This month’s issue of Red Pepper magazine is dedicated to the politics of food. Sue Branford talk about the global land grab and climate change, while Kath Dalmeny talks about the failure of the UK Govt to tackle problems it itself identified:
“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.”