Tim Langs Field Notes: An agri-food technological spring has sprung

Tim Langs Field Notes: An agri-food technological spring has sprung

Tim Lang's Field Notes: An agri-food technological spring has sprung

Professor Tim Lang

Wednesday 14th April 2021

It is spring in the northern hemisphere. A time to sow. An anxious time for horticulture. In the UK, policy attention on horticulture is generally pretty weak despite public health advice to eat its produce. UK horticulturalists, long frustrated at their plight, just voted to stop the levies they pay to fund the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, which provides industry-wide data and analysis. To outsiders, this might appear self-defeating. Why lose a valuable source of evidence? But it signifies frustration in this vital UK food sector.  It deserves better.

Of the UK’s 18 million hectares of agricultural land, about a third is categorised by Defra as ‘croppable’. Only 3% (166,000 ha) is down to horticulture.  The proportion of UK-grown vegetable supply has generally declinedin recent decades. This is partly a labour problem: the UK has centuries of mistreatment and low wages to reverse before some dignity is returned to landwork. As I argued in Feeding Britain, there’s an imperialist expectation that others will and should feed Britain. And with supermarketisation and long-life packaging, food culture is now dominated by brands and ultra-processing. The value of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables is weakened, as are rural-urban connections.

Yet there’s strong evidence human and ecosystems health benefit if food supplies centre on plants more than animals. The Global Burden of Disease studies show one in five deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) are linked to poor diet. Cattle and sheep have their ecological place but they’ve been fetishised by policy and immiserated by industrial economics.

Today’s food systems were largely shaped by the policy rethink in the dire 1930s-40s. Policy-makers saw investment in technology and infrastructure as key to raising agri-food output. Now we know this is not enough. There’s not so much a global shortage of food as mal-distribution, mis-production and new forms of waste. In the rich West, we have too much food, not too little. Cheaper production creates a food avalanche which has displaced problems onto healthcare and ecosystems. With the UN Food Systems Summit this September and the COP26 hosted in Glasgow in November, major policy redirection ought to emerge. Both could centre on plants for health in nature, culture and economy.

There’s already an investment rush into new food technologies – much ‘software’ money seeking novel advantage. Prime example is online food delivery. UK Deliveroo, founded in 2013, symbolises software and gig food economics. Expected to be valued as £8.8bn it ‘only’ made £7.6bn on day one. Some failure. Regional delivery giants have emerged in Asia, Europe and America. The same in meat and dairy alternatives. Swedish ‘alt-milk’ Oatly is part of the £278m UK annual dairy substitute market. And watch lab-grown artificial meat like Meatable, which some animal welfarists support, and 3-D printed meat.  The plant-based lookalike meat market is globally expected to be worth $8.3bn by 2025. And money is being thrown at vertical farming, hailed as a potential ‘local’ food source. I have my doubts. Fine for fancy garnish, perhaps, but feeding cities? Hmm.

Food policy analysts need to monitor these so-called disruptors and ask: whom do they serve? Are they really helping or hindering the transition to sustainable diets from sustainable food systems? Are consumers or health in control? The age-old tension between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ food continues ….

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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