On the Frontline: The Point of Food Policy: reflections on the last 40 years

On the Frontline: The Point of Food Policy: reflections on the last 40 years

Tim Lang

It would be nice but foolish to expect food policy to be a slice of public policy where evidence, policy and practice blend harmoniously. Dream on! There’s too much money, power and history at stake, let alone the unleashed forces of consumer choice, or the contrary pulls of environment and cheapness. Yet somehow sense has to be made of it.

The evidence about what needs to change in the food system is pretty clear and widely agreed. It suggests we need:

  • a radical decarbonisation of the food system (food is the major source of greenhouse gases);
  • an alteration of dietary trends (diet has now overtaken tobacco as the world’s biggest cause of premature death);
  • a brake on the runaway nutrition transition sweeping the world’s pattern of eating (with the UK in the vanguard!) towards increased ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat;
  • a narrowing of diet-related ill-health gaps between rich and poor, within and between countries;
  • a rebalancing of sources of information and pressures on food culture, particularly for children, away from the commercially dominated towards public interest.

It has taken a century or more to get to this situation, yet massive change is needed within 30 years, the science says. This requires firm policy direction and leadership, and will almost certainly meet resistance, not just from vested commercial interests, but also from the consuming public used to the cornucopia of recent decades.

As though this wasn’t challenge enough, the British have just voted to exit the EU. A massive reordering of food trade policy, laws, contracts and expectations is now underway just when the food system ought to begin readjusting to meet environmental, health and social goals. Already food forces are jostling for position. Does Brexit mean throwing out the Common Agricultural Policy? Or turning it into an English one, allowing Wales and Scotland to develop what they already have on their own? Does it mean abolishing farm subsidies and ‘doing a New Zealand’? What of environmental protection? And food standards?

Some on the Tory Right envisage a neo-Victorian era of strong international trade, trawling the world for cheap food ingredients. Others seek renewed economic nationalism. Yet food is a massive employer (3.6 million jobs). It’s the biggest UK manufacturing sector today, quite unlike Victorian times when the UK made a myriad of engineering products to sell abroad. There’s no Empire to feed the UK as in Victorian times or a vast navy to protect supply lines should the going get rough. Michael Gove wanted cheaper food, promising a boom for Africa (however, Africa’s priority is to feed itself).

Many are exercised by immigration. But foreign-born workers keep UK food flowing through the system. That ‘British’ strawberry you’re eating is almost certainly picked by foreign labour. The person serving you that cappuccino or latte in the café is likely to be, too.

The Workforce aside, the issue looming is food security. The 2007-08 banking crisis exposed how exposed the UK was to a volatile currency. Food self-sufficiency has worsened since and stands at 61% today, down from the 82% it was in the early 1980s, thanks to the derided Common Agricultural Policy. A third of UK food comes from within the EU, much of it the fruit and veg so essential for health. Indeed, my memo to Andrea Leadsom, the Secretary of State at Defra, if she wants one, would be simple: revamp horticulture, as only a tenth of the fruit we eat, pitifully too little, is UK-sourced – why import apples, pears and soft fruit, and add to the widening £21bn a year food trade gap?! This isn’t driven by economic protectionism but by the recognition that any country with good soils and resources should begin to base its land use on the new policy metric of people fed per acre, rather than profitability or throughput. At present our food system is riven with absurdities, notably that half the grain we grow is fed to animals who are over-produced, over-cheap and give us saturated fats.

I became interested in all these food policy questions when doing a PhD on school phobias, studying an anorexic. I was living in an isolated run-down farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales, typing away to views of broken stone walls left from the 18th century, in between research field trips over the dale to a psychiatric unit. I became conscious of land. What is land for? Beauty? Amenity? Water capture? Energy? Food? Work? It was the time of the nascent modern environmental movement. Then, as now, neo-Malthusian questions were being voiced, whose echoes troubled social scientists. I started reading widely. As I finished my doctorate in 1973-4 we entered the Common Market (now the EU). I switched direction, and went farming. Two years later, the country (and I) voted 2:1 to stay in, and our food system entered a period of major policy change. I was hooked. I loved, and still love, food policy’s mix of practicality, interdisciplinary theory and live process.

The more I read, listened to and met others asking questions about the role of technology, progress, health, power, people and choice around questions of food, the less I thought we had a good academic grasp of what was going on in food policy. What political and policy focus there was tended to be exclusively on the developing world’s food crisis. Not without reason: famines in Biafra (1967-70), Bangladesh (1971) and the Sahel/Ethiopia (1970-74). George Harrison had launched the modern rock politics era with his massive Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971.

The formal policy response to these events was the 1974 World Food Conference, hosted by the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation. It coincided with the oil crisis. For those of us watching this world policy forum from afar, it was an early lesson in how global decision-making can work. It was an occasion of much hand wringing, a mix of good and indifferent people, and where de-colonialisation movements jostled with new era food technocrats. In some respects, it reinforced niggling questions: was the food problem really just due to underdevelopment or to unequal assets? Could the Green Revolution, a new bout of agri-technology, resolve the crises by simply producing more food with oil-based fertilisers and new plant genetics? This mix got Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution the Nobel Peace Prize – but lacked a socio-cultural analysis. Political diagnoses emerged from Susan George, Colin Tudge and others. I joined discussion groups created by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, a radical science group, launched by the progressive wing of British science and policy.

40 years on, food policy analysis, while not resolved, has at least been filled by an outpouring of ideas and what I have called ‘democratic experimentalism’. Use of the term ‘food policy’ has grown. Defra has a unit. There wasn’t much Food Sociology back in the 1970s. There is today; the BSA’s food study group thrives. The UK and West have become hothouses of social movements concerned about food, ranging from food poverty to public health, relocalisation to globalisation, dietary health to body shape. Social science has moved on from thinking of food as just about rurality, important though that is. Fairtrade, organics and alternative food networks have grown, sufficient to be criticised and bounce back. Neoliberalism straddles the food policy world but is under attack. The World Bank’s structural adjustment programmes have been overtaken by events and rethinking. Culinary diversity has continued to increase even while questions of identity politics have intensified. It is harder to accept uncritically that technology can rescue the coming food crisis sketched by official scientists.

Today’s food system is messy, complex and shaped by multi-level governance. Food technology is framed by assumptions, which need to be critically assessed, and over which the policy institutions created post World War 2 are barely in control. While corporate influence is immense, it is more fragile and divided than the critics sometimes think. Profit margins are tight; supply chains stretched.

The future of UK food policy, however, remains uncertain. Food policy rises and falls in public attention, shaped by occasional food safety crises such as BSE or foot and mouth. Over time, however, it appears as a mix of crisis intervention and pragmatism, a ruthless pursuit of cheapness (cheap food = cheap labour), which has now lost its way, and ameliorative action. Cheap raw commodities no longer deliver cheap food; they mean squeezing farmers and profits. Farming receives only 5% of value-added from the £201bn the Brits spent on food in 2015. The 20th century food revolution has transformed the food system but has spawned an awesome new set of food power blocs as well as challenges. Big Data is set to spawn another food sector, too.

If the ‘old’ food policy was productionist – striving to produce more food to lower prices and make it affordable, thus delivering health, progress and room for consumption elsewhere – the ‘new’ food policy has to deal with a complex of factors. These include a mix of de-ruralisation and urbanisation, a nutrition transition which now prematurely kills us (the poor first) from over- and mal-consumption, an undermining of ecosystems, all of which show the need for new culinary rules which are deeply threatening to the status quo: less meat, less waste, simpler not more choice. This reposes an old question: what is a good diet? Cheapness may be culturally hard-wired but it can be at odds with health, environment and international justice.

As first industrial nation, the UK has fascinated food historians. From the enclosures to the slow agricultural revolution of the 17th to 19th centuries, from colonially sourced food to Europeanisation, from 30% of disposable incomes 70 years ago being spent on food to about 10% today, from being the butt of jokes (brown food, brown sauce, inedible overcooked vegetables) to a culinary diversity undreamed of in 1973 — what a fascinating food country we are. But oh do the policy-makers need a vibrant social science to keep them on their toes! Brexit’s moment of potential destabilisation requires cool heads, and a confident, critical, sociological analysis of realities.


Tim Lang is Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy. He was a hill farmer in Lancashire in the 1970s. This formed his interest in the relationship between food, health, the environment, justice and culture, asking how policy shapes or responds to it at local, national and international levels.