Global Agriculture

Hutton scientists welcome National Food Strategy report

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“There is untapped potential for urban agriculture to shift food systems in sustainable directions; local producers need to be incentivised to develop horticulture that delivers meaningful local employment, reduces food miles and makes food local again”

18 July 2021, UK: Researchers at the James Hutton Institute have welcomed the publication of a report on the UK’s National Food Strategy, which calls on the UK Government to commit to a landmark package of reforms to build a better food system for a healthier nation. 

The report sets out how poor diets contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year in England alone and cost the economy an estimated £74 billion. It also warns that production and supply methods are destroying the environment, which in turn threatens food security. The food we eat accounts for around a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and is the leading cause of biodiversity destruction.

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The document also describes how people’s diets will need to change over the next ten years to meet the Government’s existing targets on health, climate and nature. By 2032, fruit and vegetable consumption will have to increase by 30%, and fibre consumption by 50%, while consumption of food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar will have to go down by 25%, and meat consumption should reduce by 30%.

The report calls for the introduction of the world’s first Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax, with some of the money being used to expand free school meals and support the diets of those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods. It also proposes that food education should be central to the national curriculum, and the protection of food standards in any new trade deals.

Professor Derek Stewart, director of the James Hutton Institute’s Advanced Plant Growth Centre commented: “The terms of reference state that the scope is England but considering that policy responsibility for food and health is largely devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, effectively this means conjoined, or at the very least, aligned policy, legislation and where necessary taxation.

“The transformative ask that 30% of our land is protected for nature by 2030 is hugely significant and requires reference to policy alignment. This is doable but there will be a need for transformative business models as this will be truly transformative for agriculture if it is to be achieved.

“The proposal also requires a lot from our rural industries, in that some areas of farmland would have to be repurposed or adapted so that they actively sequester carbon. In reference to GHG reduction, I would highlight the transformative action in renewable energy in Scotland that will see it lead the way in terms of decarbonised energy production, helping the ability of food industries to reduce their emissions.”

Professor Stewart says a shift to the production of protein crops will also need an associated uplift in processing technologies. Insect protein really does need to be considered within a full system if only as a feedstock for well managed livestock, as it delivers to the circular bioeconomy agenda and will create business opportunities for primary and secondary food production wastes and co-product valorisation.

“Cell-cultured meat is still at a very early stage and has attracted both huge commercial and social media, not necessarily good in terms of the latter. Scientifically this could be viable, and we need to put any personal prejudices to one side: it needs to be shown to work or not.

Prof Stewart also believes there are brilliant opportunities regarding precision and soil-less agriculture. “We have only scratched the potential of these systems. With vertical farming, or more widely controlled environment agriculture, we can increase nutritional density; create and maintain enhanced sensory experiences that can reduce salt and sugar inputs; reduced water and nutrient inputs; adopt renewable and off-grid energy for production – all of this with production 24/7, 365 days a year.”

Regarding the sugar and salt taxation proposals, Prof Stewart says there would have to be worked models with the implications for all strata in society as these could disproportionately impact upon those on low incomes, with limited access to appealing fresh produce.

“The proposed ‘Community Eatwell’ programme to support those on low incomes to improve their diets may go some way to improve this. In Scotland the Best Start Foods programme is a new Scottish benefit providing help to people and families on low incomes. The benefit, a pre-loaded payment card, is paid to women who are pregnant and families who have children aged up to 3 years old, with the aim of supporting good nutritional choices early in a child’s life.”

Dr Elizabeth Dinnie, a social researcher at the Institute, welcomed the depth and breadth of the report, and particularly the objective to create a long-term shift in food culture. She says: “Creating a cultural change in our attitudes towards food includes connecting people with the ways in which food is produced, not only by farmers but in gardens, allotments and community spaces.

“There is untapped potential for urban agriculture to shift food systems in sustainable directions; local producers need to be incentivised to develop horticulture that delivers meaningful local employment, reduces food miles and makes food local again. Public procurement from local suppliers, as suggested in the recommendations, is a way to incentivise local growers, along with strengthening routes to market for small businesses by encouraging market gardening around our towns and cities and making land available for commercial growing.”

Dr Dinnie added that community growing spaces improve urban environments and provide areas for people to engage with each other around food growing, leading to learning about better food and how it contributes to a healthy diet.

“Simply prescribing fruit and vegetables to people, as suggested here, will not help people to understand and appreciate the satisfaction and pleasure that comes from growing food, or to experience the proven mental and physical health benefits that come from food growing activities.

“The Eat and Learn Initiative recommended here also provides a wonderful opportunity for children to learn about food growing, alongside cooking and diet, which encourages greater appreciation of where food comes from and the work that goes into producing fresh produce. The recommendations in this report are extremely ambitious and cultural change is difficult to bring about.”

Finally, Dr Mike Rivington, a climate change researcher at the Institute, said that the National Food Strategy implies that the power and governance of the global food system needs re-developing.

“The industrialised globalised food system depends on a few key crops, much of which goes into animal feed or drink and forms the basis of the Junk Food Cycle, which is controlled by a small number of very large powerful global businesses. Getting them to change the basis of their business is the key to reducing food system inequalities, improving people’s diet and reversing environmental degradation.

“Re-aligning the profit motivation of the food system towards sustainable, diversified supply, is essential. Producers of food are often operating on very tight margins whereas the bulk of the cost of food (and therefore profit) goes to retailers, processors and their shareholders.”

Dr Rivington points out that the current food system does not factor in the human health and environmental damage costs. The report makes this clear but does not challenge the power and governance issues causing the food and nutrition security inequalities and unsustainable production processes.

“The recent Dasgupta Review on the value of biodiversity and the Climate Change Committee recommendations on reducing emissions make clear the need to fundamentally re-align our use of and investment in Natural Capital.

“This means land use and management needs to rapidly re-adjust to provide multi-functional landscapes that provide food security, climate mitigation and healthy ecosystems. Our research has shown that these changes can be achievable in the UK, whereby diets can improve, but there are substantial trade-offs in where this can occur and what the consequences will be on food system businesses and environmental quality.”

Dr Rivington says there are great opportunities to develop sustainable, equitable and healthy food systems that fits with climate change mitigation and biodiversity targets, but this will require substantial changes, given likely climate change impacts and increasing global affluence and demand for food.

“One conclusion from a recent study we conducted on the UK’s food and nutrition security during and after the COVID-19 pandemic was that, however the production side of food readjusts, there needs to be mechanisms to ensure those on low incomes are adequately supported to ensure healthy diets and reduce food and nutrition inequalities.”

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