Food Defence: a prime duty of the State which needs a push from below

Field Notes

Food Defence: a prime duty of the State which needs a push from below

Professor Tim Lang

Wednesday 9th March 2022

With the dreadful invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia, we should reflect on the unfortunate truth that food and wars have a close, tangled relationship. Wars have been fought over food, often over land. Hitler went eastwards in the early parts of World War 2, in part wanting to resettle the vast, grain-growing lands and secure food supplies. The ancient Romans colonised parts of north Africa to be their breadbasket. Shortages brought on by the inevitable disruptions of conflict can induce terrible things, not least riots, profiteering, illicit trading and in extremis starvation.

But wars have also been times of unexpected food advances. Opportunities for manoeuvre open up when normal relations are severely disrupted. One such was surely the more equal diet that followed from the nutrition-informed rationing scheme the UK introduced in World War 2. Studies of food poverty in the 1930s had been largely ignored, but when war was declared and national morale was at stake, hey presto, the advocates of food for the common good had a chance of influence.

Major food policy rethinks can (but don’t always) follow wars. The case for rebuilding agriculture and using subsidies to ensure regular supplies became key features of post-World War 2 agri-food policies of the USA, Common Market (now EU) and UK. No-one wanted repeats of 1930s farm recessions or hunger.

Food can also be a means of and for social control. Post-war, the USA used its vast grain surpluses to give food aid as part of its Food for Peace strategy, building on the 1954 Public Law 480. Critics argued it was used to prop up repressive regimes, notably Egypt.

As many analysts foresaw, when the Ukraine-Russia war began, the importance of Ukraine’s massive grain exports (33 million tonnes in 2021) loomed into politics. If Putin’s invasion succeeds, will Ukraine’s grain power be added to his existing energy power? The World Food Programme and FAO are right to worry about the effects on Middle East and African markets, where much of Ukraine’s grain goes. Major disruption to world food prices is underway.

With Brent crude oil price hitting $140 a barrel, up 43% in a week, we are witnessing a reprise of the 2007-08 rocketing commodity prices that spawned the Great Recession. Alas, the lessons learned then, that even rich countries such as the UK should put their food security higher up the agenda, were quickly forgotten. Governments since 2010 have retreated to the comfort zone that markets can deal with all food eventualities. Wars show this to be nonsense.

“I have also long argued an unfashionable view that food defence is, or ought to be, a central part of the food policy debate.”

I have also long argued an unfashionable view that food defence is, or ought to be, a central part of the food policy debate.  This is not to relish wars. On the contrary, it is to ensure that equitable supply of and access to decent diets are taken seriously and not left to complacent normality. I say it because in post-peasant societies – now the majority of the world – no population can be self-reliant. We are all at varying levels of food dependency. In which case, the aspiration for food security is only resolvable at the mass level, be it at national or regional levels.  Food defence ought to be part of policy and planning to ensure the food system has both capacities and defences to protect all people within the relevant boundaries of governance.

This is anathema to diehard neo-liberals who assume food defence implies handing unnecessary powers to the state. I think they are necessary not unnecessary. Who else but the state can legitimate policy frameworks? Out of the EU, Brexit Britain was ducking the issue but the Ukraine war is forcing it to liaise more closely (if erratically over refugees) with the EU. Wars, in this sense, can modernise food policy. In modern food capitalism, the state plays, if anything, second fiddle to companies and finance. Yet wars show how even corporate behemoths are underpinned by state conditions, rules and terms of engagement . If the state is so unimportant in food matters, why do companies spend so much money and effort on lobbying it? Suddenly, people see the point of having democratic states.

“…wars show how even corporate behemoths are underpinned by state conditions, rules and terms of engagement”

I want to see more debate about what a public-interest food defence would look like. At its simplest, the best food defence is to put one’s food system onto a sustainability path. The UK’s is nowhere near that. Carbon emitting. Over- and mal-consuming. Not producing what it could. Using others’ land which it shouldn’t. Allowing its citizens to inhabit a fantasy world where food just arrives at supermarkets, and always will.

We need more attention to what civil defence could do for food. Eastern EU states are currently pouring food aid into Ukraine. Emergency aid is a backstop of food defence but not its full array. A food secure society would ensure all sections of society, not just the rich and powerful, were adequately fed when crises, shortages and disruptions occurred. It would manage its labour markets and land use such that food supplies were optimised, not left wasted. This is not currently happening in the UK. Grade 1 farm land continues to be handed over for housing estates and solar farms, though thankfully campaigns to halt this are sprouting.  Meanwhile the UK Government refuses to commit to grow more of the food that it could. One of many early lessons of the current war is that two thirds of the seasonal agricultural workers allowed into the UK to pick British crops in 2021 were from…yes, Ukraine.

Food defence challenges food governance. We need adequate structures, planning and preparation. Local authorities and Resilience Forums (RFs) need proper funding and clout. As I wrote in Feeding Britain, the RFs were set up to protect the public interest after milk supplies were shown to be easily disrupted in the early 2000s. They are weak. They lack legal powers, funds, command structures and political and popular engagement. They failed to prevent Covid pushing millions into worse food insecurity. The food industry patted itself on the back for having kept food flowing when in fact inequalities worsened. Food defence failed.

“I want to rescue the term ‘food defence’ from being used solely to indicate food companies protecting their immediate interests.”

Let’s be clear, few societies can fully protect their people from blitzkriegs such as Russia’s on Ukraine. But all societies need to have thought about it. In Feeding Britain, I argued that the UK’s navy, army and cybersecurity defences barely considered food defence.  The Channel Tunnel has a private not public army. This must now change.

I want to rescue the term ‘food defence’ from being used solely to indicate food companies protecting their immediate interests.  I understand companies want to protect their brand integrity and prevent product-specific fraud and terrorism. They are not doing well on the cybersecurity front: ransomware is rife. But this is not the sum of food defence. Where’s the public interest? The focus on communities?

The UK’s powerful and articulate food NGOs need to help spell out a public-interest food defence. In the 1930s, the radical science movement, troubled by the rise of fascism and Nazism, urged the creation of civil defence. How would ordinary people be protected against the new weapons trialled in the Spanish Civil War? It was a noble aim. It partly yielded the flimsy, home-constructed Anderson bomb shelters for back gardens – no protection against V1 or V2 rockets. It also delivered the planning for food rationing, which did make a mass difference.

As we all watch the terrible events in Ukraine, think too about food lessons for wherever you are. Does your government take food planning seriously or simply cede power to the corporates when it ought to direct them? Does your town, city or village have sufficient solidarity to prevent the weakest sinking? Is as much food being produced within your borders as can be produced sustainably and well? Is there a public, accountable review of food supply at the community level, not just the complacency which I argued in my last Field Notes marred the UK’s recent Food Security Review? Does your Parliament or Regional body (if you are lucky enough to have one) have mechanisms to hold the Government of the day to account about food defence? If not, why not?

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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