What is UK food policy?
Trying to pin down the UK’s policy on food is a bit like trying to solve a Rubix's Cube with your hands behind your back. It’s a near impossible task made even more fruitless by the fact that responsibility for food policy crosses so many government departments: from health and environment to international development, energy & climate change and business. Broadly speaking, where food is concerned, as with other industry sectors, money talks. With each government department needing to deliver on the growth and deregulation agendas other issues - most notably those with a green bent - have been pushed to the background. In practice, this means support for policies aimed at producing more food and exporting it in greater quantities – a strategy that whilst it may deliver short-term benefits to farmers and food manufacturers does little to address the structural weaknesses of a global food system which sends millions to bed hungry every night (including many thousands in the UK) while a similar number receive treatment for obesity-related diseases, and accounts for 20-30% of global GHG emmissions and 70% of human water use.
In the rush to create policies that reduce burdens on businesses and stimulate 'sustainable' production, consumption remains the elephant in the room. The reluctance to give people advice on what they should be eating has its roots in a UK Government wedded to the free market ideal and devoted to the cult of consumer choice. Consequently, it has been left to civil society and the more enlightened members of the business community to look further down the track at the crises looming from mass overconsumption in the West - obesity, climate change, water shortages and commodity price volatility to name but four - and come up with innovative solutions.
Will government engage any time soon? Probably not, but thankfully there is no shortage of people trying to fill the policy void, most recently the new Food Research Collaboration whose report Square Meal calls for UK food and farming to be centred on eco-systems and public health.
My instinct is that far from being happy with the current hands off approach to food policy most businesses would like a more decisive steer from government on food beginning with an overarching food strategy that either reclaims ownership of the Food 2030 document produced in 2010 or better still advances it. After all, a clear direction of travel gives businesses the incentive to invest for the future with certainty. But with an election looming, don’t expect a UK food policy worthy of the name any time soon.