The industry would do well to learn from history and ask the right questions, says Tim Lang

Much political capital is being banked on sorting out welfare to prune state spending.

The arguments are familiar: business drag, tax drain, workshy culture. Similar cries surfaced about the Elizabethan Poor Laws making parishes responsible for their poor. But historical humility is required. Reform was often gruesome, a response to the collapse of monastic charity with the dissolution of the monasteries.

Welfare has been constantly reformed ever since, veering from punitive to softened and back. We're now in a 'back' phase, but core issues of dignity of work, access to wealth and skills are being ignored. Yet that's what fired Dickens and the Victorian reaction. Talking tough is easy but injustice follows and the food sector ought to face this. Too much food work is drab, low paid and low status. We've got to crack that, or welfare reform will end up being punitive. Not the workhouse (though some farm camps are on the spectrum) but sullen constraint.

The coalition got going quickly. As with CAP, everyone favours reform and thinks no-one else has thought of it. It's a continual process anyway. The 21st-century Welfare White Paper promised to get back to basics, "tackling the root causes of poverty: family breakdown; educational failure; drug and alcohol addiction; severe personal indebtedness; and economic dependency."

Secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith promised (and says he's on track) to get back to core 1942 Beveridge principles and reconnect welfare to work. Sir William Beveridge cast welfare and national insurance as slaying five social giants: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Food has a role in all of those.

So when the government says "we are going to end the culture of worklessness and dependency" , and "too many people believe they are better off on benefits than in work," and that the reforms will be "designed to produce positive behavioural effects", we believe it. Behaviour change, 'nudge' thinking and the pursuit of happiness are influencing this government. They influenced the last one, too, and the same chap is leading Cabinet Office work.

Response to the 21st-century welfare consultation showed a strong belief that "people should be clearly better off in work than on benefits".What wasn't asked was: what makes for good work? How could working fields, food factories and shops be a positive pull, not a sullen push?

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University.