Jo Gideon (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the National Food Strategy and public health.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am delighted to have secured this debate on such a vital topic. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy, I have been examining closely the key themes that we need to address to produce a lasting, holistic solution to food system failures. As the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central, I see the impact that food poverty has on health, education and life chances. Developing long-term solutions to level up our access to healthy food, whether that be through tackling affordability or raising the standards of school food, is as vital to creating a fairer society as investment in major infrastructure projects.
In 2019, the Government recognised the need for a new approach and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a review of the food system by Henry Dimbleby to inform a new national food strategy. In 2020, the Government published their obesity strategy, which recognises that tackling obesity and improving our nation’s diet require a partnership between consumer and producer. A comprehensive national food strategy will be a positive and universally welcomed step in the right direction. The Government are committed to publishing a White Paper in response to the recommendations of the national food strategy report. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister when the White Paper is likely to be published?
As we approach Christmas, supermarkets are full of luxury food items and advertising features happy families sitting around bounteous feasts. I do not advocate the “Bah, humbug!” attitude to Christmas celebrations, but we must acknowledge the pressure that our consumer culture puts on low-income families and on our general health. We all know that in the new year we will be deluged with advertising for diet products, fitness videos and gym memberships.
Food is at the heart of community cohesion. Religious festivals in many faiths feature food; and when we share food, it shows we care. Last Saturday, I visited the volunteers preparing meals for Food For All in the Guru Nanak gurdwara. They deliver hundreds of portions of nutritious food weekly to local hostels. As I ate the tasty dal and rice, I learned of the importance of sharing food in the Sikh community and how their doors are always open to those needing food.
The issue of food security has been highlighted during the pandemic. As community meals, such as at YMCA North Staffordshire in my constituency, had to stop in the spring of last year, across the nation a volunteer army, organised through charities, faith groups, local businesses and local authorities, ensured that the most vulnerable in our communities were able to access food. Schools looked after their pupils with food deliveries during holidays and lockdowns. The already extensive network of food banks expanded and found new ways of operating in order to ensure that no one went hungry during the most difficult time that this nation has experienced in our lifetime. Government played a vital role in funding many of the volunteer organisations, and the success of the distribution depended on a close working partnership across all sectors and sections of our communities.
Access to food is the most basic of human rights, and the challenges around access to a healthy diet are major indicators of inequality. Eating lifts our spirits and gives us energy, but it is also a source of anxiety for those on low incomes. The Government have introduced guidance on what constitutes a healthy diet through Public Health England’s “Eatwell Guide”, but they have not fully evaluated whether the diet that it recommends is affordable to everyone. A Food Foundation report estimated that the poorest decile of UK households would need to spend 74% of their after-housing disposable income on food to meet the cost of the “Eatwell Guide”, compared with just 6% in the richest decile.
In its July 2020 report, “Hungry for change”, the Lords Select Committee on Food Poverty, Health and the Environment concluded:
“The UK’s food system—the production, manufacture, retail and consumption of food—is failing.”
The report, written a year before part 2 of the national food strategy was published, made many of the same recommendations to Government. It concluded that the Government need a unified food policy to ensure that we reduce the production and consumption of processed products and tackle food inequalities so that everyone can access a healthy diet. Only then can we produce food sustainably and protect the health of our planet and its populations. The report added:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need, and provided the opportunity, for the Government to act now with commitment and focus to deliver the improvements to the food system, public health and environmental sustainability that are so urgently required.”
I believe that the Minister, in her previous role in the Department of Health and Social Care, agreed with the ambition of the national food strategy. She told the Select Committee:
“We have a teachable moment, and we should seize it.”
This Government have shown their commitment to tackling environmental challenges by showing leadership at COP26. They should now consider the national food strategy’s recommendations as part of their approach, because our food system is driving climate change and biodiversity loss, which threaten our future food security. Food production is responsible for 34% of global emissions and is the leading cause of nature’s decline. The current system has driven huge losses in biodiversity, from deforestation in the Amazon to intensive industrial farming in the UK. In the future, climate change threatens to cause crop failures and nature loss, which makes our land less productive. That is a system failure, and not the fault of individual farmers or consumers. The new environmental land management schemes should include payments to farmers to provide public access to nature, which is demonstrably beneficial for mental health. It is essential that the Government hold firm on the transition to an environmentally ambitious ELM.
We have seen this Government’s ability to innovate when facing health challenges. They have shown global leadership by investing in world-leading research to develop vaccines to tackle the covid pandemic, and the roll-out of the vaccination programme has been superb. We need the same level of innovation in public health when designing preventive measures to tackle obesity. Billions of pounds are spent each year by the national health service on the treatment of significant but avoidable levels of diet-related obesity and non-communicable disease. By 2035, we will be spending 1.5 times as much to treat type 2 diabetes as we currently spend on all cancer treatments. From a health perspective, we need to resolve this.
Britain has the greatest levels of highly processed food in Europe, with the exception of Malta. Those products—containing unhealthy types of fat or salt, or highly refined carbohydrates, such as sugar—are aggressively marketed and promoted to the consumer. They are more likely to be on promotion, making them appealing to those on tight budgets. Manufacturing, retail and the food sector play central roles in this. The less healthy choice has become the easier, cheaper choice for the consumer, but this is inflicting profound costs on public health and the NHS. The Government have made some inroads into this agenda, by banning junk food advertising on TV before 9 pm, legislating to end the promotion of foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt, and restricting “buy one get one free” promotions.
Industry progress against voluntary reformulation targets should be subject to transparent and regular monitoring to highlight where successes and failures occur. The Government should make clear what regulatory action will follow if the industry does not respond comprehensively and swiftly to voluntary targets. Mandatory—that is, fiscal—approaches can work, as evidenced by the soft drinks industry levy. These taxes can also incentivise innovation and reformulation, which can help to build a better food system, such as through the use of potassium chloride, which is less harmful to health than conventional salt. Any measure that encourages innovation and moves the food industry to invest in healthier alternative products is welcome. I ask the Minister whether more work can be done to encourage innovation by incentivising good practice, as well as ensuring that foods that contribute negatively to the nation’s health bill share the cost of that bill.
Successive Governments have adopted different approaches to tackling obesity, which until now have relied heavily on encouraging individual behaviour change rather than addressing the structural issues and external factors that shape the food environment. Factors such as the affordability and accessibility of unhealthy foods help us understand the association between levels of deprivation and rates of obesity. The Government must clarify the vision for a healthy sustainable diet and set out a clear path towards achieving that. We must reward farmers for measures that promote improved public health, and ensure that trade agreements do not allow for the import of cheap food produced according to lower environmental and animal welfare standards than our own.
The Government have pledged to level up our country. Does the Minister agree that underpinning any economic levelling up must be a levelling up of life chances? Health inequalities cannot be tackled without a national food strategy that considers the entire food chain, from field to fork. That requires cross-departmental co-ordination and a dedicated system of oversight to bring about a tangible change in the way we produce, purchase and consume food. The complexity of the challenge requires the establishment of an independent body responsible for the strategic oversight of the implementation of the national food strategy. That independent body should have the power to advise the Government and report to Parliament on progress. Does the Minister agree that the Food Standards Agency might play a greater role in that regard?
Turning to my constituency, I know that people with limited resources often find it hard to access healthy food. Less healthy diets and their adverse consequences are not limited to those in the lowest income groups, but they affect those groups disproportionately. Adults and children in deprived areas are significantly more likely to become obese or suffer diet-related ill health. Research shows that adults on low incomes are more likely to have diets high in sugar and low in fibre, vegetables, fruit and fish. Children from the least well-off 20% of families consume around 29% less fruit and vegetables, 75% less oily fish, and 17% less fibre per day than children from the most well-off 20%. Such inequalities are particularly relevant in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Data shows that 41.4% of adults in Stoke-on-Trent eat the recommended five a day fruit and veg on a usual day—the lowest percentage recorded of any upper-tier local authority in England.