The Soil Association welcomes the opportunity to submit written evidence to this inquiry and would be pleased to provide further information, oral evidence, or to meet with Committee members to elaborate on any points.
The Soil Association was formed in 1946 by a group of farmers, scientists, doctors and nutritionists who were determined to pioneer a world where we can live in health and in harmony with nature. Today we’re farming and growing, buying, cooking, campaigning and researching. We collaborate with organic and non-organic producers to innovate and implement practical solutions that create a better future. Through our trading subsidiary, Soil Association Certification, we work with over 6,000 businesses including organic farmers and growers, foresters, caterers, food processors and manufacturers across more than 50 countries, and certify approximately 14 million hectares of forest globally.
2) What are some of the key ways in which diet (including food insecurity) impacts on public health? Has sufficient progress been made on tackling childhood obesity and, if not, why not?
Sufficient progress has not been made in tackling childhood obesity – and part of the problem lies in the framing of the issue, wherein overt focus is placed upon individual nutrients and ingredients (sugar, calories, saturated fat) and insufficient focus upon the quality of the diet as a whole.
UK families consume more ultra-processed foods than families in any other European country, with ultra-processed foods making up 50.7% of our national diet. This figure is striking when compared to our neighbours: ultra-processed foods make up a mere 14.2% of family food purchases in France and 13.4% of purchases in Italy.
Researchers have identified “a significant positive association” between the proliferation of ultra-processed foods in the national diet and the prevalence of obesity and dietary ill-health. Each percentage increase in the household availability of ultra-processed foods at a national level is associated with a 0.25 percentage increase in the prevalence of obesity. The higher the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the national diet, the higher the risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases. The disparity between our diet and that of our neighbours is therefore concerning, particular in the context of childhood obesity. Whereas 20% of children aged 10 to 11 in England are obese, in France, where ultra-processed foods comprise a far smaller proportion of the diet, fewer than 10% are.
Government action on child obesity should be far more concerned with supporting children and families to access, afford and enjoy real, fresh and minimally processed foods. Reformulation programmes focussed on calories and sugar alone will not suffice.
4) What role can local authorities play in promoting healthy eating in their local populations, especially among children and young people, and those on lower incomes? How effectively are local authorities able to fulfil their responsibilities to improve the health of people living in their areas? Are you aware of any existing local authority or education initiatives that have been particularly successful (for example, schemes around holiday hunger, providing information on healthy eating, or supporting access to sport and exercise)?
Food for Life is a Soil Association initiative that began in 2003 and has developed into an award-winning national programme to transform school food culture, widely commissioned by public health teams and taken up by schools across the country.
The Food for Life School Award is an independent endorsement for schools that serve nutritious, fresh, sustainably sourced food and support pupils to eat well and enhance their learning with cooking, food growing and farm links. Public health teams in more than a dozen local authorities around the country have commissioned Food for Life to deliver the School Award.
Independent evaluation of Food for Life has found:
Food for Life represents a strongly evidence-based investment in child and population health for a local authority. If every primary school in the UK was a Food for Life school, a million more children would be eating their five-a-day each day. Local authorities can support improved diets among children and young people by supporting schools to enrol with the Food for Life programme.
9) To what extent is it possible for the UK to be self-sufficient in producing healthy, affordable food that supports good population health, in a way that is also environmentally sustainable?
There is far more the UK can be doing to support the production of healthy and sustainable food, including through additional support for organic.
Organic food production is a defined and regulated sector, with a wealth of evidence on its benefits. As a systemic approach, it scores well against many environmental and social metrics. Its merit is as a strong baseline on which to build more specialist interventions where that may be required, such as species-specific biodiversity measures.
Organic husbandry delivers protection and enhancement of soils; higher levels of biodiversity; a more natural life for farm animals with much less risk of antibiotic resistance; more nutrient-dense foods; uses 98% less pesticides and avoids all manufactured nitrogen. Compliance auditing is undertaken by private Certification Bodies (CBs) in the UK, with reduced financial cost and reputational risk for government.
A Natural Capital Balance Sheet for an organic dairy farm, the Cholderton Estate, produced by EFTEC, further illustrates the relatively greater natural capital which can be developed by organic farming systems.
The limiting factor of organic farming currently is the relatively high price of organic food. This does not lead to higher margins at farm level and is due to a number of factors including:
The assumption is sometimes made that there will be a persistent yield gap in organic systems, which would necessitate an increase in global land take for agriculture. Organic performs strongly in resource productivity terms, but an unsustainably high level of applied nitrogen and pesticide use in ‘conventional farming’ in Europe does result in a yield gap for organic, most notably in cereals. However, in the US, the Rodale Institute 30 year farming systems trial has shown organic yields can match conventional yields, and will exceed them in drought years. In developing countries, typified by smallholder agriculture, organic and agro-ecological systems tend to increase yields by building soil organic matter and improving drought resilience.
When considering yields and land take for agriculture, it is also important to consider the urgent need for dietary change to reverse the global burden of obesity and diabetes, which overlaps with malnutrition (Global Nutrition Report 2018). Healthier diets would significantly reduce the land requirement for livestock and for cereals used as animal feed and in processed foods. Half of the wheat crop in the UK is fed to livestock. The Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe (IDDRI, 2018) study modelled the impact of transitioning all European farmland to organic, and found that this could both feed Europeans a healthy diet and maintain export capacity while cutting agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 40%.
To maximise the opportunities presented by organic production, government should set and support an ambition for organic in the way that many other countries have. A sensible and achievable target for expansion in England would be 10% organic land area by 2029 (1.8 million ha) from the current level of around 3% (equivalent to less than twice the area of land occupied by golf courses in the UK). Financial support for this level of increase in organic farming should be considered within Environmental Land Management Scheme design.
Denmark has already exceeded this level, and, in the UK, there are examples where individual food items such as organic eggs are approaching this level of market penetration; organic carrots already exceed this level of market penetration. In the South West of England around 8% of the farmed land area is in organic management.
A clear government ambition for organic will send a signal of confidence and help to normalise organic in the UK. Key activities to support this ambition could include:
12) A Public Health England report has concluded that “considerable and largely unprecedented” dietary shifts are required to meet Government guidance on healthy diets.2 What policy approaches (for example, fiscal or regulatory measures, voluntary guidelines, or attempts to change individual or population behaviour through information and education) would most effectively enable this? What role could public procurement play in improving dietary behaviours?
Public procurement has a vital role to play in normalising both healthy and sustainable diets. In particular, there is an urgent need for Government action to normalise diets that include ‘less and better’ meat, as a response to the climate and biodiversity crises.
The UK Climate Change Committee recently called for notable dietary change as part of the UK’s ambition to achieve ‘net zero’ carbon emission by 2050, including a dietary shift towards less and better meat and more plant-based proteins. Public procurement provides one avenue for achieving this, with the ongoing update of the School Food Standards providing an immediate opportunity to support this dietary shift.
Within the School Food Standards review, one of the updates under consideration is an increase in the consumption of beans and pulses to support an increase in fibre consumption. There is a potential double-win here for both health and the climate. Under the current standards, there is a ‘soft’ incentive towards a meat-free day: “Encourage all children to have a meat-free day each week, using alternatives such as pulses, soya mince, tofu and Quorn™.” Few schools are implementing this, and few are using beans or pulses as the protein choice. A more direct incentive in the updated standards, requiring schools to base at least one meal per week around plant-based proteins, primarily beans or pulses, instead of meat, would not only support increased fibre consumption, but would show that Government is taking a lead in supporting more climate-friendly diets.
Under the Food for Life Served Here scheme, many schools and caterers are already implementing meat-free days and are taking advantage of the cost saving to ‘trade up’ to better meat for the rest of the week – British, grass-fed and higher welfare meat. The Government should follow Food for Life’s lead and ensure food standards in schools and hospitals encourage this shift towards more climate-friendly diets through more plant proteins and better (UK, grass-fed) meat.
14) What can the UK learn from food policy in other countries? Are there examples of strategies which have improved access and affordability of healthy, sustainable food across income groups?
With respect to both organically certified land and number of organically certified producers, the UK is lagging behind its European neighbours.
2.9% of the UK’s agricultural land is organic. This compares to 5.5% in France, 6% in Belgium, 7.5% in Germany, 7.7% in Denmark, 8.7% in Spain, 10.4% in Finland, and 18% in Sweden.
There are 3,400 organically certified producers in the UK. This compares to an EU average of 10,540. There are 32,250 organically certified producers in France.
Case study: Denmark
Growing the organic retail market
The UK organic market is in a sixth year of consecutive growth, and is now valued at £2.2 billion in 2017, the highest value that it has ever achieved. Its continued growth will be supported by the UK learning from the success in other organic markets. In particular, government support can play a crucial role, with organic action plans driving positive behaviour across food chains. Retailers in Denmark, for example, have a strong retail strategy around organic, including stocking a wide range at more affordable prices. Lidl aims to increase their organic range in Denmark stores by 50% in 2018. These tactics have helped the organic market share in Denmark reach almost 10%, compared to 1.5% in the UK.
The role of public procurement
Substantial efforts have also been made by the Danish national government to support organic via public procurement. In 2011, the government established a goal of 60% organic in all public settings by 2020. Almost EUR 8 million has been allocated (under the 2015 organic action plan) for the period 2015-2018 for assistance to public settings to significantly increase their use of organic ingredients. The government also offers advice to settings wishing to incorporate more organic on the menu.
An additional EUR 3 million is designated to support other public purchases of organic products. The Ministry of Defence has a project to purchase organic products, and the Ministry of Health promotes organic procurement in hospitals. The association Organic Denmark has worked across the supply chain, bringing farmers, food companies, and food service firms together to ensure adequate supply and to widen the variety of organic foods being offered in the food service industry. This was supported by financing from the Ministry of Environment and Food.
Other EU case studies
Sweden: In 2010, the local government council within the city of Malmo approved a policy for ‘Sustainable Development and Food’, setting the goal that 100% of food served in the city’s public canteens be organic by 2020. This policy produced rapid results. By 2012, nearly 40% of the food budget, valued at EUR 9 million, had been spent on organic.
Spain: In Andalusia, five regional government departments (Agriculture, Environment, Equality, Social Welfare and Health) developed a program called “Organic foods for social consumption”. The programme began in 2005 and by 2007 involved 56 schools with 7,400 students with a turnover of EUR 208,000. The program supports the creation of new farm businesses and cooperatives of organic farmers from different parts of Andalusia so that, together, they can offer a broad diversity of organic foods to schools and other public canteens.
11 September 2019
 7.5% of 6-9 year-olds are obese in France; a direct comparison figure for 10 year olds is not available. Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, HIGHLIGHTS 2015-17, Preliminary data http://www.euro.who.int/__data/ assets/pdf_file/0006/372426/wh14- cosi-factsheets-eng.pdf [accessed July 2018]
 Full references and details at: https://www.foodforlife.org.uk/about-us/our-impact