The food price index may have peaked, but food prices are still a hot issue. Are any of our politicians brave enough to tackle food policy?
Amid the gloom of oil prices hitting new peaks, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced that the inexorable rise in its food price index appeared to be peaking. Following a 54% rise in the past year, the index finally dropped a little, from 218.4 in March to 218.2 in April. Might the FAO be right? Commodity speculation in the grain market may be peaking, but oil certainly isn't.
Eighteen months ago, I took responsibility for the Sustainable Development Commission's study into oil's impact on UK food prices. At that time few imagined oil ever hitting $100 a barrel, but when we published the study last November it had. Now $200 is openly expected. We also predicted a 5%-10% rise in national food prices, but it seemed fanciful to think any higher than that. It seems oil inflation is being normalised.
Such issues trouble political parties. After the London Mayoral election and Crewe by-election, a new political era appears to beckon. But will any political party tackle food policy? Opposition frontbenchers and government tell me they lack levers to influence much. I'm not sympathetic, but I appreciate that support for neo-liberal economics boxes them into a corner. Markets rule, they say. Governments shouldn't get involved, even if they want to.
However, new policy frameworks and opportunities are in fact emerging. Politics is bubbling beyond Westminster. In Scotland, the National Conversation about food is complete after many meetings. Last week Richard Lochhead, cabinet secretary for rural affairs & environment, followed the first minister with an eat-only-Scottish diet. The vision is "a healthier, wealthier, greener Scotland in line with national food policy". There's already the Fife diet, with people eating only from Fife, inspired by the Vancouver diet, which set its limit at 100 miles. They get lean but feel fine; no bad thing. In Wales, too, there is movement on food policy. As far as I know, there's not yet an Anglesey diet but there is much movement behind the quality of food and farming strategies.
It is interesting to see politicians tapping into such stirrings. It suggests food policy is experiencing one of its slow tectonic shifts. With the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit reviewing food policy, the idea of political impotence may be misplaced. Now is the time to think boldly and to ask what institutions we need to deliver what's wanted, not: 'What can I do with my hands tied behind my back?'n
Tim Lang, professor of food policy, City University