory approval process to reflect the urgency of our need to find alternatives?

The Government can encourage people to eat sensibly and promote good, balanced and healthy diets. The Government are not going to tell people what they should eat but will give them the information they need to have a healthy, balanced diet and provide the means by which vulnerable groups can have this. This will be in the food strategy, which will be published next year.

My Lords, I am very excited by the imminent publication of the food strategy. How many meetings has my noble friend had with his counterparts in the Department for Education? I am sure he agrees with me that the food strategy is an education issue. When he answered the earlier question and talked about mandatory standards, I am sure he also agrees that we need enforcement of those standards, as only 40% of schools currently meet them.

My noble friend makes a very good point. I personally have not had any such meetings, but my colleague Victoria Prentis, who is the Minister responsible for this area, has had meetings across government and will continue to do so. He is absolutely right that the mandatory standards are in those regulations, and the Government are constantly trying to find ways to make sure that they are fully complied with.

My Lords, today there is another depressing result from the national child measurement programme, which pointed out that there was a 4.5% increase during the pandemic in the proportion of children aged four to five who are obese. Obviously, the existing government obesity strategy is really not working, which is why we need the food plan to be implemented. Assuming that we publish a White Paper in response to the strategy, will that lead to a food Bill? That is what we urgently need.

The food strategy will be in the form of a White Paper, which is usually the precursor to legislation, and this House will be kept fully informed about this. The obesity strategy has been developed through a huge amount of work, not least by outside bodies such as the Centre for Social Justice. It is there to help people already living with obesity, including funding weight management services, but also to create a food environment and culture that makes it easy for everyone, regardless of their circumstances, to live a healthier life.

We strongly support the recommendations that the report makes to ensure better access to healthy food for those on the lowest incomes. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will adopt without delay the calls to increase eligibility to free school meals and the value of healthy start vouchers as well as the extension of the holiday activities and food programme?

I entirely understand the points the noble Baroness makes. These are matters for other departments in government. We are working with them as part of our response to this important piece of work by Henry Dimbleby in the development of the food strategy. It will not just be something produced by my department; it will draw in all those issues from across government.

My Lords, a key recommendation of the Dimbleby report was that meaningful standards should be applied to imported food, consistent with our own domestic standards. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will support that recommendation? If so, how will it be applied retrospectively to the free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand?

My Lords, the UK Government have made a clear commitment that, in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. All agricultural products imported into the UK, including under free trade agreements, must continue to comply with our existing import requirements.

My Lords, the recent pandemic has demonstrated the severe urgency of cracking down on obesity in this country. There are thousands of people in ICUs with infectious diseases such as Covid, simply because they are too overweight. We must do something to address this national characteristic. What will the Minister do to assure us that he will take the steps necessary to crack down on things such as highly processed food? That would be an important first step on this road.

My noble friend has done much work in this field. The publication Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults and Children to Live Healthier Lives takes forward a wide range of measures that all contribute towards reducing excess calorie consumption. These include, for example, measures to restrict the advertising of high fat, sugar and salt products. It is estimated that these measures could remove up to 7.2 billion calories from children’s diets in the United Kingdom over the coming years.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister indicate a specific date when the Government will produce their White Paper in response to the Dimbleby report, and the timescale for the subsequent legislation? Will this legislation be accompanied by resources in a cross-departmental way to implement the recommendations in the report, including access to free school meals for many children who are totally disadvantaged, particularly during the pandemic?

The second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report was published in July and the Government made a commitment to respond within six months. The noble Baroness knows that our department is running quite hot on food issues at the moment, but I have heard nothing to suggest that this timetable will not be met.