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Farmers union criticises leaked food strategy ahead of official launch

The National Farmers Union says the Government has “stripped to the bone” proposals from the review into England’s food system ahead of the expected release of a new food strategy on Monday (Andrew Parsons/PA)
The National Farmers Union says the Government has “stripped to the bone” proposals from the review into England’s food system ahead of the expected release of a new food strategy on Monday (Andrew Parsons/PA)

The National Farmers Union says the Government has “stripped to the bone” proposals from the review into England’s food system ahead of the expected release of a new food strategy on Monday.

A leaked draft of the food strategy was earlier branded “half-baked” and “flatter than a pancake” by campaigners, with particular concern over the apparent rejection of a proposal for tax on sugar and salt.

Ministers were accused of concocting a blueprint “bordering on the preposterous”, with the document suggesting they will shun key recommendations from a major review of the food system by Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby.

President of the National Farmers Union, Minette Batters, told The Observer she met with the Prime Minister on Friday and told him farmers were furious with post-Brexit policies they said left them at a disadvantage against foreign producers.

She said they included farmers in Tiverton and Honiton, where an important byelection is scheduled for June 23.

“We want to be eating more British and more local food but again I just ask how,” she told the paper.

“It’s all very well to have words but it’s got to have really meaningful delivery and we aren’t seeing that yet in this document.”

In the earlier criticism, campaigners also hit out at elements of the plan “goading” farmers into producing more meat.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove announced in 2019 that Mr Dimbleby was to lead a review into England’s food system to ensure it is “safe, healthy and affordable” for all.

Michael Gove
Cabinet minister Michael Gove (Oli Scarff/PA)

The review also aimed to investigate how the food system could help restore and enhance the natural environment, build a resilient and sustainable agriculture sector and contribute to urban and rural economies.

In his final report, published in 2021, Mr Dimbleby called for a sugar and salt reformulation tax as a key part of efforts to transform the nation’s diet.

This appeared to have been snubbed by ministers in the leaked draft.

The document, published in full by The Guardian on Friday, said “individual responsibility and choice” is important when it comes to eating healthily, and industry “also has a role to play”.

It said there is a “crucial role for Government to make targeted regulatory interventions to support change”.

But there was no promise of a new £3/kg tax on sugar and £6/kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses, as recommended by Mr Dimbleby.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said the leaked document made it “abundantly clear” the Government was “in the pocket of the food industry” and had “no desire to bite the hand that feeds it”.

In his report, Mr Dimbleby also called on ministers to make sure the budget for payments for farmers to deliver environmental benefits – such as restoring nature, preventing floods and improving soils – was guaranteed until at least 2029.

But this appeared to have been ignored in the draft White Paper, with the Government instead repeating a pledge to maintain funding levels during the current parliament.

Labour criticised the leaked document as “nothing more than a statement of vague intentions”.

Ministers appear to be moving forward with some of Mr Dimbleby’s proposals, including by consulting on mandatory food waste reporting for businesses of a certain size.

The Government has also agreed to trial a Community Eatwell programme, as announced in the Levelling Up White Paper, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets.

The document said ministers would “support progress on a wide range of issues, including alternative proteins”, after the review urged the Government to “nudge” consumers into changing their meat-eating habits.

But it suggested sustainable sources of protein do not have to “displace traditional sectors”.

The paper said the Government would launch a call for evidence to better understand challenges in cutting methane emissions from farm animals such as cattle.

In his review, Mr Dimbleby had set a goal of reducing meat consumption by 30% over 10 years.

Louisa Casson, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, accused ministers of seemingly “goading” UK farmers into producing more meat.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it did not comment on leaked documents, but a spokesperson added: “We will be setting out the contents of our ambitious new food strategy in due course.”