Tim Lang’s Field Notes: Time to test the English ‘public funds for public goods’ principle

Tim Lang's Field Notes: Time to test the English ‘public funds for public goods’ principle

Professor Tim Lang

Thursday 7th July 2021

The long awaited National Food Strategy (Part 2) report carries much on its shoulders. Like many, I am agog. This will be a real test of how seriously the sixth richest economy on the planet takes the food challenges facing rich societies. Goodness knows, both the consuming public and food industries deserve a clear statement of what the Government actually wants, post Europe. But against what principles should the policy be judged? With colleagues, I’ve been mulling this for a forthcoming FRC paper.

A key test is whether the UK Government’s ‘public funds for public goods’ (PFPG) principle is more than a way of cutting farm subsidies. NGOs initially welcomed it as a way of realigning farm support to environmental gain. Some are now dubious about how it will work in practice. The details of Environmental Land Management (ELMS) are not yet fixed, even though it kicks in soon. I suspect that the pragmatics will satisfy fewer people and that political space will open up again to question the gap between the idea of PFPG and its operationalisation. We should also ask whether the PFPG principle is even right. Much hangs on who defines ‘public good’. Experimental policies need benchmarks and democratic scrutiny. One certainty is that ELMS disguises expected halving of farm support in four years.

The Defra ‘Farming is Changing’ subsidy overview doesn’t even mention the drop in funds, but the English Agriculture Act 2020, which enshrined the PFPG principle, barely mentioned food! With trade deals being made with far-off lands, an ‘anywhere but Europe’ principle seems to be rivalling PFPG. In Whitehall terms, the Departmentt for International Trade is triumphing over Defra. If Defra genuinely championed decent British agri-food (it’s the ‘F’ in its title, remember), it surely should show some resolve in blocking deals struck with countries with lower food standards.

A keystone principle should be to deliver food security and food resilience to the UK. The UK’s food system is over-stretched, unsustainable, failing to feed all its people well and healthily. A food security principle would apply a multi-dimensional test to food matters. Food is about social values, not just financial value. About culture and class, not just financialisation. About human health as well as ecosystems health. About good international relations with neighbours, not just rushed, feel-good trade deals.

Another principle is surely food defence. Of all the issues raised and addressed in my 2020 Feeding Britain book, this has had barely any public discussion. It should. Geopolitics are sensitive as the recent G7 and NATO meetings illustrate. If not yet either a Hot or Cold War, political tensions are simmering.

Food defence and the food security principles are two sides of one coin – ensuring all of a state’s people are well and securely fed. Food companies are fast developing a private corporate approach to food defence. They are currently troubled by their vast software-dependent just-in-time logistics being immobilised by ransom. Blocking ransomware is important, and is now a growth economic activity, mostly private sector, of currently £8.9 bn a year. The state National Cyber Security Centre has a £1.9 bn budget, recently raised. But real food defence must also start with the people, by building skills. Our forthcoming FRC paper will argue that for a food security policy, more emphasis must be laid on social resilience and community preparedness. Less dependence on Tesco et al. keeping shelves stocked; more on diversifying food sources and stocking.

Another principle is food democracy. If worth its name, a ‘national’ food strategy would surely show some willingness for England to be neighbourly with now wary Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, let alone where it gets 30% of its food from, the EU. Food must be seen as a core part of what a Manchester group of academics call the ‘foundational economy’.1,2 This sees food and farming as shared infrastructure which civilises capitalism, enables nations to help each other and reduces tensions.

Nowhere is this foundational economy approach more pertinent than in halting the avalanche of unhealthy foods pouring out of food factories. Healthy diets are as important as ecsosystems health, and they are linked. The UK eats the most unhealthy diet in Europe – over half our diet is from ultra-processed foods (i.e. high in fats, salt and sugar). A leaked Nestlé document shows it knows 60% of its products are unhealthy. In 2021, the excellent NGO ShareAction forced Tesco to commit to selling less ultra-processed foods.

We need more of this. Radical and big change is needed. Progressives in industry have created an initiative to give broader information on food labels. Such schemes are a step forward but weak in that they give product-specific information, rather than what’s needed, which is how to change the total diet. That needs Government to reframe the system. We need more comprehensive labels, certainly, not least to push reformulation. But to be effective, they must be enforced not voluntary and cover all food products not just those companies seeking brand protection.  Market competition won’t resolve the ecosystems and health crises.

In coming months, as the policy scene bubbles, food policy watchers should be wary about lofty words on public goods and public funds. I say: keep applying old public interest tests such as ‘who gains, who loses?’ and ‘does this narrow the evidence-policy-practice gap?’

‘Testing Times for UK Food Policy: Nine principles and tests for long-term UK food security and resilience’, by Tim Lang, Erik Millstone and Terry Marsden, is published by the Food Research Collaboration on 13 July. Sign up here to receive the link when it is launched.

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.

[1] Bentham J, Bowman A, de la Cuesta M, et al. Manifesto for the Foundational Economy. Manchester: CRESC, University of Manchester, 2013.

[2] Foundational Economy Collective. Foundational Economy: The Infrastructure of Everyday Life. Manchester: Manchester University Press; 2018.

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