A major policy paper fails to address big health and environmental issues it was supposed to tackle, such as how to enable the diet changes needed to reach net zero

Environment


| Analysis

13 June 2022

A tractor cultivates the ground for rapeseed oil crops at the Westons Farm, in Itchingfield, south England, on March 28, 2022. - Hungry cows at Westons Farm jostle for position at the feeding trough, blissfully unaware that Ukraine's war has sowed more turmoil for UK farms ploughing through Covid and Brexit fallout. Farms like Westons have therefore become more and more reliant on animal slurry to grow crops and cut costs. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

A tractor cultivates the ground in West Sussex, UK

DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

A new food strategy for England published today has already been criticised by the government’s own food adviser, Henry Dimbleby, who says the plan only incorporates about half of his recommendations. The blueprint, designed to tackle a raft of health and environmental issues, has also drawn the ire of environmentalists.

Much of the concern is about what’s left out, such as steps to shift diets away from greenhouse gas-intensive meat. Dimbleby called for a 30 per cent reduction in meat consumption in 10 years and for behavioural nudges rather than a “meat tax”. But the strategy is shorn of any mention of reducing meat consumption. What it does include are plans for randomised control trials over the next three years to produce evidence that could later lead to “long-term policies to shift diets”. So any nudges to eat less meat remain a long way off.

Alternative proteins such as Quorn get a brief mention, but there are no promises of new money, policies or detail on how people might be encouraged to switch to them.

Instead, the strategy puts the spotlight on feeding additives to livestock to curb their methane emissions. Jamie Newbold at Scotland’s Rural College, an expert on additives, says there is evidence they lower emissions. But he says steep cuts will also require behaviour change – meaning we’ll need to eat less meat. And getting additives into animals will be a “big challenge”, he says, because almost of England’s cows and sheep graze in fields.

The strategy has been accused of falling short on plans to help nature. Dimbleby called for £500 million to £700 million a year of environmental agricultural subsidies to help nature recover and to store carbon on farmland. The government has set out a Landscape Recovery scheme to support such projects, and environment secretary George Eustice has told New Scientist that the scheme will be a key long-term way to help meet net zero goals, by expanding woodland cover and restoring peatlands. Yet the government confirmed one week ago it would cap the scheme’s payments at £50 million over the next three years. Barnaby Coupe of The Wildife Trusts, a non-profit organisation, says he’s concerned the scheme has been “watered down”.

The strategy promises a “land use framework” next year, to balance competing needs such as the independent Climate Change Committee’s call for a fifth of farmland to be turned over for carbon storage rather than producing food. The issue is contentious within government. A leaked version of the strategy, seen by New Scientist, baldly said “we do not need to reduce domestic food production to meet our wider environmental objectives”. The final version dropped that for a toned-down promise to “broadly maintain domestic production at current levels”.

The leaked version also implicitly defended the changes on the Landscape Recovery Scheme, saying that being led by demand from farmers was better than a “fixed and inflexible allocation” of money. That was also dropped.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, says she was pleased to see the change on the Landscape Recovery funding. “Our concern was that you had effectively 33 per cent of the budget [for farming subsidies] going to less than 5 per cent of the land area,” she says. She adds the main thing missing from the strategy is anything about how farmers will cope with inflation for their costs.

Elsewhere, there is talk of exploring more organic-based fertilisers, but nothing concrete on what to do about fossil-fuel based fertilisers that are increasingly expensive and can lead to air and water pollution. There is £270 million allocated for innovation, on everything from carbon storage to gene-edited crops and automated robotics to help horticulture tackle labour shortages. And the government revealed it will look at making large companies report on the greenhouse gas emissions from when people consume their food and drink (so-called scope 3 emissions).

These small steps are welcome, but as Dimbleby says, they don’t amount to “one vision across the whole system”. This is a food strategy that ducks the big environmental questions it needed to answer.

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