>>It’s Time to open our eyes, says Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University

Last year was the bicentenary of Admiral Nelson’s death at Trafalgar. Learned tomes were poured out about the man, battles and sea power. One legacy of the British Empire’s sea power was the ‘food as fuel’ cheap food culture, the impact of which we still struggle with.
I have spent much of the past year researching and thinking about big food companies and what they say and do. National competition policies are widely and rightly felt to be at best floundering or at worst actively colluding with accelerating market concentration. The European Commission, a rare cross-border body to have a competition policy, barely registers the scale of some food companies’ operations, let alone threatens to act.
It was at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 that Nelson famously disobeyed orders to cease action, saying: “I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes.” He then raised his telescope to his blind eye and said: “I really do not see the signal.” In legend this became the “I see no ships” quip.
Today’s policy-makers adopt this tactic too - “we see no market power”, when they aren’t looking for it. But could any public policy now contain the onward march of the food giants? Some people say it’s too late. Others say there’s no policy anyway.
Not true. We have to distinguish between explicit and implicit policies. The current implicit policy is, as a Whitehall wonk told me, “leave it to Tesco”. Every country has its equivalent. And far from Brussels being all-powerful - as its opponents claim - it’s actually rather pathetic.
Across the world, companies and countries differ, but the approach does not. Trans-national food power is the new orthodoxy: a mix of active promotion and washing hands.
Does this matter? I think it does.
A ‘consumer votes’ theory of markets now substitutes for political democracy. Short-termism rules. As a result, food giants are rare in
taking the long view. They plan while obviating town planning; they collect information on consumer behaviour while criticising signpost food labels. They triumph by default.
An important schism between public and corporate interest emerges. While companies gnaw at regulatory burdens, the public sector carries the cost but is constrained from acting. Companies pursue efficiency, intensification and cheapness while the public sector pays the huge public health costs. No-one pays for climate change.
Two centuries ago, economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo laid down classical theories that market efficiencies need some equality between seller and purchaser. Today’s food chain has different dynamics, has lengthened transactions and fostered new ones.
Food not only helps make us fat but also voraciously uses motorways. The Defra Food Miles report showed it accounts for 25% of all HGV vehicle distance. And it’s rising. The Heriot Watt Logistics Centre calculates that the average freight tonne travels 57 miles by road, compared with 21 miles in 1953. The motorway is the warehouse of yore.
The 20th century food revolution is oil-dependent. A recent Dutch study of 13 European countries found food sectors increased energy use by 1.8% a year over the past 30 years. Small, local supply chains may lack the hi-tech wizardry of modern food logistics, but they are intrinsically less energy intensive. However, they won’t deliver 20,000 items to each mega-store.
In coming decades, supply chains and consumers will both have to change. We need champions for re-engineering modern life so that we expend energy from food, not in how the food gets to us or we to it. Towns, work, houses, lifestyles will have to change. Unless we actively want climate change or social instability, of course. We’ve already got the obesity; the diabetes follows. Or, like Nelson, do we have “the right to be blind sometimes”? Happy New Year.