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Food Strategy White Paper

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 7 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to monitor the delivery of the proposals in their food strategy white paper, published on 13 June.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The Government food strategy is cross-departmental. We will monitor delivery of the strategy across government, including drawing together evidence on the impacts of individual policies to determine the overall progress of the strategy. We have committed to report on how we are taking forward our actions under the strategy alongside the next UK food security report, drawing on independent analysis from the Climate Change Committee, the Food Standards Agency, and the Office for Environmental Protection.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am very glad that he is still in his job this morning. However, I beg to disagree. The National Food Strategy, in its original state, was a real attempt to bring food together across all the different departments. In fact, the White Paper response from the Government has put various elements back in different departments, and the one chance that we have had since the war to see food systemically as a whole has been thrown away. No one can be in any doubt that the food system is breaking: childhood obesity, health, effects on farming and biodiversity, and now an inability to get three decent meals a day by some 10 million people in this country. How can the Government call this a cross-cutting strategy?

I always defer to the noble Baroness because of her great experience and passion on this issue. However, this is absolutely a cross-government initiative. We have set up our cross-government food group, which brings together senior civil servants across government departments and the FSA to examine our strategy and monitor it on key delivery points. We will bring together the monitoring and evaluation of individual policies to enable us, and the wider population, to evaluate the food strategy and how we are performing against our targets.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain how the food strategy addresses the very urgent need to increase our self-sufficiency in food, particularly the parlous state of fruit and vegetable production in this country?

On food security, as part of the Agriculture Act 2020, we laid before Parliament our food strategy report, which said that we have broadly maintained a fair degree of self-sufficiency. However, I absolutely agree with my noble friend that we need to improve that. We must encourage farmers to continue producing good-quality food on scale and address that we live in a global food market as well as a national one. There are huge pressures on farmers as a result of short-term issues, such as Ukraine, and long-term issues regarding commodity price spikes.

My Lords, the food strategy White Paper rejects the independent review’s recommendation that free school meals should be extended to more children on low incomes, saying that the Government will continue to keep eligibility under review. When school caterers are reporting a steep fall in the number of pupils who can afford school meals, and the Government have provided nothing for children in their additional cost of living crisis payments, is this not the time for action on free school meals rather than further review?

The Government recognise the importance of free school meals for those parts of the population that are on low incomes. That is why eligibility to no recourse to public funds families has been announced. We will continue to support families whose children require free school meals.

My Lords, the National Food Strategy that was produced last year found that the UK’s current appetite for meat was unsustainable and that the intake needed to fall by 30% within 10 years to help the environment. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what role exists for vegetarian and vegan food in the Government’s strategy. It does not appear to be set out, not least when it comes to aligning with the Government’s net-zero strategy.

I think farming and perhaps also the Government have failed to make the argument between good meat and bad meat. Bad meat is grown on feed lots at a high carbon price to society and damages those farmers who are producing good-quality meat on grass-based systems. That is what we want to encourage. We want sustainable production of meat. We hear what the Climate Change Committee says on the amount of meat that people should eat. We want people to make their own choices but be given the right information on which to make those choices. Vegan diets can sometimes be very damaging to the climate because the materials are sometimes grown where rainforests used to be.

My Lords, the strategy was supposed to be overarching. What are we doing to integrate things such as good exercise patterns into the food strategy? In particular, what are we doing about access to the countryside, which was part of the Agriculture Act? Are we ensuring that people are getting the chance not only to eat well but to exercise properly? How are we integrating that into things such as transport?

The Government are very keen to see more access to the countryside. We are doing this in a variety of different ways, some of which build on the work of the Agnew commission last year. We want to make sure that we are providing access as close as possible to where people live and where they can get to. The noble Lord makes a very good point about transport. We want to make sure that we are working with land managers to create more access points, so people can go by car, park and go on a circular walk or take a bus and access the countryside, because we understand the well-being that comes from greater public access.

My Lords, taking on board the fact that there is an increase in young people, children and older people suffering from food allergies, will the Minister today commit to working with colleagues to ensure that that level of food allergy is properly addressed through the food strategy and that a programme is put in place to address food allergies?

The noble Baroness speaks on a point that affects many people across these islands. I will take her point and relay it to the relevant Minister in the Department of Health, whoever that may be.

Can the Minister tell us who is responsible in government for ensuring that we have secure supplies of food and that we move from a just-in-time delivery system to a just-in-case delivery system? This involves a number of departments of government, but who is responsible?

My department has overall responsibility for that, working with other departments. The noble Baroness is right: this is not something government can just mandate. We have an extremely efficient food distribution network and supply chain which was found to be resilient during Covid. It now needs to adapt to a changing world and changing demands from the consumer to make sure that we do not have the vulnerabilities that have been exposed this week in the Netherlands. We want to make sure that we are working with industry to get this right.

The Minister will know that I have the greatest respect for him, and I am surprised to see that he is still in his place today, but nevertheless can he explain how the important health issues in the Dimbleby report, which are about obesity, controlling junk food, advertising and reducing food inequalities, will be taken forward given that they are not included in the food strategy from the Government, regardless of the fact that we do not appear to have any Ministers to deal with it at the current time?

I have a long list here, but I would get in trouble if I read it out. It is all the elements of the Dimbleby report that the Government are taking forward. The noble Baroness is right to refer to issues relating to health and well-being and the obesity strategy. They are massive issues for society and government. We have clear plans to try to tackle them. There have been 14 obesity strategies in her and my lifetime. I hope we now have one that integrates some really good evidence and that we are implementing through a variety of ways: education, health trusts, GPs and a cross-government approach.

My Lords, the Government have worked hard to ensure balanced school meals, but there are now reports that suppliers of school meals are beginning to substitute some of the better nutrients that should be provided in school meals with cheaper variants. What are the Government doing to ensure that we do not slip back to high-carbohydrate food for schoolchildren?

I will take that point to colleagues in the Department for Education. There are very strict guidelines on the nutritional value in school meals and we want to make sure that local education boards and academy trusts are mindful of those regulations. If they are not abiding by them, we will have to make sure that they do.