Tim Lang, Britain’s leading expert on food policy, says we already faced a challenge unmatched since the war. And things just got worse…. interview by Jay Rayner
What’s Lang’s solution? It’s detailed and includes the introduction of a food resilience and sustainability act, complete with legally binding targets. National nutritional guidelines should become the basis for food procurement contracts, both public and private. There should be an audit of food production in the UK and the budget for public health should be doubled from £2.5bn of the £130bn health budget to £5bn. It also proposes the creation of no fewer than nine bodies or institutions, including a royal commission to map a new set of “multi-criteria principles for the UK food system”, a food resilience and sustainability council and a network of urban and rural food and farming colleges.
I suggest this is an old-fashioned 1970s corporatist approach; that he’s proposing a massive expansion of the state to deal with the problem. “I think I’ve been pretty modest,” Lang says. “The British state is failing us by not decentralising.” He also calls for Tesco, which has around 30% of the food retail market, to be broken up, so that no one firm has more than 15%. Likewise, he calls for pension funds to disinvest from manufacturers of ultra-processed foods, as some have started doing with fossil fuels. The list goes on. He insists, however, that this is not some kneejerk leftist manifesto. “We just need to re-engineer how capitalism works for us.”
We agree we can no longer ignore the viral elephant both inside the room and outside it. Might the coronavirus crisis help with the re-engineering of our food supply chain? He agrees, sadly, that it might. “It could prove a good reminder of the value of state institutions,” he says. And the emptying of shelves as a result of panic buying may help people to “think about where their food comes from”. He adds: “We need to move from a ‘me’ food culture to a ‘we’ food culture.” It’s a very simple message, but in the white heat of a crisis, defined by queues outside supermarkets, a useful one.
The Winton Centre For Risk and Evidence Communication wanted to find out what it could about how the public is actually reacting, not how it might in theory, which is mostly what the government reasoning goes into.
What does the public think of the information we’re getting? Do people trust it? Do we trust the government? Do we think they’re getting the strategy right? How worried are we?
So, we ran a fast survey, collated overnight, to get a sample of opinion in both the UK and the US. The same survey is now running in Australia with Spain, Germany, Mexico and Italy planned over the weekend, and we’ll run it again soon in the UK to look for changes.
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