The current crisis has brought to our attention the state of the food industry, from agriculture to supermarket. Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London City University, published Feeding Britain last week[1]. He says that although Britain is not actually at war, we are nevertheless, in practice, facing a food challenge on a wartime scale.

When there was no panic-buying, as we have at the moment, supermarket shelves were usually full. But that hid a highly fragile just-in-time supply chain, with British agriculture only producing about half of what we consume[2]. On top of that, methods of production are not only damaging the environment but human health as well. There is a massive gap in access to food between rich and poor, reflecting differences in wealth and income. Michael Gove, when Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), said he was going to introduce a national food strategy, but the January 2020 Agriculture Bill contained hardly any mention of food.

In the current coronavirus epidemic, the irresponsible scare-mongering of the media has clearly played a major part in emptying the shelves in supermarkets, and in addition to food shortages there has evidently been panic-buying of surface cleaners, soap and toilet rolls. There has been an upsurge in community support for the elderly, sick and disabled unable to leave their homes; but at the same time we must consider the threat of rising social tensions over shortages and availability of food and other necessities. Those with the most precarious incomes, dependent on benefits and zero-hours contracts, or with no entitlement to unemployment or sick pay, will be the worst affected. It will be other consumers who are blamed, rather than the Government which has been so slow to respond and done so much less that it could and should have done. During World War II shortages led not only to rationing but also looting and crime, despite the “Spirit of the Blitz”.

Even without coronavirus (or brexit), the underlying problem is the small number of big firms that dominate the food retail sector: Lang points out that eight firms control 90% of food supply, of which Tesco has about 30% of the retail market. Price has been the dominant form of competition, so that farmers get only 5-6% of the value of the food we buy. A tiny 2.8% of cultivable land in Britain is used for fruit and vegetables. We import food we could grow, and most of what we do grow feeds animals or is used to make processed foods. It is a habit that dates from Britain’s past dependence on an Empire.

Of particular interest to the NHS and to the SHA is Lang’s point that “food is the biggest driver of NHS spending as a result of obesity, diabetes and heart disease”. Even food which appears cheap has often created enormous and unsustainable costs elsewhere. A long-term solution is necessary, and not just a response to the current crisis.

Tim Lang proposes that we need a “Food Resilience and Sustainability Act with legally-binding targets”; food procurement contracts based on “national nutritional guidelines”; an “audit of food production” in the UK; and a doubling of the budget for public health “from £2.5bn to 5bn” out of “the £130bn health budget”. He says that the coronavirus is reminding us “of the value of state institutions”. “We need to think about where our food comes from and move from a ‘me’ food culture to a ’we’ food culture”.

Vivien Walsh

 

[1] Tim Lang, Feeding Britain, Penguin books, 2020.

[2] Jay Rayner, “Diet, Health, Inequality: why Britain’s food supply system doesn’t work” interview with Tim Lang, The Guardian, 22.03.2020.

 

 

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