Digging our way to defeat?

1st June 2020


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Helen Skudder

Britain's food system is broken from top to bottom, according to a new book. Huw Morris reports

One of the most important dynamics driving food production is “from farm to fork“. Tim Lang thinks the UK is getting this perilously wrong.The professor of food policy at City, University of London bases his views on half a century of experience. After completing a doctorate in social psychology, he spent seven years during the 1970s as a hill farmer in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire. He credits this with shifting his attention to food policy. In 1994, he founded City University's Centre for Food Policy, from which he has probed the role of local, national and international policy in shaping and responding to the food system.

Lang's career has included consultancy work for the World Health Organisation, auditing the top 25 global food companies on food and health. He has advised the UK government and four House of Commons Select Committee inquiries. He helped launch the 100 World Cities Urban Food Policy Pact in Milan in 2015, and was a member of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, which published the Food in the Anthropocene report in 2019. He also coined the phrase “food miles“.

His latest book, Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, is a magnum opus covering the UK's food system, how it is damaging the population and the environment, and why it is unsustainable. In short, UK food is unhealthy, environmentally disastrous and, despite being unrealistically cheap, reinforces inequality between rich and poor.

Importing iniquity

For 170 years, the UK's food policy has relied on former colonies and trading partners. This position, which Lang calls “imperialist“, ignores the lessons of the two world wars, and is dangerous during an era in which climate change, mass obesity, market volatility and cyber insecurity are the new normal.

The UK should “dig for victory“, he says. We depend on imports for half our supplies, including 87% of fruit and vegetables, and what we grow is biased towards grass and animals. And this is before we waste it – 70% of UK food waste is domestic.

“Food is a crucial part of our national infrastructure, not a bargaining chip in trade“

The UK food industry generates £225bn a year, making it second in size only to financial services – yet just 8% of this goes to the nation's farmers and fishermen. This has led to concentration, distorted labour markets and what Lang describes as the naive belief that science or business will sort everything out.

And then there is the environmental destruction. Lang describes the UK as “one of the most nature-depleted nations on earth“, having lost 84% of its topsoil during the past 179 years. Much of its prime farmland is submerged in concrete. Meanwhile, producing a single beef burger requires 2,350 litres of water. Subsidies go to those who need them least, and are spent on intensive farming that is wrecking the ecosystem. Massive environmental challenges are on their way, if they are not here already. “Climate change will be noticed,“ he says. “More floods, more droughts, more stresses, more extreme weather. This has a big impact on land and how we use it.“

An insecure supply

Lang sees the Netherlands as a model for the future, because most of its fruit and vegetables are home-grown. He believes that food production should be more local, cutting distribution costs, and that junk food advertising and 'best before' dates should be banned.His book was written after the 2016 EU referendum but takes on added significance following the COVID-19 outbreak, with its warnings over the fragility of food supplies.

He is scathing about food contingency planning. The UK's naval protection has become more and more frayed, yet the government “seems intent to source more from far away“, even though ship and truck-based supplies can be disrupted by malware. The food industry, he says, knows the risks, and the government is “dangerously complacent“. Brexit is an opportunity to fix this. “Food is a crucial part of our national infrastructure, not a bargaining chip in trade,“ he says.

Lang calls on the public, industry and policymakers to take food security seriously. This means an overhaul of national food infrastructure, with new regional supply systems. Horticulture needs to be rebuilt, while our “inefficient cattle culture“ should be phased down. There then needs to be a consumer behaviour shift towards sustainable diets.

“We've come a long way since the time when British food was known as brown and bland,“ he says. “But future security depends on us rebuilding food governance which is fit for purpose. It needs radical change. Tinkering won't work in the longer term.“

Time to grow up

The UK needs to think about “what we want from the land in the first place“, says Lang. “Is it for the rich, as a hedge against uncertainty? Is it for the common people? For housing or building on? For food production? For woods? For water? For carbon sequestration? For culture and amenity? For the view? For tourism? The shape of that mix is a public issue, which we seemingly cannot decide – but climate change will force us to.

“Out of the UK's cultivatable 6m hectares, only 164,000 hectares are used for horticulture. This is bonkers. We need to double or treble our consumption of fruit and veg but instead have a tacit food policy to use other people's land. It's time we grow up politically and start rebuilding the connection between people, land, food and health. In short, it's time we had a food policy that integrates ecosystems, human health and food production. That's not what we currently have.“

Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them by Tim Lang is published by Pelican, £25.

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist

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