Tim Lang’s Field Notes: They’re changing the guards at Westminster Palace…

Tim Lang’s Field Notes: They’re changing the guards at Westminster Palace…

Field Notes

They’re changing the guards at Westminster Palace…

Professor Tim Lang

Thursday 15th September 2022

You don’t need to be a Brit to find the latest phase of UK food politics fascinating. A new King with long involvement in organic and progressive agriculture and a lifetime of environmental commitments. A new Prime Minister who voted to remain in the EU but is now a born-again Brexiter, elected by her party to be non-interventionist and against ‘hand-outs’ but who on day 3 gave a £150bn ‘support package’ to control energy inflation. A Secretary of State for business and industry (and science) who’s a climate sceptic and who set up a new wing of his investment company in Dublin to keep in the EU. A new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, also with a climate intervention sceptic record, who as trade minister responsible for the Australia-UK trade deal assured BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today in 2021 (repeated September 8, 2022) this wouldn’t lower food standards even though Australia has lower animal welfare standards. Add a food industry reeling with steadily rising food inflation, already 12.7%, but lacking clear signals from government about which direction to go in. Plus a consumer population worried about income stagnation.

This is a tense situation for national politics, in which food is again central. Or should be.

If I was a political advisor to any of these people, what would my to-do list contain? What’s the reality? What’s in the in-tray? What are the possible policy responses? Here goes for five top issues.

1: Climate change and food

  • Case for intervention: overwhelming
  • Likelihood of intervention: low

The role of agri-food systems in climate heating is now irrefutable as both driver and victim.  A small but noisy political faction still denies, and blocks serious action. It’s now in government. These change-resisters will probably do anything they can to slow interventions down in the UK, not least since it’s no longer subject to negotiation with other European neighbours. The UK is not likely to deliver zero carbon, let alone make progress on what the data say is needed, namely an ecosystems agri-food transition. This means scientists and policy-makers need to work hard to win public arguments. Emergency actions are likely to be needed later. Small projects here or there might be trumpeted to keep up appearances at COP27, but the scale of action alas looks likely to shrink.

Prognosis: not good.

2: Cost-of-food crisis.

  • Case for intervention: strong
  • Likelihood of intervention: low

This is the hotspot in UK politics, now that the new government is spending £150bn to curtail energy costs over the next two years. This will have to be paid by taxpayers in the future in one way or other, and business is only offered support for six months. This maintains the Sword of Damocles hanging over food SMEs, but in the short term is undoubtedly a good thing. The ‘hand-out’ on energy, however, highlights the continued silence on support with food prices. There is no food price cap. On a recent review of food insecurity I have been conducting, the UK government’s participation is not even weak; it is non-existent.

Government’s default food policy, as I have argued for years, is generally ‘leave it to Tesco et al.’ but on the cost of living it’s that plus ‘leave it to food banks’.  Today, however, even mighty mass purchasers cannot contain food prices. Unless there’s an unexpected end to the Ukraine-Russia war, input costs will continue to rise, which means diets are likely to have to change. Go to buy ‘fresh’ tomatoes in winter and they’re likely to be grown under LED lighting in the Netherlands – or were. Faced with energy price hikes, there’s a reduction of tomato planting. (Alternatively, they’ll be picked by African labour in Spanish polytunnels, but workers there are rightly restless over low wages).

Sober analysis of the cost-of-living crisis exposes how tensions and squeeze have been normalised across the food system. With fixed costs such as housing and energy rising, food – always a flexible item in household budgets – gets cut back. Food banks cannot cope. Their donations have fallen as more previous donors want to become users.

Prognosis: the domestic food crisis will worsen.

3: Food security

  • Case for intervention: a political call
  • Likelihood of intervention: low

The UK still imports food overwhelmingly from the EU. Defra’s new Secretary of State, Ranil Jayawardena, might want more international food trade but this cannot be achieved overnight. He favours supposed ‘free’ trade over protectionist politics. As I’ve long argued, this is an increasingly sterile distinction. The future for food systems needs to be about all countries and regions growing more of what they can sustainably (not business-as-usual) and getting off the unnecessary energy-guzzling trade treadmill simply because it’s cheaper. Too often, cheap food externalises costs to where land and labour are cheaper. A sustainable food system requires analysis on multi-criteria not simply price. The only route to food security is sustainability. This requires a shake-up of food measurement in politics. A recent paper shows it’s now possible to audit multiple and multi-ingredient food products across entire food systems.Like all rich, over-carbonised food economies, the UK ought to be beginning a shake-up of its food system to put it on a sustainable, long-term footing. It should rebuild low-energy horticulture, above all.

Meanwhile other food importing countries are quietly acting to increase home production. Japan, like the UK, has allowed a drop in home food production, but unlike the UK wants to sees rebuilding agriculture as part of the ‘new capitalism’. The city state of Singapore has decided to treble its home production from 10% to 30%. India has just restricted rice exports, realising it’s now affected by food import costs rising.

Prognosis: I cannot see this government working hard to raise UK production.

4:  Unleashing a diet revolution

  • Case for intervention: overwhelming
  • Likelihood of intervention: low

What we eat has huge impact on what’s grown. The sterile politics here is that diet is a matter of choice and consumer sovereignty. Only up to a point, I’m afraid. Sure, I can choose this or that yoghurt, this or that bread; to eat ‘Mexican’ tonight but ‘Indian’ next week. In reality, the shape of a population’s diet is framed by income, culture, class, parents, marketing, history. The 21st century will have to develop new ‘rules’ for food, just as the 20th century did to address crises such as war or shortages.  Some of these are on the horizon, such as appeals to eat ‘less but better’ meat, or eat more plants while generating less waste. But there’s no coherent advice yet from government. And commercial sector thoughts are limited by vested interests. NGOs are edging into this territory, but only government can and should give authoritative advice. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) ought to be working with the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) to prevent diet-related disease and begin the sustainable diet transition. They aren’t but could. To be effective, the Food Standards Agency ought to be revamped and turned into a powerful food, public health and sustainability agency. This too is do-able but unlikely with small-statists at the helm of DHSC and BEIS.

The concern here is about the nanny state. There’s no need for state involvement in food, argue neo-liberals who want less bureaucracy. The reality is that post-Brexit, the UK has more food red tape not less. Red tape per se is not the issue. What matters is, what’s the red tape around? Is it delivering public goods? Is the UK being helped to develop as a sustainable food economy and its people helped to eat better and more healthily and to build exercise into daily life, living in low-impact, carbon-neutral homes and workplaces?

It could be. But so far it isn’t. As the Financial Times commented recently, the UK is now a rule-taker not a rule-setter.That’s what politicians and their policy advisors ought to be working on. It’s time for Plans B and C. A new working party, coordinated by the Faculty of Public Health of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, is scoping this territory.

Prognosis: Professions and civil society ought to liaise with civil servants on those Plans B and C. They’ll be needed before long, particularly if the Ukraine-Russia conflict escalates.

5: Institutional kick-start

  • Case for intervention: overwhelming
  • Likelihood of intervention: low

If you believe all food matters can be left to market dynamics, this may be your moment in the sun. The rest of us know that clear frameworks are needed which override vested interests and which aspire to deliver the public good – health, long-term stability, work, pleasure, protection of the weak, a clean environment, more equal societies. UK governance is in a period of turmoil, not what sustainable food systems need. An elephant in the food policy room is Brexit. Understandably, the referendum was taken as a chance to give power elites a bloody nose. In food, it’s actually meant more bureaucracy and disruption for essentially the same food supplies.

The UK looks increasingly slow-footed, when it’s supposed to have ‘taken back control’. While the EU is progressing with the Farm to Fork Strategy, the UK is silent. I’d recommend Defra explores options for a new belt of horticulture around or near towns and cities, rebuilding regional biodiversity in fields not just at their edges, and preparing the retreat from low-lying Lincolnshire Fens or Lancashire Moss. The National Infrastructure Commission, a body few hear of, ought to focus on food production.

Prognosis: Government has promised to cut not re-invigorate the state. Facilitation of the necessary food system transition is thus not likely.

In conclusion, in these times of change, what can academics and civil society do about these significant, known problems? If the government is deaf, I would not give them much energy. I’d focus on the public and on building collaborations which recognise the systemic changes needed. It’s a time for unholy alliances and thinking the unthinkable.

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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