Tim Lang’s Field Notes: Do we need an index of politicians’ readiness to make big changes?

Field Notes

Do we need an index of politicians’ readiness to make big changes?

Professor Tim Lang

Wednesday 20th July 2022

Like many, I tussle with the big and old question: what’s a good diet? And can it be normalised in a crazy food world? The large band of scientists working in this field mostly have to focus on separate parts of the topic. Their scope is constrained by the research treadmill, career demands, grants and disciplinary boundaries. To be fair, there’s quite enough intellectual challenge in exploring the nutrition, social and economic determinants or environmental impacts of a ‘good’ diet, without going back to the Rev Dr Malthus and asking why and whether supposed food progress has further distorted the environmental carrying capacity of the planet itself.

Yet that’s what two American nutritionists, Joan Gussow and Kate Clancy, gently raised 36 years ago when they reframed Malthus’ question as asking: what is a sustainable diet? Their thinking has influenced my working life. But now I believe we need a further conceptual reframing. I don’t want us to abandon the Sustainable Diet question. Far from it. But I want us to find answers to a supplementary question: why are politics stopping its delivery? Is this a problem of lip-service or denial or genuine uncertainty about what to do? And how can the public interest win against current odds? How, in short, can the people’s genuine interests be served in an unequal world? How can we achieve sufficient momentum for progressive change to save the situation? I tend to take the long view in food policy, but even I think the room for manoeuvre is diminishing by the day. This is why I am happily on a newly formed Sustainable Diet Working Group with other academics and civil society representatives set up by the UK Faculty of Public Health (the joint faculty of the Royal Colleges of Physicians).

Policy focus on food is missing

Goodness knows, surely current events in Europe should be concentrating this rich region’s collective political mind on this issue. Europe now has a war disrupting its food system. Serious analysts worry about events spinning out of control, with good reason. Farm yields are exposed as dependent on Russian gas being turned into nitrogen fertilisers. The Russian mining of the Black Sea stops grain mountains being shipped to North Africa and the Middle East, where food insecurity mounts by the day. Food price inflation is ripping through markets and putting pressure on consumers’ cost of living even in affluent countries such as the UK let alone the Yemen or Egypt.

If you are reading this in the UK, you will have noted that there is barely any public policy focus on the food element of the cost-of-living crisis, and that what policy responses there are overwhelmingly address the energy element, vital though that is, but not food. This is not for lack of analysis. The differentiated political response to the food element of cost-of-living speaks volumes. It’s a sober reminder of the limits of the supposedly influential UK civil society movement on events, just when it is needed. Legal constraints on political activity doesn’t help, of course.

‘Individual choice’ argument ever more threadbare

Meanwhile, the climate emergency surely ought to be denting the confidence of climate sceptics intent on stopping radical restructuring of the food system; the argument that individual choice must triumph over all other considerations looks ever more threadbare. Unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires add to healthcare pressures across Europe, exposing the fragility of inherited infrastructure. Society is rightly put onto an emergency footing to deal with heatwaves but we ought also now to be benefiting from decades of investment in retrofitting our homes, changing our food system, rethinking fossil fuel based mobility, and generally reframing our daily lives. The political aspiration to reduce energy consumption and create more sustainable cultural and work patterns has lost out to the consumerist treadmill, which the Frankfurt School of cultural critics and their modern equivalents began to identify decades ago.

What is being laid bare by this tangled web of events is a failure of mass politics and imagination. All political systems have fantasies which are judged by events and lived experience. Political success is being able to deliver the reality measured against the promise. That is why, in other writing, I have argued that food policy analysts must pay more attention to the mechanisms of food democracy. By this I mean the processes which can engage people in delivering better food systems as part of how we live our lives.

Hold on, I hear you cry, surely you are being a bit unkind about the state of current food politics. Surely we have made progress. Issues like sustainable diets are now at least on the table. Hmm. To take just one tiny indicator, organic milk may take 25% of the UK market but organic food as a whole takes about 2% of food! It’s influential but not the norm.

Progressive forces are not winning

There are many in politics who recognise that systemic change is needed. It’s behind the rise of behavioural economics and the fashion for ‘nudging’ people without patronising them, for example. And I agree parliaments everywhere debate climate change, food poverty and affordability. My point is that the progressive forces are not winning in what then happens. The UK has had its Climate Change Act since 2008 but when the Committee on Climate Change, set up to advise the transition, urges radical reduction of meat production and consumption, little happens to deliver.

I repeat, while food political voices are muted, some good things are stirring. Scotland has passed its Good Food Nation Act last month. Wales is beginning to debate its equivalent. But the UK’s snail-like progress is being held back by England. The weak Government Food Strategy was anything but a strategy. And now, with Conservative action on hold pending the appointment of a new Prime Minister, those of us hoping the Department of Health & Social Care might produce tougher food interventions in the promised new childhood obesity strategy are not holding our breath that junk food will be reined in.

We must face it: UK food politics are shaped by a competition to get back to business-as-usual post Covid, post the Great Recession, when actually we ought to be accelerating what the EAT-Lancet Commission (on which I was policy lead) called the Great Food Transformation.

The UK left the European Union with the brilliant slogan ‘taking back control’, but is squandering what opportunities that offered in a messy zigzag of political leadership failure and desperation to do trade deals which weaken sustainability standards. The candidates to replace Mr Johnson as Prime Minister didn’t even mention the environment in their bids until the late stages of the process. They might back the Net Zero target but be lukewarm on action.

Not individual change, but behaviour change by politicians

We should not be surprised at variations of political position. But we must accept that the model of capitalism so brilliantly forged in the post-World War 2 reconstruction is now exposed as accelerating its downfall. And yet, as I wrote in a previous Field Notes, I maintain my optimism. We know what to do even though the transition needed – changing diets, changing money flows, changing priorities – is on a staggering scale.

The fashionable field of behavioural economics is left floundering before the extent of what’s needed from politicians. Rather than focus on individual change, we need laser-like attention on politicians’ behaviour change. I think we need a new Food Political Performance Index to sit alongside the excellent Nuffield Ladder of Intervention. While the latter put inactivity as ‘ground level’ with rungs rising to full-frontal tough intervention at the top, we need a measure of how serious politicians are about helping restructure the food system to enable transformation. There’s no shortage of ideas on what must change, just an absence of political will. We need more attention on how to get politics out of the logjam. Less work on what we want or think the evidence demands, and more on what stops change.

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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