Food will be one of the major challenges of the 21st century – and one on which the UK Labour party can lead on
Even with the economy getting back on track the cost of living crisis has not disappeared. Higher energy bills, rising housing costs, falling real-terms wages are part of the political story of the recovery. The public get that the benefits of a return to growth are not yet being shared fairly.
Food is part of both the cost of living crisis and the longer-term challenge of sustainable production. Labour has developed a strong political story around the rapid growth in demand for food banks; there is also an opportunity for Labour to seize the initiative on a much broader food agenda.
Globally, it is estimated that we will need to feed eight billion people by 2025, making food one of the major challenges of the 21st Century. In the UK, food security, a changing climate and food prices will be a growing concern for future governments. Emerging demand in new markets, lack of access to land and water, and the changing weather, are putting pressure on the global food system.
Food prices are rising faster than both wages and overall prices. The horsemeat scandal sparked a public debate about how food is produced, traced and regulated. Yet, 18 months on the government still have not published the Elliot review into the scandal or acknowledged the damage their fragmentation of the Food Standards Agency caused.
The reality is that we will not return to the kind of cheap prices seen in much of the last 100 years. Better competition between retailers may help, but the long-term drop in food prices since mid-20th century has been replaced by volatility and uncertainty. Earlier this summer Professor Tim Lang and Victoria Schoen published a new report highlighting the importance of affordability not just food prices. Whilst on average British families spent 9.3% of incomes on food and drink, this rises to 15% for families in the lowest income brackets. The trend shows that average spent on food has fallen from 71% for working class families in 1885 to 34% in 1946.
Former Shadow Environment Secretary, Mary Creagh, was one of the first shadow cabinet ministers to focus on the importance of food to both living standards and future economic prosperity. The challenge has been picked up by the determined work of Shadow Farming Minister Huw Irranca-Davies and new Shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle. All of them followed on Labour’s work in government with the publication of Food 2030, in 2010, the first national food strategy since the Second World War, setting out a vision for a sustainable and secure food supply in the UK. Even with the recent procurement strategy published by Defra, this work has largely been ignored by the coalition.
So, where should this lead Labour? Food is an amazingly important issue. We should be talking more about the importance of a healthy, affordable food linked to a thriving food sector in the UK. There are huge pressures on the UK’s food system from the impact of erratic weather on farmers and the pressure on producers to shoulder an unfair burden from supermarket price wars, through to income inequality and its impact on public health and diets. Food poverty should be taken out of its silo and looked at as a health, welfare and economic issue. The public will rightly want to see independence and expertise restored in our food regulations.
Labour should adopt an ambitious aim to boost domestic food security, produce more food in the UK and encourage greater exports to new emerging markets. This ambition should be underpinned by a clear goal to not just halt but to actively restore biodiversity in the UK. The simplification of the Common Agricultural Policy has turned out to be another inflexible reform for farmers and the environment.
The UK food industry is already a success story and has the potential to create jobs and boost UK growth. Food and farming is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK: 400,000 people work in food processing and manufacturing in the UK, and exports amount to £11 billion.
Labour’s ambition requires a new approach to how government looks at food and farming. Labour should consider appointing a Farming Minister to sit jointly between Defra and BIS to provide greater co-ordination with economic growth. We need greater co-ordination at the highest level to ensure ambition and progress on our environmental obligations, science and research, possibly through a food security committee of the Cabinet. We should look to other industrial sectors, such as the automotive industry, to see how business and government can work together to promote growth, decent jobs and higher productivity.
There are huge opportunities for Britain to lead the world on food: building on demand for the amazing foods we produce; improving food security and environmental benefits; and tackling food affordability through greater transparency for consumers and sharing the benefits of a return to growth.
Andrew Pakes is the Labour & Co-operative Parliamentary Candidate for Milton Keynes South and a former advisor to the Shadow Cabinet on food and environmental policy.