This Sunday is World Food Day, created by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 1979 to encourage reflection.
Held on October 16, each year takes a theme. This year’s is ‘food prices: from crisis to stability’. I wish! Ever since world agricultural commodity prices started rocketing in 2007, prices have been volatile.
The effects are devastating. The World Bank estimates 70 million to 100 million people sank into food poverty in 2010-11, taking the FAO calculations to 925 million people now deemed hungry. Meanwhile, WHO says 1.5 billion are overweight and obese.
In a rare act of collaboration and underscoring how collectively worried they all are the UN and Bretton Woods finance bodies, plus the World Trade Organization and others, produced an unprecedented joint report this summer. It called for new monitoring systems, renewed buffer stocks and transparency about speculators’ impact on food prices. Action not laissez-faire. Yes, in a report by the World Bank, IMF and OECD! The FAO annual Food Insecurity report, published on Monday, repeated the diagnosis.
Historically, the UK like all rich economies has viewed food as a developing world problem. True, poor countries are hardest hit but price volatility now laps over the UK’s food defences too. UK food production has been falling for years when it should be on the rise.
Food price inflation is officially about 5%, but most shoppers experience it as more. ONS just reported that household expenditure is down 1.7% year-on-year. Wages are squeezed. Unemployment rises. No wonder Tesco and Sainsbury’s announced sober results last week. Food banks and US-style welfare are booming. I know many in the retail trade feel a warm glow about this, but it’s actually a mark of shame.
The silence from government troubles me. Its international development budget is under attack from the political right but it’s saying nothing about UK food policy. Tearing up Labour’s consensual Food 2030 now looks premature possibly petulant. In many meetings around Europe this summer, people have asked me ‘why on earth did your government stop that?’
As the banking and Eurozone crises roll on, my World Food Day reflection is that the UK will have to create a Food Plan B (a Plan A*?). The world food crisis and volatility isn’t just out there. It’s here, and it’s politically and socially corrosive.
Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University