What is Henry Dimbleby’s idea for a national food database all about? Why does Henry Dimbleby think a national food database is his most important recommendation? What would a national food database achieve across the environment, food security and health?
When it landed with a thud in July – all 300 pages of it – part two of the National Food Strategy didn’t disappoint in the size and scale of its ambition.
From a controversial tax on sugar and salt to providing fresh fruit & veg to low-income families and extra cash to farmers to help convert farmland, the report was packed with all sorts of headline-grabbing ideas to shake up the UK food system. But it’s an arguably more innocuous recommendation that, according to author Henry Dimbleby, is perhaps its most urgent: the creation of a National Food System data programme (Recommendation 12).
“If I could only do one of my 14 recommendations, then this is the one I would do first,” the Leon co-founder told The Grocer in July. “People in government find it hard to understand, but unless you have this system of data in place you will never achieve the changes required.”
So, what exactly does he mean by a National Food System data programme? And how might it work in practice to make gains across the environment, health and food security, as Dimbleby claims it would?
According to the NFS, the programme would act as a tool to collect and share data, to enable businesses and other organisations to track progress toward targets.
The data would fall into two main camps: the first, the use of land, its agricultural productivity and how much carbon it sequesters; the second, post-farmgate data, spanning food production, distribution and retail. This would include levels of food waste, total HFSS products sold and the carbon footprint of groceries.
Developing and managing the database would be a multi-stakeholder team combining government scientific advisors, Defra, the Department for Health, the FSA and specialist civil servants, at a predicted cost of around £3.5m per year.
The 14 proposals of the National Food Strategy
- Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax. Use revenue to get fruit & veg to low-income families
- Introduce mandatory reporting on data for large companies
- Launch a new ‘Eat and Learn’ initiative for schools
- Extend the eligibility of free school meals
- Extend funding for holiday activities and food clubs
- Expand the Healthy Start scheme for low-income pregnant women and families
- Trial a Community Eatwell programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets
- Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029
- Create a Rural Land Use Framework that guides farmers towards the net zero target
- Protect UK standards on animal welfare, food safety and production in any international trade deals
- Put £1bn of the upcoming £22bn Innovation Strategy towards ideas and projects that seek to improve food systems
- Create a National Food System data programme combining metrics across sustainability, health, diet and more
- Ensure public procurement of food for hospitals, schools, etc. is healthy and sustainable
- Create a framework of clear targets and legislation to support improvements to the food system
The idea of gathering data across many of these areas isn’t a new one for the food and drink industry, with many such programmes in full swing. The Courtauld Commitment managed by Wrap, for instance, has been collating progress on food waste for more than 15 years, while the National Diet & Nutrition Survey already monitors consumption of HFSS foods. But in many areas progress is hampered by a lack of standardised, consistent datasets, all in one place.
This is particularly true when calculating the carbon footprint of foods. Use of different data sources, definitions and methodologies is already causing challenges around work on carbon labelling, says Emma Piercy, head of climate change and energy policy at the FDF. “If you don’t have standardised data, how can you compare claims between companies? How do you measure progress towards reducing carbon footprint or impact on the environment without that same methodology and data sources?”
Work to tackle this issue is already going on behind the scenes. A Supply Chain Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) Working Group set up by Wrap, with retailer, supplier and foodservice representatives, is looking to create an agreed set of values and definitions for Scope 3 emissions. These are indirect emissions, such as travel, transport and end use of products. But this sort of work is currently limited, points out Wrap special advisor Karen Fisher.
“What is needed is a forward path for more systematic ways of collating representative, consistent data along the supply chain – enabling data collection, comparison, verification, etc.,” she says.
That’s “where a National Food System data programme could really help and be a game changer – as the industry has been clear that it’s not something the market can solve on its own. Government intervention is needed to level the playing field.”
As well as creating standardisation, a national data programme would also ensure access to and use of this data is simpler, quicker and more inclusive, adds Tom MacMillan, professor of rural policy and strategy at the Royal Agricultural University and policy advisor to Henry Dimbleby. “It’s simpler, because you’re standardising the way people are dealing with, collecting and sharing data,” he says. “It’s quicker, because you’re adding more resources and giving it a bit of a boost with government support and leadership. Plus, you’re able to do it more inclusively.”
In other words, while major retailers or suppliers may already have extensive, often digitised datasets on their supply chain and environmental impact, this won’t be true for SMEs and start-ups, putting them at a real disadvantage when it comes to progress.
Again, greenhouse gas emissions serve to illustrate the point. “Part of the benefit of government stepping in and taking a lead on this is to make sure that the standard impact factors you might use when working out emissions are readily available to all businesses for free or very cheaply, even if they don’t have the resources to go and measure everything directly through their own supply chains,” says MacMillan.
There will also be a clear benefit when designing relevant policy, adds Louise Manning, a professor of agri-food and supply chain security at Royal Agricultural University and director of The Knowledge Exchange. “Food sits across a range of different government departments,” she points out. “So one of the benefits for government if they’ve got a national food system database and data programme across all departments is to be able to share data more easily. In terms of developing policy, that will be of great benefit.” That could include the creation of science-backed targets on net zero, reformulation of HFSS products or access to fresh produce.
The key areas for data collection
With the sustainability of agriculture and food supply chains a key focus of the National Food Strategy, it’s no surprise that environmental data will be front and centre of the planned National Food System database. Along with spatial data on agricultural land productivity, water quality, biodiversity and carbon recovery from Defra, the database will collate metrics on the environmental footprint of both domestic and imported food, as well as total UK food system emissions. It’s thought this will be supported by existing work led by Wrap. Mandatory reporting of levels of food waste will also be required.
The database will also provide a way to track the broad challenges around obesity and diet-related life expectancy. This section will be less dependent on industry, though – bringing together statistics from the NHS on childhood obesity and registration of Type 2 diabetes patients, as well as broader figures on how diet is impacting average life expectancy using a metric to be developed.
Improving access to fresh fruit and vegetables is another cornerstone of the National Food Strategy. The revenues from the proposed tax on salt and sugar would partially fund some of the measures to reduce food insecurity, including supplies of fruit & veg to low-income families. To inform this work, data will be gathered on household food insecurity from the Department of Work & Pensions, on income from the ONS, and on the social impact of food via the FSA’s Food & You survey.
The resilience of the grocery supply chain has gained a far greater profile in the past year, both thanks to coverage of empty supermarket shelves at the start of the spring 2020 lockdown, and reports of shortages as a result of Brexit. Which is why, though seemingly less extensive than other areas of the National Food System database proposed, Henry Dimbleby has recommended that it include data on food provenance and sourcing via Defra, and analysis of the perceived trustworthiness of food via the FSA’s Food & You survey.
Subtly different from health, this area will potentially have more impact on the industry. Diet directly links to many of the areas of mandatory reporting from large businesses proposed in Recommendation 2, and ensures accountability around the sale of ‘junk food’. It would include sales of HFSS food and drink and sales of fruit & veg, as well as nutrient level data, including sales of protein, fibre, saturated fats, sugar and salt. This would be complemented by consumption data on those food groups, to be supplied by Public Health England.
None of which is to say the creation of such a tool isn’t a pretty monumental task. A decent chunk of the data that Dimbleby proposes be included in the database is already collected by various organisations, including Defra, Public Health England, the Food Standards Agency and ONS, among others.
But there is plenty more that isn’t, which highlights the need for Recommendation 2 in the NFS: a statutory duty to report certain data for large food companies, with more than 250 employees. This includes metrics like their total sales of HFSS products, sales of major nutrients and levels of food waste (where this isn’t already voluntarily reported). It’s likely a mandatory requirement will be needed to get businesses to part with all this data, believes Viktoria de Bourbon de Parme, lead food and agriculture transformation at the World Benchmark Alliance, which is set to release its own rankings of 350 major food companies across 45 metrics this month.
“Nobody is that enthusiastic to share data that is not mandatory,” she laughs. “But it’s a mixed bag. If companies are already ahead of the curve and working on this from their own strategies and motivations, they’re more likely to share.” Less so if they aren’t.
This reluctance may come from those at the top end, too, who don’t want to lose their competitive edge on sustainability. Still, MacMillan believes that kind of resistance won’t be widespread. “The balance of views tends to be that we’re at a stage now where some of the early competitive behaviour by businesses differentiating on sustainability grounds has helped shift the marketplace and has been helpful in pioneering ways of doing things.
“But what we hear from businesses now – including some of those pioneering businesses – is a demand to level the playing field underneath them. That will shift the competitive frontier forward to a place that’s more useful, and more interesting than simply competing around the basics or core metrics.”
So perhaps the most pressing concern will be around commercially sensitive data. Plus, sensitive data that may be collected by businesses on their consumers. “If consumers, through the use of apps, for example, are sharing data then there are ethical and moral aspects to how that data is then used,” points out Manning. “It requires a lot of thought about governance structures.”
To start addressing this, the NFS recommends an expert team, including the ONS and Geospatial Commission, should identify gaps in existing data and broker agreements with the likes of retailers to fill these in without breaching confidentiality. Once data is gathered, it also recommends a series of layered permissions that control which bodies have access to which data. Some may be shared with government, but not industry competitors, for example.
There is also the potential vulnerability to cyber-attacks to think through, points out Manning – a risk that the food and drink industry has fallen foul of many times before. It may be that experts look to draw from existing research into how such a vast data framework could operate safely and securely. Only in March, the FSA released its own such study, proposing a data trust framework that could more efficiently enable secure information sharing.
There are certainly advancing technologies out there that could help, adds Sarah Atkins, CMO and membership director at GS1 UK, citing its own ProductDNA, a tool launched in 2018 that provides a universal format to share and manage data on products. Blockchain too, of course, has been used across a variety of data-based projects, including by the FSA to ensure compliance in UK cattle slaughterhouses.
But even if some of the data remains temporarily out of reach while this framework is perfected, this shouldn’t prevent the government from kicking off with the crux of Recommendation 12, believes Atkins. “Isn’t 80% of the data better than nothing? Aren’t we better off aiming for something achievable and doing it, than still chatting about it and still being here when the Earth has got hotter and all the polar bears have died?”
After all, “the data is only as valuable as what we do with it”, she adds. “If we spend so much time collecting it that we don’t do anything as a consequence it just becomes a very expensive, and intellectually interesting activity as opposed to anything that is going to realistically make a difference.”
Or as Dimbleby himself notes: “The food system we have now has evolved over many years. It won’t be easy to reshape it. But time is not on our side. The effects of climate change are already becoming apparent around the world. Diet-related disease is putting an intolerable strain on our nation’s health and finances. For our own health, and that of our planet, we must act now.”