Food for thought

The Government’s National Food Strategy will be complex and challenging, spanning health, agriculture, the environment and many other areas relevant to biologists

The Biologist 66(3) p6

Food. It’s pretty important stuff, when you think about it. We need it to provide us with energy and nutrients; and the way we source, produce and eat it modifies the landscape around us and has huge cultural and ethical relevance.

In the UK the food and drink industry is our largest manufacturing sector, contributing more than £28bn to the economy annually and employing hundreds of thousands of people.

However, since the world wars food policies and practices have mostly aimed to minimise risk to food security through national self-sufficiency and by attaining maximum yield per hectare.

Evidence is now mounting of the catastrophic effect that our approach to food production, transport, packaging and consumption practices is having on the planet. In the huge global assessment of ecosystems by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published in May, changes in land and sea use were identified as the biggest direct driver of biodiversity loss around the globe.

More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are thought to be devoted to crop or livestock production, 33% of marine fish stocks are harvested at unsustainable levels, crops worth up to $577bn annually are at risk from pollinator loss, and fertilisers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’. That’s before we even start with climate change and plastic packaging.

As Brexit opens up the possibility of new agricultural policy for the UK, how we source and grow our food is moving up the policy agenda. The RSB has responded to several Government consultations on food, relating to the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Environment Bill and 25 Year Environment Plan, plus related proposals in the Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth Strategy (to name a few!). The recent Childhood Obesity Plan and the Resources and Waste Strategy are also important parts of the picture.

Environment secretary Michael Gove has now tasked Henry Dimbleby (co-founder and director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association) to develop an overarching integrated national food strategy.

OP food

Dimbleby has said his aim is to develop a food system that provides safe, healthy and affordable food through robust, resilient, humane, sustainable policies and processes; one that restores and enhances the natural environment – without offsetting our negative impacts overseas – while supporting growth in rural economies. These aims have relevance across many areas of the biosciences.

As part of this his team are considering a proposed budget for the strategy; whether there is a need for a national democratic process for food system development; how communications and marketing strategies, taxation and subsidy systems can be used to the benefit of citizens while maintaining competitive markets; and the role of DEFRA as a potential repository for evidence and data across sectors to enable dynamic, evidence-based policy development.

Rightly, he recognises that the development of this exceptionally broad strategy will be highly complex and challenging – just listening to the range of points of view represented when he spoke at the 2019 City Food Symposium made it clear that a national strategy for food will mean vastly different things to different people.

How the strategy could integrate with policies across the devolved nations is also likely to be up for debate and discussion. The Scottish Government are currently analysing responses from their recent consultation on ‘Good Food Nation’ proposals, and the organisation Scotland Food and Drink has received praise for driving responsible growth for the sector in Scotland, a model on which a national policy could perhaps build. Regional and city-based policies and practices, such as those developed by Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, have also had positive and long-term impact.


Dimbleby and his team will now initiate a public consultation exercise with the aim of gathering expertise, evidence, advice and opinion from all those with a stake
in food and related processes, sectors and industries – including consumers. It is likely this exercise will result in the publication of broad aims for the strategy for further consultation.

The RSB Science Policy team will be gathering evidence and advice from across our membership to respond to this. If you are a member and would like to contribute to our work in this important area of national policy, please do get in touch soon via

Dr Laura Marshall MRSB is head of science policy at the RSB