by Professor Tim Lang
These are extraordinary food times requiring special attention from members of all the progressive food alliances which have grown in recent years, like the Food Research Collaboration created in 2014 and the Food & Climate Research Network in 2005. Whether we look at the current situation as academics or civil society, the big picture about the food policy and institutional crisis in the UK is now clear. The UK voted narrowly but clearly (52% / 48%) to leave the EU of which it has been part since 1973. Over 12 thousand EU laws, regulations and statutory instruments now need to be replaced or renegotiated. Preparing for this Referendum, the Food Research Collaboration prepared and published a number of papers following the great interest shown at the Annual City Food Symposium held to discuss the food implications of Brexit vs Bremain in December 2015.1-3 Agricultural economists, political and environmental analysts meanwhile contributed their views, mostly about the implications for UK farming.4-9
Although we worked hard to try to get food into the Referendum discourse, despite a bit of coverage and hundreds of downloads of our briefings, there was next to no discussion of food. Yet since the Referendum vote, ironically, there has been a rapid rise of interest. Now more people ‘get’ it. If Sterling drops in value, that means a country which imports 30% of its food (much of it the good news for health, fruit & veg) will have to pay more.
Unravelling decades of food law and regulations, let alone the labyrinthine Common Agricultural Policy, let alone generations of supply chains, let alone food tastes and consumers who are used to a food system based on EU security, is a very risky project. More optimistically, this is going to be exciting. But so are helter-skelters, they say. And there is one big difference. We are about to be locked in, or out, according to your perspective.
And this is to happen precisely when the UK, European and global food systems ought to begin a complicated process of restructuring to reduce food’s impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, water and food waste, at the same time as shifting diets in the rich and poor worlds, albeit differently. The goal of feeding people healthily, equitably and sustainably sounds simple. And the evidence of the need to do so is overwhelming. Many reports, thousands of papers, all point to the centrality of restructuring the food system for the Planet, Health and People.10 11
At the same time, we know enough to know that the last 70-100 years of ‘development’ have made that restructuring both easier and harder. Easier in that there is the potential to produce enough food to feed people well. There is already plenty of food, although maldistributed and wasted. But it will be harder in that supply chains, consumer aspirations and market distortions have locked us into wasteful unhealthy food cultures which have been normalised.
In the UK, we are in the rich world yet our food system is fractured by gross inequalities of access, cost, health and culture.12 13 Food employs 3.6 million people, yet wages are low. Not starvation, but low and squeezed by powerful forces down the long supply chains. Food has never been so cheap for the British – down to about 10% of average disposable income – yet people on low incomes are forced to use old-style welfare donations in food banks to help make ends meet.14 15 Food Banks have become a growth industry – and some politicians are only too happy for this to be the case. They prefer charity to state-dependency, a bug-bear of anti-welfarists since the 19th century.
What a bizarre time therefore for the UK to vote in effect to destabilise the commitments just made by governments – including the UK’s – to engage with some of this via the Paris Climate Change Accord and the Sustainable Development Goals!16 17 Yet the die is cast. The politics is in full swing, part spectacle, part nightmare, but very real. The food system is leaderless. The powerful food industries shamefully kept their heads down and now are deeply anxious, as well they might be. They are in the frontline, and those 3.6 million jobs, too. Meanwhile the vast majority of food academics and the food industry, let alone civil society have had decades of engagement with EU food, health and environmental politics thrown in the air. That’s why heavy majorities in academia and science were pro Remaining In the EU. They / we too are now in some disarray. But this must not continue.
My call is for us to get our act together, to be calm and analytical. This is precisely the time we need to be highly focussed, clear about our tasks, and intent on contributing our knowledge to fill the policy vacuum. In truth, there are many ideas of the way forward. Victoria Schoen, a FRC research fellow, and I have worked hard with colleagues in other universities to try to track the different ideas on the table. Read the FRC briefings to see the options as they were before the Referendum. But we are now in a different place. The vote is taken. The options now become real or get rejected. If we really want to promote a more sustainable equitable food system in and for the UK, now is the most important time to discuss issues and to speak out. The political processes are likely to marginalise food justice unless we stop them.
I see our task as essentially two-fold. Firstly, to monitor the ideas and options being mooted for the Brexit process. This is too important to leave to ideologues in Whitehall. It needs our cool heads and analysis. Secondly, we need to engage widely. Part of the reason for the Brexit vote was the long-simmering disenchantment of areas of the UK which had been left out in the cold. NatCen Social Research has just produced the 33rd British Social Attitudes Survey.18 This shows entrenched social class positions and values. Most analysts of the Brexit debacle since the event have suddenly ‘discovered’ these realities. Why did Sunderland vote against when it’s the base for Nissan? Why did North Lancashire? Well, the people there are clear and articulate. The reasons given are complex, some not nice, racist even, some understandable – jobs, no-one listening, lack of hope. But why was this not discussed centrally before the vote? Why were academic analyses of simmering discontent ignored? In truth, the UK’s deep divisions have been long known.19 20 21 And the political ‘project’ often called neo-liberalism or globalisation drove on.
That’s one good thing perhaps from the Brexit vote. Great swathes of the country have de-industrialised, been quietly abandoned, syphoned of hope, but that fact has not been central to politics. Huge gaps and inequalities of opportunity have been entrenched. There’s been a harshness in politics. We see this in food, too. Indeed, it’s an illustration par excellence of the wrongs. Why does the 5th richest economy on the planet allow gross diet-related life expectancy gaps to exist, or an explosion of food banks? Healthcare is not the answer to obesity. We know that.
Food, we also know, can be both a source of division and conflict, and a source of collectivity, cultural exploration, and pleasure. The Europeanisation of UK food culture has, in my view, been overall a great boon. UK food is transformed compared to my childhood (I was born in 1948, the same year as the NHS, a time of determination to rebuild the political economy and to stop smashing each other.22 23 That’s why the Common Market, now EU, was born.24 25 And food was part of that settlement – a commitment to increase food availability, make it cheaper and feed people.26
What are our tasks right now? I have been thinking a lot about this. Here are some ideas I think important. Let us discuss them. Add your own. Some we began to consider before the vote. Others are a response to realpolitik.
The Brexit Unit in Whitehall. This new unit now has terrifying responsibility. David Cameron has announced that Oliver Letwin MP is to lead this. But what will it actually do? What expertise will it have? How big will it be? Will there be food specialists in there? Will it be dominated by Big Farm, Big Food and Big Supermarket interests? Who will champion consumer interests? Will it be hiring back expertise from departed Defra specialists? Whom from outside will be engaged? Or is this to be a Letwin ideological think-tank? Heavens forbid.
‘Phoney war’ Brexit negotiations. The real ones haven’t started yet, but posturing has. Mr Cameron is no longer welcome in Brussels, but what are the 27 discussing and preparing? What differences are there? Where is the room for manoeuvre to see if the progressive food thinking in the UK can get help? Which model of the negotiations will be followed? Will the UK adopt existing EU regulations? Or will we junk them all? Or, in the case of food, will we adopt the default position of retreating to WTO standards (in which case Codex Alimentarius Commission standards become the UK’s)? I hope not!
Timing. The Conservative Party Brexiters are sending out different signals. Some want Article 50 quickly, and to begin the 2 year severance process immediately. Others want to delay it. The departed Mr B Johnson was in the latter pragmatic camp. Mrs May appears to be a hard liner. This matters. Will we have shorter or longer uncertainty and destabilisation? What are the right wing think tanks saying? The lack of Plan B by Bremainers was embarrassing, and betrayed their arrogance in my view, but the vacuum from Brexiters is shocking and now they’ve won, it is frankly scary.
Politics. For at least 2-3 months, the focus will be on the Party leadership battles. But in Scotland and Northern Ireland, different foci exist. Spain has already furiously rejected Scotland’s floating of gaining EU membership; it fears a precedent for Catalonian independence. What splits do we see likely? Where are our allies, and where our enemies? By this I mean who will work for a more just, sustainable food system, and who will use Brexit to take us backwards?
UK food supply. Part of the appeal tapped by Brexiters was that exit would mean the UK ‘takes back control’ but what does this mean in a country which is heavily dependent on imported food? In our FRC papers we cite UK Government statistics. The latest Defra Agriculture in the UK (May 2016) says we are 61% self-sufficient.27 Other Government stats quoted in our FRC Brexit or Bremain? paper put it lower at 54%.28 A recent study by a team in Aberdeen found the UK actually has an even higher hidden impact by using other people’s land and emissions.29
Follow the money. This is a basic rule. If you want a quick digest of where the UK consumer’s food money goes, have a look at the new (May 2016) update of the Defra annual: Agriculture in the UK.27 This shows that consumers spend £201bn a year. Farming gets little. Manufacturing, retailing and catering vastly more. Much small farming or dairy farming is kept afloat by EU CAP subsidies. The NFU is deeply worried about this loss. It will be pushing for simple transfer of subsidies. But those keep land values up. Is this what we want ahead? Should the UK do a New Zealand, and take the chance to cut all subsidies?30 Horticulture – the good news for health, and heavily reliant on foreign born labour – receives no subsidy, yet should be vastly expanded. And what about introducing new thinking on the gap between high and low paid food work?
Food work and free movement of labour. The European Council stated on June 29 that the UK will not be given access to the Single Market. This is the EEA status Norway has by paying handsomely into the EU while having no democratic involvement for the privilege of market access. The EC insists that the UK would have to accept freedom of movement of people alongside market access. Yet this is what many Brexit voters and leaders unite to reject. Xenophobia fills the vacuum caused by an EU migration policy crisis. This has immense implications for the UK’s food system, which is a heavy user of foreign-born labour in horticulture – hard, out-of-doors work About 15% of farming labour force was seasonal, mostly foreign in 2013.31 38% of labour in the UK food manufacturing sector – the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector as the FDF loves to say32 – is foreign-born, according to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.33 How could food jobs be up-skilled and better paid on and off the land? The food labour issue must be addressed by the food movement. The FRC has a number of papers in preparation on the issue of food and work.
Creating new working alliances. New situations require new working relations. We need to talk widely, find out what sectors and interests are feeling. Do people in low income areas who voted Brexit really want their food to go up in price? Are they aware of coming problems or doesn’t it matter? People often say they want something but then act differently. All the Sustainable Food Cities now have a real focus to the groundwork already done, for example. And policy focussed people need to redouble efforts to have lines of communication with elected people locally and nationally. Groups such as the Food Research Collaboration and the Square Meal group are talking as are others. These internal discussions must face outwards too. We will have to rise to this challenge. We have much work to do. And there will be many interests who share our concerns. This may be a time for unlikely bedfellows and unholy alliances.
But let there be debate. And above all, get organised. History is littered with missed opportunities. We need to articulate what ought to be happening for the UK food system, whether in or out of the EU. Allowing ideological purists to destabilise the emerging policy thinking for sustainability must be resisted. We must work hard to win public hearts and minds. Brexit campaigners did this more effectively in the Referendum than the Bremainers, whose dry economic warnings fell on deaf ears. They might well have been right but they didn’t garner the votes. Think food as hearts and minds, not just as mouths in coming months and years.