End of year report: still fiddling while the food system burns

End of year report: still fiddling while the food system burns

Field Notes

End of year report: still fiddling while the food system burns

Professor Tim Lang

Wednesday 14th December 2022

Reviewing the year, whether at local, UK or international levels, it’s hard to be upbeat about the state of food policy. It should not be like this.

If we were market buffs, we’d be musing whether this is ‘market failure’ and the need to change signals. A tweak here or there. New market segments. Instead, like many analysts, I prefer the language of ‘system success or failure’. The terminology is important. We know why the current food system needs significant change, yet somehow the change of direction doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen sufficiently fast. What’s needed is more than a tweak or nudge. The scale of what’s needed is considerable.

It’s hard not to apply the apocryphal story of the Roman emperor Nero, who reportedly fiddled while Rome burned. But in today’s world, there is no all-powerful emperor whom we can blame for everything. There are autocrats in some societies, of course. And a recent UK poll showed some desire for a strong leader who doesn’t have to deal with elections. The frustration is understandable, but the current reality is that issues like food fall into the multi-level governance and institutional diversity that emerged from the ashes of World War ll.

It is this complex array of levers, forums and leadership that is being found wanting, yet it’s all we have. Every gathering I attend at present expresses alarm at the lack of ambition to take food challenges seriously. The November COP27 meeting under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is a case in point.

The Climate Change Committee (the UK’s statutory advisory body on climate change) has a devastating graph showing the difference between what ought to be happening under the 2015 Paris agreement and what is actually happening. At COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, food was yet again mostly below the radar and away from the main meeting, but some tiny movement did occur.

Firstly, there was agreement to create a new ‘Loss & Damage’ fund, through which rich economies could help poorer ones adapt. It will be good news if anyone donates significant money into it. And there was a nod towards food being more important in future negotiations, via the so-called Koronivia process discussions, hosted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). These don’t consider diet or post-farm determinants of the food system, and date back to 2017, so I’m not holding my breath. When food (not just agriculture) accounts for around a quarter of GHGs, it surely ought to be a top priority for any discussions claiming to address reality. The fear of alienating consumers (i.e., voters as eaters) not just farmers is palpable.

Or take the dire state of biodiversity loss, discussed at the lower-profile but just as important COP15 of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) at Montreal, December 7-19. This was part two of the COP15 which began in Kunming, China, last year. Whether we look at the FAO’s opening 2019 State of World Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report, or the CBD’s own fifth report in 2020, or the wider ranging and more frequent WWF and Zoological Society of London’s Living Planet Report, the latest of which was published in October to coincide with COP15 at Montreal, one does not feel optimistic about how humanity is treating the planet. Again, food is a major driver of harm.

In public health, not dissimilar reports about failure to control out-of-control diets can be cited and outlined. I’ll spare readers the pain. It’s little wonder that in policy circles we now openly talk of lock-ins and obstructions to progress. Hope of staying within 1.5oC of global warming is fading.

We know the problems. It’s what to do about them that ought to be our prime focus now.

Some see the answers in technology. George Monbiot’s latest book, Regenesis, argues that, of course, we need to take vast tracts out of agricultural degradation, but this must be accompanied by preparedness to eat differently, using new as well as tried-and-tested fermentation technology to produce some of our food. Some have criticised this as wildly optimistic or ceding control over food systems to a new wave of hi-tech corporate giants. Monbiot rebutted that recently, begging people to embrace this new technological revolution.

The urgency is appropriate, in my view. Wherever you stand, it’s right to focus more on what to do and how than policy advocates have done hitherto. There are many leading climate scientists who agree. Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government, now back at Cambridge University, has set up a global high-level Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG) which tries to push policy thinking further. There’s little point agreeing aspirations unless they are accompanied by pathways to those desired goals. The CCAG has honed these down to a 3-Rs process.

Firstly, Reduce, i.e., rapid closure of CO2e emission sources. Secondly, Remove, i.e., carbon capture and sequestration. Third, Repair, i.e., “Collaborative action to manage parts of the climate system that are beyond tipping point”. These are huge demands but at least switch attention away from problem analysis to intervention. CCAG is right. Planning is now crucial. The British ought to know this.

In World Wars l and ll, the British state learned reluctantly in crisis that it had to plan because its failure to do so in peacetime meant its vulnerabilities grew in conflict. After WW ll, learning the lessons, the then Ministry of Agriculture held and kept under review a secret War Food Plan. Over time, I gather, it was quietly let go, as no-one expected such a plan to be needed again. It suffered what happens in food policy – people who know key truths retire or die off, and their successors think their view is obsolete. In fact, such plans should exist again now. Globally, regionally, nationally and locally.

With this in mind, at a recent closed meeting in Whitehall, I proposed a multi-strand pathway for a Food Plan which recognises and does not fudge the lock-ins, obstructions or blockages. We’ll get nowhere if we fantasise. Here’s some of what I said.

Strand One is to do the Critical Pathway Mapping. What route do we think the food system could and should take? What options are there for agri-food? Where are dependencies? Time and again, I come back to ‘Contract and Converge’ thinking, but it lacks food traction so far. This charts a reduction of rich world impacts while nurturing poor countries to increase their food output and thus impacts. The UN Food Systems Summit ought to have prepared this, an equivalent today of the 1943 Hot Springs conference.

Strand Two is to initiate a process of System Recognition. We need clear data flows on strategic issues which matter. Whitehall produced a one-off exactly a year ago in the 2021 Food Security Report, but there’s no policy engagement process for turning insights into action or pointing out gaps. That’s why at the national level, the UK or England ought to create a new Food Council whose task is to understand food security as a systemic challenge.

Strand Three is to focus on System Damage Reduction. We should be able to identify key vulnerabilities and critical control points. One is to reduce the avalanche of ultra-processed foods, which fuels dreadful health inequalities and institutionalises waste. This requires a new legal framework. I’ve long called for a new Food Security and Resilience Act. There’s talk in Westminster of building a cross-party alliance to push for a Resilience Act, much as the 2008 Climate Change Act was won. This would be a broader framework than just food.

Strand Four is System Reframe. There’s little point charting pathways for global food policy unless they are rooted into regionalisation and devolution of powers ‘down’ from the central state. Among the core goals globally must be the need to feed all people sustainable diets. That goal should be retrofitted into existing bodies such as the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission, as well as informing new bodies such as local Food Councils.

Strand Five is System Resilience. We must prepare for disruption on a mass scale, and thus must plan rebuilding afterwards. At its worst, we’re seeing in Ukraine how food can be weaponised. Quietly in 2018, noting Russia flexing its muscles in the Middle East, Sweden produced a new version of its Cold War If Crisis or War Comes. Everyone should be doing this. Last month, the former head of the UK intelligence agency MI5, and former chair of the Wellcome Trust, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, argued much as I have done that food is a national security issue.

In fact, too often globally and nationally, the notions of resilience and food defence are being left to corporate actions. The UK, for one, should be rebooting its Local Resilience Forums to take food seriously. Public support needs to be won to avoid fear.

These strands are inevitably woven together. If fellow Brits think this is all unrealistic, let me assure you that the Government’s 2021 Integrated Review, which assessed all threats to UK society, set out a clear aim to make the UK the most resilient country in the world. The Integrated Review is now itself being reviewed. But will this process give as much weight to civil food protection as to corporate or state self-interest? To be blunt, I think it’s time countries began openly to plan civil food defence and what that entails. This need not be drawbridge mentality. Rather it should be open, democratic and equitable. Ignore it and the political space narrows further and one gets the pull of dictatorships or the mega-rich planning private colonisation of other planets, not saving and nurturing this one and the people here. Who says food policy was ever boringly academic?

Tim Lang is Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, and a Special Adviser to the Food Research Collaboration.

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