The government’s chief adviser on food issues has condemned what ministers have announced as a landmark national plan to fight food poverty and obesity, saying it is “not a strategy” and warning it could mean more children will go hungry.
Henry Dimbleby’s ruling is further bad news for Boris Johnson, as the white paper is a direct response to last year’s comprehensive overhaul of the British food system, which was led by the restaurateur.
Johnson’s plan was heralded as the first such blueprint since rationing 75 years ago, positioning England as a food and environmental leader in a post-Brexit world. But the final plan takes away many of Dimbleby’s key recommendations.
“It’s not a strategy,” the Leon food chain founder said of the final document, which was shown to him. “It doesn’t give a clear vision of why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t describe what needs to be done.”
The document, to be tabled in the House of Commons by Environment Secretary George Eustice on Monday, is virtually unchanged from a leaked draft unveiled by the Guardian last week.
In his paper, Dimbleby made some high-profile suggestions, including a significant expansion to include free school meals, better environmental and welfare standards in agriculture and a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption.
Instead, the few specific policies chosen by the government include increasing domestic tomato production and making it easier for deer stalkers to sell wild venison.
Dimbleby said the cost of living made the need for free school meals even greater than when he drafted his plan, which called for an additional 1.5 million children in England to receive them.
“With inflation as it is, both the amount spent on free school meals is significantly lower in real terms than it was a year ago and the number of people who need it is significantly more – we need to address that,” Dimbleby said.
“I really hope it’s looked into, people are inflated to poverty and food providers are inflated to fail to produce healthy meals,” he warned.
He was also critical of one thing that did change between the design seen by the Guardian and the final version, which was the withdrawal of commitments to make it easier to import food with high animal welfare and environmental standards.
He said: “Once again the government has evaded the issue of how not only do we import food that destroys the environment and is cruel to animals – we can’t create a good fair farming system and then export that damage abroad. I thought the government would tackle, but that didn’t happen.”
Dimbleby’s recommendations on nutrition and public health, such as using a sugar and salt tax to fund healthy food options for those in poverty, were also ignored, and the issue was redirected to an upcoming white paper on health inequalities. “There was nothing really about health,” Dimbleby said.
The plan also does not include an ambition to reduce meat consumption, with Dimbleby’s report noting that 85% of Britain’s cultivated land is used to grow food for livestock or to raise meat.
“They’ve said we need alternative proteins, but they haven’t mentioned the inevitable truth that meat consumption in this country is incompatible with an agricultural system that protects agriculture and retains carbon,” he said.
Opposition parties also expressed their concerns. Jim McMahon, Labor shadow environment and food secretary, said the government had “absolutely no ambition” to tackle food price crises.
He said: “This is nothing more than a statement of vague intentions, not a concrete proposal to tackle the major problems facing our country. To call it a food strategy borders on the absurd.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ rural affairs spokesman, said the lack of protection of food standards for imports could be “an utter betrayal of British farmers”. He said: “Time and again Boris Johnson has promised one thing and then proceeded to do the opposite. It just goes to show that this government cannot be trusted to stand up for rural communities.”
Food TV presenter and climate activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall denounced the lack of any plan to cut meat and dairy consumption, calling it “just lazy and sleepless and giving in to the status quo of the food industry”.
Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said: “It appears that this strategy was broken not by a lack of good intentions, but by a narrow-minded ideology that believes that government should not intervene to change the diet.”
Louisa Casson, head of food and forests, Greenpeace UK, added: “By ignoring climate scientists and its own experts in favor of industry lobbyists, the government has published a strategy that will ultimately only perpetuate a broken food system and our planet. see yourself cooking.”
Johnson announced the food plan, calling it “a blueprint for how we will support farmers, boost UK industry and help protect people from the effects of future economic shocks by ensuring our food security”.