Since the 1980s, governments of varying stripes have published 14 different obesity strategies, with 689 different proposals, as the number of obese or overweight British adults has grown to 64.2 per cent of the total today. Meanwhile, our self-sufficiency in food has fallen from around 75 per cent to 60 per cent. We eat more food, but less of our own.
Neither of these are necessarily bad things. Our national fattening is a consequence of food prices falling and lifestyles becoming more sedentary. My Geordie ancestors lived off fish and chips and spent their days banging ships together. Now that shipbuilding has been replaced with various office jobs, the natural corollary is a fatter population. Public Heath England has said that by 2015, people in the UK were 24 percent less active than in 1961 – and obesity had reached 24 percent of the adult population.
The reduction in our self-sufficiency in food production has also been a happy consequence of changing diets, falling prices, and post-war peace in Europe. We have known the benefits of a comparative advantage in food production since Sir Robert Peel scrapped the Corn Laws.
Nonetheless, the Government believes that obesity must be slimmed down – and Monday saw the publication of the Ministers’ long-awaited response to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, which emerged from his campaigning and was commissioned by the Government.
The businessman and cookery writer spent almost three years drawing up his plan. Yet his recommendations met an ambiguous response in Number 10. His calls for salt and sugar taxes and a 30 per cent reduction in the amount of meat we eat were hardly populist; the headlines about Notting Hill toffs depriving the downtrodden proletariat of their coveted burgers and ice creams wrote themselves.
Then again, the Prime Minister who once supported mothers pushing pies through schoolgates to save their children from Jamie Oliver had had a Damascene conversion following his brush with Covid in 2020, and wanted a war on obesity. So the idea of a national food strategy didn’t go away.
Is it really a good idea? My instincts kick against a state-imposed plan. Nonetheless, obesity continues to contribute to health inequalities and early deaths, and places a strain on the health service as great as on some waistbands.
This is ultimately the answer to the libertarian insistence that the Government butts out of our diets. If the state must tax us to provide for a health service, it is sensible for it to try to keep the bills down. Seeking to shift a few pounds from some of public’s porkier members is a means of doing so.
At any rate, the political climate has become even more unfriendly for Dimbelby’s proposals in recent months. If the Government was unwilling to hike the price of a tub of Ben and Jerry’s more last summer – when wages, don’t forget, were rising at their fastest rate in years – it is hardly likely to do so as a cost-of-living crisis looms.
So it is that this week’s plan avoided all of Dimbleby’s most controversial proposals. Gone are the tax rises, and the Prime Minister pointedly promised not to ‘lecture’ people on the amount of meat they eat. Gone also was Dimbleby’s desire to widen the use of healthy free schools meals. That sort of thing costs money – and those hoped-for tax cuts won’t pay for themselves.
But promoting healthy eating wasn’t the only underlying objective of the push for a food strategy. There was also a desire on the Government’s part to change the way we use agricultural land. Partly, this derived from the focus of Johnson’s good chum Zac Goldsmith and others on rewilding our countryside.
Defra’s Landscape Recovery Programme, unveiled only in January, aims to remove 300,000 hectares of farmland out of production and ‘rewild’ it in the name of improving Britain’s biodiversity and cutting carbon emissions. Levelling up, for Goldsmith, seems to mean a wild wolf or boar for every town.
This approach also fed into the Government’s attempts to design a new British agricultural policy post-Brexit. We have been moaning about the iniquities of the Common Agricultural Policy, ‘butter mountains’, and petty-fogging EU directives for 50-odd years: now is the opportunity to use the freedoms we have taken back control over.
Yet even this must now play second-fiddle to the two biggest political challenges that the Government faces. First, the war in Ukraine and attendant shortages of wheat and other essentials have shown how vulnerable countries can be in an era of global supply chains. Second, last week’s confidence vote has taught the Prime Minister his own lesson in vulnerability.
So the major focus of the Government’s food plan is no longer on fighting fatties but on “Growing for Britain”. The Government promises to deliver a framework for 2023 that provides a better balance between protecting the countryside and producing food domestically. It will offer support to environmentally friendly horticulture, and easing restrictions for tomato production.
As with the Government’s housing announcement last week, the distinct feeling is of tinkering around the edges. There is little surprise in that. I was lamenting yesterday with a source over the unwillingness of the Government to radically slash tariffs and quotes on agriculture – a move that would really would help cut food prices and place our agriculture sectors under the useful pressures that have done such good in Australia and New Zealand.
But no modern-day Sir Robert looks likely to appear. That is because the Government has produced not so much a National Food Strategy as a buying off rural MPs strategy.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a senior backbencher and John Glen, a senior Minister, have apparently been among a mass of their colleagues arguing for the interest of Britain’s farmers. Number 10 cannot afford to alienate such voices, especially if the Tiverton and Honiton by-election will leave rural Tory MPs even jumpier.
If one can see the hand of the agricultural lobby in these proposals, one can also see that of Number 10’s new team. David Canzini has been on a mission to strip the barnacles from the Government’s boat. He will view making food more expensive for families as one such excrescence.
Perhaps that is why, after all these years of consultations, reports, and discussions, the most memorable element of the Government’s approach was how the Prime Minister packed the proposals into a simple dictum: the best way to lose weight is to eat less. That, plus a bit of exercise, is all the vast majority of us need to do to keep in shape. But you cannot order the general public to put down their burgers and get off their bottoms.
These proposals will hardly have a revolutionary impact on our food security. Even before the Ukraine crisis, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation was estimating that global food prices have soared over 20 per cent due to supply chain disruption and a poor wheat crop last year. With the best will in the world, growing a few more tomatoes will not have a huge impact if Russia, China, and India are also slowing down exports to the West whilst Ukraine cannot get its produce to market.
In these developments, we see the difficulties of trying to carve a strategy out of the competing interests of ensuring security, trimming waistlines, and promoting biodiversity. The Government was right to swerve Dimbleby’s more extravagant recommendations. But this week’s announcements will not stop families seeing their bills squeezed in the coming months, and a cost-of-living crisis is hardly the best background against which to seek tackling obesity.