The UK food system: Professor Tim Lang

With or without Brexit, the UK food system should be embarking on a great food transformation

A briefing paper has been published by the Science Policy Research Unit: ‘A Food Brexit: time to get real’ by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, Erik Millstone, Professor of Science Policy, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex & Terry Marsden, Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning, and Director of Sustainable Places Research Institute, School of Regional Planning & Geography, Cardiff University July 2017

They ask: “What can be more important than our national food supply and food prices?  There is a real danger in the fantasy that these new times will not affect UK food. They will. So the public must ramp up its interest”.

The paper sets out why food – not just farming – deserves a high place on the public agenda, not least since the UK is heavily dependent on EU Member States for its food. One third, in terms of expenditure, comes from other EU Member States. Currency fluctuations have already exposed upward price pressures in a food-importing country.

Brexit could, all too easily, diminish food security in the UK, where parts of our food system are already far too insecure; this rich country is pocketed with real food poverty, for example, and diet-related disease is part crippling the NHS.

We understand food security to be the achievement of a system that provides food that is sufficient, sustainable, safe and equitable.  Brexit could, however, undermine all four of those aspects, in what is an already insufficiently secure food system.

Moreover, the UK food system should not only aim for domestic security, it should also not undermine food security in any of the countries from which we buy, or to which we sell, foodstuffs. 

This briefing suggests changes that the UK food system should be undertaking if its long-term structural needs are to be addressed. Our case is that the UK food system is highly vulnerable to:

  • the rising costs of diet-related ill-health,
  • ecosystems damage,
  • economic dependency
  • and social reliance on migrant and relatively low-waged labour.

With or without Brexit, if HM Government were to act responsibly, the UK food system should be embarking on a great food transformation to a more secure future 

The uncertainties provoked by the outcome of the Brexit Referendum, coupled with the recent election, could result in serious nutritional and political problems.

  • supplies could be reduced,
  • prices could become increasingly volatile,
  • environmental sustainability could be further diminished,
  • safety could be imperilled,
  • inequalities could be amplified
  • and public trust be undermined.

The just-in-time distribution systems, complex contracts, and labyrinthine supply chains cannot quickly or easily be restructured. Scientists have already been concerned about their resilience – their capacity to withstand shocks.   

Some of the major challenges in relation to food have been provoked by Brexit. That is why Food Brexit must be an opportunity for all scientists and civil society to debate with the British public about these real structural challenges. We have to make the case that Food Brexit must not be a deviation from the transformation of the UK food system that the evidence suggests is needed.

The UK must go down a path shared by others in the developed world.  Food and ecosystems are cross-border phenomena. We believe the evidence points to the need for a Food Brexit for sustainable development – an opportunity for the UK to accelerate into a food system which delivers sustainable diets from sustainable food systems.

This great Food Transition should improve food security at home, and in countries from which we import food, by lightening the UK’s ‘foodprint’ on the planet, improving public health, reducing the economic burdens from poor diet, enhancing food employment, and more.

Food Brexit should not be an excuse to focus solely on price, or on food as a commodity to be simply bought and sold. Indeed, today’s food is so cheap – even though expensive for people on low incomes – that its costs are externalised onto health and the environment, too often with no-one paying the direct costs except lives and ecosystems.

We are wary of those who see Food Brexit as a chance to seek even cheaper sources of food – if not from the former Empire, then from where land, labour and capital are cheap and unregulated. The Secretary of State at Defra went on record for saying the UK could be fed more by Africa. Africa should be feeding Africa not the British, who fail to take their own food security seriously.

The British public should not be seduced by a new food ‘soft imperialism’ which further erodes the small farm sector, takes money even further from the land, and pursues unhealthy ‘ultra-processed’ foods in the name of consumer choice. What consumers actually need is better nutritional, microbiological and toxicological public health standards.

At the time of writing, and for the foreseeable future, it is not possible to predict the outcome of the Food Brexit negotiations, how central or peripheral the agri-food sector will be to those negotiations, or whether consumer interests will triumph. Our main concern is that civil society, academics and external voices – whatever their specialisms – should unite around the call for the new Food Brexit Framework to locate food as a central (and cross-departmental) part of UK public policy in progressing and creating a more resilient, robust food system, one which is capable of delivering sustainable and future generational diets, healthy lifestyles and environments for its increasing and diverse population.

Current patterns of food consumption and supply in the UK often produce the opposite of this goal, in that they are exacerbating health and social inequalities, and continuing to create more vulnerable environments. Many food businesses are also facing significant vulnerabilities, and this is likely to continue given growing volatilities in markets. It is a system that is stalling on food waste reduction – indeed, reinforcing waste – and not adequately reducing food’s role in harming human, physical and ecological systems in both the UK and other countries from which we import food.

There should be national targets aligned to the internationally-agreed targets of the SDGs, COP 21 and higher performing nutritional and environmental targets. They will cut across and stimulate policy integration between a new and revised agricultural policy, energy, health, education and training, economic development, community regeneration, and creative green and circular procurement policies.

Our overall view is that resetting food policy will require HM Government to set up a new UK statutory framework, creating a Standing Committee or Commission on Food and Agricultural Policy, consisting of MPs, officials, and an inclusive representation from the civic, community, business and public service and devolved sectors.

This framework will need cross-departmental and devolved authority support and commitment  It should include the creation of a Standing Committee or Commission on Food and Agricultural Policy, consisting of MPs, Officials, and an inclusive representation from the civic, community, business and public service and devolved sectors. This body will need to agree action plans and to set sectoral targets and performance measures, as well as to hold

The paper gives specific recommendations in each of the following sections, centred on how to enhance food security in the UK. Enhanced food security in the UK will require: 

  • a policy commitment to a modern, low-impact, health-oriented UK food system;
  • a new statutory framework for UK food, which we term ‘One Nation Food’;
  • this food framework to be linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 2015 Paris Climate Change agreements (known as COP21);
  • new clear targets for UK food security (food supply, quality, health and consumption) which go beyond mere quantity of supply by addressing ecosystems and social systems resilience; 
  • the creation of a new National Commission on Food and Agricultural Policy to provide oversight and review, and to be a source of advice trusted by the public;
  • HM Government to make a clear and explicit commitment to ensuring a sustainable, safe and equitable supply of food, and to set out how that will be achieved, with or without Food Brexit;
  • a continued but reconstituted, co-operative set of arrangements with the EU food agencies with regard to regulatory synergies in food trade and standards; 
  • an approach to food policy which is politically open and socially inclusive.

The Food Brexit task will need to be transformational and restorative; current food systems should be transformed to adopt a more circular and sustainable approach that will couple food production and supply systems to enhance public and environmental health. In order to achieve these goals the UK framework must create and promote a unique UK approach which harnesses the energies of its key players and recognises the need for more diverse and greater sustainable self-reliance. It must have a global and internationalist commitment to fairer forms of food trade and the achievement of global targets as embodied in the UN sustainability goals and the Paris COP21 agreements.


Many would also agree with Copa-Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen, who said “The huge imbalance of power in the food supply chain has left us with no choice but to call for legislation to be introduced to improve farmers’ positioning and to stop unfair trading practices. It is unacceptable that farmers get for example only 20% of the profit when they are the ones who do the majority of the work producing goods”.  The farm gate share of retail price has dropped on average 15% between 1988 and 2015 (DEFRA report) and in the UK, farms are going out of business.





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