SERA members Tony Allan, Charlie Clutterbuck, Tony Colman and Richard Kuper here set out an in depth analysis of our food system and explore how Labour policy must develop from and improve on the 2019 manifesto to meet the demands of Britain's escalating food crisis.
Photo: Rene Cortin, license link.
Political contexts and political feasibility
Our food system has evolved over millennia. It is economically and socially dysfunctional and environmentally unsustainable. The existing food system is, however, politically adept in dealing with the disruption of food availability and access.
The current food system delivers what society and legislators want - namely under-priced food for the underpaid; in both poor and rich economies. Because it does what society and legislators want it is a system that is very difficult to debate and reform as most of the obvious, and supposedly rational reforms would cause food prices to rise. The debate on the Agriculture Bill in Parliament on 13 May 2020 was a classic example. Lots of good and earnest things were said but the business as usual food system was - as always - effectively backgrounded and unexamined. It is a normal mode of engagement in politics. Outcomes have to be politically feasible in both UK and international contexts. This analysis examines these contexts to assist further analysis.
The food system ‘works’ because it is a system that has accumulated a vast array of ad hoc responses to minor and major crises. These interventions got locked in. The current food system has capacities and resilience that enabled it to cope very effectively indeed with the Covid emergency. It has coped much better with this emergency than it did with the volatile 1974-79 commodity prices and the 2008-2011 financial crisis. The disruptions of the 2020 viral crisis have required minor direct payments - tens of $bn worldwide. Other sectors, for example air transport, manufacturing and tourism have needed many $tn worldwide to cope with their impacts - many of which will be long term. In the UK evidence has emerged that accessibility to sufficient nutritious food has been difficult for one in four families. The problem has been caused by increased levels of poverty related to the crisis and are not a consequence of food availability issues.
The food system has political economy contexts
The food system is not a single ‘market system’ with the same accounting rules operating from farm to fork. Unfortunately it is perceived to be a single system by those who work in it, by those who debate and ‘regulate’ it and by those who are food consumers.
In practice it operates in three modes - see Table 1 - 1 Food production, 2 Food trading, manufacturing, processing and retailing, and 3 Food consumption. One of these modes is a fairly effective market. That is Mode 2, which in OECD economies such as the UK is dominated by powerful corporates.
Mode 1 is a ‘failed market’ not because farmers fail. Farmers have operated for decades in circumstances that make it impossible to make a commercial living never mind invest. Farm livelihoods have to be kept in place with direct public payments amounting to about 30% of farm income. Farm gate prices do not, as economists say, internalise all the costs of production.
Public money is also needed in Mode 3 to ensure that the underpaid and the unemployed can access food via welfare payments. In the US this subsidy is very transparent. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides food stamps for about 14 % of the population and costs about $60bn/year. UK food welfare metrics are difficult to find.
Only governments have the economic fire-power to deal with systematic challenges in Mode 1 and Mode 3 and recurring extreme emergencies. The corporates in Mode 2 are aware that farmers do the heavy lifting of stewardship. But the existing reporting and accounting rules do not compel them to turn awareness into deep and effective engagement.
Table 1 The three food system modes highlighting their different contributions - including value addition, investability, employment generated, environmental impacts, environmental stewardship performed and impacts on nutrition. It is clear that farmers account for major ecosystem impacts. These externalities are not reflected in the price of food. It also highlights the weakness of farmers who operate in Mode 1.
Policy approaches - Just transition v. Nudging capitalism and the business as usual political economy
The 2019 Labour manifesto projected a just transition approach by adopting the language of the green new deal. It is assumed that a new manifesto will also use the green new deal vocabulary. But we need a preliminary discussion on the extent to which the policy reform will engage with the current UK food system and its farming (in Mode 1) and its corporate interests (in Mode 2). We also need to evaluate the extent to which UK options will be internationally determined in a post-Brexit world.
The opportunity to make policy without the constraints of the EU CAP regime encourages lateral thinking. The 2019 manifesto, identifies measures that would regulate and fund a sustainable UK food system. We also need a system that would enable the public sector to react to the inevitable periodic environmental, human health and economic food system crises. The US political system achieves these goals relatively transparently. It can be very reactive to the inevitable crises that impact food availability (Mode 1) and access to food (Mode 3).
The 2019 Manifesto on Investment *
The 2019 Manifesto was very good on investment in sustainable food production and on protecting environmental assets. The approach remains relevant and must be maintained in any future policy development.
The manifesto was, however, silent on land values and the distortions which inflated land values have on farm economics and the options available to farmers.
The manifesto was also silent on research. The corporates fund a high proportion of the research on farm inputs and farming systems. Research on nutrition is also mainly devoted to what is important to the private sector. The universities align with the agenda of the corporates because the corporates decide what they will fund. We have a seriously sub-optimal ag-research capacity. This is especially true of research on Mode1 and Mode 2 of the food system.
Labour Party Policy Commissions
The Policy Commissions do not provide an easy framework for the analysis of farming, food, nutrition and the environment. Food and farming are relevant topics in at least six of the ten commissions. We believe this topic – and these inter-connections - are so important that there should be a Food and Farming Policy Commission.
We need to double our rural seats and to attack the Tory heartlands. We need messages that make it clear why farmers need support to cope with their very high risk livelihoods and why underpaid consumers need help to buy local food.
The UK food system is part of the global food system. It is also the oldest element of our political economy. Energy and manufacturing systems come and go but a pragmatic environmentally blind food system has always been with us. How we reform the food system so that it is not environment and nutrition blind will play a major role in climate change policies and related environmental accounting.
We need to decide whether the converging environmental and nutrition challenges are best handled via party manifestos or by all party engagement. The engagement would be on how we replace the unsatisfactory GDP (Gross Domestic Product) accounting approach with a GEP (Gross Ecosystem Product) approach. New accounting systems will be important in enabling the transition to a sustainable food system, as well as informing trade deals that could compromise food standards in the UK.
Corresponding author: Tony Allan, [email protected]. Tony was Professor of Geography at SOAS for many years. With a base in environmental science, he is an internationally esteemed expert in water resources and the political economy of water policy and its reform, whose most recent book (2001) is The Middle East Water Question: Hydro-politics and the Global Economy. While now retired from teaching, he continues to be an active researcher and supervisor of research students in the framework of the SOAS-King’s College Water Research Group which he founded.