Food security in the UK – time to worry

Tim Lang (right), professor of Food Policy at City University’s Centre for Food Policy, is the go-to person by the media when food policy and security make the headlines. He was a frequent contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme when it became clear that the UK faced food shortages in the event of a hard Brexit. Reading his latest book, Feeding Britain: our food problems and how to fix them, one can see the extent that he should host the show, not just contribute to it when the headlines demand. Food security in the UK is a big problem, and its fragility has much to do with British exceptionalism, a situation that, in the context of Brexit, is fast receding. This is the first book that I have read that actually makes a credible case for Brexit; it is not intended to do so and it is something that Lang stumbled upon rather than explicitly endorsed. More on that in a moment.

Feeding Britain is published by Pelican Books (below left), an imprint of Penguin/Random House, The imprint publishes work on hugely topical issues in accessible styles. In reading Lang, one senses the haste with which it was written. It is in no way sloppy, far from it, but Lang knows every reference whether it be a long-published academic article, government report or personal interaction. It has inspired me to get moving on my own work. It demonstrates what is possible from a life of accrued knowledge. There are 470 pages of text. Each one is a gem.  Each one leaves the reader out of breath.

Where to start? Actually, it is quite simple – some history basics. Britain’s imperial past is, to put it generously, chequered. It is, seemingly, the origin of the British thought, paraphrased here, that someone else will feed us, so we do not need to bother growing stuff ourselves. The growing is usually done by people in far-away lands, the rural poor, who receive a small fraction of the value of the product ascribed to it by end users, usually in the rich West. And even when fresh produce comes from near neighbours such as Spain, the back-breaking work is done by migrant labour often paid below minimum levels in the country, and affording them a lifestyle far short of that enjoyed by the beneficiaries of their labour. It also comes with a huge carbon footprint, a consequence of mono-culture and extensive transportation.

Coupled with the imperialism argument, the concentration of land ownership in the UK which started with the Enclosures of common land in the 17th and 18th Centuries; annexation of Church land under Henry VIII and more recently, enclosures arising from the privatisation of much of the public sector since 1980. Lang puts a figure on it – 189,000 families own 2/3 of UK land or one-half of England is owned by 25,000 people (p368). This is all made worse by the commodification of land – it is an investment, not a source of sustenance or habitat. 3,660 per cent is the figure by which land values have increased in the last 50 years. This means that, at the very least, it is difficult for small farmers to produce appropriately and sustainably. It forces tenants – and they usually are tenants – to use intensive methods to increase yield and further inflate the value. And on top of that, owners attract production subsidies from the EU – and post Brexit, presumably from UK taxpayers! (That mechanism is described in pages 370-7.)

Allied to the land ownership debate, Lang charts the changing percentage of income people spend on food vis-à-vis other things; notably, housing costs. The land owners, by this argument, not only enclose land and extract a high Gross Value Added from it (relative to the growers), they also own the properties in which the majority live. In extracting more from tenants, the margin has to be squeezed out of food prices (and by definition costs). Cheap food, argues Lang, is then equated with good food (not because it is nutritious, but because it seems to be good for someone else’s wealth). Moreover, the price of food rarely incorporates the externalised costs of production – environmental damage, health and society more generally such as life expectancy (which bad food shortens).

More positively, shortening supply chains would be a positive example of taking back control! And this is the Brexit argument. Though we know only too well, that Brexiters see the extension of food chains as being a Brexit benefit, and with it a reduction in quality, safety and increased insecurity, the UK no longer has the capability to defend those supply chains against hostile state actors or have the global influence to guarantee supply in time of scarcity, unlike in the imperial past. Security is also threatened by cyber attack on those supply chains, something that Lang believes is under appreciated within Government (and society more generally).

Lang argues that the National Minimum Wage or the National Living Wage needs to be re-calibrated to pay for, what he calls, sustainable diets. The factors above have been made worse – and particularly in the UK – by the population moving on to super-processed foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). Again, the costs of this are externalised (the National Health Service costs obesity alone as £6.5bn and a wider societal cost of £27bn – p207). Lang is adamant that an escalator tax on HFSS foods needs to be introduced. Pension funds, too, should divest from firms that manufacture HFSSs. Ad-spend (marketing is also disproportionate relative to health promotion, and it is targeted at children through social media. Lang also argues that the large supermarkets – singling out Tesco with its 30 per cent share of UK grocery market should be broken up.

Lang is not making an argument for growing out-of-seasonal foods in the UK in the middle of winter under lights and heat (even if

cattle

Source: Billy Hathorn

they had taste, which he clearly thinks such produce does not); that does not help the carbon footprint much. Rather, he is saying, that we have to grow more food in he UK (the country produces only 53 per cent of its own food) that is consumable directly and not, as seems to be true of much of arable farm produce in the UK, fed to animals, some of which like ruminants are hugely inefficient converters of plants into meat as well as huge greenhouse gas manufacturers. They fart. A lot. Land use is dominated by rearing and feeding animals. That very process, too, has an external cost that could be fatal in the future, antibiotic resistance as such valuable medicines are routinely fed to animals to retain “yields”.

There are also things about imported foods that I had not thought about. For example, we should not take water for granted, even though the UK is temperate and generally wet. If we import food from countries that are short of water, but whose products are full of it (fruit, vegetables, etc.), there is a net imbalance and a cost to the growing country and its people, nothwithstanding their foreign earning from the produce (often imported by air). Huge volumes of water are in foodstuffs that we do not anticipate, such as rice. Lang’s section on water imperialism is a must-read, pp225-44.

illustration

Cornish Aromatic apples (source: Brogdale)

Lang highlights that the UK produces so little of its own fruit. Whilst many exotic soft fruits are not viable in the UK, apples, pears and berries are eminently feasible and desirable. The population does not get anywhere near 5-a-day fruit and vegetable consumption (which seems truly bizarre and frightening at the same time). On horticulture, in 1950, there were 3000 apple growers in the UK, by the mid-1990s there were 800. Government grubbing regulations facilitated the destruction of orchards through subsidy! (p91). Lang contrasts the UK case with France where small growers and cooperatives are significant suppliers (the cooperatives provide the scale). Scale in the UK is provided by very large and concentrated growers and importers.

Finally, there is an important role for education, not only in terms of teaching children about food, its origins, how to grow it (sustainably), and how to cook primary ingredients, but also in what children are fed at school. Diet regulations for school meals, argues Lang, need to be universal, not just in the poorest, most regulated schools.

OK, I’ve done some hard work on the reading; it is time for us all to do some hard work in changing the way food is understood, used as a political tool, traded and prepared.

 

 

3 comments so far

  1. Asher Rospigliosi on

    A really useful summary of a topic that is emotive and complex. Thank you.

    I do not relish reading arguments supporting for the case for brexit, but you show how in relation to the benefits of increased domestic food production, there may be some. Very good to see the long view at the start. Recognising the impact of imperialism and colonialism on the way things are now, are so important. And who can resist an academic analysis that contatins terse northern good sense like “They fart. A lot.”

    • strassenbahn13 on

      I was not allowed to use the word “fart” when I was a child. I’ve been making up for lost time since.

  2. […] The philosophers at the heart of Bregman’s analysis are Hobbes and Rousseau. The Hobbesian world is that of the Leviathan – the human need for strong leaders, discipline and order to prevent a state of chaos, barbarism and cruelty. The Rousseau-ian world is one of the social contract, cooperation and common interests regulating behaviour. Bregman makes the argument that it all started going wrong when private property was conceived, when people – who became powerful and rich – were able to enclose common land and exploit it for private gain. These people built a civilisation on slavery, private property and the exploitation of natural resources. This has been a theme of other books that I have recently read; namely, Adreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and Tim Lang’s Feeding Britain. […]


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