Tim is speaking at this year's Abergavenny Food Festival, which is taking place from 21-22 September and is sponsored by Triodos Bank.
How did you first become inspired by food, farming and sustainability?
I became a hill farmer in 1973 – I was part of the young generation that went into the organic movement and helped develop the modern food policy thinking, I suppose. When I stopped farming, I went back into academia and then worked for think tanks and campaigns to carry on and advance that thinking. For the last 27 years, I have done this as an academic.
Your talk at Abergavenny Food Festival is called ‘The diet that could save the world’. What do you see as the major problems with our diet and food systems at present?
During the post-Second World War global reconstruction of food and farming policy, the assumption was made that producing more food – without thinking about how it was produced or its impact on health – would be the answer. This was because the problem was framed as just being a problem of under-consumption and hunger. In that sense, ‘health’ was narrowly conceived.
Today, 80 years on, we’re a lot wiser. We know that how we farm, grow and process food makes a huge difference to ecosystems, carbon, climate change, water use, land use and biodiversity. At the same time, diet has returned as the major driver of public health, not now due to under-consumption alone – although that’s still a massive problem with 0.8 billion people suffering hunger – but now also with a mix of over-, under- and mal-consumption. Obesity and overweight exceed hunger.
So, it’s a more complex world of food now. The old productionist argument – just produce more and it’ll bring food prices down so people will be able to afford to eat – doesn’t work anymore. It didn’t work for the environment anyway, which was just assumed as something we could mine or manipulate. That policy also flails around when faced by the complexity of diet’s impact on health. Cheap commodities are being turned into high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt, unnecessarily processed foods. Britain consumes about 50% of its diet via such products, the highest rate in Europe.
All this was unimaginable 80 years ago. So, while one can appreciate the good intent of the architects of the post-Second World War food revolution, we simply can’t go on doing this – this has to stop!
So, what should we be eating more and less of?
There is now an important and sometimes delicate argument about what is a good diet. Some people say it’s simply a matter of eating an unprocessed diet. Some people argue that organic is the key. Meanwhile, it is not just the range and balance of nutrients that shapes the impact that diet has on health, but it is also a number of other factors – the regularity, how much exercise we do, how we live.
Within this debate over the last 20 years, two huge future directions have emerged. Firstly, the need to constrain the excessive amount of eating in the rich Western world, while trying to raise the amount that’s eaten in the very poor, underdeveloped and developing world. And secondly, the need to build food systems around reducing ultra-processing of foods while massively reducing food’s impact on climate change, ecosystems and health. The future of food systems depends on whether we rise to this ecological public health challenge.
All that makes a very complex message to give to consumers. It took us 20 years or so to get some kind of EU nutrition labelling on processed food products. We haven’t got that amount of time to spend battling over a mix of nutrition and eco-labelling. And no label is big enough to include impacts such as CO2, water, biodiversity, social impacts. Information gets lost in the vast range of foods now on sale via the supermarket revolution of the last 40 years. And labelling is the weakest form of policy. It’s useful but puts the onus on consumers. Governments and industry are reluctant to act, yet somehow we must get them to shift the entire framework for food systems to help make low impact, health, simple foods the norm. That is, if we really do want to take the evidence seriously, of course.
This is the background to the current battle about trying to clarify what is a good diet. I spent three years on one of many attempts to do this – the EAT-Lancet Commission, which published in January 2019. We were asked to consider the question – ‘Is it possible to feed 10 billion people healthily, in a way that doesn’t destroy the capacity of future generations?’
This was a modelling study – a very big and complicated modelling study – and basically the Commission’s answer was that yes it can be done. But it means pretty dramatically reducing and controlling the upward rise worldwide of ever more farmed animals and dairy products – and switching away from them to much more horticulturally based diets. This raised some hackles, but is the broad message that has come from every single major review of the last 10 years.
Now, let me be clear. I was an organic farmer. I appreciate the value of rotations. Farm animals have their role, but we have distorted their role and ecological niche. Farm animal production is rocketing worldwide, driven by desire for meat, without addressing the consequences. We simply must address the cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry markets. People consume more meat and dairy as incomes rise. They are aspirational consumer goods, symbols of wealth. Feast day foods made everyday.
Some policymakers think the way to deal with this is to develop artificial meats. That might have its place but perhaps because I am a social scientist, I see the issue as a matter for culture rather than technology. As Mike Heasman and I argued in Food Wars and Pamela Mason and I in our Sustainable Diets book, food is a battle over minds and markets, not just mouths. Very powerful forces are bent on keeping the meat and processed foods machine on the road globally, when reduction has the benefit of improving both ecosystems and health. But culture and social values are key.
More horticulture is certainly a priority. Of course, you can’t do that everywhere; I used to farm in a wet area. That’s why in a country like Britain we need a national, as well as bio-regional, approach to land use and food systems. I note with interest the argument to rewild the uplands but we must realise that the majority of UK farming is kept afloat by subsidies. Farms don’t get paid adequately and most value adding is off the land. A key challenge is how to get more money to primary producers – with shorter chains and less economic concentration.
In the UK certainly, we must rebuild our horticulture within mixed farming land use. In a forthcoming new book, I argue that different regions and countries must come up with their own approaches. I don’t think there is only one big type of farming which has to be the model for everyone and everywhere. Indeed, one of the things we’ve learnt in the last 40 years is the importance of diversity. Diversity improves resilience.
How do you think we can get people to change their diets? Is it all dependant on policy?
The simple answer is with great difficulty! That said, just look at what’s happened in the last 50 years! There have been astonishing changes. Diets have turned upside down. People can and do change all the time, but no one likes to be told what to do.
We have to begin that process of change and it’s in places like the Abergavenny Food Festival. For many of us who have been working on the 21st century challenge for years, the good news is that interest has grown, debates are happening, not just in Britain but all across the Western world. Through public discussion, this message is percolating out. The rise of vegetarian and veganism is seen as a terrible threat by some farming friends but, personally, I back the ‘less but better’ approach. If you want to eat meat, get good quality, high welfare, pasture-fed meat as an exceptional feast day food, rather than poor quality meat as everyday food – surely that’s a better way to go for the progressive food movement.
One thing is certain. We need to hold governments to account. We’ve got draft Agriculture and Environment Bills held up in Parliament, but no Food Bill. That’s shocking. Many food companies know they have got to be prepared to accommodate. Farming and consumers too. But we have food policy drift. That’s why all eyes are now on the process being led by Henry Dimbleby at Defra. It’s a question of starting to change now, firmly, reasonably, or else we’ll be forced later in crises. I think it’s better to try to develop change mechanisms now.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report reiterated what the EAT-Lancet report said, and others before. Reports may start with different focuses yet end up pointing in the same direction – less meat and fewer animals everywhere. We need pretty dramatic reductions in the rich world to allow the poor world to eat more, and a switch to concentrate much more on horticulture and ecosystems-based agriculture, and away from false intensification.
I’ve just finished a book for Penguin, out in a few months’ time, all about what we need to do in Britain. There’s no one ‘silver bullet’ for this complexity, but the writing is on the wall for past policies. Do we read it? I say yes, we must. And, if we don’t, the consequences are likely to be dire. What’s your view?
About Professor Tim Lang
Tim Lang has been professor of food policy at City University’s Centre for Food Policy since 2002, having founded the Centre in 1994. After a PhD in social psychology at Leeds University, he became a hill farmer in the 1970s in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire which shifted his attention to food policy, where it has been ever since. For years, he's engaged in academic and public research and debate about its direction, locally to globally – winning numerous awards along the way.
Tim has written several books, the most recent of which is Sustainable Diets, co-authored with Pamela Mason. His new book Feeding Britain is due out in early 2020 with Penguin Books.
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