Hilary Benn’s recent announcement on food is the first reponse to two decades of spiralling crisis in the UK food system. Food 2030 acknowledges formally for the very first time that the “UK’s food production and distribution affects not just the countryside and environment but our health, social equity, and whether we will even have enough to eat, as natural resources dwindle and climate change disrupts farming”. For that it’s to be applauded. But whilst it’s good at stating the problem its very poor at addressing any of the thorny difficult issues we need to face up to. This is the equivalent of the arguments that we need new nuclear power “or the lights will go out” mix of simplism, policy re-tread and inability to think clearly or innovate. It’s inertia dressed as change.

Actually what we desperately need is some innovation-by-tradition. Simple policies: eat less meat of better quality, eat seasonally and locally and boost the organic sector. And some simple policies to boost local economies and allow people to make those choices. Instead Food 2030 promises to hand power hand over fist to a handful of corporations. Farmers Markets and allotments are gloss to palm off the chattering classes on their way to Pret a Manger.

As Felicity Lawrence writes: “The strategy also fudges the issue of emissions from our high meat consumption, noting it but saying says there is not enough evidence for the government to act further. This contradicts the government’s own adviser, the Sustainable Development Commission, which concluded only last month that the UK should cut its consumption of meat and dairy from intensive grain-fed systems. The SDC also stressed the need to cut consumption of junk food.” So the UK Govt is at odds with its advisors the Sustainable Development Commission? No change there.

“We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now.” The order of words in that sentence is important and revealing. We are at a crossroads and this announcement marks a very wrong turn.

Consumers rather than retailers should lead by buying “greener” food we are told. That’s an interesting idea isn’t it? How would that work then?

Q. “I’d like to buy some local food please, you know some food grown nearby with reduced food miles, grown sustainably and organically if possible?”

A. “We are a supermarket we can’t possibly sell you that food, goodbye”.

Helen Rimmer, Friends of the Earth food campaigner, said: “The government claims that consumers can secure Britain’s food future, but continues to spend more than £700m of public money on environmentally-destructive factory farming each year. We can feed a growing population without going vegetarian or relying on factory farms, but Ministers must come clean about the need to cut down on meat and dairy.” This is something they will not do.

The reality is that specialist foods are locked into a certain demographic and this is unlikely to be changed by these proposals.

The problem is one of supply and demand. The solution being put to us is a technological fix focused upon increasing the productivity of small farmers through a second green revolution and integrating them into markets. But the food crisis is a predictable outcome of an oil-dependent feedgrain–livestock complex supplying a meat-centric diet for those who can buy it. This complex contributes substantially to climate change and is framed by neoliberal development policies, which deepen the commoditisation of food, monetize food security and leave the world’s people vulnerable to periodic food price spikes.

None of this will be affected by the proposals.

What we are told is as important as what we are being told. The real news came today with the announcement by the Chief Scientist that we need more GM and more biotechnology to stop people starving. “Techniques and technologies from many disciplines, ranging from biotechnology and engineering to newer fields such as nanotechnology, will be needed” says Professor John Beddington neatly linking food, technology and over-population

Intense lobbying by food companies, the growing significance of climate change, recent international food crises and a major independent Royal Society report have all helped to give the government the authority to put GM back on the national agenda.

A lot of this is spin. As Jane Perrone points out much of the fanfare behind the ‘grow your own’ doesn’t stand up to examination. You have to dig deep to page 15 of the report to get a brief mention of the land bank idea.

“What does all this mean for people on allotment waiting lists, and people who want to try growing food but don’t know how or where to go about it? Probably nothing, in the immediate future.”

I’d have to agree with Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain, who said: “The government’s food vision is hardly worthy of the name. The document proposes a series of minor tweaks to our fundamentally unsustainable food system and ignores obvious ideas to help British farmers, like improving the food that government itself buys.

“What we need is an ambitious programme of investment in British farming so that it can produce healthy and sustainable food. If the government is serious about making our food system sustainable, it must put its money where its mouth is and only spend taxpayers’ money on good-quality and sustainable food.”

Tom MacMillan has pointed out that: “If one feature stands out as new, it is precisely how far government has backpedalled from the relatively interventionist agenda of its own Food Matters report 18 months ago.”

This is policy at the fag-end of a Brown Govt running out of ideas, and it shows. There is now an opportunity for the emergent sustainable food network to show some genuine alternatives and the Scottish Government to mark a clear policy rejecting GM as a future for our food culture.

  • Dave Leydon April 4, 2010 at 19:56

    Very informing post. Just discovered an excellent site with UK government documents on it – http://www.officialdocumentwatch.com is a really well built site and them seem to be very up to date – always posting the latest UK government documents released to the public. Worth a look.

  • Clelia Picking March 19, 2010 at 17:17

    Do you have a blog feed I can subscribe to? I looked around but could not find it, thanks a ton in advance.