Johnson defends food strategy amid criticism from Government’s own lead adviser

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson is instructed as he drives a tractor during a visit to Southern England Farms Ltd in Hayle, Cornwall, ahead of the publication of the UK government’s food strategy white paper, Cornwall. Picture date: Monday June 13, 2022 (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is instructed as he drives a tractor during a visit to Southern England Farms Ltd in Hayle, Cornwall, ahead of the publication of the UK government’s food strategy white paper, Cornwall. Picture date: Monday June 13, 2022 (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)

Boris Johnson has defended the Government’s new food strategy amid criticism from its own lead adviser, who said the plans lack vision and fall short.

The Prime Minister denied the proposals fail to tackle obesity and said the best way to lose weight was to “eat less” as he visited a farm in Cornwall on Monday.

Mr Johnson insisted he was “very grateful” for the work done by Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby, who was behind the major review into the country’s food system.

What we don't want to do right now is start whacking new taxes on them that will just push up the cost of food

Boris Johnson

But Mr Dimbleby has said some of his recommendations went ignored and the plan, being launched on Monday, fails to take enough measures to address the UK’s health problems.

“I’m very grateful to Henry for all the work he has done. This is about helping to support UK food and farming at a particularly important time,” Mr Johnson told LBC Radio during a visit to Southern England Farms in Hayle, south west Cornwall.

He added that innovation and technology in agriculture could “bring costs down for consumers” and allow for more domestic food production.

The proposals have been attacked for leaving out a sugar and salt tax that would help curb unhealthy eating.

Food minister Victoria Prentis insisted earlier on Monday that such a levy would be a “blunt instrument” to tackle a “complex” problem.

The MP said “voluntary initiatives” could work, despite stark warnings including from Mr Dimbleby that Government intervention is needed to help reduce child obesity.

Weighing in on the obesity debate during his farm visit, the Prime Minister said: “What we don’t want to do right now is start whacking new taxes on them that will just push up the cost of food.”

He added: “The best way to lose weight, believe me, is to eat less.”

But speaking to the Guardian, Mr Johnson’s food tsar said the plan was “not a strategy”, saying: “It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done.”

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Dimbleby conceded there had been some “progress” in the final document but that it failed to deliver what was needed.

“Is it the big, bold, unified strategy I think we need? No,” he said. “Do I think we’re going in the right direction? Yes.”

It comes after ministers were accused of concocting a blueprint “bordering on the preposterous”, as it apparently failed to implement key recommendations from the review.

Boris Johnson talks to farm manger Gordon Stokes during a visit to Southern England Farms in Cornwall, ahead of the publication of the UK government’s food strategy white paper (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)
Boris Johnson talks to farm manger Gordon Stokes during a visit to Southern England Farms in Cornwall, ahead of the publication of the UK government’s food strategy white paper (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)

The Guardian, which published a leaked draft of the strategy on Friday, said Mr Dimbleby had been shown the final document and said “there was nothing really there on health”.

The review also urged the Government to “nudge” consumers into changing their meat-eating habits.

The National Farmers Union said ministers had “stripped to the bone” proposals from the Dimbleby review, while Labour said the document was “nothing more than a statement of vague intentions”.

Launching the strategy on Monday, the Government said it had accepted “the majority of recommendations” from the food tsar’s report, with policy initiatives to boost health and secure food supply.

One clear priority for ministers is to reduce the distance between farm and fork, with a vision for 50% of public sector food spend to go on food produced locally or certified to higher standards.

The strategy also sets out plans to create a new professional body for the farming and growing industry to boost training and equip businesses with skills needed to work sustainably and profitably.

The review also urged the Government to “nudge” consumers into changing their meat-eating habits.

But Environment Secretary George Eustice confirmed on Monday that ministers did not want people to lessen their consumption, telling the BBC’s Today programme that technologies could be used to reduce methane emissions from livestock production instead.

This isn't a strategy, it's a feeble to-do list, that may or may not get ticked

Kath Dalmeny, Sustain

After the draft strategy was leaked, Mr Johnson said: “Our food strategy sets out a blueprint for how we will back farmers, boost British industry and help protect people against the impacts of future economic shocks by safeguarding our food security.

“Harnessing new technologies and innovation, we will grow and eat more of our own food – unlocking jobs across the country and growing the economy, which in turn will ultimately help to reduce pressure on prices.”

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of farming group Sustain, said: “In the face of multiple crises in the cost of living, rocketing obesity, climate change and nature loss, the Government food strategy looks shamefully weak.

“Government was given crystal clear analysis and a set of recommendations by the Dimbleby food strategy, and has chosen to take forward only a handful of them.

“This isn’t a strategy, it’s a feeble to-do list, that may or may not get ticked.”

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