A Better UK Food Policy Requires Better Government

Theresa May visits a farm in Bangor, Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty Images.
Theresa May visits a farm in Bangor, Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty Images.

Whatever one thinks of Brexit, the process has highlighted a fundamental problem with the UK’s governance mechanisms – namely, that policymaking is often trapped within departmental silos too focused on the short term. In a complex world, decisions made for the benefit of one sector, or group, have the potential to affect other sectors in myriad ways over long periods of time, but government struggles to manage these competing interests.

For example, producing more food – in order to make it cheaper – impacts water, energy and greenhouse gas emissions, and potentially degrades the environment. That trade may allow these impacts to happen overseas and play out over many years doesn’t mean they go away.

Brexit has now made these effects explicit. The implications of the referendum decision are significant, complex, and affect multiple areas of citizens’ lives; yet the consequences were not transparently, and truthfully, articulated, forcing voters to make a binary choice based predominantly on ideology not evidence. Now, if Britain is to develop effective policy in any area, it needs to grapple successfully with the trade-offs.

A new Chatham House paper highlights how this plays out in the UK’s food system. In one sense, Brexit presents a danger, potentially triggering a damaging race to the bottom on food standards. But it is also an historic opportunity to make Britain’s food system better at feeding people a healthy diet, produced in a sustainable way while supporting profitability from production to retail.

At the moment, it does not do this very well: UK food poverty is growing, as is obesity and poor dietary health. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the UK run out of food before they have money to buy more, and it is estimated that 1 in 4 adults is obese. In the countryside, biodiversity is in crisis, soils are degrading, the landscape is losing its diversity and air and water quality are far from ideal. Brexit may allow the opportunity to redesign the food system for the better.

To do this requires recognizing three things. The first is that the food available in the UK, and its price and quality, comes from a combination of agricultural, trade and regulatory policy (which affects where food comes from and what is in it), as well as general economic performance (which affects exchange rates and trade). Trade and agricultural policy so deeply affect each other that they cannot be considered in isolation.

The second is that food price and availability can have perverse impacts. All being equal, the more available food is, the cheaper it is; cheaper food makes it more economically rational to overeat and to waste food. Focusing on growing yields has created a food system underpinned by cheap calories coming from a handful of crops worldwide, so cheaper food is often calorie-rich but nutrient-poor. Driving down food prices can drive up obesity and levy costs on the health service that far exceed the economic value of agriculture.

The third is that people have a wide range of values associated with food, which are not simply encompassed by price at point of sale, or even by price, safety and quality. As a citizen, someone may care about fair trade, or how the excessive water extraction needed to produce citrus fruits undermines local water availability abroad. They might also care about the look of the British countryside, and care greatly about the loss of plants and animals, or the role of food production as a driver of climate change.

People also care deeply about animal welfare, hence the push back around ‘chlorine washed chicken’, a process necessary in the US to combat lower standards of rearing. That the UK food system is insufficiently transparent for a purchaser at point of sale to associate adverse impacts with particular products does not mean people do not care.

These three issues imply the need for a coherent, inclusive and strategic approach to designing a food system – integrating personal values, health and the environment within agricultural, food and trade policies. In other words, there needs to be a cross-government food policy recognizing the multiple facets of the UK’s food system.

In this, food is not so very different from other policy areas. It requires joined-up thinking and, importantly, the patience for government to think in the long term. The opportunities are there. Can they be seized?

Professor Tim Benton, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Energy Environment and Resources.

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