Last week, David Heath, Defra minister for food, told the Daily Telegraph Britain needs to produce more food. He’s right. I cheered. But will he deliver it? Labour entered the same territory in Food 2030 then lost the election. The case is obvious: security, good land use, jobs. But will British retailing back it? Will Tesco et al really shorten supply chains after the horsemeat scandal?
The challenge is partly practical - getting skilled labour, finance, changed land use, infrastructure. More horticulture, less agriculture. But it’s partly philosophical too. It alters what we want the food economy and business to be, and what we see as ‘growth’. We need a new food framework.
A year ago, it was fashionable in financial circles to make a distinction between the ‘old’ western economies faltering after the 2007-08 banking crisis and the ‘new’ economies bursting with growth. At last week’s G20 and IMF meetings, this view was quietly shelved. Economic growth remains patchy.
“The real world of growing (not selling) food takes time and skill”
Part of the problem is that economists and politicians didn’t see the financial crisis coming. They let financiers develop schemes such as derivatives which were a bubble, not real growth.
In reaction, some businesses and economists now use ecological language. They talk of pursuing ‘circular’ economies, recycling resources, building resilience, investing in infrastructure, integrating commerce with biological efficiency. In fact, there are different models of what ecological business is. Some see a nasty world of survival of the fittest. Others take inspiration from when seeds, soil, nutrients, light and climate unleash biological capacity.
The key issue Defra must grasp is that the real world of growing (not selling) food takes time. It requires skill, attention to detail and people who are patient, adaptable, and who keep going even when weather and circumstance go against them.
Instead of fighting re-runs of Mrs Thatcher’s spat with the European Union - having herself signed the Single European Act! - politicians ought to be working out what the rich land of Europe grows. Britain and northern Europe will be more important as primary food growers.
Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University London