Coronavirus has highlighted vulnerabilities in the food supply chain, but what needs to change? Prof Tim Lang of professor of food policy at City, University of London, speaks to Abi Kay.
The Agriculture Bill has not had an easy ride.
First introduced to Parliament in 2018, it has been delayed by Brexit wrangling, killed off by an election, resurrected in a slightly different form and now faces another hold-up due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Will it survive this latest challenge?
One critic, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, hopes not.
After the Covid-19 outbreak, Prof Lang wrote to the Prime Minister to call for the Bill to be ‘stopped in its tracks’ and replaced with a Food Security and Resilience Act.
Speaking to Farmers Guardian ahead of the publication of his new book, Feeding Britain, he said: “The Agriculture Bill should be stopped right now.
“It has been driven by successful, powerful lobbying from the green and conservation organisations.
“I am very close to them, but I have had vehement arguments about this. They are getting nice things for bees and butterflies, and forgetting food. They are setting up a false polarity.
“Even members of the National Trust and the RSPB eat food.”
National Food Strategy
Prof Lang also questioned the Government’s decision to put the National Food Strategy on hold while the crisis is dealt with, suggesting there has never been a better time to put one together.
In his book, he proposes the UK should set a target to be 80 per cent self-sufficient in food, up from 53 per cent today.
“At 80 per cent, you can eat well most of the time and have lots of food trade, but you can tighten your belt if things go bad,” he said.
“Fifty per cent of your food being traded? That is risky.”
In fact, Prof Lang goes further than this, branding the UK’s reliance on food imports from water-stressed countries ‘ecological imperialism’.
But he goes on to warn against nationalism in global food policy.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Kazakhstan has banned exports of wheat flour, carrots, potatoes and sugar, Serbia has stopped exports of sunflower oil and Russia has refused to rule out shipment bans.
“I think this will become a growing trend,” said Prof Lang.
“But is this the answer in itself? No. We have to think about appropriate sustainable production.”
One way to ensure domestic production is sustainable is to safeguard farmers’ incomes.
Prof Lang recommends farmers receive double the amount of value added than they do at present – just 8 per cent.
“To the consumer, that maybe adds about 2 per cent to food prices,” he said.
“It is nothing. They would not even notice.”
But there is more to having a sustainable and resilient food system than price, and one often overlooked issue is cyber security.
“If you look at our food defence, it is laughable,” said Prof Lang.
“The food system today is entirely dependent upon logistics. Satellites can be knocked out and viruses can be put in.”
For this reason, the professor describes the idea of replacing workers such as fruit pickers with robots ‘a fantasy’.
“In cyber defence terms, this is a very bad idea indeed,” he said.
In order to combat the problem, Prof Lang recommends doubling the amount of money spent on national cyber security and the setting up of a joint food-defence inquiry looking at cyber security in food.
The UK’s food system is fragile in other ways too, mainly due to its reliance on just-in-time supply chains, which can run into problems very quickly in a crisis.
And though Prof Lang is a strong opponent of Brexit, he does acknowledge the EU single market has encouraged the growth of these vulnerable supply chains.
“The single market was designed for the free flow of goods,” he said.
“What it meant was Unilever could close lots of its ice cream factories, just have two, and truck its products instead.
“So actually, we just put more trucks on the road. Motorway madness took over because of the single European market.”
To put the food system on a more resilient footing, Prof Lang says the UK must devolve more power to its regions, allowing local people to make decisions about how they produce and consume food.