Commodity price rises have brought the weaknesses in food supply to light.

Even though oil and commodities prices have eased, shock waves roll through policy circles. Defra last week hosted more discussions with stakeholders about another food security paper. Scottish and Welsh governments are doing likewise. The chief scientist’s Foresight programme is reviewing long-term prospects. Meanwhile, industry, civil society and research bodies are revising positions.

This thinking goes beyond ‘GM will feed the world: yes or no?’, although one opinion strand sees policy mainly through that lens. Raising production is not necessarily the same thing as raising productivity. One is absolute; the other is about squeezing land, labour and capital efficiency.

The good news from the price rises was the overdue realisation that the food system has certain fragilities. The bad news is the danger of policy over-simplification. Take energy. Much of the 20th century’s productivity gains have been from cheap oil, fuelling engines and the fertilizer industry. Neither GM nor solar power can resolve that.

In Greek mythology, Achilles died because one heel was still vulnerable. We have more than one weakness. One is waste. Until we actually use what is grown and sold, we haven’t much of a moral leg to stand on. Nor can China or India be lectured about their change of diet unless we change ours too. It’s our diet that is carbon intensive, not yet theirs. Our food sucks up embedded water.

A core problem is consumer culture. That’s why last week the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested Western consumers have one meat-free day a week, an echo of the old ‘eat fish on Fridays’ rule. Whether this would have sufficient impact is unclear, but it questioned the Great Unmentionable: consumer choice. As Professor Paul Ekins said at last week’s Sustainable Development Research Network conference: “Living within environmental means is unpopular.” 

Amid questions about how to grow more, waste less and eat differently, one thing perplexes me – the silence of the EU. After being browbeaten for using subsidies to encourage farmers to grow lots of food, the Common Agricultural Policy has de-coupled. Just when a clear food policy direction is needed, there is little. We need to set a clear framework. What is a good food system? How can we get there? They are the real questions.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University.