We must put sustainability at the heart of the science that drives it forward, says Tim Lang

The food economy is a bellwether for wider politics. People want to eat, but their capacities, culture and options are shaped by circumstances. Park the rhetoric about choice driving food supply. The reality is that macro-politics and culture frame it all. If your government has done a deal to bail out bankers, sooner or later that 'choice' will affect food.

Last week, the Royal Society published its report calling for £2bn to be spent on food and agricultural science. Don't dismiss this as special pleading by elite scientists. Slowly, a consensus is emerging that UK food policy has quietly abandoned agri-food science despite it having unleashed the productivity that enabled the food system to revolutionise post World War II.

I argued in my last column that soil science is in a dire state in the UK. The Royal Society agrees. Thank goodness it didn't perpetuate the myth that somehow GM will answer all the coming food problems. It won't it cannot. As the World Bank's catchily named IAASTD report showed in 2008, the social and economic drivers are probably more important than the technical.

That's why we need to make sustainability core to science's contribution to the future of food. This isn't altruism. Northern EU countries will be more, not less, important as food growers in the future.

Nor can investment or thinking be left just to the corporate sector. The new paper from the Tesco-funded Sustainable Consumption Institute stresses that consumers want to change but don't want to be lectured, don't see clear courses of action and don't want to go it alone. Price signals are awry. As the Manchester team dryly notes, there is "a lack of low-carbon alternatives". That may be true for cars or houses but not food. Take meat, for example. The evidence suggests we need to drastically cut meat and dairy and stop its global growth. Will any government or company say that? Don't hold your breath.

There's better news on fruit and veg. Last week, Defra launched a fruit and vegetable task force, chaired by the Secretary of State. This aims to increase both production and consumption. Frankly, if it doesn't unlock a massive expansion of horticulture, I'll be disappointed.

Will any new government carry this forward? Will we see massive planting of orchards? Will we have to create a new motto of 'Plant Fruit and Eat the Beaut'?

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University t.lang@city.ac.uk.

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