The writer is chief executive of Tesco
We face the worst public health crisis in generations. Economic contraction threatens the livelihoods of millions. And the point of no return on climate rapidly approaches. The government-commissioned independent review on a UK national food strategy will soon publish its first report — it must address these pressing issues.
I worked in a company making food brands for 27 years, but it wasn’t until I joined Tesco that I really understood the intricacies of our food chains. What’s clear to me is that we do not take a whole-society approach to food. That damages our health, education, economy and environment.
The entire food industry, including retailers, must act — by evolving ranges, innovating and engaging customers. But heavy-duty change cannot be left to the market. The right regulatory context, access to capital and incentives to innovate are critical. Previous governments missed opportunities: the UK’s industrial strategy didn’t focus enough on food despite the food and farming industry being worth £122bn.
This crisis reminds us that food production, supply and consumption are crucial. They must be central to the government’s economic recovery plan. The review must take us closer to a more resilient, sustainable and equitable system — one capable of reducing the NHS burden, stimulating growth and serving those least able to afford food.
The UK produces only half its food; we must ask tough questions about efficient land use. That means eating less meat and dairy, which use 70% of agricultural land and emit 14.5 per cent of greenhouse gases globally. We cannot do this without incentives for sustainable farming and a strategy to help livestock farmers diversify. Measures are needed to help people adopt more nutritious diets, from fruit and veg subsidies, to a focus on nutrition and diet in education.
It’s time to get serious about advances such as vertical farming that produce more food on less land. They are cost-effective when running but set-up costs are a big barrier without government help.
A food strategy must also reward farmers who improve soil health. We cannot accept the prospect of UK soil infertility in just 30-40 years. Action on soil health and biodiversity must be a condition of post-Brexit subsidies. A little nature around the margins is not enough; without genuine change in farming processes, we’ll struggle to feed ourselves in future.
The strategy must also protect forests and habitats. Government should require food companies to introduce effective due diligence across supply chains, ensuring food sold in the UK is deforestation-free. Reporting food waste data should also be mandatory for retailers, restaurants and their suppliers.
We must hit the UK’s net zero target for carbon emissions. Across food operations, from growing and rearing through to distribution to shops and restaurants, government must mandate reduced emissions to accelerate the switch to renewables. It must provide capital to scale innovations such as methane-reducing animal feed and supplements, and low-carbon fertiliser.
Any food strategy must also address animal welfare, food safety and antibiotic use. It must uphold robust UK quality and welfare standards through trade negotiations. A two-tier system that sets gold standards for UK farmers, while welcoming low-quality, low-standard food imports will lead to a race to the bottom.
Finally, we must not compromise on affordability. In the UK, 8.4m people tread the line between getting by and getting enough to eat. A food system that doesn’t protect our most vulnerable doesn’t work for the nation.
There is a new context now. Covid-19 cruelly exposes the relationship between obesity and health outcomes. Brexit creates the opportunity to reshape production and standards. A growing consensus across business points to willingness to act on climate.
I urge the government to finish the job it started with this review of creating a comprehensive strategy for delivering affordable, healthy, sustainable food for all.