Are the politics of food inequality back once and for all, or only while policy attention spans last? This question has returned to the centre of UK food policy. Let us take stock.
Firstly, one might think food inflation is something new. It’s not. The Office for National Statistics reminds us that the current food price inflation is actually the fourth wave to occur in the last 15 years. Why the current wave matters is because it’s adding weight to the argument that the food system now faces a period of massive restructuring. Some even argue that the second great phase of globalisation is actually coming to an end.
Whether this is so remains to be seen, but certainly there is more awareness that the 20th-century model of food production can no longer ignore its role in energy dependency, ecosystems damage, resource mining and externalised health effects. The result, I argue, is that price volatility is actually the new normal. We foresaw this might be the case when oil prices hit $100 a barrel back in 2007.
And now, this tightly stressed food system looks even less secure. The 2007-10 Great Recession was followed, for the UK, by the shock of Brexit, which questioned continued reliance on the EU for food. Then in 2020 Covid gave another big jolt, with some concluding the food status quo is over, while others say the last two years proved its resilience. But confidence in food resilience, certainly in Europe including the UK, is less firm with the 2022 Ukraine war. The FAO and World Food Programme are deeply worried about disruption of Russian and Ukrainian grain and oil seed, on which 50 countries depend.
Food as a flexible item in household budgets
Secondly, although it is excellent that media and public attention is taking a sympathetic view of the reality of low income consumers having to cut back on food, the hand-wringing is a waste of time. The cutting back is real and deep, and affecting millions not thousands of people. This is beyond the exceptional. And it is likely to go much deeper. Food always gets cut back when times are hard. Food is the flexible item in household budgets. And food is a bigger item in budgets, the poorer the household is. That is partly why UK industrialists wanted cheaper food in the 19th century and got it from the Empire. But cutting back on food purchases can go only so far before direct health and performance are affected. In extremis, it leads to famine. Even in rich countries like the UK, it leads to class differences in life expectancy worsening. We must remember that social science interest in food and nutrition partly began with exploring the moral arguments over whether poor diet was an individual or societal failure. The UK is not alone in experiencing all this. Eurozone consumer price inflation, too, was rising even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Denting public confidence
Thirdly, food inflation quickly becomes a stress test of public morale. Or to put it bluntly, how is the public taking it? One might expect conventional political divisions, but they don’t tell the whole story. On food and energy prices, there is nervousness across the political spectrum throughout Europe. The rich can, as ever, adapt to rising prices. (As an aside, the commentariat’s acidity about the failure of the UK finance minister, Rishi Sunak, a very wealthy man married into even greater wealth, to address the price inflation shocks is unusual.)
The scale and pace of food and energy inflation’s impact is having a mass effect. The most recent Food Standards Agency ‘Food and You’ survey showed 15% of consumers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reporting food insecurity even before the latest Ukrainian escalation of costs.
Inadequate political response
To anyone versed in food politics or social history, this confluence of events points to a shift – a return of attention to the role of the state. For the last 15 years, the policy reflex has been to leave adjustments to charity and voluntary sectors or to market forces. Food banks, soup kitchens and the like are ad hoc responses. And the market simply raises prices, which adds rather than removes pain. Thus we now see a level of unmet need and squeezed incomes which reveal charity as societal sticking plaster. Nothing wrong with sticking plaster; it can work. And it’s a humane first response. But not if the wound is gaping and deep.
The UK has seen an astonishing rise in food banks since 2000 when what is now the Trussell Trust started its first food bank in a garden shed in Salisbury. The map of Britain is now covered with food banks – see this graphic.
When the working poor, not just welfare dependents, rely on food banks, and when food banks report that they are receiving not more but fewer food donations, we should be alerted that the charitable system is not coping. The signs have been there for some time.
Gaping wounds require a transfer of wealth and serious levels of investment in a social infrastructure that ensures everyone – all families, all children, not just the affluent – can exist healthily and be confident of a decent standard of living. Only the state has the convening and facilitating power to reframe markets to deliver that, and to prevent gaping wounds.
We have had four or five decades in which western economies have been dominated by market economics. We are now seeing the importance of thinking initiated by a group of Manchester academics but now Europe-wide which pioneered what they called the ‘foundational economy’. They ask, ‘What makes for a good society?’ and they conclude that a certain threshold of social infrastructure is necessary. This costs, and cannot be purchased on open markets, but must be put in place by the state. Individual responsibility for food and health can only take you so far.
I am not alone in wondering whether this latest food price shock and the inevitable ill-health, injustice and pain that will follow will lead to better structural discussions. The problem is not food poverty but food inequality. They are not the same thing.