The coronavirus crisis has exposed the Government’s failure to think about food policy, and it needs to be properly considered now, says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London.
The country and the world are in a new place. Events unfold with unusual rapidity.
A zoonosis – a disease spread from animals to humans – is ripping through societies. For the first time for decades, there is truly a global perspective emerging.
‘No man is an island’, John Donne wrote in 1623 when seriously ill. Too true. We are social beings, dependent on each other – nowhere more than in food.
The infrastructure which improves our lives is too easily ignored, found to be frayed just when we need it.
Yet now we’re seeing actions taken to protect us, some following scientific advice, some not so much. The mood is rightly sober.
What’s this got to do with food and farming? Everything.
Firstly, as though UK systems were not disrupted enough by leaving the EU, where we get at least a third of our food from, now across the world borders are being re-erected.
Those policy geeks who claim to like disruptions – shake things up, it’s good for you – didn’t think about this.
This is not a theory but real change, real disruption. Food needs proper long-term stability and planning if we are to feed people well.
Secondly, food fault-lines, which have been detected by analysts for years but mostly ignored by politicians, are now rocketing into public consciousness.
Security of supply. Food shopping. Storage. Diet essentials for health. Equal access for all.
Many lessons will be drawn from what coronavirus is exposing.
I am one of those who has long been troubled by UK food system. Its brilliance is back to back with its weaknesses.
It’s why I sat down to write Feeding Britain, my new book.
I look at UK food security through many lenses. Food as supply, self-sufficiency rates (it depends how measured, but it is low and has dropped) and food defence.
No-one wants a war, but the UK has ignored its own food capacities.
So I try to set out a better vision for UK food and farming. This means putting it on a sustainable footing, which it currently is not.
Thirdly, money flows.
The low returns to primary agri-food industries in the UK is shocking. Yes, I know worldwide it’s the same. But let’s get real.
UK consumers spent £225.7bn on food and drink in 2018. £121bn gross valued added (GVA) was made out of this flow from farm and sea to mouths.
Yet farming and fishing got precisely 8.6 per cent of this GVA. No wonder profitability is so dependent on subsidies.
These the Government, as we know, plans to cut and replace with payments for environmental land management.
That sounds good, but it’s bonkers to ignore food, which it mostly does.
Already, studies suggest this will push many farms into loss.
I argue that a good UK food system must ensure financial returns to farming at least double. Farming and food need long-term stability, I repeat.
The effect of more money going to primary industries will be small to consumers, because everyone else down the food chain makes the money.
Fourthly, land use.
It’s spring, time to plant at field and garden scale. Yet when I look at the state of UK horticulture, I find a sector on the back foot, with a few exceptions such as berries.
Allowed to decline for years, and now about to be further hurt by labour shortages – despite the welcome rush of interest to help in the Covid-19 crisis – Government is still not facing the consequences of axing the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.
Food labour needs to be better paid. Consumers must pay more.
And horticulture must be a priority in the rethink.
If we really want to feed people well, at least one big study shows land for directly feeding people will need to double. Surely, horticulture and farming are the canaries in the cage, ignored at our peril.
Fifthly, diet and health. The UK nowhere near meets our weak healthy eating guidelines (5-a-day).
Diets are awry in health terms, and have been slowly bankrupting the NHS for years. Plant-based foods are key for health, yet the UK only has 165k hectares down to horticulture out of our 6 million hectares of croppable land.
You cannot grow mangoes on the Lancashire hills. I know that.
But why have we let food security drop to only 53 per cent home grown, according to the latest statistics?
We face major long-term threats from floods, climate change and pressures on land, but compared to many countries, we have rich soils, plentiful capital, a relatively benign climate.
This all needs to be future-proofed.
As I show in Feeding Britain, a rethink began in the 2007-08 banking crisis, leading to a consensus new position by 2010, only for this all to be axed by an election.
Now a belated National Food Strategy which started last year, hoping to catch up on nine wasted years, is also pushed back by Covid-19. This must not happen.
At the heart of this creeping crisis is a failure to think through food policy properly.
It’s time we did.
Professor Lang can be found tweeting at @ProfTimLang