Tim Lang wants a new sustainable food policy. His thinking is that compliance will follow. It won't

Everyone seems to agree the era of "cheap food" is over. So how will we cope? All those suburban dilettantes who used to condemn retailers for cutting prices ought to be rejoicing that the era of expensive food is upon us. But then, thanks to those same retailers who are still competing on price, UK consumers are yet to feel the full effects of food inflation. As for our farmers, with a few exceptions, they're doing nicely thank you.

So is there really a serious long-term threat to our food supply? In a paper recently published in the RSA Journal, Tim Lang says climate change has undermined our traditional reliance on supply, demand and competition.

His thesis is that the world's population is rising faster than food production. We can't convert much more land to intensive farming and millions of consumers in countries such as China are now adopting Westernised diets that are bad for their health and the environment. It sounds like old Tom Malthus is back in fashion. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are already mounting up.

So does Tim have a solution? You bet - and it won't surprise you. We need a new food policy that will "integrate individual behaviour within the planet's needs and capacities." Governments must set forth their blueprint for a sustainable food system and universal compliance will follow. Except, of course, it won't.

So governments will have to bring about this integration with complex and intrusive bureaucracy that will ultimately be undermined by the pull of the market and popular resistance. No government with any sense of its own political survival is going to go down that road.

The alternative is to encourage governments to remove the international barriers to free trade in agricultural produce. Malthus was wrong before and he is now. Opening up protected markets, especially in the EU, and removing export tariffs and quotas will incentivise farmers in China and India to produce more to feed their own populations.

Instead of encouraging niche markets such as organic, we need to invest heavily in GM food, which Lang airily dismisses but could certainly help bring mass markets into balance. He recognises that future production capacity has to deliver sufficiency, but "appropriately". Appropriate to whom? As Bertrand Russell once said: "If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote?"n

Kevin Hawkins is director general of the British Retail Consortium