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‘Dangerous drift’ on Brexit risks Britain’s food security, says leading City food policy expert

Professor Tim Lang discusses the looming food-related Brexit issues at annual Faculty of Public Health lecture

by George Wigmore

Professor Tim Lang, a leading food policy expert at City, University of London, has highlighted the perilous situation government-inaction on Brexit has left the UK in with regards to food at the Faculty of Public Health’s annual DARE lecture.

“We are eight months from when technically the country leaves the EU but we don’t have a clue about what shape that will be,” said Professor Lang. “Food comes from Europe and we’re leaving it.”

As Professor of Food Policy at City and the founder of the Centre for Food Policy, Professor Lang has been at the forefront of food policy research and debate for decades, contribution to government, public and media discussions on the topic.

Colonial food legacy

Having set out the issues that face the UK, Professor Lang moved on to discuss the UK’s historical legacy.

“Historically Britain fed itself on other people’s land,” said Professor Lang, highlighting the UK’s dependence on its empire.

By the 1890s there was a long decline of food production, as Britain was not feeding itself, with 70 per cent of food coming from the colonies.

This situation came to a head in World War I and fears arose around production as people started to worry about supply chains being destroyed.

With the world wars rationing also came in, along with an increased focus on planning and nutrition.

Food production also changed in World War II as the UK increased the amount of food grown from 30 per cent to 60 per cent. However, in the past 50 years there has been a food revolution, with an increasingly complex web of food trade and links across the EU and the world.

“You cannot discriminate between EU and UK food,” he said.

With the UK due to leave the EU in a matter of months we are left with no agreement on post-Brexit food system, and no food plan following the shelving of proposals in February 2018 “without a blip of comment”, according to Professor Lang.

British farming and the EU

In terms of food, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidy continues to play an important role in supporting British farming. Subsidies from the EU were £3.2bn in 2016, while British farming made a grand total of £3.7bn in the same time. Cut that £3.2bn subsidy, as the Treasury wants, and farming goes belly-up.

“The subsidy accounted for nearly 80 per cent of all the money that British farming got,” said Professor Lang.

Recent estimates have suggested that following Brexit 50 to 70 per cent of British farmers could ‘go under’, with a huge effect on supply lines. The issue of migrant labour is also of huge importance.

“We have a very troubling situation,” said Tim. “Migrant labour keeps the British food system going, with 80 per cent in horticulture and 35 per cent in food manufacturing, which is the biggest economic sector in Britain.”

The nature of food supply chains is also something which could be severely affected. Tim spoke about how, due to the ‘just in time’ system, a process pioneered by Toyota which aligns raw material orders with production, there is often a very low margin for error, with just a small increase in delays having potentially a large knock-on effect.

“Currently average port health inspections in Britain are two minutes long, but if it goes to four minutes post-EU, there will be 17 to 20 mile tailbacks within 24 hours,” he said.

As we already get 41 per cent of food from membership of the EU, and import most of our fruit and vegetables, the suggestion is that the food shortfall could be met by West Africa in the form of a new neo-imperialist model.

“If you want British fruit and veg it’s picked by migrant labour, and already crops are not being picked,” he added.

Future of food

The future of food, and its sustainable production, is a huge issue and Professor Lang dedicated the last part of the lecture to the future, and possible solutions.

“We need a sustainable food plan,” said Tim. “We need food standards to be regionalised and we need to decentralise power and reskill with regional food plans and education. We need agriculture colleges back, and the core of the plan has to be horticulture.”

Professor Lang also suggests that a sustainable food act, which builds on the Climate Act, could be a way to help rebuild sustainable diets as well as improving food literacy. He also spoke about the need for a mass replanting of trees and orchards.

“Ultimately we need a new approach to land use unless the UK wants to recreate the empire,” he said.

The solutions will not be easy, but perhaps the answer could also be found through tax - an increased sugar tax or even a food marketing tax – along with tariffs if we do leave the EU.

“I think we have an incredibly dangerous drift,” said Professor Lang as he concluded the lecture. “Society is starting to wake up and it is an opportunity for us to think big and bold. If there was one message, it is that the situation is so dangerous that if we don’t speak up we are colluding in something we will regret later. After all, a country that cannot feed itself is not a country.”

Listen to the lecture here

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