Welcome news from DEFRA yesterday, as it published the first report into the sustainability of Britain’s food chain. The report follows up ‘Food Matters’, which came out last year and was a remarkable piece of work. (I reviewed it for Celsias here).
Food security can easily be taken for granted, but as the 2008 price rises proved, an international food market is more volatile than the supermarket shelves suggest. Surprise news this week that sugar prices are at a 30 year high prove the point. It’s great to see the government acknowledging the problems: “By 2050 the world will need to feed an estimated 9 billion people, and will have to do so sustainably, with oil severely constrained and climate change happening.”
A lot of good things have already come out of government food policy, including the WRAP waste campaigns, better labelling, and healthy eating drives. There has been a huge drain of expertise out of British farming, and the average age of farmers has been steadily rising. DEFRA are launching a new diploma for land management designed to encourage young people to go into farming.
There are a number of omissions however. Just last week the Competition Commission recommended a supermarkets ombudsman. The government has been very wary of interfering with the supermarkets, but they are one of the biggest obstacles to a sustainable food chain. The report ought to move this debate forward, but hedges its bets instead, claiming an ombudsman “raises complex issues which impact on consumers and the wider economy.” How well they respond the the Commission’s suggestion will be a good test of how serious they are about food.
Linked to that, the report assumes that food must continue to be sourced and supplied through our large-scale, centrally planned system. There is no talk of local food, supporting small scale farmers, or community growing. While there is a good focus on healthy eating, it fixates on salt and sugar, and argues for better information. A better approach would be to suggest people ate less meat and dairy, which would also be more sustainable.
In the end, it’s about your point of view. The government, predictably, wants to have health and sustainability within the current system. ‘Food Matters’ announces that is government policy to pursue “fair prices, choice, access to food and food security through open and competitive markets.” I’m not sure we can have all those things – choice, certainly, will be more constrained in the future. Choice is one of the big drivers of unsustainable practice. Open markets sound great, but for many poor countries a greater degree of protectionism would actually be better. We need to move from a globalised, big business food system to one that is human-scaled and appropriate for local needs. While the Food Matters reports deliver a lot of useful initiatives, they haven’t really started on the real challenge.