A new tax on salt and sugar should be considered in order to curb obesity, strokes and heart disease, according to a landmark review – with some of the £3bn raised spent on addressing inequalities around food, such as expanding free school meals.
England’s first major review of the food system in more than 70 years recommends a levy of £3 per kilo for sugar and £6 per kilo for salt sold wholesale for use in processed foods, restaurants and catering businesses.
The report estimates its recommendations will cost around £1.4bn a year and bring in £2.9-£3.4bn a year in direct revenue to the Treasury, with a long term economic benefit of up to £126bn.
Some money raised by the tax should be spent on expanding free school meals to another 1.1 million children who need them, funding holiday activity and food clubs, and providing healthy food to low income families.
The report argues that the role of the Food Standards Agency should be expanded to cover sustainable and healthy eating as well as food safety.
As part of this expansion, the agency should work with the government to develop new sustainable national eating guidelines and a food labelling system to help consumers understand the environmental impact of what they eat, the report says.
It found the government should invest £1bn in research into how to improve the national diet and the sustainability of farming practices.
This money should be spent on “everything from methane-reducing additives for sheep and cattle to new agro-ecological techniques” and research into “alternative proteins”.
The independent review, which has been released in two parts, was commissioned by the government in 2019 and led by Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon restaurant chain.
“With the right leadership from the government, it is well within our power to change [our food] system so it makes both us and the planet healthier,” he said.
“Currently, however, the way we produce food is doing terrible damage to the environment and to our bodies – and putting an intolerable strain on the NHS.”
The review, which has come up with 14 recommendations for the government, says poor diets currently contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year in England and cost the economy an estimated £74bn.
To meet the government’s targets on climate and health, meat consumption will need to fall by 30 per cent by 2032, the review says.
In addition, fruit and vegetable consumption must rise by 50 per cent, while consumption of food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar must fall by 25 per cent.
Research shows that eating less meat and dairy and more fruit and vegetables will be crucial if the world is to meet its climate goals.
The production of meat and dairy is particularly polluting because cattle belch out methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, meat production requires large areas of land to be cleared to graze cattle and produce animal feed.
A landmark report by the country’s independent climate advisers previously said that meat consumption across the whole of the UK must fall by 10 per cent by 2025 and around 35 per cent by 2050 if the country is to meet its net zero target.
Dr Cathrina Edwards, a nutritional scientist at the Quadram Institute, described the findings of the National Food Strategy as a “wake-up call”.
“I hope that this will be a catalyst for major transformative changes that are desperately needed to protect the health of the population and our planet for generations to come,” she said.
Dr Marco Springmann, senior researcher on environmental sustainability and public health at the University of Oxford, applauded the report’s meat reduction target but said it should have contained more “decisive policies”.
The review recommends behavioural “nudges” to encourage people to eat less meat, but says that introducing a meat tax would be “politically impossible”.
“The report shies away from recommending decisive policies that would help citizens reduce their meat consumption by highlighting the public opposition to meat taxes,” said Dr Springmann.
“However, its own polling indicated that three-quarters of respondents either supported or were not opposed to taxes on some meats and setting clear meat-reduction targets for industry. I would have wished for a stronger endorsement of such policies.”
Green Party politician Caroline Lucas added that the review presented a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the food system in a way that works for consumers, farmers and the environment”.
“The government has to take these ideas on board and come up with clear policies in response,” she said.
Responding to the review, environment secretary George Eustice said: “This government will carefully consider its conclusions and respond with a White Paper within six months, setting out our priorities for the food system.”