Gove announces first review of UK food system in nearly 75 years

Posted on 28/06/2019 by Guest Blogger
in the Animals in farming blog

The UK Government announced an independent review of the country’s food system, from field to fork – the results will help shape a ‘National Food Strategy’, set for 2020.

Guest blog by Jonty Whittleton, International Head of Farming Programmes at World Animal Protection

History in the making?

We are very pleased to see this review happening. For too long, the impacts that our food choices have on us and the world have been ignored. From animal suffering (1) to antibiotic resistance (2) and climate change (3) to obesity (4), the list is long and sobering. In short, where farm animals are suffering, you can bet that human suffering is not far behind.

Despite being ignored, these are no longer surprising issues. As the leader of the review, Henry Dimbleby – founder of UK restaurant chain Leon – said “We have diagnosed the problem exhaustively … We have to move from a position of defining [the issues] to resolving what we need to do about them.” (5)

This is great to hear. By making our food system fairer and more sustainable, we can have a positive impact that will be felt around the world, not just now but for generations to come.

Animal welfare sits at the heart of this debate

It’s fantastic to see that the public will have an opportunity to contribute to this review. Mr Dimbleby says (6) that he plans to “speak to people from across the food chain, from farmers in the field to chefs in the kitchen. We will consult experts from around the world, as well as those whose voices are seldom heard, but who have personal experience of the failings of our food system…”

In order to get the widest spread of views, Mr Dimbleby is keen to hold a series of ‘citizens’ assemblies’. (7) We welcome this democratic approach to the challenge; the solutions to our food crisis must come from all parts of society. But just under one billion farm animals are reared in the UK every year, (8) many of whom are farmed in low welfare conditions. None of these animals will have the opportunity to tell Mr Dimbleby what it feels like to spend their entire lives in a factory farm, which is why it's so important that we speak up on their behalf.

Mr Dimbleby goes on to say (9) that “as our understanding of animal sentience increases, how should we prioritise the welfare of livestock?” We would argue that the wellbeing of animals is the priority and should proudly sit at the heart of the strategy.

What we’d like to see in the National Food Strategy

  • A recognition of failure: We would like to see an acknowledgement that business as usual is not working for farm animals or for us. Decades of factory farming has failed to provide a good life for animals or create a sustainable food system and this need to change. That starts with an acknowledgement of failure from the UK Government.
  • Authentic leadership on animal welfare: The UK is often viewed as a leader on animal welfare, but there are still many improvements to make. We hope to see leadership on this issue, with policy recommendations to improve minimum farm animal welfare standards, and potentially even laws that require industry to account for the true costs of factory farming. Meat reduction should also be part of the conversation, which will reduce the pressure on farmers and bring about multiple benefits for the climate and our health.
  • Challenging industry: Industry is as much a part of the solution as the problem, and we would expect a strategy that pushes food companies to be better corporate citizens. This could involve a range of ideas, such as recommending improved welfare policies, driving more transparent progress reporting and encouraging collaboration around the most complex food issues. And it’s not just food producers and retailers; this strategy should also be looking at other players in the sector, such as banks, which can help invest in a better food system.
  • A holistic approach to consumption choices: The review will hopefully recognise that consumers do not generally choose to purchase low welfare, low-quality animal products by accident; there are forces at play behind the scenes that often promote unsustainable consumption patterns. Marketing tactics, including pricing, promotion and labelling, should change to ensure that we are able to make more conscious, sustainable food choices.
  • Promotion further afield: This approach could become a blueprint for other countries, and we would hope that the UK would recognise its role in building a sustainable global food system by sharing the lessons learned with other countries and regions. We would also expect that any food imported into the UK is factored into this review and viewed through the same lens as the food that’s produced domestically. And any global food companies headquartered in the UK should be pushed to apply their improved policies across their global operations, thus creating a ripple effect.

The opportunity of a lifetime

Overhauling something as complex as our food system may be a challenge, but it’s definitely possible and indeed vital. The stakes could not be higher. We hope that this review is the start of a transformation in the way that food is produced in the UK. As Mr Dimbleby says: “No part of our economy matters more than food. It is vital for life…” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves, and we mean both human and animal life. We’re looking forward to being part of the conversation.

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