Just Food – Professor Tim Lang’s Q and A

Author: | Date: 19 January, 2014 | Category: Food Talks | Comments: 0

This post is a transcription from notes taken at the “Just Food” workshop on 18th January 2014 during Professor Tim Lang’s – Question and Answer Session.

[ Paul Bodenham ] I feel a better person [ after hearing from you. ]

[ Tim Lang ] We’ve got more food literate [ although I don’t like that word ] since the BSE crisis. There has been action. During the horsemeat [ scandal ] I gave 70 interviews in 4 weeks. [ The crisis ] showed how calm the British were – they didn’t panic – but it shook Tesco rigid. The good news – we’re getting [ clearer ]. [ Have you any questions ? I’m media trained. ] I was watching – you were mostly listening.

[ Paul Bodenham ] [ Concern will probably be ] having a sense of what we can do about it. The kind of world you create by the words you use. What the solutions are – that can be engineered by political consensus – by nudge, by transition. Our faith calls us to be motivated [ by / towards ] transition – a sense of [ drawing ] – a purpose.

[ Question from the floor ] I’m a Friends of the Earth campaigner and also a food campaigner – [ I took part in the action to get a Bill passed but we had ] no success because of one politician. Do you think that we should raise ourselves up with one voice – speak to our politicians again – one by one – on food ?

[ Question from the floor ] About the horsemeat scandal shaking Tesco – do you think it made visible some shady dealings and the complexity of the supply chain – that the supermarkets were not aware of ? Has there been any cleaning up ?

[ Question from the floor ] Somebody has said that 90% of food they sell in supermarkets is not actually food. Do we have to refine what food really is ? Was the advice from somebody “Eat plants.” Or “Eat food. Not too much, but mainly plants.” ?

[ Question from the floor ] I’m interested in the global expansion of meat consumption. UNESCO statistics.

[ Question from the floor ] I hear about the new food literacy – a bit less about progress. Unless there is a sea change and we put food at the centre of education and policy, we will not make any progress. Food is the basis of all science. The danger is [ that beyond the struggle to feed the world will be ] – water wars. A long way to food peace. We need to reinvent ourselves. The problem is, how ?

[ Question from the floor ] How many interviews did you have to do about sugar ? People are not aware that it’s in their food.

[ Question from the floor ] Regarding horsemeat – was it more of an apathetic response [ from the British people ] ? My daughter is 26 and a lifelong vegan and perfectly healthy. You alluded that we need fish for Omega 3, but we don’t. You can get it from flax seed and hemp seed, which grow well and easily here. The former British Empire was built on hemp [ rope for the Navy ] Can have Essential Fatty Acids from hemp and flax seed – and chia seed [ which is new to me – and I don’t know if it grows well in the UK ].

[ Paul Bodenham ] [ I expect you get ] the “Nanny State” accusation. Government have tried all sorts of models for behaviour change. How do you dodge the Nanny State accusation ?

[ Question from the floor ] I took the Master Composter’s training course. During the training course we learned that seed is now controlled by five major organisations. Could [ this ] lead to having no choice to grow seed best suited to the land ?

[ Tony Emerson ] You mentioned that marketing has got out of control … ?

[ Tim Lang ] This is the democratic problem – democracy in the broadest sense – not just as as citizens, but getting our politicians to act. [ A previous Government was riddled with food interests. ] The National Health Forum [ which I take part in ] writing a paper to come from Friends of the Earth. [ The need for ] democratic transition is strongly connected [ to the food issue ]. Democracy is faltering at the moment. It doesn’t know how to deal with the production [-ist] model of food. We have a democratic problem. The European Union is one of the only places where this [ food issues ] is being thrashed out. There is a disaster going on – there is an awareness in [ the ] public health [ sector ]. […] a sustainability bill prepared by the European Union – called “Sustainable Food” – later this year [ led by ? ] the Swedish Government. [ How can you know what is sustainable ? ] What do we eat ? Bananas – very carbon intensive – [ Britain’s favourite fruit – ] ripened on a ship – never seen God’s sun. Can we measure the embedded water ?

On horsemeat and Tesco : they have made a commitment to shorten their supply chain – sell more British pigs [ but can they achieve this ? ] You can source three chickens from Brazil for £5.00. 50% of all grain grown on the planet is fed to animals [ globally and in the UK ]. [ Somebody calculated that it was ] less carbon-intensive to eat lamb from New Zealand, where it was grass-fed for ten months, and then shipped frozen on the slow boat, compared to “Good Welsh Lamb”, fed on processed food for four months. Old-fashioned values [ are important ] such as seasonal food. We have the 10-months-of-the-year strawberry. Picked in glasshouses by Eastern Europeans – and their working conditions are dire. The shock [ experienced by Tesco was real – there is now an ] international internal fight going on in central top management who want to change things – they created this enormous buying Leviathan – based on logistics – they know where all the food is on the planet. A “Just-in-Time” buying system – why Tesco has been so successful.

We need a different culture. Beware a lot of green guff – CSR [ Corporate [ Social and ] Sustainability Responsibility ] guff – but don’t dismiss it. What are you [ personally ] actually doing about it ? That means you don’t eat chicken very often. You don’t eat tuna very often. […] What’s the water embedded in a tomato ? I don’t know and I’m a Professor of Food Policy. Companies are piecing together [ the data ] – what’s the embedded carbon [ emissions ] ? What’s the embedded biodiversity loss ? What’s the embedded water ? [ But ] where’s the democratic accountability ? You couldn’t put it all on a label. But you could put it on an app [ an application [ information programme ] on a mobile phone ]. […]

Michael Pollan’s statement doesn’t really convey the complexity – but he recognises that. [ He also recommended ] just go back to what your grandmother liked. I’m not sure I’d want to eat what my grandmother[s] did. [ But ] they ate simply, actually. Both of my grandmothers taught me the Christian [ value[s] ] of simplicity. It’s terribly unfashionable.

The meat issue – don’t start me ! I’m a [ mountain ] meat farmer. You can’t grow pineapples up there. You lose soil if you grow carrots. Sheep are alright in their place. Forests would be better up there. If I were a dictator, I’d re-forest the Mediterranean and get rid of all the goats. [ One of my students was from ] Mongolia [ and said ] “you can’t grow crops here”. But some niche animals [ can be reared ]. I’m not against meat, I assure you. The concern is the growth of meat [ consumption ]. Look at the [ cattle rearing ] figures globally. I don’t get emotional about it – but this is out of control. Paul McCartney and his Meat-Free Mondays. More realistic [ ambition would be to ] – only eat meat once a week. Translate that into [ cultural ] terms ? Nobody wants to know. I partly grew up in India – around Mumbai / Bombay and there they have high rates of Type 2 Diabetes – a non-meat eating culture but still have health issues [ and the world’s largest herd of sacred cows ]. That’s their problem. [ Generally ] meat is associated with progress – rising living standards. When I went vegetarian, my father went bonkers.

Regarding hidden sugar – the sweetening of the diet. The infantilisation of the diet. Artificial sweeteners are just as bad [ creating the expectation of sweetness ]. [ In France they went to schools to teach the meaning of sour. ]

The Omegas – where we get them from is a problem. Yes, you don’t need fish. [ Developing higher Omegas is one of the aims of those genetically modifying organisms ].

Of course I get the accusation of [ pushing ] the Nanny State. We usually use the State for wars [ and crises ]. But not even rabid individualists can solve food and water systems – it’s the public sphere. I say that those who accuse [ me of promoting the ] Nanny State usually had bad nannies. […] The word “protect” is good news. In Economics, the word “protect” has been made a dirty word. Take that road out there – does it exist by itself ? The drain that takes our toilet waste away ? [ Need systems of infrastructure ].

About the control of seed. I am the President of Garden Organic. There are 9 million gardeners in Britain – they are much more important than farmers for engaging with people [ to grow more food ]. I like flowers but I want more fruit and veg. The Schools scheme “Food for Life” – aiming for 10% of British school food – encourage school caterers to deliver real food. One success has been growing at schools. To my total astonishment, the Mayor of London [ has backed ] the Food Board (I’m one of Boris’ [ bikes ] – but I’ve never met him – I always communicate via an intermediary). An astonishing transformation – Mr Gove has become a born-again feed-children-well [ convert ]. My family has been capital C Conservative for 200 years – I’m a socialist. But I was moved that Mr Gove thought it worth £0.6 billion to feed all children a decent meal for three years. But I can tell you those arguments didn’t come from Mr Gove – that the sixth largest economy could feed their children – between the ages of 5 and 8 a totally free meal every day. Fabulous. Next time someone accuses you of supporting the Nanny State say the “Gove State”. I’m not ashamed to translate evidence into action.

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