Ministers poised to reject key proposals from food strategy review

Ministers are planning to reject the main recommendations from a major review of England’s food strategy as Boris Johnson seeks to regain the support of rightwing MPs and avoid hitting households with new expenses in the cost of living crisis.

The review, led by Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon restaurant chain, was commissioned in 2019 by Michael Gove and was billed as the first independent assessment of England’s entire food system for 75 years.

Dimbleby issued the second of two reports last year and called for urgent changes to British food production with the aim of fighting obesity and climate change.

On Monday, environment Secretary George Eustice will unveil the government’s Food Strategy white paper, the official response to the Dimbleby-led review.

But a draft of the document, seen by the Financial Times, rejects Dimbleby’s recommendations to introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax, guarantee farm subsides until 2029 or invest £1bn in innovation in the food system.

The rejection is the latest example of Johnson’s government backing away from policies perceived as “unconservative” or “anti-business” as the beleaguered prime minister, who survived a confidence vote by just 59-41 per cent on Monday, tries to rebuild support within his party.

The draft of the white paper, dated May 2022, says the government accepts “much of the analysis” and “the majority of recommendations” in Dimbleby’s review.

Ministers plan to push ahead with initiatives such as mandatory health reporting for big food companies and support for alternative proteins such as plant-based meat substitutes and lab-cultured meat.

But they rejected his call for a new tax of £3 per kilogramme of sugar and £6 per kilo of salt sold for use in processed foods, restaurants and catering.

Dimbleby had said the measure could raise £2.9bn to £3.4bn a year, with some of that revenue used to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for low-income families.

Government officials said it would be politically foolish to introduce the new tax as households struggled with a wider cost of living crisis. “Even [Dimbleby] realises you can’t do it right now when families are under the cosh,” said one.

The move comes weeks after ministers opted to delay measures to curb promotions and advertising of junk food that had been due to take effect in October, again citing the cost of living crisis.

Dimbleby urged the government to guarantee the current budget for farm payments until 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable methods. However, the draft document ignores this request and repeats a pledge to preserve the budget in the current parliament, or until 2024.

One ally of Eustice said: “We don’t want to tie the hands of a future government.”

The document likewise does not accept a recommendation that the government earmarks £1bn for food innovation — although ministers do plan to establish a “What Works Center” to gather evidence on new farming methods, another of Dimbleby’s ideas.

The white paper does not adopt a recommendation to label foods with their environmental impact but does pledge labeling changes related to health and animal welfare.

The report has been rewritten since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a greater emphasis on food security. It declares that the UK has a high self-sufficiency in wheat, beef, milk, lamb, poultry and carrots, with total food “production to supply ratio” at a healthy 74 per cent.

But the government will push for greater production of certain produce, such as cucumbers and tomatoes, that currently comes mostly from abroad. The report argues that domestic production could be ramped up through better use of greenhouses.

Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said the white paper was “not ambitious enough and represents a huge missed opportunity”.

Louisa Casson, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, said: “Ministers have turned a blind eye to the majority of recommendations in the independent review they themselves commissioned. They’re ignoring the science and their own experts.”

Dimbleby declined to comment. Defra, the environment department, also declined to comment.