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Food politics – what the manifestos say about the parties

Earlier this week I spent a disheartening afternoon conducting an unscientific experiment on the manifestos of the three main political parties (with apologies to UKIP, the Greens, SNP etc…..). The question was how many times is food mentioned in each manifesto? The answer in each case is as follows:

Conservatives – 13

Labour – 5

Liberal Democrats – 17

For comparison purposes here are the respective mentions for energy, another constituent of the water/ energy/ food nexus:

Conservatives – 33

Labour – 20

Liberal Democrats - 42

The results are frustrating if not surprising. Food simply doesn’t resonate as an issue on the doorstep in the way that energy prices and immigration do, nor does it have the sponsorship of an entire department like health and education; the result being that food issues tend to get buried when it comes to broad brush strategic documents like party manifestos.

This is a shame since food, as I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog, can be the issue that binds many seemingly heterogeneous policy areas together – climate change, health, trade and welfare to name but four.

Yet the meagre references to food reveal more about the values and priorities of the respective parties than one might think.

The Liberal Democrats win the prize for the most detailed and far reaching commitments around food, some of which, gratifylingly, recognise the fact that the market cannot always be relied upon to deliver the best outcomes for people and the planet. These range from ending all support for food-crop-based biofuels by 2020 to restricting the marketing of junk food to children. In highlighting the wider factors that affect our health such as good air quality and access to healthy food, the manifesto also hints at an environmental approach to public health that has been largely absent in recent years. And in a particularly encouraging development the Lib Dems acknowledge that food policy has been disjointed for too long and promise to introduce a National Food Strategy to promote the production and consumption of healthy, sustainable and affordable food.

The Conservative manifesto takes a very different tact. Here, food is viewed primarily through an economic prism with a narrative around supporting British farmers, reducing red-tape and opening up new export markets. The Tory version of the Lib Dems' National Food Strategy is a Great British Food Unit that helps trademark and promote local foods around the world and back British food at home. This is comfortable terrain for the Tories and will appeal to the party’s core rural voters. The recognition of the economic importance of food is welcome, since it’s an often forgotten fact that food is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector and employs millions more in retail and foodservice; but the lack of joined-up thinking on food policy has to be a concern. The only concession to health is a nebulous pledge to take action to tackle childhood obesity and to promote clear food information, and food’s relationship with the environment is absent in any form.

In keeping with the manifesto itself, Labour’s proclamations on food are extremely top-line. There’s the expected reference to the number of people using food banks, a pledge not to extend VAT to food, and promises to set maximum permitted levels of sugar, salt and fat in foods marketed substantially to children and to protect food producers from unfair practices by the major supermarkets. These promises are underpinned by a broad pledge to create a world-leading Food, Farm and Fisheries sector as part of a long-term strategy.

This lack of detail from a party that started to think in a joined-up way about food policy towards the end of its last term in power should be a concern, although I have it on good authority that Labour would resurrect a version of their progressive Food 2030 vision from 2010 should they form a government in May. As with all the parties we should expect to hear further food policy announcements from Labour in the days leading up to the election.

Whichever party (or more likely parties) forms the next government one can only hope that food plays a more central role than it does in the manifestos. It’s too important an issue to be left on the political fringes.

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