NFFN’s UK Manifesto: A food system fit for purpose - supporting healthier choices in UK policy

United Kingdom
Policy & Views

This blog supports the key asks found in our UK Manifesto 'A Field of View'

Food choices are instrumental in determining how healthy an individual and, by extension, a society is. However, they also have costs on the environment and economy. When scaled up to national and global levels, a food system’s impacts can be detrimental. As such, the UK government needs to make systematic interventions to support healthy and sustainable diets.

UK diets are currently too high in levels of processed meat, salt, trans fatty acids and sugar. Equally, levels of whole grains, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds are too low. The negative impacts of this can be seen in the health survey for England, which estimated that in 2021 25.9% of adults were obese and an additional 37.9% were overweight.

Food choices along these dietary lines have led to negative climate and biodiversity outcomes. In 2022, 12% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions came from agriculture. The 2023 State of Nature report highlighted the associated impacts on biodiversity.  For example, farmland birds declined on average by 58% between 1970 and 2020. Additionally, significant water pollution issues remain, especially in catchments linked to intensive agriculture.

Modern domestic food choices also have ramifications across the globe. In 2020, it was found that UK supermarkets and fast-food restaurants were buying UK chickens fed by feed made from corn and soya beans cultivated on deforested land in the Amazon

The impacts of food decisions are not limited to climate and biodiversity but have implications for public health too. In 2021, over a million hospital admissions had obesity as a pertinent factor. In addition, there are concerns about antibiotic resistance in food production: in 2022 an investigation found around 10% of sampled pork products in UK supermarkets contained bacteria which showed resistance to an antibiotic used to treat serious illnesses in people.

In light of this, food choices evidently need to change. The UK’s National Food Strategy called for at least a 30% reduction in meat consumption by 2032. The NFFN’s Rethink Food report explored the idea of eating less but better-quality meat by illustrating the benefits of more diversified diets.

Consuming a wider range of whole foods, including whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and legumes, can support a more diversified farming system with wider crop rotations, mixed production systems such as agroforestry and a broader range of on-farm habitats. There is also evidence that food produced using agroecological methods can be healthier.

If we get the balance between food production and nature right, we get the best value out of our landscapes, and farming businesses are more profitable.

Martin Lines, NFFN CEO

Seeing the woods for the trees

Farmers have received a disproportionate amount of blame for the impact our food system currently has on the environment. However, it is unfair to view actions without context. Subsidy mechanisms motivated intensive land use to receive payment. Often, this worked against genuine food security by degrading critical natural processes such as soil health.

The 2021 UK Food Security Report says: “The biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity.”

Within a market economy, consumers' decisions ultimately dictate what a producer does. There is rarely supply without demand, especially on such a scale. However, consumers also feel they are losing out within the system. Less than one in ten people believe that healthy food is affordable to most people. Therefore, it is evident that this is a systematic problem and the government needs to do more to support healthier diets for consumers and representative payments for farmers to deliver it.

Seeing the trees for the woods

Changing a system involving people is an inherently complex matter, not least because everyone has their own lived experiences, preferences, and traditions. As such, farmers and consumers need to be supported in the transition to both consuming and producing healthier and more sustainable food.

Farmers have always adapted to the needs of society, and for many, a just transition out of the high-intensity, low-margin industrial livestock system will be welcome. This is especially true regarding business resilience, as the increasing squeeze on input prices makes farms increasingly unprofitable. For farmers of grazing animals, adapting to sustainable stocking rates and balancing land management for food production, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration can open new diversification opportunities and income streams.

In the NFFN’s Nature Means Business report, CEO Martin Lines says: “If we get the balance between food production and nature right, we get the best value out of our landscapes, and farming businesses are more profitable.”

Sometimes, food security is used as a foil for why this cannot be achieved. However, over 40% of the UK’s arable land and 50% of our wheat harvest is currently directed to animal feed on land that could be used to feed people directly. Additionally, the UK imports 84% of its fruit and 47% of its vegetables. Evidently, achieving food security in the UK requires changing to more sustainable and healthy diets.

What is the solution?

A national diet high in salt, trans fatty acids, processed meats, and sugar is the leading cause of avoidable harm to public health and contributes to the nature and climate emergency. Supporting a shift to more sustainable, healthier diets can help tackle much of the burden of dietary-related ill health while supporting changes in farming and land use that are critical in securing net zero and nature’s recovery.

A new approach to public procurement can support this shift, which helps increase the production and consumption of nature-friendly food. The introduction of environmental and animal health and welfare labelling on all food products supports the transition away from high-intensity, low-margin, and low-welfare industrial livestock production and consumption.

Read our UK Manifesto

Our seven key asks for the next government