Tim Lang’s Field Notes: Covid-19 and Brexit

Tim Lang's Field Notes: Part 1

Professor Tim Lang

Friday 18th December 2020

There could only be two serious possible topics for this opening Field Notes: Covid-19 or Brexit. They in fact weave together, although the former is worldwide in scope and Brexit is almost parochial. It will be interesting in 20 years to reflect which had more lasting food effects. Brexit is self-inflicted damage, if one thinks neighbourly stability and goodwill are essential for food; or the overdue national reclamation of food democracy, if one thinks EU food powers signified an unaccountable supra-national state.

The Food Research Collaboration began to consider potential implications of the UK leaving the EU well before the June 2016 Referendum. We hosted a conference to consider food effects months before the vote. Four and a half years and many briefings later, impacts are still emerging amidst uncertainty about where the UK food system now goes. It’s rare to witness such a mix of despair and alarm from big and small food businesses. Government doesn’t help by simply saying ‘prepare’ when it’s not clear for what future.

From January 1, 2021 surely the policy terrain must clarify on issues the FRC raised including: tariffs raising prices, shifting availability, changed contracts and business partners, above all a squeeze on the poor and on labour. Already the loss of science infrastructure is clear. There was no continental agency to turn to about weak food advice in Covid. The Food Standards Agency’s silence was sad. Nor did Public Health England complain about the poor nutritional status of food parcels or rocketing reliance on Food Banks.



Animal welfare seems to receive more attention in trade matters than human welfare. Why the either/or?



Politically, while Covid-19 has massively increased supermarket power (a field-day with hospitality closed), in the long-term, Brexit’s greatest food impact might be on UK foreign policy. In my book Feeding Britain, I explore varied food futures: Atlanticist, globalist, neo-colonial, outer-European, nationalist or bio-regionalist. Where food comes from matters. So does the messaging. It surely matters whether the UK struts the food stage (without an Empire) or actively relocates itself in mid-Atlantic or Pacific, or courts the southern hemisphere, or grows more here.

The Prime Minister at times talks of ‘our European friends’ as though nothing has happened. The Biden election stopped talk of quick US trade deals. Animal welfare seems to receive more attention in trade matters than human welfare. Why the either/or?

UK food policy has fragmented despite talk of ‘levelling up’. English farm policy now says next to nothing about food. It’s focussed is on ecosystems. Northern Ireland’s border is becoming the Irish Sea, not 310 land miles. The Agriculture Act anticipates dramatic cuts in farm subsidies. At last, say some. Me too, as they kept farmers in serfdom, producing too cheap commodities from which others took the value – but no-one wants more expensive food. We await the Dimbleby report Part 2 in spring.

Some say Covid-19 proved the UK food system is resilient: the shelves were full. True, after hiccups, but hospitality (the biggest employer) was left in ruins when it could have been repurposed for community feeding, and to retain supply chains not already dominated by the ruthless retailer contracts and specifications.  And if it is a ‘success’ that 14% of UK families with children experienced food insecurity after March,  or emergency food parcels too often failed the nutrition laugh-test, or that it took a young footballer to get Government to listen when it had ignored its own advisor … Well, we need to sort out the criteria by which we judge success. To that end, keep both the evidence and questions coming.

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