This was the latest in a series of online webinars held by the Institute of the Agricultural Management over the last 12 months, and this time, we had Professor Tim Lang from the City University, where he has been involved with assessing food policy issues for 30 years or more, address us.
Tim’s main areas of personal and professional interest for some time have been a combination of diet, the impact of Brexit on the UK food sector and the whole subject of food security per se. Tim is known for his well developed views, not just from his time at City University, where he has been Head of Food Policy for some 20 years or so, but also through his work with the likes of the WHO, FAO of the UN, the House of Commons Select Committee, the Mayor of London’s Food Board and the Defra Council of Food Policy Advisors.
In typical style, and in just 45 minutes, Tim managed to run through a whole range of subjects and expressed his views on anything and everything he was asked about going from the future of the AHDB to global issues surrounding water usage, climate change, livestock production and meat consumption to the way that the UK supply chain has evolved - and might develop - in the future.
I defy anyone who listened in to this session not to have gone away with their thinking challenged in some way. One might not always agree with what Tim has to say, but there is no doubt he is a compelling and persuasive speaker.
Tim covered so much in his session, it would be impossible to summarise it all, but some of the points that struck me as being really important - but others might have their own views of course - were as follows:
- UK and indeed international food policy are still far too rooted in the period after the end of the Second World War. There was not enough food to go around and there was a need to produce “more”. The conventional wisdom appeared to be that a combination of capital and science meant more production, which made food cheaper and healthier. Tim contended that this thinking, while appropriate for the time, in the 2020s had been proved to be all wrong
- the definition of food security has changed over time. It has much more depth to it now than just increased self-sufficiency, but can include concepts such as food nationalism, food defence, resilience, food control and food capacity and at the moment, the whole subject of food sustainability, availability and access
- the % of the world that is officially under nourished has improved from the 1970s, but it is still far too high. The figure has fallen from 35% in the 1970s to around 15%. While this is still a massive challenge in Asia and Africa, the UK in contrast, is “awash with food” despite issues with food waste (often incurred at consumer level) and the huge consumption of what Tim referred to as “ultra processed foods”, which are very bad for a healthy diet
- the current food system - not just in the UK but around the world - has sown the seeds of potentially massive future problem areas related to the use of water, the eco system and issues around biodiversity, the lack of public education on what constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet, farmers not receiving a full return for their products - and the alarming increase in the number of food banks in OECD countries
- to address these issues, it is important to develop a multi criteria based approach to policy in the future covering all aspects of health, social values, economics, climate change mitigation, supply chain governance and food quality in order to develop a robust approach to sustainable food production and consumption
- animal welfare organisations have done well in their efforts to stem the development of factory style livestock farming, not least in the US, but which had also begun to be seen in the UK too. Tim is from a livestock farming background himself and contended that he had nothing against beef and sheep farming, in particular, but just that was too much of it around the world. Meat should be seen as “feast day food” and not “everyday food”. He also reminded us that livestock farmers are hard working, often in difficult circumstances and deserved our support and respect
- there are examples of food under and over consumption all around the world and these can vary by geography, age, economic, social status and by gender too
- water might be the most important factor of all in the future global agri food eco system
- in the UK, we are not short of good quality land for agriculture and farming, we are not short of labour or water, but we are focusing on the production of the wrong products for a sustainable food system. Tim is a big advocate of horticultural production and that of beans and pulses. He produces his own fruit and vegetables in his garden in London!
- the UK governments view on the development of a sustainable food policy has been to “let Tesco sort it out” or in some cases “wait for a crisis”. Tim contended that we had already reached that (crisis) point and it was too late to let the next generation take responsibility for this. It needs a much higher degree of engagement between farmers and consumers to develop a much needed awareness of what was required for a truly food secure country. There is so much more to this that just “produce more”
This was a great event. Tim was at the top of his game and anyone who was lucky enough to listen in to this - and then get a copy of his slides later on - will have had a treat. From this session, though, what did I take home most of all?
- Food security is about so much more than just “producing more”
- There is a huge opportunity for farmers to engage more with the public
- There appears to be a need for better governance of the food chain per se
- Pressure from the public on the government and other supply chain stakeholders is probably the most effective way to bring about change
- The Dimbleby Report - we are still waiting for this after 3 years - should be worth reading though!
- To bring about the food system we want and need for the future, there is still a huge amount of work to do, not least in areas such as skills and infrastructure development
The IAgrM will carry on with this programme of webinars until the end of April 2021 and then have a break over the summer, before resuming again in the autumn. We have had some great sessions over the last 12 months with high attendances. We look forward to resuming these again later on in the year, but Tim has, I feel, “set the bar” for these events at a new high - and will be a difficult act to follow!
John Giles, FIAgrM
John is a Divisional Director of Promar International, the consulting arm of Genus plc. He is a member of the National Council of the IAGRM and also serves on the Thames Valley branch committee of the same.
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