Planners and planning have not enjoyed much public or political support in the neo-liberal decades. They have been derided in many terms. Busybodies, imposing silly ideas of what can and cannot be built. Blocks on innovation. Bureaucrats. The slights are endless. Slowly now, in the world of food at least, the hostility is receding as people realise that planning is urgently needed. Planning is good – if it’s good planning, of course!
Why is planning back? Most obviously, the food world faces such enormous challenges that we know they’re not resolvable by casual ‘let markets decide’ or hands-off government. And we know planning can be subtle, not blunt. Governments can facilitate change without dictating. One can have top-down imposed plans, or deliberative, facilitated plans. One can have public interest plans or vested interest plans.
The goal of decent planning is to get everyone but the ideologically sclerotic into the same policy room where dialogue about what to do for the public good can take place. For planning to be good it needs buy-in, and that’s what it’s not had for years in the UK. As housing scandals have shown, contracts and specifications too easily fall prey to cost-cutting. The 13 years of Britain’s non-food policy – a mix of ducking, zigzagging, silence and vague promises, all the while ignoring the mistakes – make a useful case study.
Recognising the need for order, particularly on diet and health, and to contain the outpouring of unhealthy foods, Henry Dimbleby – whose reflective book Ravenous is just published – titled his final National Food Strategy report to Defra The Plan. It was a fine title. But the government ignored it, with the exception of the Food Data Transparency Partnership, which is slowly getting legs.
Many outside government couldn’t believe that the NFS Plan wouldn’t be taken seriously. Never underestimate the enemies of the public interest. Looking ahead, when and if there are again efforts to create a new grand UK Food Plan, academics and civil society must be prepared to be better organised, noisier and more ruthless. Building support for that firmness should start now. An election by late 2024 must make a Food Plan key politics. Meanwhile, in the EU, forces opposed to the Farm to Fork Strategy are gathering. A similar alliance is needed there.
Let me offer just five major issues that the UK and all rich food economies should be planning to address.
The first issue is how much food to grow? Many countries don’t even need to think about this. They grow a lot, they export, or they are in an economic bloc which collectively mostly feeds itself. The UK is not in anything. It left the EU, from where it still gets about a third of its food. Should the UK grow more? I think yes. Could it? Yes. Will it? Not at present. The 54% currently home grown should be ratcheted up to the 80% it was in the early 1980s. Why? Because food is once more part of cultural and economic geopolitical uncertainty. This is not the time for government to be allowed to say: oh we’ll import cheap food from somewhere else. Or recreate an empire. That’s crazy. The UK imports apples and pears. There’s no need. It imports meat. Ditto. It eats some foods it couldn’t grow – bananas, melons. It has a food manufacturing sector which needs an overhaul, churning out ultra-processed foods. They make money but damage the NHS. False economics. So what the UK needs to plan is: what does it want to grow, and how? And what does it want to process? The rule here must be: low carbon, low footprint, healthy. And what’s stopping this?
Which raises the second issue: food labour. Food is the world’s biggest employer. It’s the UK’s biggest employer, although food service has been weakened by migrant EU workers returning to the EU. Defra set up a review which only focussed on manufacturing labour when what’s needed is a food systems approach. The UK europeanised its food tastes when in the EU. Migrants picked the crops, milked the cows, worked the cappuccino machines, cooked the pizzas. Government says: invest in technology to replace them. But that doesn’t come onstream for 10-15 years. And do people want a self-service cappuccino? Migration today is actually much higher than it was when in the EU.It’s anticipated to drop to 245,000 a year. We need a food labour plan – not least from the Labour Party which so far has fudged this, worried about being seen to increase EU migration again. How many Brits knew (unless they read the Kathmandu Post) that Nepalese workers were being brought to the UK (with them paying up to £12,000 in ‘fees’ to be able to do so) to work on farms? The agri-food labour question urgently needs a plan. And an honest one, not one that drives migration into murky gangmaster hands.
A third issue is how to change diets. Dimbleby ‘got’ this. It must partly be a plan to turn off the tap which pours out ultra-processed foods that create the pressure of diet-related ill-health for the NHS. And it must be partly a plan to shift diets, not by individualistic exhortation or moralising but by proper support. Changing the conditions to facilitate good health. A mixture of soft and tough love – the latter being pricing, taxes, regulation, tougher controls on marketing, changes to the immediate food environment. If we want to cut diet-related ill-health costs, get real.
A fourth issue is food as part driver of the Cost of Living crisis. I keep asking in these Field Notes why does energy get all the political attention while current 18% food price inflation is deemed unstoppable? For me, this exposes the UK’s distorted set of economic values. Massive housing costs are taken as a ‘ladder’ or an investment opportunity, while a good food system is assumed to be one which delivers cheap food. Let’s drop this myth of cheap food. It costs the earth and public health. A Good Food Plan will have to accept that good food does not necessarily come cheap. We get what we pay for.
Fifthly, this leads to the deep sore of food inequalities. The world of food is massively divided, whether we look at it globally, within even rich countries like the UK, or within households. Life expectancy is nearly ten years lower in poor areas than affluent ones. A Good Food Plan must not confuse ‘levelling up’ with narrowing inequalities. For 50 years, I’ve watched policy makers try to raise a million or two people up the spending ladder. It’s good if it happens but it doesn’t narrow inequalities. Yet we know that more equal societies are ones where even the relatively poor have a sense of rights and entitlement. A class-ridden society such as the UK must quietly ask its citizens whether handing people food at a food bank as a right would really be a better food society. I don’t think it would be. Stop colluding in the levelling-up agenda. As President Clinton should have said to himself: “It’s equality, stupid.”
And here we see why neo-liberals didn’t like planning. It means we have to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions. Food policy is no exception.