The future workforce needs dignity and good pay as well as qualifications, says Tim Lang

As we digest the Comprehensive Spending Review and watch quangos burning, it's time to look ahead.

Privately, even government supporters admit the ideological nature of the cuts. The coalition is paying off the biggest debt in history in a period no mortgagee would entertain. All to keep international bank credit ratings. For what?

The relationship of state, supply chain and civil society is being rebalanced. Will the private sector or civil society fill gaps left by the state? Can they? Some food voices are gleeful about pruning the state. Others wanted it but now realise infrastructure for business will dwindle.

Such politics straddled two meetings in Westminster last week about the state of food skills. One run by Skills Councils was blessed by a Defra minister. The other was a City University symposium with state, industry but also civil society presence. Both championed serious questions for national food skills.

What skills and labour force do we need for the future? Whether we look at farming, horticulture, manufacturing, retailing, catering, or consumers, common themes emerge. New and old skills require nurturing for varied capacities. Giant firms can do internal training but SMEs with few staff struggle. Collectively, food is a huge employer, the largest manufacturing sector, yet the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills appears not to take it seriously.

Food has a low status image. Who wants to be a pruner, veg picker or low-paid soil scientist? The immigration cap looms. Nor have celebrity chefs helped catering. Entrants all want to be Jamie Oliver without the hard graft.

No wonder there's soul searching. Take agriculture. There have been reports by Lantra, BBRSC, the Royal Agricultural Society of England, and Lord Taylor of Holbeach. A future is painted of applied research, high-level skills for fashionable 'sustainable intensification', plus training ladders for the basic skills to rise. But colleges close.

Few think industry can deliver alone. Education is costly. A culture change is needed; not qualifications but dignity, respect, decent pay, consumers paying more. City's symposium heard the lessons of burgeoning counter-culture projects where those values are starting points for skills in towns.

Increasingly, I think that's where crisis prevention lies. It charts a course beyond the cuts.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University.