Sorting out the global food crisis is not about helping developing countries; it's about accepting that the UK is part of the problem

Smoke signals from last week's Downing Street food security seminar highlighted Whitehall thinking but also its limitations. The dominant view sees the challenge of future food supply as mainly global. What's happening to food prices so far has little impact on us, or can be kept under control by market mechanisms, ie retail power. We're a rich country; food prices are under pressure but only account for 9% of household expenditure. Policy attention should focus on developing countries. The UK should be honest broker; get more food to the needy, support the World Food Programme as safety net.

This dominant interpretation is worthy but potentially misleading. Of course, countries most at risk are those with a high dependence on the traded food commodities: rice, wheat, maize, soya. Countries most exposed tend to have weak currencies, low external trade purchasing power and high prices or where food accounts for high percentage of household expenditure - or all of these .

Yet studies of famines teach us that they are not necessarily due to lack of food, more to do with lack of civic rights, what Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen called 'entitlement'. A sense of consumer rights puts pressure on a food system to deliver. Vice versa, people lacking 'voice' can be squashed.

The world actually grows enough food but it's unequally distributed, which is where the UK comes in. We're part of the problem; not just over-consuming but shaping an ecologically divisive food system. Our food footprint is deep, using land, soil and sea space, plus energy resources, as though there were six planets. This is unsustainable yet championed as a modernity that the developing world should learn from.

In policy, the coming clash is going to be over these views - one saying steady as she goes, price hikes are temporary, normality will resume; the other questioning current policy comfort zones, stressing that our 'efficient' food systems mine the earth, literally and metaphorically.

One offers mainly technical solutions to the world price crisis; not just GM (actually fairly limited) but nanotech, tighter management, the biological revolution. The other champions sustainable development as a more complex set of solutions, partly social, partly ecological, a different take on the importance of biological.

This debate is beginning. But will politicians driven by electoral cycles fully engage? Or have they bought one position already? If so, the crisis will hit harder later.n

Tim Lang, professor of food policy, City University