Food security and food policy deserve to be given serious thought, but so far, few Tory leadership candidates have mentioned either, says Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City, University of London.
As we watch the Conservative Party choose our next Prime Minister, food matters hang in the balance.
First is the Agriculture Bill, currently stuck somewhere in parliamentary processes. MPs tell me they have never known a Parliament which does less.
MPs usually work hard and long hours, but now everything is frozen by Brexit. All ground to a halt when Mrs May failed to get her Brexit Deal approved.
Now she’s gone, but Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s Agriculture Bill is held up too. This is an ambitious Bill intending to turn farming - but not food - policy upside down.
Since the 1947 Agriculture Act, British farmers have been asked and were subsidised to produce more food. Joining the EU changed the mechanisms, but not the policy goal.
Now, if Mr Gove’s Bill goes through, the productionist era of subsidies for food is over. EU CAP payments for land (Pillar 1) will be phased out and replaced by what Mr Gove and Prof Dieter Helm – the architect – grandly call ‘public payment for public goods’.
Environmental land management is to be the new ‘good’, not food.
So far, I have not heard anyone in the Conservative Party leadership stakes talk much about food. This is risky.
I have spent my working life encouraging us to see food and farming as an environmental concern, but to abandon food seems dangerous.
We already see President Trump’s willingness to use trade to bludgeon supposed allies. Why won’t he on the UK? Special relationship? Hmm.
Secondly, food security matters deserve more attention. Food is the coming crisis.
To his credit, Mr Gove recognised, when criticised in 2018, that his environmental focus was short-sighted.
He asked Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon the organic fast food chain, to step into the policy breach, as he had done for Mr Gove when at Education over school food.
On that, Mr Dimbleby did a decent job, and he’s begun to think strategically and sensibly about the enormity of Britain’s food challenge.
Insiders tell me that a few months ago, if Mr Gove were to leave Defra, the Dimbleby English Food Strategy process would have died too.
Now, it’s said to be more hard-wired in Defra, but a new Secretary of State might put it on ice.
Henry Dimbleby, to his credit, told our City Food Symposium in April that whether official or not, the process of food strategy review would have to continue.
He’s right in theory, but would it have leverage if outside Whitehall? I suspect not.
Thirdly, there is the issue of whom the UK sees as its food allies. Some in the Tory Party leadership (Labour’s too) talk of Europe as the enemy.
They re-run World War 2 as though the EU was not a peace project born, and supported by Churchill no less, to prevent future European conflict.
Once the rhetoric of Little Britain is let loose, it is hard to rein back. Globally most food which is traded is between near neighbours. It makes sense. Why have long-distance food when your neighbour has?
But when you sever ties, you lose goodwill. Where is the goodwill now? And we don’t have the navy, either!
Fourthly, there is the issue of public food standards. Switching from EU-derived food and food standards to global sourcing may sound good to people stuck in EU hatred mode, but consumers are waking up to chlorinated chicken as a symbol of quality control. Who wants worse meat even if cheap?
Last week, the National Audit Office reported a drastic cut in English local authority and Food Standards Agency hygiene staffing. The public now realises that cheap US or Brazilian chicken might not be ‘taking back control’.
We should think food, when we choose a PM.
Tim can be found tweeting at @ProfTimLang