Just Food – Professor Tim Lang

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University in London, came to speak at CEL’s “Just Food” day today. Here follow my rendition of his words – typed up from notes. They are not verbatim and may be subject to errors in hearing or transcription, but I hope they give you a flavour of the challenges he presents in our food system.

I can be dressed up to look quite respectable, but I’ve done that dread word – campaigning. We’ve got lots of [scientific] evidence – so then what ? Looking at how people respond to evidence – in the policy field. I’m 66, and I belong to what I call “the angry professors group”. How much evidence do you ned before you act on the food system ? This is why I responded to Tony Emerson’s “genial badgering” to come along. Do you want my 10 hour Fidel Castro-style rant – sorry – usual calm ? 20 minutes ? 30 ? [ I normally do Powerpoint presentations, but today I have handwritten notes… ] On the subjects of Food Security and Food Sovereignty, I wax lyrical. I am troubled by those notions. I want to plant some key concepts. Food Security was coined 30 to 40 years ago – the underlying meaning is “Are you feeding people ?”, but one research paper had 140 meanings, although I consider only about 5. It’s essentially about access to food, the availability of food and the affordability of food – the three A’s. Are people being fed ? This question is usually about under-consumption, but there are 1.4 billion people overweight, compared to 800 million people who are underfed [ so this doesn’t give the whole picture ]. Food Sovereignty was a term coined about 15 to 20 years ago by the peasants’ movement – Marxists and radical revolutionaries. “Peasant” anywhere not in the English language is not a term of abuse – it means “subsistence” farming, or living “hand to mouth” – with no wages. The Food Sovereignty [ as a concept ] was championed by La Via Campesina, the voice of small farmers. In the world today there are 1.5 billion small farmers. La Via Campesina has been organising a view of the dispossessed – small farmers and peasants are marginalised by agriculture operating on the mass scale – market-based agriculture. I was a farmer for […] year. I think a lot about farming. I’m interested in the food system – the inputs into the food system. As such I’m very interested in banking – as it determines the food system – agricultural chemicals [ and so on ]. In the UK, hardly anyone works on the land. There are 3.5 million people working in food in the UK, but only [ 500,000 ] who actually work the land in farming. The problems we now face are why I get out of bed in the morning – the biggest single determinant of planetary ecological decline. In the rich world, we are over-consuming. In the developing world, the trend is towards over-consumption. If everyone in the world consumes like they do in Malawi – they under-consume at 0.8 of a planet. In the USA – 4 or 5 planets. There is research by people like me into footprinting – consumption and sustainability. “Sustainability” is like a Rorschach inkblot like [ the psychologists ] used in the 1960s, everyone sees something different. “Sustainability” means everything to everyone. In the City, they use the word “sustainability” to mean – does the annual bonus cover a new Ferrari ? Sustainability [ should be sustainment ] – the sustenance of health of people and the health of ecosystems. Whichever way we look at it, something is going seriously awry. I use that word “awry” carefully, because in one way, the food system is going fantastically successfully. Production is astonishing. Around about 100 year ago, [ the development of ] food science, understanding of water, animal breeding. Put together with nutritional science – to address the difficulties with Victorian society, which was brutal, with a short life expectancy for some, by contrast [ with the other end of the scale ]. This was the beginning of social science. Current campaigning by Jamie Oliver – the public face of decency. In the 20s, 30s, my grandfather got a Nobel Prize for research into vitamins – nutrients could alter life conditions. This was the basis for a [ scientist ] model – the capacity to improve the food system. During World War II, that model won. It got [ results ] and won the intellectual argument. Before the war, Britain was producing only one third of its food. In 1945, in wartime, Briain was producing two thirds of its food. The real progress is in fertilisers – not in pesticides etc – we’re now picking up that they’re killing off bees and insects. We are now having to address the problem of our role in a very complicated ecosystem – remarkably altered by a brilliant success story – of producing more food. It’s staggering. All the charts go up. The production of wheat, meat, fish, with all the essential fatty acids [ Omega 3 ], for brain development, for pre-conception health, for vascular heatlh – the graph goes up – but we are now seeing fish stocks in a dire state. We know we need to be eating fish, but […] in fish farming, fish is being trawled from the sea to feed caged salmon […] [ a similar problem ] to soya being fed to chickens – a three to one ratio – an energy conversion problem. Now down to political choices. Recent research shows there is a 25 year gap in the life expectancy between the youngest and oldest – a gap between rich and poor. A phenomenon of globalisation. I was partly brought up in India – and I remember spices being sold in UK. [ Trade is not new ]. What’s new about globalisation is the pace and the scale. Broadly, the food system is not globalised. Most food is regional. In 1982, the UK was [ 82% ] self-sufficient – now the UK is a parasitic economy. A speech was given recently saying we need to grow more, but I don’t see to much to encourage me. [ The impact of academic study ]. Latest book “Ecological Public Health” – what do we mean by “ecology” ? I use the term in the Darwinian sense but go further – we humans are within that same ecosystem. [ We need an ecological ] framework for trying to deal with complexity. We now know enough about the impact of the last 100 years. We know the food system is a major part of the climate change problem. [ Lord ] Nicholas Stern – calculates that agriculture alone accounts for [ 10% to 15% ] of greenhouse gas emissions. Now almost certainly 18% that the food system is responsible for. The EIPRO study [ 2006 European Commission EIPRO ] showed that food accounts for 30% of emissions, [ estimated over the ] energy that the EU consumes. Jetting off – small fry compared to eating a diet considerably high in meat. It’s the sheer quantity that is being eaten – which is why we’re getting fat. I have 10 challenges.

1. Health
The spread of non-communicable diseases: it used to be that food was strongly associated with communicable diseases – [ principally ] water-borne disease. The [ rise of ] non-communicable diseases comes with the “nutrition transition” from having a hightly localised diet [ – to having food from other places ]. [ In one sense ] it’s a good news story – [ they have more and better food ] then they go further – the go like us. They eat all the time, like us. They eat sweet. Processed [ food ]. Replacing domestic cooking. End up with 35,000 items in the supermarket. Satellites tell farmers when to harvest. Logistical management systems. Brilliant – actually. Now causing problems. A recent paper for public health found – the spread of antibiotic resistance in food production. Tony Blair [ was warned ] that obesity is a ticking time bomb for the National Health Service. Companies are worried about reputational damage. Coca Cola afraid of being sue for selling obesity.

2. Energy
Food is energy for us but is also using energy – there has been a growth in energy use – for example in the use of fertilisers created by the Haber-Bosch process – the fixing of nitrogen.

3. Land Use
I have a reproduction of a portrait of Malthus to remind me of the complications of this issue, but I’m not a Malthusian. Malthus has been proven wrong for 100 years. In my lifetime, human population has doubled to 7 billion. Rising to 9.5 billion by 2030 [ projections vary ] – all sorts of variables – including climate change. There are more people, so there are more mouths to feed. I am a neo-neo-Malthusian – the problem [ of feeding the population ] is a very big challenge. [ Feeding adults is one thing, but we have ] more importantly the little people. Do we try to continue the trend – do we make wheat fix nitrogen ? Do we breed pest-resistance into plants – make vitamin-rich rice that also fixes more nitrogen and is flood-resistant ? Unless there is a science revolution […] The answer is – no – for we need to change how we eat anyway. Very crudely, there are two different models. The first – let’s have another go [ at the industrial food-growing revolution and other science ]. [ People are ] seeding the skies [ to attempt to limit climate change ] to deflect rays. [ The approach can be summarised as ] we’ve started altering Nature – let’s go the whole hog – an interesting food-based analogy. Land use – will be critical to sequester carbon. Even the technical fix people accept we need to sequester carbon in the soil. Here in the UK, one of God’s plugholes, where it rains a lot – the floods – that’s not God – we’ve mismanaged water [ courses and land – forcing the water to flow off ].

4. Ecosystems
What’s going to alter the nutritional transition from simple diets to complex diets – the most likely change to the food system will be [ the availability of ] water. Water distribution drives populations. Food is the biggest user of water on the planet. Agriculture uses something like 70% of all potable water. [ Tony Allen – who you should invite – expert on virtual water – tireless at looking at food as being embedded water. ]

5. Culture
I’m a social scientist. Eating all day long is actually a cultural aspirational. Permanent eating economy. Lovely. Terribly civilised at one level. Cafe culture. What would a culture look like if it ate sustainably ? Marketing is out of control. £500 million spent on food marketing and only £5 million spent on healthy food education. We opposed “Change for Life” which was targeted at the poor [ to encourage them to change their diet and lifestyle ] as 95% of the population need to change their diets – not just the poor. Move the whole thing [ the whole U shaped distribution of the population ]. There will always be variations. Research from China has shown a rise in diabetes, stroke etc – growth in the 1980s and 1990s. As diets started to have more meat and fat in them, the diseases kicked in – the evidence for this is extremely strong.

6. Urbanisation
Working the land: we have a kind of “Volvo World”, where people want to live in the country but not work on it – land use changes under urbanisation. Now a majority urban world. As a food policy man – extremely important. Sustain – head is a Church of England vicar, and Rosie Boycott, working for more food in the City (London). Growing on roofs. Growing more food in cities – if high urbanisation need more land outside to support it.

7. Demography
Plants are a quicker way to get nutrients. Demography – much depends on what we eat. Can’t all eat an Argentinian diet high in beef.

8. Labour
Colleague who went to Georgia to learn Russian so she could do research in the Lincolnshire picking fields. Why will the British not pick vegetables ? Eat someone else’s labour. If you want more vegetables and fruit, you need labour. How much do you pay them ? What working conditions ? People walked off the land as soon as they could [ in the Industrial Revolution ] because of the appalling conditions for land labour.

9. Governance
Politics / policies is how we manage this. The dominant model of the last 40 years has been the market. Tesco sells a third of all food and drink. The horsemeat scandal really affected them. Are markets the best way to meet needs ? Does it look after ecosystems ? Need to frame markets. I’m not saying Keynesianism – but policy is what unleashed the food production revolution – the Government framing of markets [ covered in the book “Food Wars” ]. Choices by democratically elected. Pump-primed and subsidies. Now got to have a system of governance of ecosystems. The European Union [ has been key – for example ] can’t keep putting human waste into the North Sea. Got to remove agrochemicals from water. Millions of pounds of filtration. Raises the question of why add it in the first place ? The complexity of the picture requires governance. At the university we are interested in government. Tesco is more important than the Government. Walmart (Asda to you) is the biggest [ economic entity worldwide ]. Nestle, Coca Cola, hugely more important than the Dutch Government. The 7th “country” is Unilever. It’s a thinking company – the only food company with a commitment to issues of sustainability. Very interesting shift going on in corporate food. Are they doing it to protect their reputations ? It’s a governance problem.

10. Money flows
Who makes the money out of food ? Google “Defra food statistics pocket book”. Digest of statistics. Page 14 or 15 – a figure with the whole food system in it – 65 million British people spend £180 billion a year on food. Hardly any of that money goes to farming. Most of the money is off the land. If we want more plants, more growing – the only want is to increase incentives – that is how to reframe the argument. Not fashionable [ to say that ]. The reason I came to talk to you. Where the money goes is critical. Christians are very important in the Fair Trade movement. The Tate Gallery is lovely. Slavery – not so lovely : sugar – not so lovely. We want to see sugar consumption down by 30%. Frees land. Less sugar means more land to grow more crops. Cuba – a Soviet colony to grow sugar. It ought to be the […] outpouring point for plants for health – not sugar. Need to get more money going back to food production.

Food Sovereignty. Great movement. It’s about us. About how we live. About whether we respond to data about the effect food is having on the planet. I’m to meet a journalist after here in a cafe – doing a cartoon on sugar. Fantastic. Actually food ecology and health – raises the question of what do we mean by “progress” ? [ Another book mention – it’s a very boring book – don’t buy that book – borrow it. ] What do we mean by health ? I pose that challenge – that you are talking about – what is progress ? What is a good food system ? A good food system is where the land is looked after to allow it to flourish – instead we are threatening it. [ Human health – should be about ] all, not some. Health – enhanced lives. The dignity of labour.



Author: | Date: 18 January, 2014 | Category: Food | Comments: 4

Comments on "Just Food – Professor Tim Lang"


January 19, 2014

Tessa Burrington writes :-"Thank you very much for this write up, especially as I did not attend the talk, but have an interest in the issues.With regard to Tim Lang's "challenge" 9, Politics, readers might be interested in reading Tim Lang's article in "Eating Better" on the horse meat scandal: http://www.eating-better.org/blog/31/Horsemeat-scandal-was-a-damning-indictment-of-the-state-of-our-food.html.I liked this article giving an explanation of Trade Deals. It gives food for thought and is also on the Eating Better website: http://www.eating-better.org/blog/29/Trading-away-meat-standards.html.I also liked this video with John Hilary of War on Want, in which he gives his opinion on Trade Deals: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTHw9gauWno."


January 19, 2014

Hi Stephanie and Jim,Yes - it was Ed Echlin, our first presenter, who quoted from the Bible - and who said "The Bible is an agrarian classic in the whole body of literature". I hope to type up my notes from what he said after I have finished with some of the afternoon workshops write up.It was a very encouraging and information-loaded day yesterday - and the food was good, too ! There's nothing like an "eating meeting" to foster community building and engagement with concerns.

Dave Barton:

January 19, 2014

Amazingly well done for getting this post up so quickly. I'd posted on Facebook what a great talk this was and a friend engaged in dialogue and found this within 12 hours!

Stephanie and Jim Lodge:

January 19, 2014

Thank you for your transcription - so much so soon!I think he named some of the passages from the Bible or was that Ed Echlin, I can't remember now, I should've taken them down! There was so much said!All the best, Stephanie and Jim

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