Food defence ought to be number one on the Government’s priority list during this pandemic, but the new Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution does not even include agri-food, says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London.
What is it about the colour green and the British?
Why do we see red when offered green – and jam on the brakes at the prospect of building a food system around protecting and enhancing ecosystems?
We suddenly find reasons not to change things and to go all wobbly.
True, the concept of ‘green’ comes to us often threaded with complications – approach or avoidance?
Green for go or green as inexperienced.
Green as good, fresh shoots of growth, or green as in ‘off’ and mouldy.
Our food culture sends contradictory signals, to be sure.
I was brought up to avoid cooking or eating potatoes if they’d gone green. Rightly so.
And at the same time, as children we were also advised to ‘eat your greens’. Again, rightly so.
This week, the Prime Minister issued the Government’s Ten Point Plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’.
The Plan ranged over energy sources, transport, homes, air, sea, innovation and finance.
None of the ten points included agri-food industries, unless we are charitable and include the desire for tree-planting.
This is surely to be welcomed, but was already long announced.
A budget of £12bn was attached to the Plan, but Philip Dunne MP, the Conservative chair of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, was right to say he was ‘disappointed’ that only £4bn of this was new money.
I hoped this might be ‘green’ as in green shoots, signs of growth and spring.
To be optimistic, one needs a microscope to detect the greenery.
And for agri-food, in England at least, we still await the National Food Strategy Part 2, now in gestation with Henry Dimbleby and due in the new year.
In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, we are stopped at the red traffic lights, awaiting the outcome of Brexit negotiations and with serious worries still in play about disruption at borders whatever deal is struck.
Suddenly people are realising that food flows into Northern Ireland as well out.
If borders are messed up, wow this will be serious.
Co-authors and I wrote about that two years ago and were ignored.
But don’t worry. The Department of Transport is putting chemical toilets down the M20 anticipating the needs of lorry drivers caught in jams from the Kent ports.
All that food we import.
What farming, food manufacturing, retailing and catering, let alone 67 million consumers need is some certainty about the direction of travel and the minutiae of how to manage cross-border agri-food trade.
This Ten-Point Plan is when the Government should have signalled a rebirth of UK production from farm to fork.
And to do this to yield a low-carbon sustainable diet.
Unless the UK changes what and how it eats and how its food is made, we’ll continue to deepen our food footprint.
A majority of farmers voted for Brexit. Now we see some consequences.
And it’s perhaps why the latest polls show ever more reversal from that decision.
But too late.
The Government promised us technology to make cross-border trade smooth. Not in place, say the road haulage industry.
Despite unprecedented lobbying, the Government refused to amend the (English) Agriculture Act, passed last week, to include any commitment to legally enshrined high food standards.
Only on one thing did it give way.
It’s decided the short-life Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) is to be given longer shelf-life.
This was a policy victory for the NFU, but the TAC is dangerously unfit for purpose.
It’ll be dealing with very delicate consumer, animal welfare, health and environmental standards matters but, with respect, lacks due expertise or back-up.
Goodness knows, the food system urgently needs direction and a plan.
It also needs urgent revision of infrastructure.
We cannot expect farmers to do the right thing with little support or for horticulture to be restarted without guidance.
Meanwhile, the UK pours out and consumes excessive over-processed foods, has a poor diet-related ill-health and environmental record, and our food system, despite some greenery, is nowhere near on-track for zero carbon, let alone regenerating land use to capture carbon.
This Ten-Point Plan is not exciting.
It nods in a green direction – much better than a red light – but nods are not enough.
Trillions of pounds need to be spent over the next two decades in what elsewhere academic colleagues and I called a Great Food Transformation.
The UK spends well over four times more on a handful of nuclear submarines than this, as I document in my book Feeding Britain.
Yet feeding people well and sustainably surely ought to be at the heart of what food and farming is for.
It’s the basis of food defence.
And nothing ought to be higher on the policy list of Government in this crisis.
We can do better than this.
Tim can be found tweeting at @ProfTimLang