Health Improvement and Food Production - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:48 pm on 7 July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 4:48, 7 July 2022

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank my noble friend Lady Walmsley for securing and excellently introducing this important debate. This is a truly cross-departmental debate, but it rarely seems to go beyond any one of the core elements of health or food production. I also thank the Library for its excellent briefing, which covers so much. It rightly starts with the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, which published its report, Hungry for Change: Fixing the Failures in Food, on 6 July 2020, almost exactly two years ago. This makes very significant recommendations.

The UK imports 48% of the food that we consume, and that proportion is rising. At the same time, many of our farmers, fishing and food-processing interests have lost a major part of their export markets following Brexit. For the last few months, Ministers have answered questions on the numbers of pigs slaughtered because our UK abattoirs and food processers cannot bring staff into the UK to do the necessary food processing. Fruit and vegetables are rotting in the fields because of a lack of staff.

At the same time, following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, fertiliser and energy costs have rocketed. Farmers and fishermen are going out of business at exactly the moment when we need to be able to grow more food, not less.

The Government are keen to set trade deals that will encourage a further flood of cheaper food, often grown with lower welfare and other standards than we use here in the UK, and often much more full of UPF, as so helpfully outlined by other speakers.

The Government’s response to the Lords Select Committee is best summarised in its UK food strategy, published last month, which followed Henry Dimbleby’s independent review of the UK food sector, referred to by a number of noble Lords. I do not know if they felt this, but I found the Government’s response weak. Mr Dimbleby’s review was a bold approach to tackle a range of issues, but was also supported by experts in child poverty, food production and agriculture. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley outlined, the recommendation headlines are simple and clear, and worth repeating. They are to:

“Make us well instead of sick

Be resilient enough to withstand global shocks

Help to restore nature and halt climate change so that we hand on a healthier planet to our children

Meet the standards the public expect, on health, environment, and animal welfare”.

It was disappointing therefore to see a government food strategy that proposed not much more than business as usual.

The review’s focus on the holiday activities and food programme and the Community Eatwell programme is absolutely vital in helping those children and families who are struggling—even more at the moment—and have slipped into real food poverty that was unimaginable 20 years ago. I echo my noble friend Lady Walmsley’s question on why Dimbleby’s recommendations have not been fully accepted and implemented.

There are reports in the press this week that inflation is forcing schools to reduce healthier meals. A third of school caterers say they will serve more processed food in the coming months, and many have already changed their menus. In fact, 78% of school caterers say that higher prices have forced them to change their options for pupils as a result of rising prices, and 40% say they fear they will not be able to meet the Government’s school food standards if prices continue to rise. We have heard in this debate that those standards need to be raised. Most worryingly, 20% have said they have switched from British to imported meat because it is cheaper. This particularly matters because lunch, especially for those whose families are struggling financially, whether or not they are on free school meals, may be the principal meal of the day.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, referred to UPF and how these processed, nutritionally poor and addictive foods are growing in use. She argued very powerfully that our children’s diets have already been severely impacted by UPF, and why childhood obesity continues to grow in the UK at such a dangerous rate. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, echoed those comments, but also made the important point about science and agriculture not necessarily working towards the same objectives. She was also right to be concerned about the impact of processed foods from the US in the UK. The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, was also right in saying that we are losing the link between good food grown in our countryside.

In France, all children at primary school are given a free three-course lunch of healthy and—compared to our school catering—sophisticated foods. The French have always understood, which we still do not, that eating together is part of children’s social and emotional development, and staff sit and eat with the children rather than just monitoring them. In my mother-in-law’s village in rural south-west France, the elderly people who used to receive meals on wheels now join the children for lunch, which is not just enjoyable for all but strengthens the bonds in the community. There is no mass catering organisation purchasing, pre-cooking and sending frozen goods to schools; local cooks buy what is in season, and cook and serve it.

The OECD’s obesity update shows that in 2017 the UK adult obesity rate was 26.2%. In France it is 17%, despite its diet being high in fat. Its incidence of cardiovascular and other diseases is low; it is called the French paradox. Partly, it is to do with the right type of fat, but the broader French food culture is very different from ours: there is not a culture of snacking, and sitting down to eat as a family and as a class at school is regarded as very important. The quality of food is thought about not just by the person preparing the meal; it is considered carefully and commented on by everyone. A French friend of ours says that the English talk constantly about the weather and the French talk about food. Food is undoubtedly part of their cultural identity. In Japan, the obesity rate is just 4.2%. That is because almost all Japanese food tends to be low in calories and very low in fat. It is important to understand that it will take us time to change. France is worried that its rates have been going up, but we should all aspire to lowering our rates—perhaps it will take 20 or 30 years—towards where Japan is.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to the Dasgupta review, which echoes the many other reports that have been referenced by noble Lords. For me, his key comment is:

“Our unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations.”

The NFU’s The Future of Food 2040 report sets out the vital role of agriculture and horticulture in the UK and makes powerful reading. It too sees the importance of health becoming a key ingredient, requiring a change in what is grown as well as eaten. It recognises that our approach to diets needs to change, even talking about the use of insects in our diets. It highlights the socialisation of eating. Fewer families eat together in the UK than at any time. Eating together will help to change the cost and nature of how people eat. Will the Minister work with the NFU and some of the bodies mentioned in this debate in developing the Government’s land strategy? I also echo my noble friend Lady Walmsley’s concern about the overlapping and clashing schemes that cause real problems for farmers to make progress.

I turn to Henry Dimbleby and Jamie Oliver, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, for referring to the latter and the Doncaster protests. The noble Lord was right to highlight that happiness does not resolve obesity or change dietary habits. He also made the vital point about the ability of people to pay for good, healthy food. The extraordinary @BootstrapCook, Jack Monroe, tried to help by putting cheap, nutritious meals on Twitter, but was misunderstood by others who assumed that this was patronising, whereas Jack was trying to help people who were really struggling. Jack says:

“If it’s inaccessible to the poorest amongst us, then it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.”

I ask the Minister: are this Government prepared to be revolutionary?

The NFU advocates for a food re-think. It is right that we need a new approach to food, moving away from high-fat, high-carb, very cheap food, which, as we have heard from noble Lords, often contains the wrong sorts of fat, to a position where we grow much more of our food for our own needs, where our young people learn from their earliest experiences to love food and be curious about it, and where the public realm ensures that the poorest in our community are not priced out of eating good, nutritious local food.

Above all, good health and good food production is a joint venture which needs to be led by government. It is a joint venture of the people, of food producers, of cooks and others involved in food processing and of our welfare state to help protect the poorest people from food poverty. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.