I’m wary of new year’s resolutions. I yearly resolve to keep my desk clear and not to work at weekends. No doubt you’re better at keeping resolutions than I am! So this year I’ll instead share some problems that need resolution.
First, what can be done about the impact of rising food prices hitting the poor? Fact: low income households spend greater proportion of income on food. Since World War Two, cheaper food has helped people on low incomes. But now we know cheap food isn’t cheap. It excludes healthcare and environmental costs and encourages waste.
Higher prices might cut waste but hit the poor. Problem. One view says: teach the poor better budgeting (actually they’re good at it). Another says more equal societies are healthier, so act at the macro-economic level, not on personal behaviour. Right now, UK government is sitting on a time-bomb. Rising inequalities. Volatile prices. Welfare cuts. Recipe for trouble.
“Why not break up Tesco? We need a proper debate about food power”
Secondly, people say we live in a ‘market economy’. In food, it’s actually an oligopoly. Big companies dominate. Does this matter? Yes. If we want markets, let’s have markets. Grossly unequal economies distort society. Tesco’s runaway market share is faltering, but it’s still over 30%.
Options vary. One is to rebuild real markets - remember them? Another is to encourage new entrants. Another is to strengthen anti-monopoly powers. Thirty-one years ago, US anti-trust authorities ruled against AT&T, the then-mighty telephone company. The company was broken up. Has the US imploded? No. So why not break up Tesco? What’s needed today is a proper debate about food power. Who has it over whom?
Thirdly, what’s to be done about consumerism? Consumers are gods in today’s secular society. The big problem with consumers is consumption. Westerners eat too much and take a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. We Brits eat as though there are two or three planets. Meanwhile, others starve. One option is to pour resources at the poor. Another is to agree more equal distribution. Another is to fight over it. Bad idea, war. So what do we do?
Problems in search of resolution… what’s new?
Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University London