Cunningham Lecture 2011: Living with an unsustainable food system

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Professor Tim Lang

Professor of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, City University London

Tim Lang has been Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy since 2002. After a PhD in social psychology at Leeds University, he became a hill farmer in the 1970s which shifted his attention to food policy, where it has been ever since. For over 35 years, he has engaged in academic and public research and debate about its direction, locally to globally. His abiding interest is how policy addresses the environment, health, social justice, and citizens.

He has been a consultant to the World Health Organisation (eg auditing the Global Top 25 Food Companies on food and health). He has been a special advisor to four House of Commons Select Committee inquiries (food standards x 2, globalisation and obesity), and a consultant on food security to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). He was a Commissioner on the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission (2006-11), reviewing progress on food sustainability. He was on the Council of Food Policy Advisors to the Dept for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2008-10), and was appointed to the Mayor of London’s Food Board in 2010.

The Centre for Food Policy works closely with civil society organisations, through Sustain the UK NGO alliance (which he chaired in the past). He has been a Vice-President of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (since 1999) and President of Garden Organic (since 2008).

He has written and co-written many articles, reports, chapters and books. His most recent books are Food Policy (with D Barling and M Caraher, Oxford University Press, 2009), Food Wars (with M Heasman, Earthscan 2004), Atlas of Food (with E Millstone, Earthscan 2003/2008), Unmanageable Consumer (with Y Gabriel, Sage 1996/2007). Ecological Public Health (with G Rayner, Earthscan/Routledge) is published in May 2012. He writes frequently in the media and has written a monthly column in The Grocer since 2000.

He was elected Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health in 2001; is an Hon Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Cooks (City of London). He rides a bicycle to work, doesn’t own a car and grows vegetables and fruit in his London garden.

Can food democracy resolve the dilemmas?

The lecture will explore whether policy-makers are responding sufficiently to the evidence of the food system’s tensions and fragilities. Tim Lang will propose that a set of ‘New Fundamentals’ are now clear yet policy-makers have so far failed to get sufficient intellectual, political and economic grip on the seriousness of the situation. For a moment, in 2006-08, this looked possible. Rising oil and food commodity prices shocked even Western policy-makers. They were used to food prices troubling developing, but not developed, countries. When prices dropped, sighs of relief were heard, but troubles have re-emerged in the 2010s. Are the tectonic plates merely moving only to resettle in a new place, or is food economic volatility now the status quo, adding to the world’s financial instability?

In this lecture, Tim Lang will take a long view. He will suggest that the 20th century’s apparent progress in resolving the Malthusian question (about land, food and population) has been done at considerable cost. Oil underpinned the 20th century drive for productivity. As it went through technical and managerial revolutions, the food system’s impact on the environment was increasingly well documented. The impact on soil, water, climate, land use, and biodiversity are now all serious. The social implications, too, are sobering. Food culture is distorted. Social inequalities in consumption are both global and intra-national. Health indices show both hunger and obesity; and diet-related disease delivers huge healthcare costs. Surely the prevention of such problems ought to be driving policy yet it does not. Surely, we ought to be debating resource allocation, price-setting, and what is meant by efficiency, yet business-as-usual reigns. Or does it?

The lecture will present some signs that the enormity of the challenge is troubling policy-makers’ normality. The lecture will suggest that governments, food companies, and civil society (ie all of us) need to engage with this debate. It should not be left to vested interests alone. Thus, the 21st century looks set to resuscitate an old strand in food policy: the pursuit of food democracy, how to ensure that all people are fed equitably, healthily and with dignity in a manner that enables others to do so too. This is a socio-political not a purely technical or managerial or scientific problem.

Currently, much attention is on technical innovation – not just GM but an array of novel solutions to food on and off the land. Less attention is being given to social issues where the possibilities include: restructuring food markets, rapid consumer behaviour change, re-shaping cultural tastes, altering price signals. These require the state and citizens to act differently: less ‘leave it to markets’ and more ‘re-frame markets’. Less ‘let consumers choose’, more open support for ‘consumers are choice-edited anyway’. The dominant policy language is, at best, replete with ‘nudge’ thinking, the fashion for behavioural economics. The lecture will propose the need for open and democratic debate about food futures. It will propose that the food security debates are no more and no less than a key test for whether our food system is shaped by food control or food democracy. It will warn against technical triumphalism and urge a more balanced integration of societal and supply chain change.

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