Eat This

waxing moonIn the run up to the British general election, Pat Thomas says the various party manifestos are starved of sound policies on food security and sustainability. (18/4/10; updated 19/4/10)

Food is a four letter word. Or at least that’s the impression given by the election manifestos of the main political parties. Most of the documents devote a demure handful of paragraphs to the issue of food. Reading them you’d think that Britain was populated with some sort of 61-million-strong super race that had evolved beyond the need to eat every day.

Not long before Barack Obama took office, author and campaigner Michael Pollan wrote a lengthy and impassioned open letter
to the President Elect, the 'Farmer in Chief', urging him get to grips with the way that food intersects with every area of our lives. Climate change, energy use, pollution, toxic chemicals, health, the global economy, social justice, animal welfare; every issue that is important eventually finds its way back to the food system. He urged the resolarisation and the reregionalisation of the American food supply and recommended a back to basics approach that even included a federal definition of “food” – as distinct from “junk food”. Every politician should read this letter – but a trawl through the manifestos of the UK's political parties suggests that, with the possible exception of the Green party, none did.

Let’s start with the common ground. All the parties promise to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – an easy promise since CAP is up for reform by 2013 anyway. Whether any of them really get the better deal for UK farmers as promised remains to be seen. Likewise most talk about reforming the EU Common Fisheries Policy – again a process that is already in place. All the manifestos talk about creating a supermarket ombudsman – another easy promise since earlier this year the Competition Commission, after years of lobbying by food and consumer groups, strongly advised that we needed a body specifically to monitor supermarket behaviour and to enforce the Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP), which came into force in February of this year. At that time the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills finally accepted this recommendation and committed to forming such a body. Likewise nearly all the parties commit to clearer labelling of food, particularly with regards to country of origin. The Liberal Democrat
 manifesto, in fact, makes no commitment to food beyond these areas.

, the Conservatives and the Green Party also commit to encouraging more ‘grow your own’ schemes and (to varying degrees) to more access to allotments. Labour and the Greens also commit to more nutritious and to free school meals and to encouraging schools to have more vegetable gardens. The Conservatives focus a great deal on schools in general, but the only nod to food is a suggested a ban on vending machines.

From here the parties diverge into a variety of largely half-baked commitments and not terribly innovative ideas.

The incumbent Labour government has put a figure on its sustainable food plan – £1 billion. To those of us struggling to meet our mortgages, that may seem like a lot. But in reality it’s a pretty small investment – less than the cash commitments for education, health, transport and defence – and there is no real detail of how this food money will be spent.

Labour also makes a promise to balance “the multiple uses of land: safeguarding food security at the same time as enriching our natural environment; protecting distinctive landscapes while enabling environmentally sensitive development”, a range of diffuse promises all rooted in the same system of production that has got us into trouble in the first pace. Implicit in the document is the idea that we can somehow balance an equation that has never before been balanced; i.e. we can produce mountains of food cheaply, pay our farmers good profits, keep prices at the till low, and at the same time protect the environment, our soil and biodiversity.

The thrust of the Conservative argument is to ‘Buy British’ – a fantastic example of how to take a good idea and turn it into campaign slogan. They are a little sketchy on the details of what buying British actually means except where meat is concerned. The party want consumers to be assured that “meat labelled as ‘British’ is born and bred in Britain”.  

In all this ‘Buy British’ fervour it’s easy to forget that labels can mislead. A
Union Jack on the label can be used to cover all kinds of unacceptable practices such as massive indoor dairy facilities where the cows never see the light of day, battery chicken operations, British scallops obtained by dredging the ocean floor, British livestock fed on food containing GM soya and maize and...well, you get the picture. Likewise, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, given our addiction to wasteful transport in the food system, that British born and bred meat will still be sent elsewhere to be processed and packaged before being sent back to the UK for sale.

UKIP get around this by proposing: “...labels that differentiate between ethically-produced and non ethically-produced food products”, though this begs the questions: why would anybody consciously choose non-ethical products and why not just ban them outright? Where meat production is concerned this is exactly what the Green Party proposes: to “phase out all forms of factory farming of animals and enforce strict animal welfare standards generally, including in organic agriculture”.

On the subject of GM and labelling, the Conservatives do make a commitment to better labelling of foods that may contain GM ingredients so that consumers can choose to buy or not. Again fair enough in principle, but what is the implied message here? That GM is inevitable and that we should leave it to market forces decide if people want to eat it? Is a label the biggest muscle a proposed Conservative government has to flex when it comes to genetically modified food? And where is the recognition that once GM is in the marketplace it can never be taken out again – effectively removing our freedom of choice regarding GM or non-GM foods?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats don’t mention GM food at all. UKIP jumps on the labelling bandwagon, but hedges its bets once more. The party vows to: “Continue to oppose the production of GM crops in Britain” whilst remaining “open to evolving scientific advice”. How different this is to the Green Party commitment to “Support GM-free zones and continue to work for a complete ban on genetically modified food in Europe.”

On the basis of the manifestos alone, and not just the information contained in them, but the language used to convey that information, the Green Party distinguishes itself from the others both in terms its understanding of the role of food in our lives, cultures and economies, and in the provision of some more concrete proposals to ensure a better, cleaner, fairer food supply.

Its manifesto acknowledges the role of small, mixed farms in providing the UK with a healthy diet and food security and makes clear commitments to: “Localise the food chain, including assistance for small farms, starting farmers’ markets, farm box schemes and locally owned co-ops”; to “set new targets every five years and a minimum conversion of 10% of UK food production to organic every five years”. It also commits to reducing the dominance of supermarket chains through a range of measures that go beyond the ombudsman to: “vigorously enforcing monopoly legislation against the existing largest chains; prohibiting new out-of-town retailing”, and “requiring parking charges for private car parks with exemption for the disabled” and “insisting that 50% of retail floor space in all new developments is affordable space for local small businesses”.

If only the manifestos of those likely to be in power after May 6th would go this far in their thinking.

Even so, there is more to be done in this area. Here are a few additional thoughts that should be incorporated in every food manifesto:

First a little outside the box thinking. The Conservatives give a hint that they understand the importance, both practically and symbolically, of government procurement. But in the end their proposals are a rather flaccid commitment to ensuring that any food procured by Government meets ‘British standards’.
A real commitment to sustainable food would go further and see the government making its food purchasing decisions based on the holy trinity of sustainability: local, seasonal and where possible organic. And whilst the Conservatives talk about this early in their document, by the time you get to the meat of the proposal, “ensure that government procures locally-produced food wherever possible” becomes “meets British standards of production, wherever this can be achieved without increasing overall costs”.

It is estimated that the public sector (hospitals, schools, prisons, the Ministry of Defence and the government itself) spends over £2bn on food and food services.
Approximately half of this is spent on food (the rest on things like catering services and kitchen equipment).There is already some commitment to use ‘indigenous’ foods in these services though actual levels vary according to type of food. UK meat and dairy can be as high as 90-100% while things like apples and some vegetables can be as low as 30-40%. Levels of organic food and the commitment to use only seasonal food are depressingly low.

What a boost to the organic and sustainable producers of Britain if more of that government money went into their hands. There would, of course, be cries of ‘unfair trade’ at such action. But in order to correct the vast inequalities in the system, and to give a visible boost to organic, local and seasonal, a bold move like this is necessary and government must lead the way. Even if only half of that government spend went into local, seasonal and organic food procurement it would represent a welcome and necessary boost to those producers who are at the forefront of British food security.

While we bemoan the fact that not enough of us are eating and cooking fresh food – Britain consumes 46% of all the ready meals sold in the EU – Government has taken precious few initiatives to reverse the trend. We eat ready meals because that is the overriding culture – dictated largely by our media. When you are watching television tonight note how many commercials advise you to ‘cheat’, to not bother with the ‘fuss’ of cooking, to ‘indulge yourself’ with ‘restaurant quality’ pre-prepared meals. Where are the ads, not attached to any brand or celebrity or retailer, that say in effect ‘here is some great British fresh food currently in season – and here’s some great ways to cook it’.

It's not enough to simply announce a crackdown on junk food advertising, as Labour propose. A government serious about improving our food outlook would commit money to advertising the fresh food that our farmers grow (astonishingly, only UKIP commit to this completely logical course of action). Broccoli, potatoes, carrots, grass-fed meats, apples, all the good, fresh food that our farmers can produce should get it's own space on TV and in print ads, and the choices of how to get hold of that food whether it be supermarkets, farmer’s markets or box schemes would all be made plain. ‘No fair’ the supermarkets would cry – and the answer to that is ‘tough tomatoes’; people in the UK have right to be made aware of all their food and food-purchasing choices and government has a duty to ensure that right is met.

Accepting that political party manifestos are essentially adverts and as such chock full of happy, positive words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘biodiversity’ and ‘fairness’, certain contentious issues need to be faced as well (these would fall in the realm of those ‘tough choices’ Labour talks about but doesn’t really go into detail over).

Nowhere in the published manifestos is there any mention of meat reduction. This is because of the political cop-out that diet is a matter of personal choice. Fine as long as our ‘personal choices’ don’t harm others or the planet. This was the logic that brought the smoking ban into force and it needs to be applied to meat consumption as well. The livestock industry, which is responsible for one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, wants to double its global production by 2050, by producing more intensively reared meat. More livestock means more emissions – and this at a time when every other industry is being urged to cut its emissions by 80% over the same timescale. While no serious environmental campaign advocates that we convert wholesale to vegetarianism, most of the available science suggests a low-meat diet, around half of our current consumption, is both achievable and, according to the Sustainable Development Commission, desirable. The issue of meat must be addressed in any sustainable food policy and although it is like turning the Titanic, the government's Eatwell Plate must reflect this necessary change.

While there is a general agreement that we should have more allotments this may not go far enough. The issue of land reform is not mentioned at all in the published manifestos and yet the enclosure of British land, by force or legal stealth, from 1300s and the end-18th century – and the resulting restriction of people’s right to grow food or forage on common land – has done more than most of us realise to distort our relationship to the land and to influence the shape of British agriculture (For a good summary of this see Simon Fairlie’s 2009 paper, 'A Short History of Enclosure in Britain' in The Land journal; you can purchase a copy here
). This British land grab was, in many ways, as devastating as the global land grab currently underway in which, ironically, various rich countries are buying up land in poorer countries, particularly in Africa, in order to secure their own food supplies.

A considered food policy would also include provision for tomorrow’s farmers. Industrialised, high-input farming is no longer fit for purpose in a world of changing climate and dwindling natural resources. To achieve food security and food sovereignty requires a more enlightened form of agriculture and more enlightened men and women to work the land. It’s all very well politicians saying we need to funnel more children into science and maths, but we also need to funnel them into agriculture. The Campaign for Real Farming believes that to feed ourselves sustainably we need vastly more than the government's predicted 60,000 new farmers. It says we need between 1-2 million more farmers
. And if we don’t get them, who will feed us in the future? This requires more than parents planting herb gardens and schools establishing vegetable patches. It requires a government commitment to more and better, and more innovative, agricultural education; to agricultural colleges that acknowledge the importance of organic, biodynamic and permaculture methods of production.

Finally, none of the parties address the issue of food waste (the Liberal Democrats give a passing mention to generating energy from food and farm waste though this does seem to miss the point). Our complicity with, and arrogance about, food waste must end now. UK consumers throw away around 25% of all food they buy – £10 billion worth – a third of which is leftovers. Along the food supply chain another 25% used to be thrown away routinely because it did not meet certain aesthetic standards. Only in 2009 was EU legislation preventing the sale of certain types of ‘ugly’ produce finally scraped.

The issue of waste is important not just because it’s morally repugnant but because it is being willfully ignored in food policy. In the last few years proponents of bigger-is-better agriculture including the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the UK Government’s Chief Scientist Professor John Beddington, the current Secretary of State for the Environment, Hilary Benn MP, the Conservative Party, the National Farmers’ Union and Monsanto have begun a seeding the press with the notion that we need to increase food production 50% by 2030 or that it needs to double by 2050.

This whispering campaign, which as the Soil Association point out is based on little more than UN/FAO hearsay, has now become a shout and is being used to convince a frightened public that we need things like GM, that we need things like massive indoor dairy facilities where 8000 cows never see the light of day, or multistory indoor pig ‘apartments’ where the animals live and die in climate-controlled comfort, or massive vertical farms where plants never see soil, or huge urban agriculture complexes that combine all of these things and which become little more than industrialised metropolitan food ghettos.

We’ve got to get past this belief that things like more intensive agriculture and bigger techo-fixes are necessary and unavoidable in order to solve our problems. It’s not bigger and global, but smaller and local that is going to save us.

There is so much more that can and should be done and all in all, I confess that reading the manifestos from a food perspective was a discouraging exercise. If our politicians can’t even get to grips with the real basics of our day-to-day lives – like food – what hope is there for a sustainable future and what exactly are we voting for?

Pat Thomas is a former editor of the Ecologist and author of the book Stuffed: Positive Action to Prevent a Global Food Crisis, Soil Association/Sawdays, £14.99). 

A short version of this post is available on the Ecologist webste, here.

© Pat Thomas 2010. No reproduction without the author’s permission.