Food for thought

This article by Ed Persson, an Executive Assistant with the National Preparedness Commission, looks at the implications of the National Food Strategy and its relevance for resilience.

Earlier this year, Henry Dimbleby and his team published the National Food Strategy: The Plan which followed on from Part One of the National Food Strategy that was published in 2020. Pursuant to ‘The Plan’ is a set of recommendations designed to strengthen the resilience of the nation’s food system.

The subject of food is enormous. Defining and understanding the system boundaries of a national food system is a monumental task, not least because of the vast array of other equally enormous systems that food interacts with, feed into, and are fed by. However, when looking at food through a national preparedness lens there are several key cross-cutting themes which speak to the nation’s resilience. This short article is not intended to delve into them in any great detail but, as the title suggests, it is to provide a little food for thought.

The Goals

There are some very clear starting points which come out of The Plan’s recommendations which set very clear goals for our future food system, and they are that it must:

  • 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; and
  • meet the standards the public expect on health, environment and animal welfare.

If we look at the first goal through a national preparedness lens, there is a clear connection. The healthier we are as a nation, the better placed we will be to handle crisis, particularly when looking at the link between our physical health and our mental health. The report draws out some concerning figures and suggests why we are perhaps less shocked by them than we should be. Labelled as a creeping disaster, the costs of diet-related illness or associated costs of a poor diet are alarming. According to the report, the government ‘spends an estimated £18 billion – 8% of all government healthcare expenditure – on conditions related to BMI [Body Mass Index] every year’. In 2019/20 ‘there were just over 1 million hospital admissions where obesity was recorded at the primary or secondary diagnosis’. Additionally, as estimated by the OECD, the combined cost of ‘conditions related to high BMI in lost workforce productivity, reduction in life expectancy and NHS funds is £74 billion every year’, the equivalent of ‘cutting the UK’s GDP by 3.4%’.

This is compounded by the fact that health inequality, diet and food poverty are rife and getting worse. As noted in the report, ‘A man in one of the 10% most affluent postcodes will live, on average, 9.5 years longer than his peer living in one of the least affluent postcodes’, and women ‘in the poorest areas of the UK are actually dying younger than they did in 2010’. When we consider the impact of diet inequality on the young, we see that children living in the poorest areas are ‘four times more likely than children in the richest areas to be severely obese when they arrive at primary school’, and are ‘five times more likely to be severely obese when they leave it’. A worrying peculiarity of the modern food system is that ‘obesity sometimes co-exists with hunger’. This is driven by the affordability of healthy food, with bad diets being cheaper per calorie than healthy diets. Cheaper food is also produced in a cheaper way and with more intensity than healthier produce grown or farmed less intensively, perhaps with more care, and is therefore more expensive per kilo.

When we consider how the country’s food system impacts on our national resilience through health, we see not only the very real human and financial costs associated with poor food resilience but also how the relationship works in reverse – how levels of national resilience to other shocks and stresses can impact the nation’s food resilience. As noted in the report, the economic disruption caused by Covid-19 ‘increased the number of households struggling to put food on the table’. There is a negative feedback loop as far as nutrition is concerned, where national level shocks such as the pandemic and its economic pressures exacerbate existing food insecurity, influencing poorer diet quality through the affordability of unhealthy food compared to healthier foods at a time of financial strain. This in turn impacts on population health and subsequently public spending on diet-related, ill-health treatment, meaning our overall national resilience to handle a new or secondary crisis is impacted.

The second goal also speaks to national preparedness. As noted in the report, for wealthy countries like the UK, food security is an issue which remains largely invisible until something goes wrong. Although the term food security is debated as to its precise meaning, we do need to consider it within the realm of national preparedness. Should the supply chains on which we rely so heavily for food imports be challenged, or our home-production capacity suffers due to climate-change events, this could send the UK into a crisis let alone a food crisis. We do not need to look far back into recent memory to witness the stress caused through supply-chain disruption to our fuel or on a global scale with the stranding of the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal in March 2021.

If our reaction to fuel is anything to go by, imagine what we’d have done if it was tea, as some humorous social-media posts commented. Although on a serious note, supply-chain fragility can have disastrous consequences for food supply to this country. However, ensuring food security is no easy task. As the report refers to Tim Lang’s book Feeding Britain, food security is a ‘many-tentacled beast’. It depends on an ‘array of different factors, including: the defence of supply chains (being confident they are not vulnerable to attack); the resilience of all parts of the food system, separately and combined (how quickly they can adapt in the face of sudden shocks); capacity (the skills and capabilities in the system); and control (how concentrated is ownership of the system and what risks might arise from high levels of concentration)’.

Unfortunately, ensuring a home supply of food is not enough of an answer to bolster food security. Shocks such as harvest failure and stresses such as land-use changes or shortened growing seasons due to climate changes require that food imports are maintained for the sake of providing redundancy. Currently, the UK imports 48% of its total food supply and the supply chains providing this produce extend well beyond regional neighbourhoods. The length of our supply chains, while providing this country with a vast array of produce from all corners of the globe, offer both redundancy and fragility.

The third and fourth goals of the National Food Strategy plan are in many senses intertwined. The need to restore nature and halt climate change to leave a healthier planet for the future and meeting public expectations on health, environment and animal welfare are closely linked. To achieve these goals requires a balanced approach between cultivating enough food to sustain the global population but doing it in a way that acts to regenerate and not further degrade our environment. This balanced approach perhaps presents us with a challenge to live with the land and not on it, employing innovative low-carbon food technologies to help us achieve this at scale.

Another dimension to achieving these goals is trade and trade decisions. As the report lays out, trade is central to a resilient food system, but trade decisions can impact the quality and quantity of our food. Deciding with whom to trade is a determining factor in both food systems resilience and national resilience. Trade is important in maintaining a healthy economy which has many benefits for national resilience. However, if careful consideration is not given to whom we trade with, we risk jeopardising the very resilience we are trying to build. When we consider trade in the context of climate resilience, we can see that careful trade decisions can actually ‘reduce the environmental impact of our diet’: importing produce such as tomatoes from Spain generates less carbon than growing them in the UK.

However, poorly considered trade decisions can have a ‘sharply negative effect on our environmental balance sheet’. For example, the UK’s approach to the Australian tariff-free trade deal is one where trade will hamper the UK’s attempts at achieving its climate targets. Australian forests are being cleared to make way for grazing at a rate which supersedes our own attempts at reforestation. Further still, Australia uses 71 highly hazardous substances and many other pesticides currently banned in the UK, including neonicotinoids, which kill the pollinators at the root of our food system. Under the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) system, which is designed to replace EU agricultural subsidies, British producers will be allowed to enter agreements which seek to improve the natural environment for which they will be paid. However, to require this of them, at the same time as opening free trade to a country with below-par environmental standards, means that our own producers will be expected to compete on price and outperform on climate. This could have incredibly damaging consequences for our agricultural resilience, our food resilience and our national resilience.

We need to have the conditions in which our home production is held to high environmental standards but also its capacity to function is protected. If this deal is to set the precedent, it creates a concern for the future. As many have suggested, we should be offering favourable trade terms to agricultural nations that have environmental standards which meet or exceed our own. We must produce food in a regenerative and restorative way but our efforts are undone when we open the trade door to agricultural nations that not only actively threaten climate resilience but also produce food in a way that undermines standards that we have set for ourselves. It is hard to reconcile how we can achieve goals three and four if we do not carefully consider the impact of our trade decisions.

Real Change

Our food system is a complex web. However, how our food is produced and where it comes from has a direct impact on us – we need it, we eat it, and we should care. From a resilience perspective, food is central but the nature of the complexity associated with food can make it a mind-bending subject. The National Food Strategy is considered, comprehensive and all-encompassing and will hopefully lead to real change. If we are concerned with preparedness and resilience, we must also be concerned with the resilience of our critical resources, such as our food. It is an enormous subject and far too much for a thought piece as acknowledged at the beginning but, in pursuit of resilience, food certainly has a significant role.

The goals laid out in the National Food Strategy and the recommendations presented in Chapter 16 offer a considerable challenge for the UK but the level of thought and consideration presented in the strategy make the challenges ahead seem attainable and worth the effort and commitment needed.

If we are concerned with national resilience then surely pursuing a food system which seeks to improve our health, remain resilient under pressure, restore our environments, and meet the standards necessary to uphold these goals is a clear choice.

We should also look at the resilience of our food system in relation to the resilience of all our other systems. When we consider the spectrum of resilience benefits associated with a better food system, we understand the vital role it plays and the positive ripple effects it can have on our health, environment, economy and resilience overall. However, if we consider our food system in isolation from other systems, for example our energy or infrastructure systems, we risk building resilience in one area which could be offset by a lack of progress in another or vice versa.

This is where the National Food Strategy, it’s goals and recommendations are so relevant to resilience, considering the food system in connection and not in isolation of other systems, seeking to strengthen resilience overall. Importantly the National Food Strategy is not just about food, it is about all these other systems also, ultimately reinforcing the importance of systems thinking. This is perhaps the greatest challenge in achieving these goals, understanding where the tentacles are, and what they are doing.

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the National Food Strategy, aside from its considered goals and recommendations, is the importance of understanding its connections to the resilience of other systems and to the resilience of the nation.