Food security or food democracy?

“Either/or” options in food production are fading fast, says policy expert Tim Lang. In a London lecture, he spelled out what needs to be done to provide for the health of people and planet alike. Maryann Bird reports.

The future of food is one of competing visions, says British food-policy expert Tim Lang. One view – the dominant one — is that, in general, “great advances are being made in the long struggle to feed people adequately”. The other holds that “these advances have come at a cost, are faltering in their own terms (notably malnutrition) and that a fundamental redirection of food supply” is needed.

As a warming planet with an increasing population, the earth faces a difficult debate about its food supply. “Issues such as climate change, oil dependency, looming mass water stress, obesity alongside hunger, are structural, not peripheral issues,” contends Lang, who delivered the 2007 Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture in London on December 6. (Carson’s books — particularly 1962’s Silent Spring, which documented detrimental effects of pesticides on the natural environment – helped to spark the environmental movement in the west.)

Lang noted that the lecture’s sponsor, the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, and other specialist NGOs all “need to ensure that their voices are heard” as the food-supply debate grows louder. But, he says, “single-issue campaigning will not be enough” and work needs to be cross-checked – verified from a variety of sources and points of view. In confronting the host of issues involved, amid the challenging quest for safe, justly produced and sustainable food for all, Lang proposed four principles that “might unite us”.

They are:


The health of people and the planet are linked.


The sustainable development challenge cannot be bolted on to existing models of progress; growing evidence suggests that progress must be redefined.


We are seeing the end of untrammeled choice as a policy goal. “Choice-editing” needs to be brought out into the open, harnessed and made to work for sustainable development.


The long struggle for food democracy must not get submerged by the urgency of the new environmental and societal pressures.

While policy-makers (like most people) view health as “a function of physiological mechanisms: biology, bodies, inputs and outputs, where problems can be fixed”, says Lang, a more useful framework is “ecological public health”. Health is seen, then, as “a function of ecological relationships: human, planetary and societal”. Rather than being viewed as health care – “what we want when disease strikes” – Lang says, “health is the outcome of how we manage four domains of existence: the material (our environment), the physiological (biological), the social (human interaction) and the cognitive or life-world (culture).”


“From this perspective, in food,” he argues, “we need to break down the barriers in thinking between nutrition and environment, safety and plentiful supply, quantity and quality. We need to think about a diet and food system which meets all these goals and does not mine resources to give plentiful supply today to the detriment of tomorrow.” But, he adds, that is “just what we are doing”.


The stakes are high in “an era of peak oil, climate change, water shortage and rising population”, Lang says, and on “this new policy terrain”, old, fundamental questions again need to be addressed – including questions about land and food security. “How much consumption is enough? Who needs to consume less and who more but differently? In food, this is central.”


“What is land for – food, fuel, feed (animals) or fibre? Is it right to define food security as sufficiency of food when sustainability of methods is as important? Can they both be achieved? Whose security are we talking about? And who and what controls food, anyway?”


National laws and institutions appear weak “in a corporate-dominated and highly concentrated food system”, Lang contends, and “seem unable to get a grip on the drift to unsustainability”. Rhetoric and small, incremental changes are not enough, he says. “In a world where food consumption accounts for a third of all greenhouse-gas emissions, and where if everyone consumed food like the UK it would take six planets, can we conclude anything but that the present system is unsustainable or that markets are warped, and wants are being confused as needs?”


An ecological reality-test is necessary, says Lang. One element of that, he suggests, involves consumer choice. “Such is the complexity of sustainability,” he says, “that no food packet could be large enough to provide space for printed suitable information: embedded carbon, nitrous oxide (N2O) and water; nutrients; fair trade, etc. The reality of modern food chains is that retailer buyers ‘choice-edit’ before consumers even see products. They set contracts and specifications which frame choice.”


There are shortcomings to this practice, however, and Lang sees a need for governments to assert themselves in food policy, even if they feel awestruck by the “forward global march of the retailers”. Even giant retailers “cannot resolve climate change or oil dependency”, Lang says. “They can take low-energy bulbs from niche to mainstream, and push forward carbon labels, which is useful but not sufficient to create a sustainable food economy. Retailer action is no substitute for governmental frameworks. Neither workers nor consumers are sovereign in modern food systems where choice-editing ‘upstream’ rules.”


Appropriate action, then, needs to be taken “by appropriate bodies at the requisite levels”. Consumer selection, says Lang, “has its place in democratic markets but many big challenges will not be addressed unless there is choice-editing on cycles of continuous improvements and tougher standards in supply chains”.


In coining the term “food democracy” in the mid-1990s, says Lang, “I was referring to the long process of striving for improvements in food for all, not the few. … Food democracy goes beyond adequacy of supply and stresses decency and social justice in the food system’s wages, working conditions and internal equity. Against food democracy, we can posit ‘food control’, using food as a vehicle of control.”


“The sustainability crisis could go either way: control or democracy,” adds Lang. “As the case grows for tough action to preserve quality of life and food security, even good-hearted efforts might backfire if people are not kept in the loop of change. The bipolar tension in food policy between food control and food democracy is clear at the international level – in trade or CAP talks – but the terrain is widening to include issues such as biofuel (food land being put to grow fuels for cars and electricity), the renewed vigour of arguments for genetic modification to provide food for expanding populations (the perennial ‘can sustainable farming feed the world?’ debate), and technical food fixes for diet-related ill-health, such as functional foods.”


Lang suggests that a long view is necessary because the “tectonic plates” of world politics are shifting, and gains may be crushed. A lesson from history, he emphasises, is that “even rich countries take risks if they do not use their land wisely for food”.


“As the UK again hovers near to allowing its indigenous farmers to slide, we do well to re-ask what is land for: views, amenity, carbon sequestration, water, housing? And food?” Adds Lang: “I support fair trade but also worry that UK production is dropping. It is currently 63% self-sufficient (74% for indigenous foods, grow-able here). The food trade gap is widening; around £22 billion [US$45 billion] of food and drink is imported, 68% of which comes from elsewhere in the EU.”


While the food system has been dynamic since settled agriculture began some 10 millennia ago, says Lang, the last fifty years have seen “an unparalleled range and pace of change” — real structural change — in food production. The food landscape has been transformed, along with the food economy’s power relations. Even in developing countries, Lang notes, “giant food retailers are widely perceived to be sovereign in the food sector”. (In the UK, he points out, catering rivals retailing in employment and value-added terms; meanwhile, both sectors dwarf farming and primary production.)


“This unprecedented food power is now mostly expressed at international level,” says Lang. “Companies may be big in one country but when one sees their spread, their power is truly awesome. But it escapes any international framework.” Gaining leverage over multinational corporations – even winning approval for codes of conduct – is a difficult undertaking.


Given the reality of modern food-power, says Lang: “There is now a real fissure in policy-making. As states have withdrawn or ceded the driving seat to large corporations – become ‘hollowed out’ – companies have created a parallel universe.” There are now dual systems of standards-setting in food, as in (for example) nutrition labeling. European Union member states wanted to introduce genetically modified foods, but consumer campaigns swayed retailers in the opposite direction. On pesticides, leading retailers have stronger standards on pesticide residues that do some states.


While it could be concluded that some of these developments are evidence of consumer power working through the marketplace in the advance of food democracy, Lang is worried. Corporate board rooms can prove whimsical and business takeovers can shift companies’ standards. “The problem is the state hesitating over raising the level playing field for all,” says Lang. Amid “policy cacophony” – mixed messages competing for public space – he adds, “public policy is becoming private goods.”


But “change is coming anyway” in an inconstant world, Lang argues. “Even the triumphant Toyota/Tesco quality management cannot control climate change or global water crises or peak oil. The model of controlling factors one by one and damping down effects through attention to quality and detail works well when and if systems are fundamentally stable.”


Lang is persuaded, he says, of the potential of sustainable agriculture, “but I worry about the clock and the combination of pressures”. Among his concerns are: rising food prices; demographics; land; oil and energy; climate change; water; health; and meat production and culture.


Food prices are climbing for several reasons – including, he says, the “good news” of increasing affluence in China and India. But they also are being driven up by water shortages, subsidised biofuel production, huge consumption of animals, and importation of foodstuffs. “This poses strain on rich-country importers, but dire strains for developing countries,” says Lang. “Optimists say new land (or old land in East Europe) will be planted. But displacing what?”


The world population stands at 6.6 billion, but is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050. Urbanisation seems unstoppable, and increasingly exceeds rural numbers. “Who will be the rural labour force?” wonders Lang. “Look at hostility (racism) towards migrant pickers in the UK and Europe already.”


Regarding land, he emphasises, “surely wise use for food must be at the heart of land use.” But, according to Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) calculations, Lang says, “the UK’s current food and farming ecological footprint (land, energy and sea-space use) is up to six times the food growing area” of the country itself. In northwest England, he said, “20 million tonnes of raw materials produced eventually became only 4.2 million tonnes of food consumed. Half a million tonnes of food and drink were never eaten and sent directly to landfill. Much vaunted progress in waste reduction due to efficient systems has actually replaced one form with another.”


With oil prices approaching $100 a barrel and debate increasing about whether oil production has peaked, Lang wonders what an oil-free food economy would look like. “Farming alone – let alone consumers getting to shops – is oil dependent: pesticides, equipment, cultivation modes, distribution. The entire (in)efficiency of food supply chains relies on fossil fuels.”


Food systems also are heavily impacted, of course, by climate change. The UK’s Stern Review on the economics of climate change, as well as another 2006 document, an analysis by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), both found the food sector – led by meat and meat products and the dairy industry — to be the most significant sources of greenhouse gases. Fertilisers – including nitrous oxide — also play a key role.


Water, clearly, is “fundamental to any food system”, Lang notes, and 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture. Today, he says, 92% of humanity has relative sufficiency in water, but the figure is expected to drop to 62% by 2025. Embedded water, or virtual water – that used in the production of a product or service – “is likely to be as, or more, important as greenhouse-gas emissions”, Lang asserts. (A single 125-millilitre cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water to produce, and a 30-gram slice of bread 40 litres, according to WWF figures in the environmental organisation’s 2006 report Rich Countries, Poor Water.)


Regarding health, “the western lifestyle is unsustainable”, Lang asserts. On a policy level, “there is a gradual convergence of guidance emerging from different health bodies: more human physical exercise plus plant-based diets, and restrained (if any) dairy and meat”. Obesity within populations rises with car use, he notes, and as countries grow richer, diets change from simple staple foods to processed ones, with their higher levels of fat, sugar and salt — and consumption itself. Soft drinks replace water. “This transition is not just dietary but cultural,” says Lang, and spurred by marketing campaigns.


Another unsustainable cultural aspect, he points out, is meat production. Apart from the greenhouse-gas emissions generated by livestock and their transportation, meat production also is “a major source of land and water degradation”, including contributions to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. (The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation addressed the subject in its 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow.) “We have made feeding animals, then to eat them, a cornerstone of food ‘progress’,” says Lang.


Where, then, does all this take the world in the future? Ultimately, Lang reiterates, “food policy is a matter of principles,” and “we are entering a time when big principles will come into play. Staying on familiar territory is not an option.” Declaring himself an optimist, he says: “It is possible to win hearts and minds for social justice. It is possible to redirect the food system. It is possible to temper food control tendencies and ‘choice-edit’ by improving standards across many criteria in democratically accountable ways.”


However, he adds, in order to do so, there are four conditions to be met:


“Governments need to be more pro-active”, taking the lead in “creating intellectual space for new ecological thinking” and weighing up “competing evidence and visions”. Governments have duties, Lang asserts, and must “stop pretending that food has nothing to do with them”.


“The supply chain needs better overall goal-setting” on issues such as pesticide use and matters of sustainability. “When even big players are getting nervous about uncertainties, there is room for bold policy negotiation,” says Lang. “Setting new frameworks within which market forces can work is not the same thing as unbridled ‘choice’.”


NGOs need to be courageous. Filling the gap, as they do, between state, supply chains and civil society, non-governmental organisations “must not fudge or ignore” the huge challenges to come. “After decades of triumphant consumerist policy,” says Lang, “more sober long-term politics might return, replacing the incrementalism” of past decades.


“We need to ensure that the future is addressed on all four fronts of ecological public health: not just the material and biological realignments that currently garner most policy attention,” according to Lang, “but also the social and cultural dimensions.”


Lang – the man who coined the term “food miles” — believes that the world needs a vision of what a sustainable food system would be like and, currently, one does not exist. “Sustainable agriculture could feed the world,” he said after the Carson lecture, “but we’d eat very differently” – and food would come from different places. “There is enough food to feed the world now,” he added, “but there won’t be for nine billion people — and not if we keep eating the way we do now.”


Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University, London. He recently delivered the 2007 Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.

Homepage photo by Ben Harris-Roxas