For some time, it has been a wry joke that the ‘f’ in Defra no longer stands for ‘food’ but for ‘floods’. Reputedly, the PM, when appointing the last secretary of state, talked of floods needing to be Defra’s priority. His prescience was remarkable, but I want to disagree with the analysis. Good policy needs to link food with floods, and much more besides. It’s not an either/or.
While residents and farmers on the Somerset Levels have understandably expressed frustration at the apparent failure of authorities to help them, in truth the scale of what now needs to be done is enormous. It’s not just a matter of digging more ditches or speeding up river outflows.
We have to take note of what a variety of specialists have been saying for years, and slow water down, keep it back on the uplands, build catchments and stop building houses on flood plains. Food policy should help bridge these different issues.
“Land management shouldn’t be dominated by any one function”
It’s all about land management, stupid. And that is a function not just of whether we build houses on flood plains (the Canute policy) but of what land is for. Most sensible policy people have concluded for years that land has to be managed for multi-functionality. In other words, land management shouldn’t be dominated by any one function but aim for multiple outcomes along with food production.
Some people argue these are exceptional times. True, the Met Office reports that January 2014 had the highest rainfall on record for Southern Britain. Equally, others remind us that good planning allows for the exceptional. To plan for normality is a recipe for disaster.
This crisis is surely yet another reminder that food policy is drifting, particularly English policy. Output and land cropped continue to fall. We have no agreement on what a sustainable food system must be like. Some think it’s just shaving off a bit of carbon here and there, while the evidence suggests we need to plan for radical change. In truth, the UK still thinks others will feed it. Land is what toffs own. Yet land is everybody’s business.
Eco-systems are being changed by human activity. Food is a key factor driving this. It’s not just angry Somerset inhabitants but all of us who must prepare for change.
Tim Lang is professor of food policy, City University, London