As part of the Healthy Food City Forum, we were asked to assess a draft Birmingham Food Strategy earlier this month.
We recommended that the Strategy itself, as well as the draft is assessed according to the following criteria:
- How does it support all Birmingham households to have economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food?
- How does it support food safety, assurance and integrity, in particular regarding inspection, sampling and testing?
- What measures does it propose to curb the activities of global corporations that make and promote ‘food’ and beverage products that carry standard-rate VAT?
- What contribution does it make to the city’s preparedness for future food shortages and scarcities?
- How far does it reflect a reliance on individual behaviour, and how much on measures to build and promote collective resilience?
- How does it propose to monitor all of the above?
What such a criteria-based assessment would do is highlight the challenges that local government can be responsible for, and what it can’t. It would also illuminate challenges, such as inspection, sampling and testing that currently under local government remit, that they simply don’t have the resources to carry out.
So far, there appears to be no evidence that this criterion-based approach has been taken up.
This concerns us because:
- The scale of what it takes to provide sufficient supplies safe, nutritious food to this urban population, nearly three million of us in the West Midlands, of whom some 1.1 million live in Birmingham itself.
- The complex interaction of organisations and the range of their functions in the food supply system.
- And the high barriers to entry for organisations to supply most of these functions.
- That a significant proportion of Birmingham’s population already do not have economic access to the food they need.
- The price of safe, nutritious food will increase, thus ‘affordable’ food is more about household incomes than making food cheaper.
- Community initiatives can only go so far; see page 5 of our report on buffer contingency food stocks, and note the ‘scaffolding’ required from national government to make it happen at the scale required to make a difference.
- Malnutrition, particularly among the young (including prenatally) has life-long impact on minds as well as bodies, the former affecting educational attainment and thus GDP over time.
- What a local authority can and can’t do to curb the activities of corporations that make and promote ‘food’ and beverages that do so much damage to human and planetary health: see this BMJ Rapid Response on the matter.
- Local authorities have statutory duties regarding food safety, assurance and integrity. The draft has no mention of these, nor of the additional deleterious impact Covid has had on these services, or of the rising cases of food poisoning.; for more info on this topic, see this blogpost.
- The urgent need to prepare for food shortages and scarcities.
- There is nothing in the draft plan about preparedness, even though we have done work on the matter; see this National Preparedness Commission article.
- The risks to our food supplies can only increase, see The state we’re in: risks to UK food supplies.
- The Chatham House report on the near-term climate impacts that should worry us most is deeply concerning, and provides a contrast to the prestigious US NIC Global Trends 2040 published earlier in the year; see this blogpost.
- Regarding monitoring, see our report: The role of local government and public health.
.A final note: In our Annual Report 2020-21, published in September, we noted this was the fourth Annual Report in which we’d warned that climate change, resource depletion and population pressures will impact the UK food supply system . . . Many of the impacts are no longer in the future. They’re right here, right now.
Already in the UK, millions cannot access the safe, nutritious food they need. Empty supermarket shelves are a regular sight. Brexit is proving, as many said it would, a major threat to UK food supplies. Meanwhile, further external threats to our food supplies are coming at us with a ferocity and frequency unimaginable even a couple of years ago.
Only a criteria -based assessment of any strategy can provide insight into how effective it will be.
It is a moot point, of course, to choose which criteria to use. The six listed above? Or others in addition to or instead of them?