We need a joined up food policy

November 10th 2014

Duncan Williamson

Duncan Williamson

LiveWell for LIFE has identified eight policy recommendations which we believe can greatly support the adoption of healthy, sustainable diets. These will be presented at ‘On our plate today: healthy and sustainable food choices’ which takes place in Brussels 11 December.

This is the first blog in a series looking at some of our final recommendations. Here, Duncan Williamson, Food Policy Manager at WWF-UK talks about the topic of recommendation number two: Upgrade agricultural and nutrition policies to one, sustainable, food policy.

Food policy is disjointed and multifaceted

If you try to identify all the actors and sectors involved with food policy development, and how they do or don’t related to each other, you end up with a complex muddle. Look at the policy arena. In the UK alone I can think of at least eight government departments directly connected to food and agriculture: Department of International Development; Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA); Food Standards Agency; Department of Health; Department of Business, Innovation and Skills; Department of Education; the Treasury and Department of Energy and Climate Change.  There’re a host of government funded organisations involved as well, such as Natural England, the Environment agency, NHS trusts, state schools, nursing homes and the Marine Management Organisation. The list goes on.

They all have some responsibility for dealing with how food, how it’s grown, caught, sold, cooked, taught, taxed or the consequences of diet related ill health.

On an EU level, there’s also a huge array of bodies responsible for different parts of the food system, including the DGs for the Environment, AGRI and SANCO. Then there’s the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy.

Yet for some reason nowhere is there a single body responsible food policy or a narrative the all these actors can look to ensure the system meets the needs of people, farmers and the environment. The current narrative and policies are deeply divided.

Look at CAP. It helped to ensure the food security of the Union after World War II. Now it demonstrates the adverse effects of a subsidy based system, such as overproduction (which combined to export subsidies can dramatically disturb food markets in developing countries), and environmental effects (eutrophication, pesticides pollution, biodiversity loss). All the while it doesn’t bear any responsibility for sustainable food production and consumption. The protection granted to specific sectors such as sugar beet production has helped the industry to keep the price of sugary products at very low levels. The CAP is totally disconnected from national or even international dietary recommendations.

The status quo must change

The lack of joined-up policy has led to a situation where we subsidise food and systems that don’t promote agricultural diversity, but cause ill health, result in environmental impacts and massive economic burdens on tax payers. We have a farming system which relies on subsidies which primarily go to the over production of cereals, meat and sugars and a health system which spends the largest part of its funding treating – not preventing – diet related ill health (food kills more people than smoking and drinking combined) resulting from this production system. Tax payers are paying twice for a system which isn’t working.

A move to a sustainable food system which operates under a food policy framework will result in environmental and social gains, and a reduction in subsidies will lead to a reduced tax burden.

Arguably there would be very few losers from such a move.

A sweet paradox

An example of this is sugar. The sugar industry is one of the largest recipients of CAP subsidies, (CAP makes up 40% of the EU budget or £49bn[1]). This is for a crop that needs a lot of land and water; a crop which we don’t need to grow if we eat a varied healthy diet. We are increasingly talking about the need to ensure a food secure future. So putting land aside for a crop which does little to ensure food security seems counterproductive to me.

Over-consumption of sugar is also a proven driver of obesity and type 2 diabetes. We’re eating more sugar than ever before. Some products can have four or five kinds of sugar in them. It can be hidden behind unrecognisable names – I’ve even seen it labelled dehydrated cane juice. This ubiquitous use of sugar is as a result of current policies supporting production.

One the one hand we uses taxes to produce a crop we don’t need, then we also uses taxes to deals with the impacts of eating this products.

Food policy is possible

People say we need to eat healthier and more locally, but many are stopped by a perceived barrier that healthy food is more expensive. Companies and businesses seek governments steer towards a healthy, sustainable diet, yet people are forever resenting governments telling them what to do.

However we’re already spending vast amounts of people’s money through taxes. By deciding how this is spent, governments are already deciding what people should eat. It’s just done by stealth. This is a direct result of a policy frame that just isn’t joined up.

In 2008 the UK government’s Cabinet Office produced Food Matters[2], which called for a joined up food policy. In 2010 DEFRA produced Food 2030[3], a serious attempt to create a joined up food policy. Both of these have subsequently been shelved.

In the EU, DG for the Environment has spent time speaking to a huge range of stakeholders and earlier in 2014 a food Communication was delivered to the Commission. This was a step towards producing a food policy. It had support from across the different policy bodies in the EU, as well as from health and environmental civil society organisations and many food companies. However it too has been quietly shelved. Only the Brazilian government has taken the bold step of publishing a national policy on food and nutritional security[4].

We need a joined up food policy that all the actors can look towards to ensure we have a joined up food system. It needs to include agriculture, seafood, health, education, the environment and procurement. It is possible and will provide more opportunities than costs.

It’s crazy that as conservation organisation WWF has to work on food, nutrition, obesity and hunger. We’ve had to demonstrate that it’s possible to define a sustainable diet, all because successive governments don’t have a joined up food policy.  Such a policy could save millions of lives, reduce environmental impacts and save money.

Everyone should have the access to and the right to eat food that is fair, affordable, healthy and green. One that’s based on giving all farmers a good deal and people a varied, sustainable diet.


Duncan Williamson

Food Policy Manager – WWF-UK


Special thanks to Arnaud Gauffier of WWF France for his contributions to this blog.


Read more blogs by the LiveWell team


One Response to “We need a joined up food policy”

  1. CynicalEng

    “The protection granted to specific sectors such as sugar beet production has helped the industry to keep the price of sugary products at very low levels.” – really ? and yet for decades the EU sugar price has been a multiple of the world price and higher than the USA. Sugar costs way more than flour in the supermarket.

    The sugar regime was also self funding, so placed little net burden on the EU budget. Producer levies funded export subsidies – there’s another clue, you don’t need to subsidise exports if your internal market price is at “very low levels”.