Time to take the Tesco out of Food Policy

Green Party food policy supports the production of healthy and humanely produced food, giving priority to local production for local needs, integrated with habitat conservation.  Greens also call for a fair price for family farm businesses and greater support for the provision of allotments and local markets.  A Ministry of Food should oversee policy delivery.  To stimulate greater home production, Government must make agricultural land available for sustainable production.  Where possible, this land should be held in Trust for the community, preventing it falling into the hands of the big, intensive landowners.  Government can lead the way by identifying underutilised public land, including that held by the Ministry of Defence – food security is an integral part of National security.  It should also require that the Royal Estate follow its lead.

Local Authorities need powers to take over the management of under-utilised land, similar to the powers they have over vacant private housing, making this land available for allotments or smallholdings.  They have to be empowered to rebuild the local market infrastructure that the supermarkets have destroyed.  Schools and colleges should work to develop knowledge, interest, and skills in growing and preparing food, so encouraging young people to see agriculture as a worthy career.

When Peter Kendall, President of the National Farmers Union addressed his Union’s conference this February, he roundly criticised government’s failure to adopt a serious food policy.  He said their approach was ‘leave it to Tesco’ – to leave it to the markets and rely on food imports to make up the growing food deficit.  Greens support his warning that this is ill advised in a world where a combination of both rising population and prosperity and the increasing frequency of so-called ‘natural’ disasters, is putting pressure on food supply.  He might have added that the reliance of western style agriculture on oil was adding a further twist to the rising spiral of food prices.

Historically the UK government has run a cheap food policy the purpose of which has been to underpin the low wage strategy that the captains of industry have wanted to pursue in order to minimise their costs and maximise their profits and dividends.  In the days of Empire this involved importing cheap food notably wheat from North America and sugar from the Caribbean to provide adequate calories for the workforce.  Now, this policy of relying on imports and letting the supermarkets use their muscle to force down prices, is failing.

Governments the world over have learned that if the workers get hungry they get upset and may riot.  Inadequate food supply has been an underlying cause of the revolutions taking place across the Middle East.  The World Bank acknowledges this and says that global food prices are at a dangerous level.  In response, the G20 will meet to discuss the economic and political impact of food and commodity prices.  French President Sarkozy, currently chair of G20, has blamed commodity speculators, and indeed, it is shocking that human beings will manipulate food prices for personal gain, consigning hundreds of thousands to hunger and misery.  But the problem lies deeper than this naked greed.

The problem lies in the ‘commodification’ of the earth’s resources – turning everything into something for sale and then leaving supply to the market.  Markets will always sacrifice long-term benefit for short-term gain; their interest is in profit not people.  Governments have a duty to look after the long-term interests of the people, and they are failing to do this.  They are in the position to develop policies that will deliver an adequate and balanced diet to their citizens.  However, these policies will require a fundamental shift in methods of food production and distribution; it will require standing up to the powerful interests that are manipulating food and agriculture policy.  It will require curtailing the dependence of food supply on oil.

There is no real food policy in the UK.  The last Government began a tentative process to look at the issue spurred on by the rise in oil prices and the global food riots of 2008.  Professor Tim Lang, a leading thinker on food policy and then advisor to the Cabinet office, exposed some revealing thinking underpinning entrenched government attitude to food supply.  Defra was of the opinion that self-sufficiency was neither possible nor a desirable goal for a trading nation.  They also took the view that the UK could and should buy on open markets.  National food security was relevant for developing countries they conceded, but not for the rich countries of Western Europe.  The Labour Government did not complete its policy review and we can presume that under the present administration Defra has returned to this default position.  If it does recognise a problem, it will doubtless listen to industry lobbyists and see the solution in more intensification, mega-dairies, and GM technology.  More reliance on increasingly scarce oil in other words.

Since Defra questions self-sufficiency, it is fair to ask if it is possible. This question was asked in 1975 by Kenneth Mellanby, founder Director of Monk’s Wood Ecology Research station, which of course has now been closed.  His answer, given in a book ‘Can Britain Feed Itself’ was a clear ‘Yes!’  More recently, Simon Fairlie, editor of ‘The Land’ revisited Mellanby’s work in the light of today’s population and land-use.  This time he gave a qualified ‘yes’.  We could do it, but meat consumption would have to decline by about one half.

A stunning demonstration of what happens if you take oil out of food production is to be seen in the film “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” about Cuba after it lost Russian oil and still not able to afford other sources.  In its 2006 Living Planet Report, the WWF named Cuba as the only sustainable country in the world.  This was largely due to its system of organic food production, made necessary by its lack of oil.  Cubans enjoy a high standard of health with a life expectancy of 78, equivalent to any developed country.

Pioneers in the UK are showing the way.  Around the country, Transition Communities are looking seriously at local food security, developing the important concept of ‘food catchment area’.  With rising prices set to continue, their work is less academic and increasingly urgent, made even more so by the inability of Government to address the matter.  In Manchester, Unicorn Grocery specialises in ethically grown and wholesome fruit and veg.  The cooperative business has bought 21 acres of prime growing land at Glazebury, Warrington.  Its intention is to lease out plots to organic growers and provide the outlet market for the produce, bringing healthy, locally grown food to urban south Manchester.  It is initiatives like this that government needs to foster, not GM and mega-dairies.

[Mike Shipley February 2011]

One thought on “Time to take the Tesco out of Food Policy

  1. The quastion about food miles and where our food comes from is not just a westminster question it is more of a quastion about the impact of the european common market.
    We in britain have given away our power when it comes to agriculture and fishery policy, if we look to a country like norway as a exampel they are not a member of the EU this have protected small farmers and have protected farmers from food from the EU thath have been maste produced and might not have been don to the same standered, it have allso protected there fishing stock from over fishing and from growing away good fish becouse of idiotic EU rulles.
    well we are a part of the EU and have to work within the rulles, but the goverment should start promoting allotments and homegrowing not just for the benefits of fresh and healthy food, and food thath is local. But promote the health efect of gardening and the maybe more relevante benefit the cost of homegrown food.

    I would like to see this from the goverment:
    – no more then a 1 year wating list for anyone who wants a allotment.
    – importet food should be licenced to be sold in britain so thath consumers know thath there food if it is from aborad thath the animal have hadde the same standered of life as british animals.
    – new fishing policy no more dead fish overboard.
    – no more supperstores and retail centers away from where pepole live.
    – higher business rates for suppermarkets and big retails park.
    – lower or no business rates for small indipendent stores, Jobs are created by small business not big business.

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