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13 June 2022

George Useless’s food strategy is out of touch

No one ever asked for heated glasshouses or more venison.

By Philippa Nuttall

Food and fuel prices have reached 40 year highs. British people are struggling to put food on the table, parents miss meals to save money, and children arrive at school with empty stomachs. Farmers are trying to cope with rising fertiliser and delivery costs, and the degraded countryside is now a significant emitter of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The answer of Boris Johnson’s government to all of this is, believe it or not, more home-grown tomatoes.

Today (13 June) the government produced its food plan for the nation. After a brief intro the second paragraph of the press release, its first concrete pledge, says: “Currently, the UK only produces 15 per cent of tomatoes supplied domestically, but new generation technology, such as sustainable and efficient glasshouses, has opened up new opportunities for British producers which will help to reduce reliance on overseas production.”

It is striking that this should be what the government opens with. Last year Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain and director of London Union, which runs street food markets, was tasked to lead an independent review for the government on food. The resulting strategy was widely praised for its call to expand free school meals, reduce meat and dairy consumption and do more to protect animals and nature. It would appear that George Eustice, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, failed to read Dimbleby’s recommendations – or simply chose to ignore them.

It is true that Dimbleby underlined the need for more fruit and vegetable production and consumption. It is unlikely, however, that he expected the first concrete pledge in the government’s communication to be about tomatoes and greenhouses. Most European tomatoes are grown in Spain and Italy, while the UK’s share of the market is tiny. Southern Europe is sunnier than Britain. That means that growing tomatoes will require heated glasshouses, which in turn require energy. The government insists that greenhouses should, as far as possible, use waste and renewable energy, but this is not a prerequisite. (This conclusion is from a government whose Prime Minister warned last year that the world risked going “backwards” and falling “at extraordinary speed” like the Roman Empire unless urgent and ambitious action was taken to slash emissions.)

The emissions resulting from heated greenhouses may not be as significant as other emissions, but the logic behind the proposal is flawed because it makes agriculture even less sustainable. For years, the farming sector has produced around 10 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing meat production, as Dimbleby concluded, is the best way to lower this figure. The advisers on the government’s own Climate Change Committee say that meat consumption must drop by as much as 50 per cent for the UK to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Eustice insists that meat production should continue, with only a few technological tweaks here and there. Although apparently we need more wild venison (this conclusion will doubtless be of great comfort to the two million people using food banks in Britain). 

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Dimbleby was also clear that removing societal inequalities is necessary to bring down the health costs, both physical and financial, of increasing obesity. While many go hungry, 85 people die every day in the UK because of obesity-related diseases, according to the British Heart Foundation. Indeed, the malnourished and the overweight often live in the same households. George Monbiot writes in his latest book, Regensis, that a healthy diet can cost five times as much as one that’s merely adequate in terms of calories. Extending eligibility for free school meals, as suggested by Dimbleby, would have been one way of “levelling up” access to good food, as would introducing sugar and salt taxes on processed foods. The government fails to suggest any concrete policies, preferring to abdicate responsibility and instead “empower” people to make better choices.

Whether Marie Antionette really told the masses to eat cake is beside the point. What matters is that she was clearly out of touch with the plight of the ordinary man, woman and child. The same should be said for the British government and, at least metaphorically, heads should roll over today’s food strategy.

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[See also: Food insecurity is surging in the UK]