The President must put ecology and health at the heart of food policy, says Tim Lang

The pessimists look correct. Deep recession looms. No sooner are trillions thrown at bankers worldwide than they need more. Late 20th-century finance is now exposed as a modern South Sea Bubble. Why accountancy firms aren’t being hounded beats me. As food businesses know, trust is fragile but essential.

The implications for UK food are immense. The collapsing pound presages food inflation. UK food production slides. So I for one welcome the changed smoke signals from Defra’s Hilary Benn. There’s a Whitehall fight over UK production. Treasury diehards say buy on world markets. DfID wants more fair trade. Actually, the bulk of UK imported food is EU-derived, so our food trade gap bill is ruled by pound, euro, dollar exchange rates. This is tricky politics.

Might there be an Obama effect? What modern President has started with higher hopes in worse circumstances? His administration must do three things to chart a new direction for 21st century food.

Firstly, just as the banking crisis has to be addressed with tough new interventions and procedures, so the food system needs to be rebuilt for an era of ecologically based business. Obama’s past speeches promised investment in public works, revamping US public buildings, including literally changing over to low-energy light bulbs. Welcome but not enough. The new US food business model must deliver low carbon and improved health, precisely the goals charted by the UK’s Cabinet Office Food Matters last July. Obama has hinted he knows this, but to deliver he must confront strong lobbies.

Secondly, US food is very high carbon; its population overeats. Slimming down the population will be a double gain for environment and healthcare bills. This means tackling a soft-drink, fast-food culture just when swelling numbers of the poor will be sucked that way.

Thirdly, Obama must support world food policy institutional reform. The split between the Bretton Woods bodies (World Bank, IMF et al) and the UN (FAO, WHO et al) is part of the problem. Narrow, Chicago School neo-liberal economics have added to global food insecurity. The policy architecture needs revision. Twenty-first century food will not be judged by cheapness but affordability, health and ecology.

It’s an awesome agenda but tackle it he must.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University.