We need a food economy based on the three ‘S’s, not growth, growth, growth

We need a food economy based on the three ‘S’s, not growth, growth, growth

Field Notes

We need a food economy based on the three ‘S’s, not growth, growth, growth

Professor Tim Lang

Thursday 13th October 2022

In her closing speech to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, the new UK Prime Minister made it quite clear what she wants for the UK economy (and presumably the food economy within that) during her tenure. It is “growth, growth, growth”.

Liz Truss also said why she favours growth. It “makes life better for everyone.” It’s what people want. It will level up the country. It means we can pay for “great public services”.

All these are potentially true. But whether it is ‘delivered’ (another favourite word) will depend on how that growth is used and, more importantly, on what kind of growth we create. This is not as simple as the Prime Minister implies. And certainly not for food.

One can have economic growth which pollutes, kills people, creates inequality and benefits a minority over a majority. One can have a food economy which grows people’s waistlines and queues for healthcare, and creates more jobs in diabetes health.

And one can have so-called green growth which stops mining and wasting finite resources, and centres on making production and consumption impacts beneficial or at least neutral. And in food, one could grow a fair food economy centred on making national diet a driver of health not ill-health, a booming biodiversity not its decline.

So it is nonsense to pitch political options for any economy as growth versus not-growth. There is a vast literature on the variations for growth, and much pick-up such as commitments to a Green New Deal, also meaning different things to different people. One can set out to reframe and grow an economy to accelerate or to reverse climate heating, for example, or to increase jobs in horticulture not confectionery. One can see the growth of pharmaceutical markets as good for GDP or as an indicator of an economy which has its values over-fixed on cure not prevention. Surely it is better to invest in preventing the need for interventions, and for stability, security and sustainability in the food system as a whole.

In short, there are different types of capitalism, growth and economies. Ms Truss’s binary thinking – you are either for or against growth – assumes that growth is a fixed concept and a concrete reality. It isn’t. Growth is made by human choices, and has been recognised as such since economics as an academic pursuit began. Adam Smith thought economics was a moral science. Now fast forward to Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth or Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics.

Clarifying what we mean by growth matters greatly for food policy. Indeed, modern food policy began to break away from the 1940s productionist version of growth – centred on quantity at all costs – when evidence emerged from the 1970s onwards that the changes introduced post World War ll were creating new destructive tendencies.

It was in the 1970s that Professor Ancel Keys’s Seven Countries study produced significant evidence that dietary patterns helped explain national incidence of cardiovascular disease. It showed that economically poor Greece ate a better diet for health than rich USA. Such evidence began to change official advice if not the reality. Poor Greece has ‘grown’ its dairy and over-processed diet and become one of the fattest populations in Europe: so much for it following the Mediterranean diet.

In the UK, the then Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) produced its first landmark report urging dietary change in 1974. COMA’s advice was reiterated and strengthened in 1984 and 1994, only for the committee to be abolished in 2000 and replaced by a more narrowly focussed Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. (There’s a magnificent collection of COMA reports still available, a textbook case of evidence being ignored.)

The environmental case against neo-classical economics began even earlier, symbolised by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. (I remember being attacked for reading such ‘rubbish’ by a chemistry lecturer at my university in the late 1960s when discussing it with a friend in a queue for a sandwich! I thought: cor, what’s Carson done to incite such emotion?) By the early 1970s, mainstream business was noting the risks of growing economies through fossil fuels as a prime energy source. The 1972 Limits To Growth report was written by US academics for the Club of Rome, the international business network. It was a minority voice, to be sure, and the 1970s was when neo-classical economics gained the upper hand in economic policy, symbolised by the Chicago School.

Today, however, even giant companies are reluctant to side wholeheartedly with growth at all costs. The indicators that food businesses often cite in Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting symbolise a recognition it’s not just profit growth that matters; they must reduce and be seen to reduce their impacts. This may not be prosperity-without-growth in Jackson’s terms, but it heralds different business models. No wonder business people scratched their heads at Truss’s speech.

The Truss speech sent worrying signals at the wrong time. Just when climate change and ecosystems stress are being recognised as a turning point for life on Planet Earth, and just when the food economy needs an overhaul, she wants to narrow public policy focus in a rich, if wobbling, economy, back onto a doctrine which is only supported by a relatively small number of members of the neo-classical club – or should we now acknowledge it as a cult?

With rocketing energy costs throughout the world, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this is not a time for cults or turning the clock back. It’s a time to think big thoughts about what a better 21st century society needs.

It certainly doesn’t need more disruption. We need a food economy based on the three S’s not thrice stated growth. Stability. Security. Sustainability.

Let’s get specific. Does the PM seek a growth of ‘influencers’ in shaping dietary patterns? The financialisation of such ‘advice’ on social media such as Tik-Tok, Instagram and Facebook may be ‘growth’ but is completely at odds with a health-enhancing, sustainable food system. The effects on young minds are rightly being discussed in relation to body image and teenage struggles with bulimia, anorexia and other diet-fixated ills. These influencers need de-growth, surely!

The Prime Minister’s speech showed she heads a Cabinet whose thinking is actually shaped by a different kind of influencer, the right-wing think-tank. When businessman Antony Fisher (later knighted) made a fortune from introducing battery chickens to the UK via Buxted Chickens, he proceeded to spend some of that wealth creating think-tanks to promote Hayek-inspired pro-growth, anti-state economic intervention. It’s ironic that this contentious bit of the meat industry spawned so much. Not just the intensification of animal production but a roll-call of policy influencers such as the Mont Pelerin Society, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation in the USA, and the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies in the UK. Academics have helped chart this influence and we can salute Richard Cockett’s 1994 Thinking the Unthinkable and Daniel Stedman Jones’s 2012 Masters of the Universe.

Ms Truss’s political thinking on growth owes much to her involvement in this world. It’s why some right-wing commentators now say the UK is their experiment.

At least the new government’s position is clear. It is overtly in favour of disruption. For six years, the actual direction the UK would take when replacing the EU system of intra-member, state negotiated positions has been uncertain. The Johnson years were characterised by zigzagging, trying to keep a broad church together. No longer.

Now we know. It’s to sweep away all EU legacy regulations (as discussed elsewhere in this newsletter), which is not going down well with mainstream conservation groups. And possibly to halt health interventions; ditto unhappiness in public health circles. Definitely to pursue more trade deals while claiming to protect high standards. Please read or listen new Defra Secretary Ranil Jayawardena’s conference speech: this is a person who delivered as trade minister the antipodean deals. And definitely, the government’s intention is to deliver tax cuts as soon as possible, and to mine for fracked gas and North Sea oil.

Is it gloves-off or a feint? We’ll see. It certainly heralds a return to naïve productionist rhetoric when what’s needed is an entirely different type of growth. One which grows health-enhancing food. One which restores biodiversity in, not just alongside, fields. One which reduces carbon emissions in daily life (not just allowing the rich to claim job-done by buying notionally ‘electric’ cars). One which feeds everyone well. One which ensures a food system based on above ‘living wage’ jobs. And one which delivers stability, not permanent disruption.

For the first time since the 2016 referendum, I think the British people actually might be stirring and recognising that it’s not good for democracy, let alone food democracy, to allow cults within political parties to run the agri-food system, anymore than it is economically healthy to allow vast businesses to control economies. There’s too much concentration in the food system already.

Meanwhile, a lot of damage will be done. The attempt to axe all retained EU legislation on UK statute books may appeal to the cult, for example, but signals disruption for the food sector, not least over trade with the EU. It will also require parliamentary time. The Bill might be delayed but already there are signs of what might appear. Last week it emerged Local Authorities are to be allocated £400k over three years to enforce regulations such as the new controls on where and how foods high in fats, sugars and salt (HFSS) can be placed and promoted in stores. Rightly, Trading Standards and Environmental Health Officers are saying this is tantamount to a joke.

Is this how the growth commitment will ultimately be translated – a growth of chaos and disruption?

I hope not.

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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