That was the stark message from Tim Lang, professor of food policy at the City University, London, at the Fengrain conference, near Peterborough staged yesterday (November 7).
“The food system in Britain and worldwide is going to have to be shaped in the next 30 years by what we call ecological public health – the relationship between ecosystems, support, maintenance and people,” said Lang. “And, at the moment, it is not a good mix”.
Public health problems
Neither the UK nor the world could afford the mounting public health and environmental costs associated with meat- and dairy-rich diets, he told the conference.
The UK and world was too fixed on the “production paradigm of the second world war and after”, which had boosted production but was leading to an inexorable rise in the consumption of processed food. While that process was driving global hunger rates down, public health problems – such as obesity – and environmental damage – through greenhouse gas emmissions and water depletion – were continuing to soar.
“The governments in China, Brazil and India don’t know what to do about heart disease,” said Lang. “India has highest rate of type two diabetes on the planet and it doesn’t have an NHS [National Health Service] system. And if you look at the NHS – we can’t afford it either.”
The UK’s poor nutrition was already costing the NHS £7–10bn a year and “it is rising rapidly”.
In terms of environmental damage, the agrifood chain accounts for 18–20% of all greenhouse gases, said Lang. “In Europe, food consumption accounts for one third of all greenhouse gases. We will not address even lowering the rate of climate change – let alone halting it – unless we address the issue of food.”
‘Not a cat in hell’s chance’
“Unless we get rich countries – us – to start eating a sustainable diet, we have not a cat in hell’s chance of addressing any of the problems ecosystems face.”
The solution was for farmers in Britain and around the globe, supported by the food industry, to devote more land to growing vegetables and fruit and less to grain. “This is taking us to the new politics of land. There is a real squeeze on land – biofuels versus food. Of the UK’s total land area of 9.3Mha, about half of that, 4.5M, is croppable. But horticulture is a mere 115,000ha. Actually, I would like grain farmers to start rebuilding horticulture.”
Lang said there was a food policy vacuum in the UK, with politicans putting too much weight on food exports and was too quick to blame the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy.
“It is a shame that the pressures to do something about the British food system is growing but the policy gap is not dealing with it,” he said. “And that is for a very simple and good reason – consumers are voters.”
Swinging cuts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had hamstrung the government’s ability to offer a lead on food policy, he continued. “DEFRA is a small ministry and it has been cut by 30%. There is no longer a food policy unit in DEFRA. Is it any wonder that that there is no [government food policy] champion going out?”
He left his audience with the question: “Why grow grain to contribute to heart disease? If you put it like that, it is not so damn good.”
Meanwhile, watch out for more food industry news – including video interviews with Lang and Julian Wild, head of food group at law firm Rollits – from the Fengrain conference next week.