When it comes to the state of our food supply in the UK, Professor Tim Lang is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. A trinity of tyranny is hitting us – coronavirus, climate change and Brexit. With bare supermarket shelves, a recruitment crisis in farming, the soaring use of food banks and a possible worldwide shortage of food, it’s no wonder he’s crying out for us to think hard about food security.
“Britain is living a lie when it comes to food. This ought to be a wake-up moment. But is it? I don’t think so yet. We need to take it more seriously. Any country like ours that can only provide only 50 per cent of what it eats, is in a dangerous situation in terms of food defence,” explains Lang, who heads up the Centre for Food Policy at London’s City University.
“We need a national debate – what do we actually want when it comes to our food? Britain has got incredible form, historically, in ignoring food security. There’s still an imperialist undertow, assuming that others will feed us and that we can source anything we like from across the world. We need to take more responsibility here at home. I am incredibly sad and irritated, indeed angry, about this issue.”
There are few people across the whole of the UK that have a complete grasp of the challenges that the nation faces in feeding itself. Yet Lang is one of them. According to Wikipedia, it was he who coined the term ‘food miles’ back in 2005. He’s worked in food policy for 45 years, been an academic for 35, run think tanks and been a farmer. If there’s one person who can join the dots between politics and producers, industry and infrastructure, it’s him.
“Food is a nexus issue. It goes down our mouths with great regularity and simplicity, but that’s not to say it’s not complex. We have a moral responsibility to use our land, our labour, skills, capital and benign climate better, when it comes to producing food. We can do better than we’re currently doing. It’s a critical challenge since the British food system is very fragile,” he says, over the phone during week six of lockdown.
It’s this challenge that has driven him to put pen to paper, and over the past couple of years he’s crystallised his thinking in a new book. Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them is a 400-plus page romp through food security issues that have suddenly exploded into the foreground. It might not be the Blue Planet-plastic moment that many might hope for when it comes to rethinking food, but it could well be a trigger.
Lang’s figures are sobering, laying out the crisis in detail. Farmers only get five to six per cent of the value from the food we purchase. At the same time 0.5 per cent of citizens own almost all the land. We care so little about fruit and veg, a mere 168,000 hectares out of the UK’s 18.8 million farmed are used for horticulture. While Britain is one of the fattest countries in Europe: 27 per cent of UK adults are obese or overweight, and an astonishing eight retailers control 90 per cent of UK food, with Tesco’s share up at 30 per cent.
“Nothing fills me with confidence that the British government is in charge of our food systems: it has ceded the power to a tiny handful of companies. I say to them ‘you’re being set up to be the fall-guy. If anything goes wrong, you will be blamed.’ This is the government policy. That’s not a food security policy by any means!” details Lang.
“I’m highly critical of the current destruction of the foodservice sector during the coronavirus crisis. In a brutal action, they closed it down – for understandable reasons – when actually it could have been utilised for community hubs. Food supply chains have been thrown into limbo. It just shows the lack of thinking. It was Draconian. That’s why we need food plans.
“It’s not an embarrassment to have one. The government wants to return to business as usual post-coronavirus, but it will go back to the ruins of the foodservice sector. That’s not just me saying it, but hardened analysts and business outlets, as well as local authorities.”
What you realise reading this book is that our current diet, what we buy, what we pay and who we buy from, are all drivers of the worst issues plaguing our food systems today – environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change, health inequalities and life expectancies.
“We need new cultural rules,” says Lang. “We need to take responsibility and recognise the terrible things going on and that are normalised. We think it’s normal now to have food banks – no it isn’t! They don’t work, they cannot resolve food poverty. We’ve seen that in this crisis.”
Surprisingly, when it comes to the future, Lang says he is “optimistic, despite the evidence”. “Post-coronavirus we cannot go back to business as usual. We need to make food systems more sustainable, not just from an environmental point of view, but social and economic sustainability as well,” he explains.
In his book, Lang offers up solutions through a ‘Great Food Transformation’. Boosting self-sufficiency to 80 per cent, more diversity in planting, more grains for humans and less for livestock, more regional horticulture, reskilling farmers to grow more fruit and vegetables, new food and farming colleges, to sustainable dietary guidelines, as well as a new government bill with legally binding targets to tie it all together. There is a lot of detail, all of which makes a lot of sense.
“We’ve ignored food for ages and put certain interests first. We have to be grown up and discuss this. We need public questioning on the issues and people speaking out. If it’s left to people behind closed doors, dominant interests will dominate,” he says. “We have to do something about food. If not, it’s going to come back and bite us not just in the bum, but everywhere.”
Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them is published by Penguin.