Published on 15 July, the National Food Strategy calls for a tax to encourage sugar and salt reformulation, an expansion of Free School Meals and a major overhaul of food education as part of a coordinated effort to rethink UK diets and the sustainability of food production.
In his Introduction to the Strategy, lead author Henry Dimbleby makes the case for taking an integrated ‘food systems’ approach, similar to the approach we are taking in our H3 research programme: www.h3.ac.uk
The report makes 14 recommendations to address four key objectives:
- Escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS
- Reduce diet-related inequality
- Make the best use of our land
- Create a long-term shift in our food culture
Welcoming the report and its coordinated food systems approach, researchers from the H3 consortium reflect on different aspects of the Strategy asking how it might contribute to a transformation of the UK food system and achieve the twin goals of improving public health and environmental sustainability.
Confronting Consumer Demand – Jonathan Beacham
Given these various ills surrounding diets and nutrition in England, an immediate question might be: why do we continue to consume food that is neither good for us, nor for the planet? As the report highlights, consumer demand for certain kinds of (sugary, processed, cheap and ultimately unhealthy) foods remains strong, and there are good reasons for this. The report is a welcome intervention into the at times thorny issue of who and what might help to transform patterns of consumer demand, which we are exploring in greater depth within the H3 Consortium. As the report demonstrates, there is much more to be done on this front.
The already frosty response from government to one of the key recommendations of the report—a sugar and salt reformulation tax—is telling. Put simply, the aim of such a tax would be to encourage manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar and salt that is ‘hidden’ in foods like crisps and breakfast cereals which have become steadily more popular over time. By the report’s estimation, such a tax would raise between £2.9—3.4bn for the Treasury annually, which could be used to support better diets in deprived communities. The call for this tax seemingly comes off the back of the (admittedly controversial) success of the Soft Drink Industry Levy, which saw the volume of sugars sold per capita in soft drinks in the UK fall by roughly 30% between 2015 and 2018. So: taxes can be a useful policy tool, but it depends on who carries their burden and who is responsible for them. Intriguingly, the report puts a so-called ‘meat tax’ squarely off the table as ‘politically impossible’.
Whether the government will warm to Dimbleby’s recommendations or not remains to be seen, but the report is also important in helping us to broaden the debate beyond taxes alone. For a long time, policymakers have favoured the ‘information deficit’ model when dealing with consumers. The logic is simple: provide consumers with more information about what they are buying, and they will make better choices. But there are other, powerful dynamics at play in understanding consumer demand—principally, it depends on what is affordable, appropriate and acceptable for people. Whilst the report does not entirely move beyond this model, there are encouraging signs of more imaginative ways of thinking differently about consumer demand. We need much more joined-up thinking about the everyday contexts in which people eat: we need to be thinking about education around food, we need to be thinking about the procurement strategies of some of the largest institutions in our society (e.g. schools, hospitals), and we need to be thinking about how we enable long-term cultural and economic shifts away from the food system as we know it. What is increasingly clear is that it is not enough to focus solely on individuals and financial disincentives, and the report is a welcome intervention in opening up new debates around consumer demand.