In October 2019 the National Food Strategy led Henry Dimbleby, ask the UK to share it's view and ideas on how to fix our broken food system. Here is my response, which is focused on demand.
A food strategy for the UK needs to address three inseparable issues, the health of our people, the health of our planet and the health of our rural community.
All are in poor shape, why?
Our food choice is motivated by a combination of price, convenience, taste, sustainability and perception of identity inferred by brands. Traditionally the dominant driving factor in the UK is price – we respond well to price promotions and discounters such as Lidl and Aldi have prospered,
This is followed by convenience, look at the increase in use of convenience stores, fast food and ready meals. Convenience is sold to us as the solution to our hectic lives, but this is also an illusion created by 50 years of advertising of faster cleaning products, labour-saving devices, energy-boosting snacks, convenience food and those much-deserved-rewarding treats. In truth the average Brit spends nearly 3-hours a day watching telly plus 4 hours tinkering with mobiles and tablets – we are really not that time-poor, we've just been persuaded to think we are.
Despite many misleading surveys the truth in the sales data is that the least consideration to most people is sustainability –sales of organic, fair trade, plastic free and other sustainable, but often premium-priced, products remain small.
Although many millions in the UK have their choices seriously limited by poverty many more knowingly make choices which they know are poor for their health, the environment and animal welfare. Why?
For any food strategy to be successfully it needs to focus on demand. Unless you address demand then any system or supply-side initiative will fail. Global food companies spend 10-12% of their turnover, billions, on advertising and other techniques to shape demand in our food system.
The challenge is that sustainable, fair-priced, well-packaged food costs more to produce. We need to subsidise good food for those on low incomes (or reduce poverty) but more importantly (in terms of scale) we need to persuade those who can afford to buy the better choice to so do. Sounds simple, it isn't.
Advertising is the science, and the art, of using media to influence choice. Its reach goes well beyond TV commercials, in to control of our environment, media, influencers, culture, and above all our hopes, fears and emotions. The question is how we turn that force that so shapes our world into one which shapes it well.
To that end we advance a six-point plan:
Rights of a child - All children should have the right to grow-up free from the harmful influence of junk food marketing. We need a 9pm watershed on broadcast and online advertising of HFSS products and to require OFCOM regulated broadcasters to not provide content before 9pm which encourages unhealthy eating habits anymore that they would promote other harms to children such as smoking, excessive drinking, or violence.
Return choice to parents - Empower parents to make the choices for their children by restricting the use of cartoon characters and toys and other “pester power” techniques in the promotion of HFSS products.
Honesty -Support everybody regardless of food literacy, command of English and limitations of visibility to make informed choices. We need mandatory, simple and clear front of pack labeling, such as an improved Nutri-score system, on both retail and out of home food.
Regulate to reformulate - Motivate companies to innovate and reformulate including use of fiscal measures, marketing restrictions and health warnings on HFSS products. This should include a cost-neutral realignment of VAT based on the nutrient profiling model (with exceptions) so that wherever purchased healthy food is free of VAT and the unhealthiest food is subject to higher levels of VAT, with ratchets in between. This will encourage incremental reformulation. VAT rather than a levy will more likely give consumer price differentiation to encourage behavior change.
Positive messages - Use the power of advertising and digital media to communicate positive health messages around fruit, vegetables, activity, packaging, local sourcing and breast feeding. Campaigns such as Veg Power, This Girl Can and the Daily Mile show what can be done. Non-governmental advertising initiatives often proven more successful and so the government should make funds available to support such initiatives.
Food poverty - To make the healthy choice the easy choice for many it must be the cheapest choice. We need to use fiscal measures and promotions to make healthy food affordable plus increase subsidies to the those most in need. This should include the prescription of healthy food to those on low income with obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diet-related health conditions.
Finally, I give my wholehearted support to the Beetroot Bond recommended by the RSA Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside to which I contributed. It is, in my opinion, the kind of seismic system changed we need. However, it will only be effective if universal and of such scale to entirely dislocate the UK fresh produce market from mass-produced, lowest-cost, convenience-wrapped and increasingly processed to locally produced, loose, sustainable and fairly-priced real-food for all.
Public health, environmental damage and poverty are the big issues of our time, the cost coming down the line is beyond our means. To contain it will take a national food strategy of great ambition.