If you’ve ever read a report or listened to a radio programme on the sustainability of Britain’s food system, you’ll probably have come across Tim Lang. He’s a food policy expert who used to be a farmer, and he has spent decades analysing Britain’s food system and arguing for some coherent plans for how we feed ourselves.
The main message of his new book is that while Britain last experienced food insecurity in the 1930s, things are more fragile than they appear and we have been complacent for too long. Left to the market for decades, “our food supply systems are so finely tuned that it takes little to disrupt them”.
I read this the same week that I walked around an empty supermarket for the first time in this country, and saw people queueing to buy groceries. The book warns very clearly that we shouldn’t wait for a crisis before we fix things. Well, we did.
Britain grows 60% of its own food, at best. A third comes from the EU, which we just voted to leave. We rely too much on imports, assuming that as a rich country we can just buy in what we need. That’s an assumption that will be tested this year, as recent news articles have begun to point out.
To add to fragile supply lines, the food we eat is unsustainably grown. It is high in carbon, uses too much water, and is at risk from soil erosion. On the social side, food is poorly distributed – excellent and bountiful for some, and insufficient and unhealthy for others. Food banks have been ‘normalised’. The majority of adults are overweight. We eat too much of the wrong things, and not enough fresh fruit and vegetables. And we still waste almost a third of what we buy.
All is not well with the British food system, but these problems are easy to ignore in a market economy. Food is cheap, and the government has taken that as a sign of efficiency and progress. It is easy to ignore the problems, leave it to the supermarkets and carry on, until the crisis inevitably comes.
It must be galling for Tim Lang to have written a book like this and see it released just in time for the warning to be too late. On the other hand, the timing is perfect for those who now suddenly recognise that things have to change. The policy prescriptions are all there are ready to go. To highlight a handful from the dozens in the book:
- Reform of subsidies to slow down unproductive and unsustainable livestock production.
- A new Food Resilience and Sustainability Act to set a genuine vision for sustainable diets.
- Increase production. “For a country as blessed as is the UK,” writes Lang, “it is ludicrous that we produce so little food.” He suggests a target to move from 60% to 80% self-sufficiency, with fewer animals and more horticulture.
- Using taxes to discourage unsustainable and unhealthy diets. A profit driven system inevitably pushes the most profitable foods to the front, which are the ones with the most valued added – ie highly processed foods. The long term health consequences of this are then left to the public purse to deal with through the NHS. So using the tax system to deter unhealthy eating is entirely logical.
- A network of regional training colleges for farming and food production, releasing land for young farmers, and encouraging food production as a career choice.
There are many more, all explained in what is a detailed and comprehensive book. A shorter one might have been more accessible to a popular audience, but this is a perfect guide for anyone who wants to know where we go from here.
“It is surely better to begin managed change than to wait for crisis” writes Lang. That choice may be out of our hands right now, but thankfully food policy specialists have been thinking about this for a long time, and now might be a good time to start paying them some attention.