EU elections have reminded mainstream politicians of public anger at perceived loss of local and national controls. Anti-immigrant and anti-Brussels sentiments shaped anti-establishment voting patterns, even in pro-EU Germany. Political analysts have been warning for years that, as globalisation and cross-border trade accelerated, perceptions would also rise of weakened national accountability.
For purist neo-liberals, that’s the whole point. They want minimal government. Just ‘vote’ with your consumer preferences. Democracy at the checkout replaces the poll. Some of this was actively pursued by proponents of the Single European Act (signed by Mrs Thatcher) and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade 1987-1994 process (signed by John Major). Today in food we see some consequences of those international agreements.
” Voters would starve if border retaking was applied to food”
Two events last week took sober note of the ‘anti-establishment’ EU votes. In Stockholm, the EAT Forum met at the first of a planned annual food ‘Davos’. 500 people from science, policy, business, civil society and government explored how the food system could be shaped for socioeconomic resilience and stability. Clear messages from ex and present presidents of countries, economies and sciences suggested an urgency thus far not fully grasped by governments.
A sizeable number of voters might fantasise about retaking control of their borders, but they’d starve if that was applied to food. UK self-sufficiency is 60%. If there is localism, it must be at planetary scale.
In Edinburgh, the Congress of European and British millers knew that. Grain is globally traded. Scotland doesn’t feed itself. Even Scotch whisky, a £4.3bn market, relies on barley from all over the world. If Scottish or British consumers want to lift the UK/EU drawbridges, they might not like the consequences!
That’s not to say there aren’t grounds for focusing on local and national food systems. EAT heard brilliant summaries of how food systems are exceeding planetary boundaries and how eco-systems already send signals to humans to desist destruction. Westerners must eat differently, better and less, while building resilience and output in the South.
Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University London