Many factors influence our food choices. What’s for dinner depends partly on personal tastes, time, budget, and health goals. But individual decisions and preferences alone don’t determine what’s on our plates, as we are often led to believe. The food system that shapes what we eat operates on much larger scales than personal choice and circumstance.
From farm practices to trade policies, food policy is shaped by social, political, economic and ecological factors. When important aspects fall out of balance – such as the overproduction of unhealthy foods or a degraded natural environment – the consequences ripple throughout the system.
Our complex food systems influence not only what we eat but our health and the health of the planet. Yet food policy often treats issues like health, environment, and agriculture separately. This fragmented approach can lead to unintended consequences. The time has come for a coordinated “food systems approach” to transform food policy.
What is a systems approach to food policy?
A food system encompasses the full spectrum of activities involved in feeding a population – from growing food to consuming it. A systems approach examines how these different activities interact and influence one another. Farming practices connect to environmental sustainability and nutrition – food waste links to hunger and climate change.
A systems view recognises these links and responds with solutions that work together. To do this, we need to make policies based on understanding interdependencies and holistically supporting them.
The limits of siloed policymaking
Take the UK, where I live, as an example, with responsibility for food split across many government departments. A mapping exercise focused on England alone found 16 different departments and other governmental bodies that have a role in shaping the food system. Devolved decision-making in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on many aspects related to food policy only adds to the diversity and dispersal of responsibilities for food across the UK.
There is nowhere to go to find out how food policy is made in the UK; there is no overarching framework or strategy. That doesn’t mean that joined-up decision-making never results. For some complex problems such as antimicrobial resistance, the government has adopted a ‘One Health’ approach that drives a more integrated approach to policymaking, including where it interacts with the food system.
But in many other cases, the result is far less reassuring, with gaps, redundancies and policy incoherence. As one example, agricultural subsidies currently support meat production. At the same time, dietary guidelines urge limiting meat intake (especially red meat) for public and planetary health. In this and other ways, agriculture and public health policy are often disconnected despite being deeply interdependent. A more integrated food policy could help to resolve such conflicts.
Missed opportunities for food system reform
There is growing recognition of the need for a systems approach to food among policymakers. But concrete changes have lagged behind. It’s been 15 years since the 2008 Food Matters report provided a blueprint for a food systems approach to policymaking, emphasising coordinated governance and sustainability. This review of UK food policy sought to provide recommendations for improving the food system, focusing on cross-cutting issues such as food security, the environment, health and nutrition, and food justice.
Recent years have seen a growing emphasis on creating more integrated food policies among decision-makers. The National Food Strategy was published in 2021, representing the first independent review of England’s entire food system in nearly 75 years. The review set out to propose a new food strategy that would be resilient, fair, and environmentally sustainable.
The Strategy made sensible, evidence-based proposals for whole-system reform. Yet the government’s reactive and narrow response focused on crisis management rather than systemic transformation. In doing so, the government has missed a significant opportunity to pivot food policy towards the integrated approach that many argue is essential for tackling the complex challenges linked to food.
Envisioning holistic food policy
There has recently been an intensified conversation about citizens’ expectations of their food system in the UK. The initiative, led by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, asked people what they think about food through public dialogues and polling. The responses thus far demonstrate that the dominant narratives fed to us by politicians – that we don’t want to be told what to do and that all we really want is cheap food – aren’t true.
Maybe that’s not a surprise. Our dysfunctional food systems are implicated in diet-related health issues, climate change, biodiversity loss, and socioeconomic inequality. There’s mounting evidence and consensus that individual actions alone cannot drive the necessary systemic changes.
Feedback from UK citizens affirms that good food policy involves a multi-faceted approach. A few fundamental principles can guide systems thinking on food.
Government should be more joined up in its decision-making
Fragmented governance often leads to policy incoherence and unintended consequences. A fundamental principle for systems thinking on food is that government decision-making needs to be more coordinated across departments and levels. This could help break down administrative silos and lead to more innovative solutions to our food-related problems.
For example, Canada developed a national food policy in 2019 through extensive consultation with citizens and engagement with the many government departments and agencies whose remit touches on the food landscape. The policy focuses on a more coordinated and integrated approach to food-related issues. It aims to ensure all Canadians have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious and culturally diverse food whilst promoting Canadian agricultural products at home and abroad.
The UK’s devolved administrations have made strides too. Wales introduced a national food strategy in 2014 focused on healthy diets, food poverty and supporting producers. A Food Bill was tabled in 2022 to integrate a sustainable food systems approach further. While not enacted, the bill demonstrated growing recognition in Wales of the need for a coordinated food policy and systemic governance. Scotland has gone further, passing a Good Food Nation Act in 2022 to develop a national food plan and engage stakeholders across sectors, overseen by a Scottish Food Commission.
Food businesses must actively contribute to the solution
Food businesses are not just responding to consumer demand as we are often told. They profoundly shape our food system and have considerable leverage in transitioning to a more equitable and sustainable food system. And voluntary measures, while laudable, are not enough. Food businesses should be held accountable through appropriate taxation and regulatory measures. Moving forward with existing plans to restrict the advertising of unhealthy products on TV and banning bulk buy junk food deals in supermarkets are no-brainers. Introducing a tax on ultra-processed foods would be a big step in the right direction.
Increasingly, food companies are asking government to lead the way, recognising that without regulation, there is an increasing race to the bottom rather than an opportunity to change course. For example, a tax on sugary soft drinks may have prevented 5,000 cases of childhood obesity a year in England since its introduction in 2018. A ban on junk food advertising on public transportation in London has reduced sales of unhealthy food and drinks by 7% on average compared to what was predicted without the ban.
Good food policies can tackle inequality while providing healthy, sustainable options
One argument that’s often made is that healthy, sustainable foods are too expensive for those on low incomes. A 2023 study by the Food Foundation found that healthy food costs several times more than unhealthy food per calorie, and the most deprived fifth of the UK population would need to spend 50% of their disposable income to afford a healthy diet in line with government guidelines.
But public procurement programs that serve as much fresh, regional produce as possible in schools, hospitals, and care homes could make a difference in health and sustainability goals. Providing nutritious, free school meals has been found to improve children’s health and learning outcomes. Farmers also need support with sufficient investment and incentives to produce the healthier and more sustainable foods that citizens increasingly seek.
Brazil’s ‘Zero Hunger’ Program, initiated in 2003, is an excellent example of how this can be done through coordinated efforts across government sectors and civil society. The program aimed to ensure that every Brazilian had access to three meals a day, focusing on short-term measures to tackle hunger directly and long-term measures to develop the agricultural sector and create jobs.
The program also incorporated school meals with fresh produce provided by local farmers. It remains one of the best examples of how to realise a national-level right-to-food approach and is estimated to have halved extreme poverty and malnutrition in just six years. Today, the program is being revisited and updated to carry forward its success.
The time is ripe for reform
The complex challenges of our food system demand an integrated policy approach that considers health, environment, and inequality together. While progress has been slow, examples like Canada’s national food policy and Brazil’s Zero Hunger Program demonstrate that joined-up governance is possible.
Momentum for food policy reform is building among both citizens and governments. The UK can become a leader if policymakers listen to citizen calls for systemic transformation. With a commitment to participation, coordination and coherence, food policy could ensure healthy, sustainable and equitable food for all. The appetite for change is there if we have the will to enact it.
I write about the future of food and the connections between our food systems, the environment and public health. Sign up for my newsletter.
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