Guy’s news: Cheap housing, not cheap food

August 23, 2021 | Written by Riverford Organic Farmers

Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy seeks to address the challenges of saving our health & our planet. It delivers an excellent analysis of the problems in food & farming. The logical & well-thought-through recommendations that follow include:

  • Taxes on salt & sugar, & large food companies to report on sales & waste.
  • Extended access to free school meals & Healthy Start Vouchers. Plus, educational initiatives & changes to government food procurement rules, to reduce food inequality & junk food culture.
  • Driving more sustainable land use while ensuring our food supply, through regenerative agriculture, reduced waste, increased yields & a 30% drop in meat consumption. This would be combined with ongoing payments to farmers to fund the transition.

I agree with 95% of the strategy – but with a sinking feeling that it is unlikely to be implemented, least of all by this government, in these economic circumstances. There is a tacit assumption that food must be cheap, despite acknowledging that were we to include health, environmental & subsidy costs, the real cost of food is double what we pay at the till. I find it hard to understand why cheap food rather than cheap housing (3-4x the spend for low-income households) is repeatedly argued as serving the needs of the poor, & questioning the quality of cheap food is deemed elitist. Is the (elitist) suggestion that the poor don’t care what they eat?

Food represents 8% of household spend in the UK; the US is the only country where it is lower. The 18th & 19th century food riots, & even the Arab Spring, are cited of examples of why good governance requires cheap food; & the political right cry ‘nanny state’ at any suggestion of intervening in the divine free market. It’s time to rethink the role of this dogma in shaping policy. Farming contributes less than 0.7% of GDP, but causes around 1/3 of environmental damage; the market has not led us in a sensible direction so far.

We urgently need brave, competent leadership to reform our failing food systems, via taxes, legal & policy interventions, & payment for the environmental benefits advocated in this report.