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Hungry for change

Britain's food policies could set us on the road to a healthy, ethical and sustainable food system. Yet government action so far has been inadequate and contradictory, says Kath Dalmeny

November 7, 2009
13 min read

Just over a year ago, researchers presented the Cabinet Office with a thorough and far-reaching analysis that painted a sobering account of the state of our food system. It presented us with a clear challenge: can we make our food system sustainable in order to feed ourselves, long into the future, without wrecking the planet?

The analysis confirmed that about one fifth of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are from food and farming. It also showed that 70,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year in the UK if people ate a better diet; and that many thousands more could enjoy healthier and more prosperous lives without the burden of diet-related conditions such as heart disease and many types of cancer. At the same time, a more ethical and sustainable food system could play a role in international development to improve the prospects for hundreds of millions of people, ensure better welfare for farm animals and help us adopt a far more responsible approach to issues such as world fish stocks and humanity’s profligate use of water.

Identifying and quantifying the problems ought to have been a promising start. Not since 2002 had such a far-reaching analysis been undertaken. Back then, the government took stock amidst the ashes of millions of farm animals slaughtered and burned due to foot and mouth disease. Its response was relatively encouraging – a sustainable food and farming policy and several initiatives to help improve the sustainability of food buying in, for example, schools and hospitals.

Farmers and food processors received support to get their products onto supermarket shelves – then considered the best place to invest their effort and trust. Regional government offices and development agencies were charged with implementing the policy. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) commissioned a food industry sustainability strategy. An action plan was launched to support organic farming, which Defra then acknowledged as conferring considerable environmental benefits.

Yet since 2002, key government agencies have dismantled support for projects that address food poverty. Patchy efforts to improve food in public institutions remain ‘islands in a sea of mediocrity’, according to an apt summary by Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University. £2.2 billion of public money is being spent each year on food that rarely meets health or environmental standards and largely fails to invest in reliable farm incomes or sustainable farming practices.

The organic action plan has been abandoned, and some civil servants at Defra now deny that they ever said organic farming conferred significant environmental benefits, preferring to denigrate organic as simply a ‘lifestyle choice’. Frequent calls on government to force supermarkets to treat their suppliers more fairly have met with silence, or vague encouragement for supermarket bosses to act more responsibly.

Call to action

All this is despite the call to action becoming ever stronger. Since 2002, the world has found out so much more about the inherent lack of resilience of our food system. Public awareness of food insecurity has never been higher, due not least to emerging understanding of peak oil and climate change. Our future ability to eat seems bound up with the turbulence of oil prices, global grain speculation, intensive animal farming practices that create pandemics, a reckless banking sector and the increasing problem of water shortages.

In the face of such enormous forces, it might be tempting to give in to a sense of powerlessness and loss of hope. Yet our task, if we choose to accept it, is to design a food system that is ethical, healthy and sustainable, which provides many more people with a decent living, builds communities and underpins stability between nations. It will also need to feed many more people – possibly as many as nine billion in just a few decades. Sustainable farming specialists tell us it can be done.

In summer 2008, the government responded to the Cabinet Office’s analysis with its Food Matters strategy, setting out commitments to start solving the problems. In August this year, it again sought to assure us that it is on the case, publishing Food Matters: one year on. It gave details of government actions over the past year and commitments for the years to come.

The publication had a strange effect. Journalists, analysts and campaigners struggled to find the story. They sifted through the report trying to get a handle on the substance, seeking to find any signs of large-scale and specific commitments to making the food system more ethical and less reliant on fossil fuels. They ploughed through lists of labelling and salt reduction initiatives, and general commitments to greater spending on international aid and rural development.

The report contained a number of initiatives to encourage businesses to do better things. Several newspapers re-hashed stories from the previous year’s round of Food Matters coverage, reminding us once more that householders (those naughty people) throw away one third of the food they buy, effectively wasting all of the energy, water and effort put in to make it in the first place. If only they would stop, and also learn to cook, it was implied, then things would generally be a lot better.

Public debate became polarised. On the one hand, there was a stress on the need at a local and individual level for more food labelling, composting schemes, education and allotments to ensure better informed consumers and fuller larders. At the other end of the scale, the focus was on the apparent imperative to accept and plant far more genetically modified (GM) grain in order to secure global food security and economic growth, and to ensure that more people can adopt diets that follow the western pattern – plenty of processed food and lots of meat and dairy products. To take issue with either would seem like churlishness on the one hand and Luddite veganism on the other, with a vague implication that to fail to accept the destruction of large areas of rainforest for grain production for animal feed is tantamount to wanting millions of people to starve.

Something was absent in the government’s announcement, and in the public debate that followed. It is an absence that is reflected in the government’s underlying philosophy concerning the role of the state and is very likely to predominate in any future Tory government’s whole approach. Governments of either persuasion are less and less willing to intervene, on all our behalves, on issues of common concern. They provide us with a description of the problem, but look to others to take the lead – usually businesses that, as we know only too well, have a lot of other priorities, not least returning profits to their shareholders. Such an approach by government has many implications for whether or not we can achieve the level and pace of change now needed.

In the Food Matters strategy, for the food policies focused at a local and individual level, much of the government’s approach can be characterised as ‘maintaining the freedom to choose’. As one example, for public sector caterers in hospitals and care homes, the government proposed a voluntary scheme (called the ‘healthier food mark’) to improve nutrition and the environmental performance of food bought with public money. Some £2.2 billion is spent every year on food in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, the army and prisons, and could routinely be invested in sustainable food and farming if mandatory standards were introduced and applied nationwide.

The M word

Instead, the government offered a voluntary grading scheme to praise caterers for choosing items such as sustainable fish, seasonal vegetables, fairly-traded drinks and lower-fat spreads. Effectively, it is saying that it is down to thousands of individual caterers around the country to make everyday choices about whether or not to curb climate change, global poverty and heart disease – but without the imperative, support, training or budgets to do so. There is no wider plan. Pressed to say whether the scheme would be made compulsory if it failed to result in change, government procurement officials said that ‘we don’t use the M word’ (‘mandatory’). We’ll all have to trust to luck.

Strangely, such a weak approach comes despite pressure even from the industry itself. Earlier this year, Compass Group – the biggest commercial caterer in the world – gave evidence to Hilary Benn’s new Food Policy Council that it would like to see mandatory standards for public sector catering (yes, they did use the M word) so that it can achieve the cost efficiencies to make healthy and sustainable food possible on a large scale.

At the other end of the debate, the government’s review of the state of food and farming, one year on from its initial Food Matters strategy, focused on global food production and international trade. Over the next year or so, the UK public can be expected once again to be consulted on the acceptability of GM crops. We didn’t give the ‘right answer’ last time, so (the government seems to be saying) on this occasion we jolly well should, this time with the argument that GM will prevent mass starvation.

The task of conducting a consultation is likely to be given to the Food Standards Agency, whose remit is to look at food safety. It is very unlikely, therefore, that issues of general concern about GM technology will be raised with the public. These include matters such as multinational corporate control of agriculture, over-dependence on monocultures and proprietary agricultural agro-chemicals, and the design of ‘terminator genes’ to prevent any prospect of seed-saving or adaptation of genetic stock to local circumstances. Meanwhile, investment in agricultural research and appropriate-scale technologies to help horticultural production and low-input farming, and to help design and implement practices that require less use of fossil fuels, is at a disturbingly low ebb.

No doubt the FSA will also ignore the madness of continuing to support the destruction of rainforest to grow grain – whether GM or not – to feed animals rather than people, which is hugely inefficient. According to UN figures, livestock production is responsible for 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the cars and trucks in the world, largely due to changes in land use and cutting down forests to clear space for industrial grain production.

Feeding nine billion

If we’re going to feed the nine billion people projected to be alive by 2050 ethically and sustainably, we all need to eat less meat and dairy produce (both major sources of greenhouse gas emissions and also unhealthy fat in western diets). And when we do eat it, it should have been raised to higher environmental and welfare standards. The change would be good for our waistlines too – these days there are more people in the world who are overweight than underweight, according to the World Health Organisation.

Macro-decisions about grain production are painted as ‘out there’ – the stuff of international negotiation and tough bargaining at tables full of suited businessmen and technocrats. No wonder people feel so powerless and frustrated. And no wonder individuals, farmers, shopkeepers and caterers cannot see or understand their roles in bringing about a better food and farming system, or feel empowered or incentivised to make the necessary changes.

In energy, major government investment is in ‘big kit’ – massive infrastructure such as an offshore National Grid and a new generation of nuclear power stations. The profits will return to big companies. So too in food and farming, where the approach is to invest in hi-tech biotechnology, with little said about the investment and local-scale farming technologies and practices needed to build resilient food, farming and trading systems that use inherently less fossil fuel.

We could be supporting an army of artisan food producers to take back control of the food system, use sustainable ingredients and open local shops and markets. How better to cut transport fuel than re-creating the ability for people to be able to buy their food a short walk away – and have pleasurable interactions with their community in the process?

The time has also come for more co-operative efforts to feed ourselves, with the values of a sustainable food and farming system built in from the start. Consumers do have power, but not just to choose between one product and another in the supermarket, which, all too often, presents a choice between one damaging product and another. Where consumers have most power, it is when they take control of food trading to create food co-operatives, box schemes and farmers’ markets –

re-forging the link between producers and citizens and using their power to support a better way of providing food. Consumer co-operatives, in particular, because they are run on a voluntary basis, can help ensure that food is affordable while remaining ethical by cutting out most of the costs of retail. Food campaigners are now championing city, town and community approaches to more resilient local food systems. More land and expertise needs to be made available for horticultural production, and more support is needed on the demand side from procurement, retailers and catering organisations to use ethical and sustainable food routinely to make the markets for this produce more secure. Farming needs to become an attractive industry for younger people to get involved.

Initiatives such as Growing Communities (see next page) are inspiring examples of communities rising to the challenge of food security. Such approaches could be scaled up and replicated, with investment from regional development agencies, while retaining local control, to help farmers and communities build good livelihoods. The government could be creating the right environment for change to happen. It remains to be seen whether or not it has the appetite to do so.

Kath Dalmeny is policy director for Sustain.

Food co-ops for the future

Consumer co-operatives are nothing new. As early as the 1850s there were 1,000-plus consumer co-operatives in Britain that were an integral part of the workers’ movement. They aimed to provide members with high-quality consumables they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford.

Today, the Co-operative supermarket behaves similarly to any other, albeit with a slightly more ethical purchasing policy. But more grass-roots food co-ops can also be found. They thrive in some US cities, for instance, with one of the biggest being the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn. Started in 1973, it now has 17,000 members, offers them 20-40 per cent off their weekly grocery bills and has an annual turnover of $32 million (£19 million).

In the UK, they also exist on a smaller scale, often operating one day a week out of a community centre. Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming ( is among the organisations promoting them. To find your nearest, or get information on starting your own, check out

And since every food-based initiative needs a celebrity chef to promote it, enter Arthur Potts Dawson and his ‘People’s Supermarket’. This is essentially also a food co-op, which Dawson wants to be run by local people and sell good food that is cheap enough to compete with the likes of Tesco. Register your interest at and watch out for the inevitable Channel 4 series.

James O’Nions

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