Evaluating Food 2030
On January 5, the British government released Food 2030, a plan for agriculture and food in the UK. It is the first such report in a developed nation in a very long time, and the first in Britain in fifty years. The Globe & Mail introduces Food 2030 this way: “Imported beef. Genetically modified potatoes. The disappearance of those handy labels that tell you just how far your green beans travelled before reaching the grocery store shelf. This is the stuff of Jamie Oliver’s nightmares – and all of it may come true.”
From this introduction, Food 2030 sounds like a document trumpeting industrial agrifood systems and unfettered global trade. At the very least, not the type of document that anyone interested in alternative food systems could take any solace in.
Fortunately, however, the document is more interesting than the G&M would have us believe. Sustainability is the central feature running throughout the document. It seems that much of the onus of this sustainability, however, is left up to consumers. Education efforts are to be increased to help consumers know how and where food is produced and how to grow and cook it themselves. Programs are outlined to provide schoolchildren with opportunities to grow food. The public sector, meanwhile, would lead by example and purchase healthy and sustainable foods. I support an emphasis on education, on creating awareness and knowledge about food production and environmental issues. I also support public sector initiatives to purchase sustainable foods. Ideally, however, I would prefer a more interventionist approach, recognizing that many consumers will likely not changing their food purchasing habits and that the agrifood industry will find ways to appeal to new consumer tastes without truly changing their activities. As Tom MacMillan wrote in The Guardian, “the tone now is about shouting from the sidelines, urging farmers to produce more food with less, and consumers to keep plates and bins a bit emptier.” The ideas are commendable (if only a Canadian government would come out and say the same things!) but, in my opinion, are only part of a path to developing sustainable food systems, a path that must include government regulation and intervention.
A second focus of this document, is a broader understanding of sustainability. It suggests that the previous focus on ‘food miles’ was too narrow. Instead, it calls for a broader understanding of a sustainable diet that would also include greenhouse gas emissions, water use, animal welfare, and supporting rural communities in the UK and in developing countries. The transportation of food, the document points out, only account for 9% of the carbon footprint of a food product. I am in full agreement with this point. Food miles are a valuable education tool to raise awareness, they are easy to understand, and they are tangible – 15 miles is less than 1500. But it only tells a small portion of the sustainability of a food product. A broader understanding of sustainability is a good idea, but it will be interesting to see how one can communicate this information with consumers. Multiple categories (some of which are not easily quantifiable) are not exactly good food label material.
As part of promoting sustainability, Food 2030 highlights changes to food production and processing that will decrease greenhouse gas emissions and reduce waste. In particular, anaerobic digestion is suggested as a means to manage slurry, reduce nitrous oxide emissions and generate clean energy. It also proposes investing in scientific research and development to allow farmers to grow more food with less water and fertilizer (hence speculation that it is really referring to GM crops). And finally, it calls on the food processing industry to reduce unnecessary packaging. Again, for many of these sustainability measures the emphasis is ‘businesses should reduce packaging because it is good for business.’ There seems to be little appetite for government to intervene beyond issuing platitudes and the occasional gentle reminder.
Finally, Food 2030 repeatedly makes the link between what is happening in the UK and what is happening in the developing world – the need to support communities in the developing world, resource use, improving technologies, etc. Minister Hilary Benn’s introduction proposes actions including purchasing fair trade products. But from what I read, I don’t feel that I had a true sense of the direction of this work. On one hand, such endeavours could truly benefit communities it the global South by supporting farmers and communities, improving infrastructure and supports, and mitigating the impacts of climate change. On the other, such support could amount to another Green Revolution, benefiting the few and disadvantaging the many.
I believe that there are a lot of great ideas contained within Food 2030, but also several reasons for caution and concern. I would have liked to have seen a government more willing to follow up on its proposals with financial supports and regulations to make them happen. As was pointed out in The Guardian, the report is a “contradiction casserole.” Nevertheless, I remain impressed that the British government would develop such a document. Canadian governments don’t seem to talk about food at all, let alone within the context of sustainability, supporting rural communities at home and abroad, and reducing our environmental footprint. So, is there anything that those advancing alternative food systems can take from Food 2030? I think that there certainly are, particularly the idea that the governments should be talking about food, its connection to agriculture, and economic and environmental sustainability.