Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is a pleasure to introduce this debate about three things very close to my heart: food, the health of our population and the planet. I do not need to explain the very strong link between these three.
We produce some excellent food in this country, but our farmers and fishermen have had a tough time over the last few years, especially if their markets are abroad and if they rely on foreign workers to harvest their crops. Therefore my first question to the Minister is: what are the Government planning to do about that?
Despite the quality of our food, our national food system is broken. We eat too much of the wrong things and it is making us ill, limiting our years of healthy life and costing the NHS millions. The Government are resisting some of the levers that could help put it right. As in other countries, the resilience of our food security is under pressure because of the illegal invasion of Ukraine, which is one of the world’s biggest wheat and vegetable oil producers; the cost of fertilisers for our domestic farmers is also badly affected. This is one of the factors causing the rise in the price of food. However, the recent national food plan published by Henry Dimbleby set out four objectives for improving our broken food system. They were:
“Make us well instead of sick … Be resilient enough to withstand global shocks … Help to restore nature and halt climate change … Meet the standards the public expect, on health, environment, and animal welfare”.
Those are four very good objectives.
The first questions are: what is a healthy diet and is it available to everyone? Experts agree that it must contain a balance of all the major nutrients, vitamins and minerals in adequate quantities for our age and other physical factors. However, the evidence of obesity in our country and the rise of diseases connected to it, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, musculoskeletal problems and stroke, shows that a healthy diet is not acceptable to many, particularly in the poorest demographic groups. Two out of five children are above a healthy weight by the time they leave primary school and a quarter are obese. Children in deprived areas are twice as likely to be overweight. Some 28% of adults are overweight and 36% obese; again, the risk is higher in the lower demographic groups and certain ethnic communities. This is not because these people are greedy, but mainly because they are poor and are eating the cheapest food they can get hold of. Many in fact do not have enough food and are forced to use food banks to feed the family. It is a disgrace that, in a rich country such as ours, some children would go hungry but for charities such as the Trussell Trust.
Sadly, the cheapest calories are often high in sugar, salt and fat and are the ones that contribute most to being overweight. Fruit and vegetables, and good-quality meat and fish cost more than fast food but highly processed food, manufactured in massive amounts, is sold cheaply on every high street. Henry Dimbleby explained it this way:
“Because there is a bigger market for unhealthy food, companies invest more into developing and marketing it. This in turn expands the market further still. The bigger the market, the greater the economies of scale. Highly processed foods—high in salt, refined carbohydrates, sugar and fats, and low in fibre—are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods.”
So, what can we do? Dimbleby suggested that we must escape this junk food cycle to protect the NHS and reduce diet-related inequality by reducing the consumption of HFSS foods by 25% and increasing fibre by 50% and fruit and veg by 30% to reach healthy levels. To reach the carbon budget, we need to reduce our meat consumption by 30%, because 85% of our farmland is used to grow feed or grass for farm animals. If we could make these changes, we could promote a healthy gut—one of the most important organs in the body—save the NHS millions and put some less productive farmland to other, desirable uses. There are various ways in which the Government could contribute.
I agree with Dimbleby’s conclusion that we must get healthy food directly to our children and at the same time save their parents money by expanding eligibility for healthy free school meals. This has now twice been recommended by Dimbleby but twice refused by the Government—can the Minister say why? The Government set up the Healthy Start scheme and the holiday food scheme, on which they should be congratulated, but have not accepted Dimbleby’s latest proposition to expand those schemes, despite their success. The Lords Committee report in 2020, Hungry for Change, also recommended this. Can the Minister explain why it is not being done?
I turn to food production. We are not self-sufficient and probably never will be, but 54% to 60% of our food is grown by our own domestic farmers. We must protect them, but that is not to say that they might not need to change what they do. Only last week the Climate Change Committee issued serious warnings about agricultural policy, but farmers are currently under pressure from many quarters. We ask them to grow more food and, at the same time, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, use less fertiliser, stop polluting watercourses, increase biodiversity, plant more trees, improve their soil, protect carbon sinks such as peatlands, grow biofuels, site wind and solar farms, provide leisure opportunities—and on it goes. The pressure on land use is enormous, and they are not making it any more. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement that they will produce a land use strategy next year. Can the Minister give us any insights into how health and food production will be balanced with all the other pressures on land in the forthcoming strategy, and what levers the Government are considering using to achieve it?
Farmers have to plan now, and they need help with the environmental land management scheme payments, which are to replace the former support system. It certainly makes sense that farmers should not be paid for how much land they have but for the public goods they provide. However, every farm, and every soil, is different, and there are many schemes to which farmers can apply for support. The large landscape section of ELMS has had 51 applicants for 15 initial schemes—some from large estates, but some from groups of farmers who want to work together to improve the landscape. That is encouraging, so I hope the Minister can assure me that some of the successful schemes will include small farms working together. I know he has received a note about this from Defra, because I asked the department to send it to him, so I hope it is not unfair to ask him these questions.
The local nature recovery scheme criteria will be available at the end of the year. This strikes me as rather slow, because farmers have to plan now how to respond to all these pressures. Can the Minister say how soon the funds for that part of the scheme will become available? The sustainable farming initiative applications opened last week. Farmers can apply online, and new software can help them identify what might be appropriate for them. However, we still have the overlapping countryside stewardship scheme, environmental stewardship scheme and others. I hope your Lordships see where I am coming from: we currently have maximum complexity of schemes—some beginning, some ending—and an alphabet soup of acronyms.
In its recent report on nature-based solutions to achieving net zero, the Science and Technology Select Committee recommended that an independent advisory service—human beings rather than software—should be provided to help farmers increase food production sustainably while also making a living. Can the Minister say what progress has been made in this respect? Many farmers will have to change their business model. That is risky, so they need good advice.
One of the problems we face is the large number of tenant farmers in the UK. Tenants might be reluctant to make improvements to the land if it is their landlord who will benefit in the long term. Soil improvement does not happen overnight—I know that from my own garden—so a farmer with a short tenancy might be reluctant to do it. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, is looking into this for the Government. I hope the Minister might be able to give us an insight into her interim recommendations; otherwise, I will have to ask her.
Our farmers have very high standards, so the last thing we must do is offshore our food production to countries that might produce higher emissions. We cannot police their standards of animal welfare or pesticide use. Then, of course, there are food miles. Since Brexit, there has been a reduced ability to check the quality of food coming in, according to a recent report by the Food Standards Agency. In addition, countries such as Australia and New Zealand have economies of scale in meat production with their enormous farms, which could put our livestock farmers at a great disadvantage. Can the Minister say how the Government will avoid putting farmers out of business or offshoring food production when negotiating trade deals? Will the Government set up a trade and agriculture commission, as proposed by Dimbleby?
The Government have indicated that they will provide more support for horticulture. This is good news, as we produce only 35% of our current supply of fruit and veg, but this will need to increase by nearly 90% if we are to increase our consumption, as advised by Dimbleby. Will the Minister say whether projects that make use of rainwater and renewable energy capture, technology and innovation will attract government support?
In north Wales a couple of years ago, a proposal to use the heat from a sewage works through heat exchangers to heat glasshouses to produce half the tomatoes and cucumbers needed by Wales was turned down by the local planning authority—all that locally produced food, all those jobs, all that energy and water saving lost because of a lack of vision. I hope the Minister can tell me that the Government have more vision than my local authority.
I turn to highly processed food. Not all our food comes straight out of the ground or the water; a great deal of it comes out of a factory. As we have heard, it is cheap and often contains too much salt, sugar and fat. There have been voluntary reductions, but they do not go far enough. Yet the Government resist mandatory measures, such as an extended sugar and salt tax. Can the Minister justify the claim that a small tax on sugar and salt in HFSS foods for manufacture and catering will increase the cost of food for poor people?
The advertising restrictions on HFSS foods before the watershed and online have been postponed. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no further postponement, despite today’s events?
Labelling can help people choose healthier food, but it can be difficult to identify what is really a healthy food. It is not hard for a piece of broccoli, an apple or a piece of fish, but it is a different matter for products with multiple ingredients. The Minister might remember our discussions, led by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, during the passage of the Health and Care Bill about high-protein bars. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, helpfully pointed out that the bar in question was high in salt and sugar and low in fibre, so not very healthy at all.
Since then, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and I have received material from a group of young people called Bite Back. Its report, Don’t Hide What’s Inside, explored the eating habits of 1,000 13 to 18 year-olds and examined the impact that packaging claims have on their perceptions of health. It found that three-quarters of young people think that their diet is healthy, despite the fact that their intake of sugar, fruit and veg, and fibre is nowhere near the Government’s daily recommendations. Almost nine in 10 think that smoothies are healthy, but 76% of juices and smoothies would get a red traffic light label for sugar. Eight in 10 believe that cereal bars are healthy, but 81% of those would get a red traffic light label for sugar. The report gives other examples.
Half of those surveyed agreed that health and nutrition messaging makes them more likely to buy a product. This makes the rules about labelling important but it is too often misleading. To demonstrate this, a fake snack bar was invented. It was made entirely from mud but branded as 100% natural, high in fibre, a great source of minerals and low in fat, which was true but also completely outrageous, since there was nothing in it but mud. It was done to call out big food brands on their manipulative marketing tactics and to make them step up with clear and honest packaging. The Government are being asked to introduce a clear, mandatory labelling policy, including declarations of free sugars, traffic-light labels, a review of where the thresholds should be lowered, regulation to end the use of health and nutrition claims on an unhealthy product and consistent portion sizes across categories. Will the Minister consider the young people’s proposals? If not, I suspect they might send him a mud bar.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for procuring today’s debate. She and I have long been two of a handful of parliamentarians who have taken an interest in obesity, concerned not only for those struggling with it but with the cost to the taxpayer and the NHS of the consequences of the unstoppable increases in adults and children, exacerbated as a result of lockdown.
During the pandemic, I wrote an article, “Hunk, Chunk or Drunk?” Unfortunately, many more people became the second or the third, rather than taking the opportunity to get fit. Today’s debate gives me the opportunity to raise concerns about the increased prevalence of UPF—ultra-processed food—to expand on what the noble Baroness has said and to discuss the effect on the nation’s health.
UPF has a long, formal scientific definition but it boils down to this: if it is wrapped in plastic and contains stuff that you do not typically find in a domestic kitchen, it is UPF. Flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, thickeners, foaming agents, bulking, carbonating, gelling and glazing agents—these additives are not the only ways that the food harms us but they are all harmful. Let us be clear: what we are talking about is not actually food. It is a set of substances reconstituted from commodity crops, processed and marketed to be addictive. Its sole purpose is financialised growth by transnational corporations that have repeatedly proven that they are unable to self-regulate. The entire food system is now built around UPF.
In our drift towards a diet based on these edible food-like substances and away from real food grown in the soil or reared in the fields, we risk losing the connection between soil, plants, animals and people for the health of our food and our planet. I reiterate that what characterises ultra-processed foods is that they are so altered that it is hard to recognise the underlying ingredients. These are concoctions of concoctions, engineered from ingredients that are already highly refined, such as cheap vegetable oils, flours, whey proteins and sugars, which are then whipped up into something more appetising with the help of industrial additives such as emulsifiers.
UPFs now account for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US, and other countries are fast catching up. These foods, now simply part of the flavour of modern life, are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavoured, aggressively marketed and on sale in supermarkets everywhere. Over half the energy from food eaten in the UK now comes from these products. They lead people to eat more and to put on weight at a time when already one in four adults and one in five children aged 10 to 11 in the UK are estimated to be obese.
Last year, to conduct research about the effects of UPF, Dr Chris van Tulleken did an experiment on his own body. He wanted to find out what would happen if he followed a diet high in ultra-processed food, and how it would interact with his body. He increased his usual intake of 30% UPF to 80% for four weeks, a diet which one in five people in the UK eat every day. We should be grateful to him for sharing what happened. It should be a wake-up call to us all.
After the month was over, Chris reported poor sleep, heartburn, unhappy feelings, anxiety, sluggishness and a low libido. He also had piles from constipation. “I felt 10 years older”, he said, “but I didn’t realise it was all about food until I stopped following the diet.”
Chris gained almost 7 kilos in the four weeks and moved from a healthy weight to being overweight. “If the weight gain continued at that rate for six months, I would have gained six stone,” he said. It did not stop there. Brain activity scans showed that the areas of his brain responsible for reward had linked up with the areas that drive repetitive, automatic behaviour. “Eating ultra-processed food became something my brain simply told me to do, without me even wanting it,” he said, adding that this is a similar brain response to taking substances we consider classically addictive, such as cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. The changes in brain activity were not permanent, but if UPF can do that much damage in four weeks to his 42 year-old brain, what is it doing to the fragile developing brains of our children?
We do not know exactly why ultra-processed foods have these effects, but most hypotheses come down to a combination of the physical act of processing and their nutrient make-up. Dr Kevin Hall of the National Institutes of Health tested two diets matched in terms of fat, sugar, salt and fibre content, but one was made up of unprocessed foods and the other of around 80% ultra-processed foods. The participants were able to eat the foods on offer until they wanted to stop.
His study found that those eating the ultra-processed diet ended up eating more than 500 calories per day more and gained almost one kilo of body weight over two weeks. Blood tests showed an increase in the hormone responsible for hunger and a decrease in the hormone that makes us feel full among the participants eating the diet high in UPF. These results were consistent with Chris’s experience. His hunger hormone increased by 30% during his experiment, which may have encouraged overconsumption. Dr Hall also found that participants on the UPF diet ate much more quickly than those on the minimally processed diet, which may also have contributed to the consumption of more calories. Chris experienced this too, as many of the foods are so easy to chew and swallow. Previous studies have suggested that eating slowly decreases hunger.
Chris found himself craving food much more often. Research has previously found that some foods, including ultra-processed pizzas, chocolate, crisps and cakes, can elicit cravings, loss of control and inability to cut back. There is evidence that foods high in carbohydrates and fat, as many ultra-processed foods are, can trigger the centres of the brain responsible for reward, emotion and motivation. A brain-imaging study suggests that the more often you experience reward from foods, the more you have to consume to sustain the same enjoyment. Many UPFs have also gone through focus groups to make them perfect. The taste, level of saltiness, mouthfeel, how much they need to be chewed and even the sound they make when eaten will have been fine-tuned.
Foods can be categorised as minimally processed or unprocessed, such as fresh tomatoes; processed, such as tinned tomatoes; and ultra-processed, such as store-bought tomato pasta sauce. Some ultra-processed foods are healthier than others. Wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholemeal sliced bread, tinned baked beans and unsweetened soy or plant-based drinks are all ultra-processed but have some nutritional benefits. Similarly, ready-made pasta sauces, ready meals, spreads and sliced meats can be reasonably healthy. Some pre-prepared foods are not ultra-processed, but any that include additives and chemicals not used in home cooking probably are. The availability, convenience and marketing of ultra-processed food makes it almost impossible to eliminate.
Chris’s experiment has been backed up with clinical studies and lots of laboratory work. The clinical study undertaken by Kevin Hall confirmed that the epidemiological findings were true: you can have those two diets matched for salt, sugar, fat, carbs and fibre and the UPF one will drive weight gain whereas the wholefood one will not. The problem is that it is now very normal for children and young people to eat 80% of their calories from UPF for the first two decades of their life. UPF now comprises 60% of what we eat in the UK and the US.
To sum it up, this is how UPF works. It is dry, which prolongs shelf life but also increases calorie density. It is soft, which increases speed of consumption, which is itself closely related to obesity. Flavour enhancers signal protein that never arrives. Artificial sweeteners prepare the body for sugars that do not arrive, and all the gums signal fat that never arrives. It contains additives that affect the microbiome and inflammation, as well having direct effects on the brain. It has addictive properties and is designed in a way so that the products that are most readily consumed and desired are the ones that succeed in the marketplace.
UPF is the cause of the childhood obesity pandemic. It is one of the leading causes of environmental destruction and climate change. I hope that I have persuaded noble Lords of the dangers of these so-called foods. What are they doing to our population? We need to act now, with urgency, before it is too late for the next generation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for securing this debate and her excellent introduction. I particularly thank her for focusing on the work of Bite Back, which is a powerful demonstration of how the whole process of governance needs to listen much more to young people, who are getting more engaged in politics and political campaigning. We need to think about how we can get that to have more influence on decision-making.
It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington. Your Lordships’ House will probably think she and I are entirely co-ordinating this because my speech focuses on exactly the same theme as hers—ultra-processed food—but, in practice, we have not exchanged a word in any form.
The practical reality is that there is a reason for this and a reason why we can see two opposite sides of the House arriving at the same point: this Government are failing to catch up with the science and the reality of what is increasingly happening around the world. The focus on foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt is simply not adequate to capture the reality of ultra-processed foods, as identified by what is known as the NOVA classification system.
Of course, the Government often like to talk about how they are world-leading. Well, they have some catching up to do with the Welsh and Brazilian Governments and other Governments around the world. Indeed, in researching this speech, I noted that the next set of dietary guidelines for Americans, for 2025 to 2030—they are now being drawn up—are expected to contain a new emphasis on the damage done to health by ultra-processed foods. So the Government have a small window here at least to catch up with the Americans; they could be doing so.
The extra theme that I want to introduce into my speech, in addition to what the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, said, is the impact of economic and regional inequality. This should be feeding into the Government’s levelling-up agenda. The disparities in our deeply unequal society, where levels of inequality are speeding past the Edwardian and heading back towards the Victorian—another time when we were very concerned about the impact of food on the health of the nation—are really having an impact. If we look at some of the people who are the most deprived, according to research by the Social Market Foundation and Kellogg’s from 2018, 1.2 million people live in food deserts. Research by Dr Megan Blake, from the geography department at the University of Sheffield, points out that living in a food desert
“can mean having to carry … food shopping a long distance, a struggle that many older people living in food deserts experience.”
I would go further than that. If we think about people with disabilities, who are one in five of the working-age population, or people caring for young children, carrying food long distances will tend to bias them towards ultra-processed food, which is lighter because it contains less liquid than fresh food. In that study, 41% of respondents did not have a car, but there is also the problem of financial barriers—something that we know is becoming more of an issue with the cost of living crisis. The latest ONS data from March 2022 showed that nearly a quarter of adults reported that it is difficult or very difficult to pay their household bills.
It is also worth thinking about the fact that people debating this issue often talk about choice. However, the type of food that we have access to and eat affects us in many ways, both obviously and subtly. When people have access to fresh produce, they can readily select the ingredients for the meals they want to prepare, whereas people relying on ultra-processed food, ready meals and takeaways are under the manufacturers’ control. Those who talk about choice need to look at who is in control in this relationship.
There have been detailed studies on this issue. A recent Japanese study showed that children who frequently eat instant food have significantly higher rates of inadequate nutrient intake and excess nutrient intake, while children who eat more take-out food had significantly higher levels of inadequate nutrient intake. Another study from Luxembourg showed that:
“On controlling for age, sex, socio-economic status and lifestyle factors, daily consumption of ready-made meals was found to be associated with higher energy intake and with poor compliance with national nutritional”
standards. A study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in the past month showed that children aged three to five who ate more ultra-processed foods had lower locomotive skills, while children aged 12 to 15, again eating more ultra-processed foods, had higher levels of obesity.
Beyond the macronutrient considerations, it is worth thinking about what impact the consumption of ultra-processed food has on the human microbiome—something that we are increasingly coming to understand is crucial for physical and mental health. As Dr Rodney Dietert points out in his book The Human Super-Organism, many additives that are now common in our foods have been shown to dramatically alter the human gut microbiome, often leading to inflammation and disease. One example that he cites is the emulsifiers polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose, which show effects such as thinning the mucus layer and increasing inflammation, eventually leading to inflammation-driven disease in mice. A US National Institutes of Health report in 2015 shows that common food emulsifiers disrupt the gut microbiome and provide pathways to non-communicable disease, including inflammation-driven obesity.
These are issues that the Government have been told about, and of course they have to cite the excellent Dimbleby review of the national food strategy. This picks up the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that we are talking about not just human health but the health of nature. An agricultural system focused on producing commodities to put into this ultra-processed food has terrible impacts. As the Dasgupta review—another government report—said,
“the agricultural system has completely wiped out the natural system”.
So the food that we are producing causes enormous damage to both the environment and human health. Mr Dimbleby referred to “the junk food cycle”, saying:
“We will not be able to educate our way out of that feedback loop. It needs strong government intervention on commercial interests.”
Because the Motion focuses on food production, I want to pick up and focus on the point that farmers produce what the system has forced them to produce. We know that farmers are getting only about 8p in the pound of the cost of food. This is a situation where the Government urgently need to act to provide different options and different kinds of food system that provide a good living for farmers while ensuring healthy food for people.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to the crucial and final government decision to introduce a land-use strategy. I propose, as I proposed during the passage of the Agriculture Act a couple of years ago, that it needs to focus on how we use land for food production for the best possible nutrient production per hectare, which without a doubt would mean huge amounts more vegetable and fruit production and much less grain and oil—which, incidentally, is what is recommended in the recent Sustainable Food Trust report, Feeding Britain. I urge the Minister to speak to his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, who I know was at the launch of that report, which looks at the intersection of food production and health. I know that may not seem to fall within the remit of the Minister’s department, but it is something that he really should take a look at.
Of course, not all food has to be produced by farmers and growers—people operating commercially. We are seeing the NHS increasingly focus on green prescribing and looking at how people can be given access to healthy food but, even better, how people can grow healthy food for themselves. I will focus here on the work of the excellent Incredible Edible, founded in Todmorden but now a movement around the world. Let us see our green spaces producing food that is accessible and free to all. That is one way in which we can grow a much healthier diet.
When the Government talk about innovation in the food system, they like to focus on things such as gene editing—people in labs with test tubes. Some of the finest, most important and leading innovation is the kind of social, economic innovation that looks at how to produce food in different ways. When thinking about how we help farmers, growers and communities to produce that healthy food—we have been working on the infrastructure Bill—what could be a better addition to the UK’s infrastructure than an excellent system of research, support and advice, working with farmers and growers to produce a healthier food system? It would also need to focus on distribution systems—the ways in which food reaches people.
My final thought is on how often this debate drifts back into, “We can’t have a nanny state; people make choices for themselves.” Marie Antoinette was castigated for saying, “Let them eat cake.” What we have is far worse. The supermarkets, the multinational food companies, seed and chemical manufacturing, and fast food companies control what we eat, saying, “Let them eat extruded, moulded, milled, additive-rich food with added sugars, starches, fats and artificial colours, flavours and stabilisers. Let them eat this ultra-processed pap.” Indeed, people are not being given any choice but to eat this ultra-processed pap.
Few subjects arouse stronger passions than the food that we consume. This should be no surprise given the well-attested evidence that we really are what we eat. In my home town of Doncaster—now, happily my home city—more than a decade ago, as some noble Lords may recall, a group of parents attained notoriety by defying Jamie Oliver’s well-intentioned efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. They famously pushed and levered burgers, pies, chips and fizzy pop through the school railings into the hands of their offspring to save them from the dreaded fate of a healthy salad or, God forbid, fresh fruit. To this day, there is a whole cohort of millennials who will never forgive Jamie for depriving them of the turkey twizzlers they loved so much.
Interviewed by the Daily Mirror five years after her intervention, one mother leading the Doncaster protest conceded that her children were indeed “technically” overweight but were healthy and, most important to her, happy. Happiness is a key performance indicator that is nowhere to be found in the extensive briefing notes prepared for this debate. Those notes offered a diet of almost unremitting gloom: war, climate change, labour shortages, soaring prices, growing obesity, ill-health and premature death.
I know from personal experience that eating more healthily over time has led to a substantial reduction in my own weight and produced a significant and sustained improvement in my sense of well-being and consequently my happiness. But I am conscious that I am in the fortunate position of being able to afford to buy the finest, freshest, locally produced food at all times. Life will, without doubt, look very different for my fellow Doncastrians and others if they inhabit the minimum-wage economy, maybe rely on benefits, and perhaps are struggling to feed the whole family on £25 a week or less. For them, only budget supermarkets or food banks are the realistic options, and they will quite naturally tend to favour foodstuffs that keep hunger at bay and are cheap and easy to prepare.
It is a shocking fact of contemporary life that, in many cases, food banks struggle to give away potatoes and other fresh vegetables because their clients simply cannot afford the gas or electricity to boil them. In this very real cost of living crisis, the last thing that struggling families need is people such as us lecturing them on how they ought to eat more healthily to relieve the pressure on the NHS—they do not want to hear that.
I am regularly in contact with farmers and was for several years a major investor in a well-known budget supermarket chain. I can state with absolute confidence, from first-hand, personal knowledge, that no farmer or food retailer in this country that I have ever encountered wants to produce or sell anything other than good food—not only food that is high-quality and nutritious but food that is affordable and allows them to make a living from growing or selling it. Supermarkets do not develop products to make their customers fatter or sicker, but they do respond to market demands and provide what people like to eat and want to buy. In recent years, they have all significantly expanded their plant-based ranges, as flexitarian lifestyles have grown in popularity. That is good news for public health, of course, and for our planet, in terms of the reduction in carbon emissions.
The challenge for legislators is that the great British public do not like being lectured about what is good for them. If they did, they would have voted remain by an overwhelming majority in 2016. This is why I have considerable sympathy with the Government’s alleged dilution of Henry Dimbleby’s undoubtedly well-intended recommendations in the national food strategy. We can nudge people, as has been successfully achieved via the reformulation of many products after the introduction of a sugar tax, and the new rules on the display of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar will gently play their part too. We can tell people what is good for them and their families, but we must not tell them off if they feel that they cannot afford to take official advice or are simply disinclined to. In the long run, as Keynes famously remarked, we are all dead, whether we eat healthily and sparingly or gorge ourselves on fatty and sugary treats.
In my view, food is of such elemental concern to everysingle one of us that a wise Government will adopt the posture that Walter Bagehot saw as the proper role of the monarchy in the Victorian constitution; that is
“the right to encourage, and the right to warn”.
As the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, passionately stated in this Chamber in his 2018 debate on obesity, do not tell people what to do but
“tell them the truth—not in a patronising way”.—[Official Report, 18/7/18; col. 1263.]
Step beyond this and attempt to dictate what people should eat and feed to their children for their own good and we compromise the vital principle of the pursuit of happiness so fatally that we would swiftly find ourselves back in the realm of people pushing metaphorical pies and burgers through the railings of official guidance.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank my noble friend Lady Walmsley for securing and excellently introducing this important debate. This is a truly cross-departmental debate, but it rarely seems to go beyond any one of the core elements of health or food production. I also thank the Library for its excellent briefing, which covers so much. It rightly starts with the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, which published its report, Hungry for Change: Fixing the Failures in Food, on 6 July 2020, almost exactly two years ago. This makes very significant recommendations.
The UK imports 48% of the food that we consume, and that proportion is rising. At the same time, many of our farmers, fishing and food-processing interests have lost a major part of their export markets following Brexit. For the last few months, Ministers have answered questions on the numbers of pigs slaughtered because our UK abattoirs and food processers cannot bring staff into the UK to do the necessary food processing. Fruit and vegetables are rotting in the fields because of a lack of staff.
At the same time, following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, fertiliser and energy costs have rocketed. Farmers and fishermen are going out of business at exactly the moment when we need to be able to grow more food, not less.
The Government are keen to set trade deals that will encourage a further flood of cheaper food, often grown with lower welfare and other standards than we use here in the UK, and often much more full of UPF, as so helpfully outlined by other speakers.
The Government’s response to the Lords Select Committee is best summarised in its UK food strategy, published last month, which followed Henry Dimbleby’s independent review of the UK food sector, referred to by a number of noble Lords. I do not know if they felt this, but I found the Government’s response weak. Mr Dimbleby’s review was a bold approach to tackle a range of issues, but was also supported by experts in child poverty, food production and agriculture. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley outlined, the recommendation headlines are simple and clear, and worth repeating. They are to:
“Make us well instead of sick
Be resilient enough to withstand global shocks
Help to restore nature and halt climate change so that we hand on a healthier planet to our children
Meet the standards the public expect, on health, environment, and animal welfare”.
It was disappointing therefore to see a government food strategy that proposed not much more than business as usual.
The review’s focus on the holiday activities and food programme and the Community Eatwell programme is absolutely vital in helping those children and families who are struggling—even more at the moment—and have slipped into real food poverty that was unimaginable 20 years ago. I echo my noble friend Lady Walmsley’s question on why Dimbleby’s recommendations have not been fully accepted and implemented.
There are reports in the press this week that inflation is forcing schools to reduce healthier meals. A third of school caterers say they will serve more processed food in the coming months, and many have already changed their menus. In fact, 78% of school caterers say that higher prices have forced them to change their options for pupils as a result of rising prices, and 40% say they fear they will not be able to meet the Government’s school food standards if prices continue to rise. We have heard in this debate that those standards need to be raised. Most worryingly, 20% have said they have switched from British to imported meat because it is cheaper. This particularly matters because lunch, especially for those whose families are struggling financially, whether or not they are on free school meals, may be the principal meal of the day.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, referred to UPF and how these processed, nutritionally poor and addictive foods are growing in use. She argued very powerfully that our children’s diets have already been severely impacted by UPF, and why childhood obesity continues to grow in the UK at such a dangerous rate. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, echoed those comments, but also made the important point about science and agriculture not necessarily working towards the same objectives. She was also right to be concerned about the impact of processed foods from the US in the UK. The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, was also right in saying that we are losing the link between good food grown in our countryside.
In France, all children at primary school are given a free three-course lunch of healthy and—compared to our school catering—sophisticated foods. The French have always understood, which we still do not, that eating together is part of children’s social and emotional development, and staff sit and eat with the children rather than just monitoring them. In my mother-in-law’s village in rural south-west France, the elderly people who used to receive meals on wheels now join the children for lunch, which is not just enjoyable for all but strengthens the bonds in the community. There is no mass catering organisation purchasing, pre-cooking and sending frozen goods to schools; local cooks buy what is in season, and cook and serve it.
The OECD’s obesity update shows that in 2017 the UK adult obesity rate was 26.2%. In France it is 17%, despite its diet being high in fat. Its incidence of cardiovascular and other diseases is low; it is called the French paradox. Partly, it is to do with the right type of fat, but the broader French food culture is very different from ours: there is not a culture of snacking, and sitting down to eat as a family and as a class at school is regarded as very important. The quality of food is thought about not just by the person preparing the meal; it is considered carefully and commented on by everyone. A French friend of ours says that the English talk constantly about the weather and the French talk about food. Food is undoubtedly part of their cultural identity. In Japan, the obesity rate is just 4.2%. That is because almost all Japanese food tends to be low in calories and very low in fat. It is important to understand that it will take us time to change. France is worried that its rates have been going up, but we should all aspire to lowering our rates—perhaps it will take 20 or 30 years—towards where Japan is.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to the Dasgupta review, which echoes the many other reports that have been referenced by noble Lords. For me, his key comment is:
“Our unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations.”
The NFU’s The Future of Food 2040 report sets out the vital role of agriculture and horticulture in the UK and makes powerful reading. It too sees the importance of health becoming a key ingredient, requiring a change in what is grown as well as eaten. It recognises that our approach to diets needs to change, even talking about the use of insects in our diets. It highlights the socialisation of eating. Fewer families eat together in the UK than at any time. Eating together will help to change the cost and nature of how people eat. Will the Minister work with the NFU and some of the bodies mentioned in this debate in developing the Government’s land strategy? I also echo my noble friend Lady Walmsley’s concern about the overlapping and clashing schemes that cause real problems for farmers to make progress.
I turn to Henry Dimbleby and Jamie Oliver, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, for referring to the latter and the Doncaster protests. The noble Lord was right to highlight that happiness does not resolve obesity or change dietary habits. He also made the vital point about the ability of people to pay for good, healthy food. The extraordinary @BootstrapCook, Jack Monroe, tried to help by putting cheap, nutritious meals on Twitter, but was misunderstood by others who assumed that this was patronising, whereas Jack was trying to help people who were really struggling. Jack says:
“If it’s inaccessible to the poorest amongst us, then it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.”
I ask the Minister: are this Government prepared to be revolutionary?
The NFU advocates for a food re-think. It is right that we need a new approach to food, moving away from high-fat, high-carb, very cheap food, which, as we have heard from noble Lords, often contains the wrong sorts of fat, to a position where we grow much more of our food for our own needs, where our young people learn from their earliest experiences to love food and be curious about it, and where the public realm ensures that the poorest in our community are not priced out of eating good, nutritious local food.
Above all, good health and good food production is a joint venture which needs to be led by government. It is a joint venture of the people, of food producers, of cooks and others involved in food processing and of our welfare state to help protect the poorest people from food poverty. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on securing this debate on the relationship between improving the overall health of the nation and food production, because the two things are inextricably linked for all the reasons the noble Baroness set out so clearly for us in the introduction. We are having this debate in the context of two crises in particular, although I am sure we could add others: the cost of living crisis and the obesity crisis. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, rightly made the great claim that, despite our so-called greater affluence, we are nevertheless all the poorer in terms of our health and our access to, and provision of, good food.
From this debate, no one could be in any doubt that the food system is continuing to break. This is affecting childhood obesity, our health, farming and biodiversity, and now there is an inability to get three decent meals a day to some 10 million people in this country. If this does not say to the Government that we require a competent cross-cutting strategy, I do not know what would.
I will refer to the 2020 report by the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, which contended:
“The UK’s food system … is failing”.
In response, the national food strategy very clearly said that
“the damage being done to our health and our planet by the food system demands urgent action.”
It would be very helpful to hear from the Minister how much he agrees with these assessments.
I will focus on the Government’s food strategy, because I am sure that the Minister will make great reference to this in his response. Of course, there were high hopes for the food strategy, following the review by Henry Dimbleby. Very sadly, however, we find that it provoked the kind of united response that we would not have wanted—namely, it was roundly criticised by Mr Dimbleby himself and by farmers, food campaigners and environmentalists. Why? Because it turned out to be vague and unambitious, the mirror opposite of what we hoped for. It would be fair to say that the proposals in the Government’s food strategy do something of a disservice to a very well-researched and well-evidenced report by Henry Dimbleby, who took a completely holistic approach to the journey of our food, the impact on our health and the connections between the two.
The review highlighted the terrible damage that poor farming practices would do to our planet. It also called out the complicity of food manufacturers, whose drive for profits is pushing highly processed junk foods on to the nation, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin. This is being done in full knowledge of the ill health that we are likely to suffer as a result and the obesity crisis that will overwhelm our health service if urgent action is not taken.
This country is now the third fattest in the G7, with almost three in 10 adults being obese, while many children are going hungry because our school food system fails so many of them in need. Henry Dimbleby’s report was challenging. It said, “Change is never easy”, which is true, and went on to say that
“we cannot build a sustainable, healthy and fair food system by doing business as usual.”
I believe that this debate challenges “doing business as usual”, yet that seems to be the exact approach the Government are taking.
Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House why the response from the Government barely covered 10% of the Dimbleby review; why it did not respond to the 14 very well-argued recommendations in the report; and why we still do not have a blueprint to tackle the major food issues facing this country?
Where are the policies that would address the situation of 7.3 million people who live in poverty, including 2.6 million children? I ask the Minister: where are the policies to make food banks a thing of the past? That includes food banks which, shockingly, are being set up by hospital trusts to meet the demand from their staff. Where are the policies to tackle the rise in adult obesity, which is putting our health service and individuals under such strain? Why have the Dimbleby plans to improve child nutrition been ignored. Why have the proposals to extend entitlement to free school meals been rejected?
We know that food prices are rocketing and the food system is under strain, but the food strategy fails to address the root causes. Costs are rising dramatically for farmers and food producers, which is putting further pressure on the price of food. As we have heard from noble Lords during this debate, however, crops are rotting in the fields and over 40,000 pigs have already been culled because of labour shortages.
Perhaps the Minister could tell your Lordships’ House about plans to support British business and ensure that British food is affordable. How do we support our farmers and prevent them being undercut by imports with lower animal welfare and environmental standards? Why was the commitment to tackle low-quality imports taken out of the paper at the last minute? We need a plan to ensure that what we buy, sell and grow is more of our British food, to entrench Britain’s reputation as a beacon for quality food, high standards and the ethical treatment of animals. Does the Minister recognise that we ended up with a food strategy that pleases nobody, lacks ambition and represents a missed opportunity? It would be helpful to hear his response on these points.
I should like to pick up the point about the efforts the Government should be making to encourage the food industry to reformulate its products to reduce high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods. Perhaps the Minister can help us with this. Can he confirm, in the context of contrary media reports, whether the Government are committed to removing unhealthier foods from checkouts?
It would be remiss if I did not comment on the backtracking on the restrictions on advertising unhealthy food. There was much debate on this matter in the course of the Health and Care Act. Yet, we saw backtracking not driven by evidence but, sadly, by the Government’s wish to calm what might be called somewhat choppy political waters. They were certainly choppy at the time; nobody knew at that point how much choppier they would get. Now that we find ourselves in a new world, perhaps the Minister could commit to reviewing the introduction of those restrictions, because the evidence says that it makes an impact on childhood obesity and we cannot wait.
The Government also said in the course of the food strategy that they were committed to using public sector food procurement policy to improve the quality of food and catering services in the public sector. This would be very welcome. This becomes especially pertinent when we look at the challenges that inflation poses to school and hospital food. Can the Minister advise the House on how the Government intend to do this and whether the Procurement Bill will be one such means to address this directly?
The national food strategy also has a target of halving childhood obesity by 2030. Perhaps the Minister could comment on where we are in terms of being on track to meet this. If he considers that we are not on track, what measures will be taken to get us back on track?
I refer to the helpful briefing by the Food Foundation, which addresses the consumption and production of fruit and vegetables. Is there an intent to use the food strategy to join up the efforts to increase fruit and vegetable production and consumption and to reform the Government’s buying standards to include portions of veg in every main meal, to increase demand? It would be helpful to hear from the Minister a consideration of the amount of fruit and veg that should be consumed and the messages that are conveyed. The five-a-day message has been widely communicated as the recommended quantity but, as indicated in the Eatwell Guide, the recommendation should be closer to seven a day. On the basis that it is accepted that we should be eating more, can the Minister advise us what might be done on this?
It seems that we have a challenge, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Jenkin and Lady Bennett, mentioned, with the onslaught of ultra-processed foods. We are in danger of increasing the distance between the origin of food and the actual intake. What is the plan to guide us towards healthier foods that we can afford, source, prepare and enjoy? Unless all those aspects are dealt with, we will not find ourselves in the situation of encouraging people into a healthier zone—as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, referred to—without further direction.
A number of very important questions are raised by this debate. I look forward to the response of the Minister, who I hope will acknowledge the inextricable link between food production and healthier eating but will also have some answers about how we will get there.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on securing this debate. I am also grateful to all noble Lords for their considered and thoughtful contributions. It is a self-evident truth that we all need food to survive. However, as with many things in life, it is not enough simply to restate this. As noble Lords have rightly said, there are many factors to be considered. How is the food produced? Is it done sustainably? How affordable is it, and what is its impact on our health?
We know that access to good-quality, healthy food is essential to achieving our ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, to reduce the gap in healthy life expectancy and to reduce the number of people living with diet and weight-related illnesses. The Government are committed to supporting the production and availability of good food to help improve the nation’s health.
As noble Lords have referred to, our recently published food strategy puts food security at the heart of our vision for the food sector. Our aim is to maintain broadly the current level of food that we produce domestically and to boost production in sectors where there are the largest opportunities. It sets out our ambitions to create a sustainable and accessible food system, with quality products that support healthier and homegrown diets for all. Our farming reforms are designed to support farmers to produce food sustainably and productively and in a more environmentally friendly way, from which we will all benefit. I am sure we all want to see a sustainable and healthy food system, from farm to fork and catch to plate, seizing the opportunities before us and levelling up every part of the country so that everyone, wherever they live and whatever their background, has access to nutritious and healthier food.
We all know that the food we consume plays a role in our overall health. Covid-19 highlights the risks of poor diet and obesity, driving home the importance of better diets and maintaining a healthy weight. As noble Lords have referred to, the Eatwell Guide outlines the Government’s advice on a healthy, balanced diet. It shows the proportions in which different types of food are needed to have a well-balanced and healthy diet, to help meet nutrient requirements and reduce the risk of chronic disease. We know that too many of us are eating too many calories, too much salt and saturated fat and too many large portions, and are snacking too frequently.
While some parts of the food and drink industry are leading the way, by reformulating products or reducing portion sizes, and I think we should pay credit to those parts of the industry that have done so and sometimes met targets in advance of target dates, the challenge to go further remains.
We know that obesity does not develop overnight. When you look at the behavioural contributions, it builds over time through frequent excessive calorie consumption and insufficient physical activity. It is not the stereotype of Billy Bunter stuffing his face with 75 cream cakes. Even eating small amounts of excess calories over time can add up for both adults and children. It catches up with many people over time.
As noble Lords have rightly said, obesity is associated with reduced healthy life expectancy. It is a leading cause of serious non-communicable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and it is often associated with poorer mental health. We also know now that it increases the risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19.
Helping people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and a heathier diet is one of the most important things we can do to improve our nation’s health. We all have a role to play in meeting this challenge: government, industry, the health service and many other partners across the country. As a government, we can play our role in enabling healthier food choices by making a greater range of healthier food more accessible; by empowering people with more information to make informed decisions about the foods that they eat; and by incentivising healthier behaviours.
As noble Lords have acknowledged, the food industry supplies most of the food and drink that we consume. Therefore, it plays a critical role in supporting the aims that we want to see, such as selling healthier food and drink. Through our reduction and reformulation programmes, we are working with the food industry to encourage it to make everyday food and drink lower in sugar, salt and calories. The programme applies across all sectors of the food industry: retailers, manufacturers, restaurants, cafés, pubs, takeaways and delivered food. We have seen some progress since the publication of chapter one of the childhood obesity plan in 2016, with the average sugar content of breakfast cereals and yoghurts decreasing by 13%, and drinks subject to the soft drinks levy decreasing by 44% between 2015 and 2019. These statistics are very welcome, but we know there is more to be done.
However, we also need to be careful about the unintended consequences. As an example, when the sugar content of Irn-Bru was reduced, customers complained about the taste. How did the company respond? By claiming to rediscover an old recipe from 1901, which contained even more sugar. It was a huge hit with Irn-Bru drinkers. How do we address these unintended consequences?
I thank the Minister for giving way. He referred to “everyday food and drink” and the formulation thereof. Will he acknowledge that, if we are talking about everyday foods, we should not be talking about formulation? You do not talk in that way about fruit and vegetables, and unprocessed food.
The noble Baroness makes an important point, but we have to recognise the reality: not where we want to get to, but where we are at the moment. People do eat food that will need to be reformulated if we want to make it healthier. Of course, we know that fruit and vegetables are healthy, but not everyone, as we help them transition, will eat fruit and vegetables, or make stuff from the raw products. They will buy products in supermarkets, and therefore if they are buying them, we have to make sure that they are healthier and reformulated. We do not yet live in that ideal world where everyone buys fruit and vegetables, and cooks everything for themselves.
Given that, we also need new regulations on out-of-home calorie labelling. As we know, many people go to restaurants, buy takeaways or have their food delivered. It is important that we have calorie labelling for food sold in large businesses, including restaurants, cafés and takeaways, which came into force on 6 April 2022. As noble Lords are aware, there will be further legislation, on restricting the promotion and advertising of products high in fat, salt and sugar, which will come into effect in the next few years. I know that many noble Lords disagreed with the Government’s views on delaying some of those measures. We will continue to have the end-of-aisle promotion on the target date, but others, such as “buy one, get one free”, are delayed because of the trade-off with the cost of living crisis, but will come. It is delayed, but we have set target dates.
Once again, we have to be open—
The delay on “buy one get one free” was a cost of living delay. The delay on advertising was because the Act did not come in as originally intended. There was a delay in getting it on to the statute book and with the statutory consultation period. The industry has asked for some time. I know there was a debate among noble Lords about whether we should give in to industry requests, but in the end we will get there. It is important that we have as many people as we can on side. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, indicated in a previous debate, some companies actually met those targets in advance of the new target. That is to be welcomed and encouraged.
Once again, we also have to be open to potential unintended consequences. Mental health charities and experts—and some noble Lords who have worked in this area—have expressed concerns about the potential effect of anti-obesity measures on those with eating disorders. We must be careful and make sure that we learn and address those unintended consequences. We know that we have imperfect knowledge as humans and should not fall for the fatal conceit of knowledge. We have to rely on the discovery process. Not all pilots will work, but some evidence-led pilots will. We have seen some of the reductions but think, for example, about the minimum alcohol price in Scotland, which has been recently reviewed. The study found that there was
“a marked increase in the prices paid for alcohol by people with alcohol dependence”
and those drinking at harmful levels, but no clear evidence of any change in consumption or severity of dependence. Although such an effect cannot be ruled out, it demonstrates that we cannot assume that every intervention will work. Future interventions will need to be evidence-based. It is important not just to think that something will work; we have to see that it works.
To help ensure that all children have access to healthy diets, the Government provide a nutritional safety net to those who need it the most through the healthy food schemes. These are: Healthy Start, the nursery milk scheme and the school fruit and vegetable scheme. Together, these schemes help more than 3 million children. The schemes also help to support women through pregnancy, and babies and children when they are at home, in childcare and in early years at school. The schemes contribute to our priorities on obesity and levelling up.
Let us talk about some of the partnerships that we need to see if we are all to play a role in this. Schools have an important role to play. The school food standards are designed to restrict foods high in fat, salt or sugar, as well as low-quality, reformed or reconstituted foods. I have heard many noble Lords refer to ultra-processed or very highly processed foods. These standards are meant to ensure that pupils always have healthy options for their school lunch. They state that schools must provide fruit and vegetables every day—at least three different types each week—and no more than two portions of deep-fried food a week. There are also standards on the amount of salt, fruit juice and food cooked in oil. We hope these standards will play an important role in helping children get healthy options and the energy and nutrition they need throughout the school day.
One thing I feel very strongly about, as noble Lords will know, are the grave disparities we see across this country. Others have expressed concerns about this. One of the gravest inequalities faced by our most disadvantaged communities is poor health. The Covid-19 pandemic powerfully underlined the disparities in health across this country. As part of our wider ambition to level up health across the UK, we announced that the Department of Health and Social Care will publish a health disparities White Paper. This will set out a series of impactful measures, including legislation if required, to address health disparities at each stage when they arise. In addition, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities is looking at many areas of disparity and making recommendations. The review will look at the biggest preventable killers, such as obesity, as well as the wider causes of ill health and access to the services needed to diagnose and treat ill health in a timely and accessible way.
I remind noble Lords that we also have to show some humility. I think my noble friend Lord Kirkham referred to this. As someone who comes from an immigrant working-class community, I say to noble Lords there is a limit to what any Government can achieve with the attitude of Westminster or Whitehall knows best, or by Soviet-style, top-down central planning. I am sure many noble Lords have seen television programmes about how we can eat well for less. The challenge is in how we get those messages from the living room—or the TV room—into people’s kitchens. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about the empowerment of local communities and local people. I completely agree: we need to empower local communities through non-state civil society organisations, local community centres, local mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues and churches, which are trusted by some of the hard-to-reach communities, to help them cook and eat more healthily.
I was talking to an official in my department the other day who comes from a Bengali background. She said, “One of the problems I see in my community is that we all love ghee—we think it’s delicious but we know it’s unhealthy.” I said, “How do we in the Department of Health and others encourage people to eat healthily?” She answered, “You’re not going to do it—it has to be from the grass roots up.” We have to work with local civil society organisations. Maybe there could be a national programme across the country, but it is about the local civil society people who are trusted in those local communities. We can call for it and ask for it here, but how do we get that message into people’s homes and kitchens?
I am slightly concerned by some of the anti-import sentiment that noble Lords expressed in this debate. As a development economist once said to me, “You either take our goods or you take our people.” I know that many noble Lords prefer white Europe to non-white, non-Europe, but on this particular issue we have to be quite clear about that. We will not produce everything we need and will have to import some food, and some of it will be healthy. We should not be against food just because it comes from overseas.
I hope to be able to address some of the other specific points made. I am afraid that I do not have all the details on some of the programmes, and I will ask my noble friend the Defra Minister to respond to some of the points that I am unable to at the moment.
Some specific questions were asked about seasonal labour shortages. Seasonal labour plays an important role in the agricultural sector each year. Since 2019, the Government have provided a seasonal worker visa route for horticultural workers in recognition of the highly seasonal nature of that work. To address the near-term need, we will release the additional provision of 10,000 visas under the seasonal worker visa route, including 2,000 for the poultry sector. That means that in total, 40,000 visas will be available for seasonal workers in 2022, providing labour for food businesses across the UK. We will also work with industry to support the upcoming Migration Advisory Committee review of the shortage occupation list. In addition, we will commission an independent review to ensure the quantity and quality of the food sector workforce; it will encompass the worlds of automation, domestic employment and migration routes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked about the agriculture sector growing more fruit and veg. We will bring forward a horticultural strategy for England which will examine the diverse worlds of small, large and emerging growing models and drive high-tech, controlled environmental horticulture to increase domestic production. We will work with growers during development of this strategy, and there will be an opportunity for those in the industry to feed into this, including potentially through a call for evidence, later this year.
A number of noble Lords asked about free school meals. The view from Defra is that a threshold has to be set somewhere. There will always be a debate about the level that you select, but the right one enables more children to benefit while remaining affordable and deliverable for schools. From 24 March this year, the Government have extended free school meals eligibility to include some children who have no recourse to public funds, subject to specified income thresholds; this permanent extension has been in place since the start of the summer term. We also have the school fruit and vegetable scheme, which is designed to benefit children at a vital stage of their development, providing a wide range of fruit and vegetables to children. The food strategy sets out our aim broadly to maintain domestic food production at current levels, in line with our environmental and climate goals. However, we are not asking anyone to choose between food and the environment; our view is that food production, farm businesses and the environment must work together hand in hand.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about the Future Farming Resilience Fund, which provides free business support to farmers and land managers during the early years of agricultural transition. It does this by awarding grants to organisations, and it helps farmers and land managers to understand the changes that are happening and to identify how and what they may need to adapt their business models, and it gives tailored support to adapt. In July 2021 we awarded grants to 19 organisations so that they can deliver the interim phase of this resilience support. The organisations are listed on the GOV.UK website but I am sure that my noble friend the relevant Defra Minister will want to write about this.
Noble Lords also asked about food labelling. When I was in the European Parliament, we had constant debates about GDA labels versus traffic lights, and how sometimes food that may appear healthy under certain criteria shows a red light. We also debated the pros and cons of both systems. No system is perfect, but we agree that there has to be a system, and it is being consulted on.
I apologise to noble Lords if I have not addressed all the questions that were thrown at me. I know that I, my officials and Defra officials will look through Hansard and respond accordingly. I end by once again thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and all noble Lords who spoke on this important topic. Even though may not always agree on the merits of different approaches, I hope that we have shown anyone watching today that noble Lords share a commitment to improving the health of our nation, wherever people come from, wherever they live and whatever their background. This is a shared goal that the Government cannot achieve alone. We all have a role to play in this important mission, and I look forward to working with noble Lords, national, devolved and local government, industry and local civil society groups to improve the health of our great nation.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and everybody who has taken part in this small but perfectly formed debate. It has been cross-departmental, which is why I asked Defra to send the Minister some notes. If the Defra Minister had been responding, I think the noble Lord would have had to send him some notes, and vice versa. It was quite a difficult challenge for the Minister to have such a cross-departmental topic.
I am very grateful to noble Lords who elaborated things that I had time to mention only briefly in my initial remarks. In fact, some mentioned things that I did not have time to mention at all. I am grateful that the Minister mentioned the link between mental health and being overweight, and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, mentioned the difficulties of the Procurement Bill and the possible contradiction between that Bill and the Health and Care Act. None of us had the chance to talk about the importance of teaching children to cook, for example, but I am so grateful that everybody mentioned food and health inequality, because it is a very big issue. Although the Government are doing some things to help address that, I think most contributors to today’s debate have suggested more things that we would like to have seen them do.
I want to take the Minister up on one point: he said that there appears to have been some sort of opposition to importing food. In fact, I think both the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and I acknowledged the fact that we are not self-sufficient in food and are not going to be. What is important is that, first, we make sure that the standard of food that comes in is what the public expect and, secondly, as even the Government are now saying, in order for our food system to be resilient we need to produce as much as possible in this country in a sustainable way, while acknowledging all the other things that farmers have to do.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, talked about happiness, and I could not agree with him more. My noble friend Lady Brinton talked about the socialisation of food, and somebody mentioned that the slower you eat, the less you probably eat, and that you relax while you do it and it does you good. I certainly agree on that point, but I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, that anybody is trying to lecture people. What people are trying to do is to help and encourage others, to make recommendations and to make good food accessible to everybody in the country. Of course, that is what the Government are trying to do, but we would like to see more. Henry Dimbleby was certainly not lecturing anybody; he based his recommendations on the science and good advice from experts. We should all listen to what he had to say.
I was a bit concerned about what my noble friend Lady Brinton said about the danger of reducing the quality of school meals, and I hope the Minister will keep an eye on that as the price of food increases. We do not want to see that, because I know that the Government are trying to get good food directly to children.
With those few words, I thank everybody who has taken part. I know more people would have liked to speak, but the time of day and day of the week meant that some of the great experts on this topic in the House were not able to join us—and we miss them, of course.
House adjourned at 5.35 pm.