Tim Lang’s Field Notes: Finding hope in a food crisis

Field Notes

Finding hope in a food crisis

Professor Tim Lang

Thursday 12th May 2022

Objectively, the food system is not in a great place, whether we look globally, continentally, nationally or locally. Obesity and overweight are up everywhere. Ukraine’s crisis is exposing food and farming’s dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. Diet-related inequalities are ubiquitous. The avalanche of nutritionally useless food continues to flow.Biodiversity’s long-term decline is heavily driven by agri-food. And food prices have been in a volatile state since the banking crisis of 2007-08, and now rocket due to Ukraine.

Why, then, do I still find hope in food politics?

Firstly, the state of food is not entirely due to government action: much is due to inaction, failure to act. The WHO European Region concluded last month that not one of its 50+ member states was on track to halt the rise in obesity. The UK is, alas, no exception. Since the Chief Scientist’s Foresight Obesity report, which mapped what to do, governments have ducked it. I wish my Government really would do something clever on food policy. I hoped after his brush with Covid that our Prime Minister, a tad overweight, would make this a personal mission. He didn’t and hasn’t.

Twelve years on from the Coalition foolishly throwing away the Food 2030 strategy (a genuinely joined-up strategy linking health, environment, food security and national interest), we still wait for a response to the Dimbleby National Food Strategy review second report, optimistically titled The Plan.  This omitted much that I thought ought to be included, such as positions on the long-term food labour crisis, and whether the UK should grow more food. But I forgive the team on account of its serious work trying to inject some sense into, let’s be frank, a government not noted for its sophisticated understanding of how the world of food works. Like many, I had high hopes we might get something from the mangling process that can follow from ‘independent’ advice such as the Dimbleby report. It seems we are not going to.

Fresh off the plane from the USA talking with US agri-food interests about the broad area of food trade, George Eustice, Secretary of State at Defra, made it clear at a Soil Association conference there will be no new Food Bill. All the complex junk food and health lock-in analysis that Henry Dimbleby was rightly exercised about, well, apparently it can be left to the Department for Health and Social Care! This is an illustration, par excellence, of Mr Eustice obviously not having read the Centre for Food Policy’s analysis of joined-up food policy, despite it being in the Dimbleby report.

I gather too that Mr Eustice so disliked what his Defra White Paper came up with that he de facto declined it and went away to write his own. Who knows what we’ll get. The White Paper, he told the Soil Association April 28 conference – I was there  – is being put back again. June, July? Who knows? But we all know what’s needed is not what we will get. Meanwhile, Mr Eustice was admonished across the political spectrum for suggesting that people struggling to pay for food should buy ‘value’ brands. He didn’t know they already are and cannot cope.

My hope in this mess lies in knowing that ever more people recognise not so much that this is an incompetent government (many get accused of that) but more importantly that something better and more fundamental is urgently needed for food whoever is in government. In other words, pressure to get a better, coherent policy is now building up outside. In the real world of multi-level food governance, governments rarely lead. They follow and are pressed by outside forces. If sensible, they recognise the value of working with others on food. Unfortunately, the Brexit vote, like it or dislike it, embedded an illusion that British governments can do things on their own. But a country which imports 46% of its food is not in a strong position. Governments and political parties, as we know, can also be infiltrated and taken over by sects where wild ideas are taken as normal. Good governance is when there are open processes, clear frameworks and sufficient common good for policies and action to attract sufficient buy-in from diverse, competing interests to work. We are not there yet in the UK but the pre-conditions are emerging. You might already be thinking that my optimism is excessive. I hope not.

Secondly, I get hope from the relentless outpouring of data which concludes ‘something must be done’. The UK is blessed with brilliant, intelligent, hard-working NGOs and food researchers. They are a movement, actually. This week, yet another shaming report was published by the Food Foundation. Its April tracker found that the number of adults going without food for a day or cutting back had risen in the UK by 57% in January-April. Now it estimates 7.3 million adults are tightening their belts and going without, households which have 2.6 million children. Food is always a flexible item in household budgets. When fixed costs rise, food gets cut back. This is bad when at a time of food price inflation, which was 7% in the last year, says the ONS. The Bank of England expects it to be 10% for the next year.  But Jack Monroe, the food campaigner, itemised some basic foods rising 29%, 141%, even 344% in a year; if so, this is inflammatory. It’s shameful that people are having to tub-thump about the scandal of the sixth richest economy on the planet having nearly a sixth of its population cutting back on food, let alone eating a healthy diet, due to affordability. This will add healthcare costs and lives worsened ahead, warned Professor Sir Michael Marmot last month. Well done, campaigners. Keep being noisy, whatever the policy cacophony.

Thirdly, I get hope from detecting that, at last, the naïve economic belief that markets can resolve the trials and tribulations of the food system is looking increasingly threadbare to ever more mainstream opinion. If £122 billion could be spent on furlough and other job support schemes to save capitalism and £0.8 billion spent on encouraging consumers to ‘eat out to help out’ to reboot hospitality – it didn’t work particularly well – why cannot more be spent to provide income support to enable people to ride the expected two years of inflation we now expect? We are in a crisis, not as much as the food importing countries being hammered by post Russian invasion-induced price rises, but in relative terms a crisis in national terms.

One effect of this has already been shown in local elections. Whatever tribal loyalties were in place in the past, they are now weaker and politics is becoming more fluid. Across the UK, there is a renewed interest in national food security. This can go different ways we learned in the 1930s. I don’t detect troubling nationalist drawbridge-raising on food yet. Opposition to migration has ‘softened’, says the Oxford Migration Observatory, despite Government lamentably failing to halt migrants at the Channel.

In sum, although the situation is dire, and the lack of coherence in current policy deeply troubling, from the food policy world, coherence and clarity is spreading across the public, if not government. We have not more but continual work to do. Better optimism than cynicism.

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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