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This government food brochure is more a handful of initiatives than a joined-up strategy

The consequences of laissez-faire food politics are dire. Surely even the most die-hard free marketeers can’t believe we’ll get anywhere near net zero, tackling childhood obesity or ending the need for food banks without governments and businesses intervening in our food systems?

Restricting advertising on HFSS products, encouraging people to eat less and better meat, incentivising farmers to protect soils and setting targets to reduce reliance on ultra-processed food – these are all examples of potential interventions, but seemingly the UK government is growing more reluctant by the day to intervene.

Why the reticence? Clamours to avoid nanny statism are winning out. We’re told to leave it to the market and give consumers choice. It quickly descends into arguments about small state versus big state. But what is an intervention anyway? One definition is “the action of becoming intentionally involved in a difficult situation, in order to improve it or prevent it from getting worse”. That sounds reasonable to me.

By that definition, ‘not intervening’ means the decision to intentionally not get involved in a difficult situation. We have seen it most recently with the UK government’s new food strategy, which we described as not just weak and piecemeal, but unethical, including in the way it denies people, communities and small businesses the opportunity to contribute to better food systems. This government food brochure is more a handful of initiatives, primarily to support the agri-food sector, than a joined-up strategy. And critically, it is not underpinned by legislation.

That’s when I turn an admiring eye to Scotland, where the Good Food Nation Bill has recently come into being, enshrining in law the Scottish government’s commitment to Scotland being a nation “where people from every walk of life take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day”. What’s not to like?

One reason the Good Food Nation Bill has passed is because it was intentionally designed as a framework bill, avoiding detailed, specific commitments that would be harder to get consensus on. Scotland now has cross-cutting food legislation – something so desperately lacking at a UK level – without dictating to the public how to eat. Well done to the Scottish government for adopting it and to the Scottish Food Coalition and others for pushing for its implementation. Good legislation can be empowering and protecting rather than restrictive or interfering.

Let’s move away from ever more choice and instead give people food options that are better for their health, for workers, for animal welfare and for the environment. Food business leaders sometimes talk of wanting a level playing field and wax lyrical about their environmental and social commitments. Step up and call for cross-cutting legislation. A framework food bill is possible, necessary and desirable – and is needed now to solve emergencies in biodiversity loss, climate, health and inequality.