Diets must transform to save lives, help NHS and protect environment – report

The nation’s diets need to transform with people eating less sugar, salt and meat to save lives and protect the NHS and the environment, a landmark review has said.

The National Food Strategy warns what we eat, and how it is produced, is doing “terrible damage” to the environment and health, contributing to 64,000 deaths a year in England and driving wildlife loss and climate change.

The independent report, commissioned by the Government, in 2019 calls for a sugar and salt reformulation tax to cut their use in products and curb obesity, strokes and heart disease.

Some money raised by the tax should be spent on addressing the inequalities around food, such as expanding free school meals to another 1.1 million children who need them, funding holiday activity and food clubs, and providing healthy food to low income families.

The report also urges the Government to run trials giving GPs the option to prescribe fruit and vegetables for patients suffering from poor diets or food insecurity.

The report calls for more fruit and veg consumption (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)
The report calls for more fruit and veg consumption (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

But while it says meat consumption should be cut by 30% in a decade to cut emissions and free up land for storing carbon and preserving nature, the report rules out a meat tax as politically impossible and unpopular.

Instead the review led by food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby urges the Government to “nudge” consumers into changing their habits, while investing in measures such as food additives to reduce methane from livestock and developing alternative proteins.

It also calls on ministers to make sure the budget for payments for farmers to deliver environmental benefits, such as restoring nature, preventing floods and improving soils, is guaranteed to at least 2029.

And the payments need to be generous enough for land managers to make the switch from conventional farming to more sustainable options.

Food standards must be protected in any new trade deals to protect British farmers from unfair competition or even being bankrupted, and to prevent environmental damage from food production exported abroad, it urged.

And food education should be central to the national curriculum, to reverse declines in cooking skills and knowledge, with an “eat and learn” initiative to ensure children start learning about food earlier and that lessons are well-funded and inspected by Ofsted, as well as a return of the food A-Level.

The report warned disease caused by poor diets cost the economy an estimated £74 billion a year, and puts a huge strain on the NHS, while the food we eat accounts for around a quarter of greenhouse gases and is the leading driver of habitat and wildlife loss.

In the UK, agriculture alone accounts for 10% of emissions, while contributing less than  1% of economic output, and livestock accounts for 85% of the farmland that feeds the UK both here and abroad, some of which domestically must be freed up for climate and nature initiatives such as creating woodlands.

To meet existing Government targets on health, climate and nature, by 2032 fruit and vegetable consumption will need to increase by 30% and fibre by 50%.

At the same time, consumption of food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar will have to go down by 25%, and meat consumption should reduce by 30%.

The National Food Strategy estimates its recommendations will cost around £1.4 billion a year and bring in £2.9-3.4 billion a year in direct revenue to the Treasury, with a long term economic benefit of up to £126 billion.

Some farmland will need to be freed up for carbon storage and nature, the report says (Emily Beament/PA)
Some farmland will need to be freed up for carbon storage and nature, the report says (Emily Beament/PA)

Author of the report Henry Dimbleby said: “The food system is a logistical miracle, full of amazing, inventive people.

“With the right leadership from government, it is well within our power to change the system so it makes both us and the planet healthier.

“Currently, however, the way we produce food is doing terrible damage to the environment and to our bodies, and putting an intolerable strain on the NHS.

“Covid 19 has been a painful reality check.

“Our high obesity rate has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate.

“We must now seize the moment to build a better food system for our children and grandchildren.”

The report has been backed by campaigners including TV chef Jamie Oliver who said: “This is no time for half-hearted measures.

“If both government and businesses are willing to take bold action and prioritise the public’s health, then we have an incredible opportunity to create a much fairer and more sustainable food system for all families.

“Of course it’s right every child should have access to healthy and affordable food, no matter where they live and last year has been a stark reminder that nutritious meals are vital in keeping us all healthy and resilient.”

Writing in The Times, Oliver added: “If we get the next six months right, we could make the kind of progress that might otherwise take a decade. So this is a moment for bold action.”

Prue Leith, chef and judge of The Great British Bake Off, said: “There is so much to celebrate about our food, but we do need to act urgently to protect our health and that of the environment.

“This is a compelling and overdue plan of action.

“If the Government adopts it, we will, at last, be putting our food system on the right path to health and prosperity.”

Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said the report was a massive wake-up call to fix Britain’s broken food system.

“But this Government have proved incapable of ending the growing foodbank scandal and the obesity crisis, while their trade deals betray our British farmers,” he said.

“The Government should be working to ensure every family can afford for their children to get a healthy hot meal every day. Britain’s high food and farming standards must be protected in law not watered down in trade deals.

“We need a radical obesity strategy, ensuring families are able to access healthy food, supporting local leisure facilities and tackling rising child poverty.”

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