Lords food inquiry hears of ‘them and us’ fears

National conversation on food, poverty, health and environment must focus on entire food system
05 September 2019 , Katie Coyne

Fear of ‘nanny state’ intervention must not get in the way of developing a sustainable national food policy, a House of Lords inquiry has been told.

The food, poverty, health and the environment committee – which is considering the links between inequality, public health and food sustainability – heard evidence for the first time on Tuesday (3 September).

Lord Krebs – the first chair of the Food Standards Agency – chaired the session and in his call for evidence he summarised the committee’s concerns. One of these is that healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy foods and low-income families are struggling to eat well.

While food poverty is rising, so too are levels of obesity and weight related diseases. At the same time, if the UK is to meet its net zero emissions 2050 target, the environmental footprint of agriculture and the food industry must be reduced.

Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, told the committee that citizens and state had been ‘pitted against one another’ with the use of the term nanny state.

Taylor gave evidence in the first session on food policy and the barriers affecting people’s ability to eat healthily.

She said: “We don’t want the state to intervene and tell us what to eat and there’s rightfully a very strong view from parts of the media that we want to protect citizens from this type of state intervention.

“But I think that’s moved us into a very ‘them and us’ situation rather than that we need a common vision around a food system that’s going to help everybody to eat a bit more sustainably, and a bit more healthily – and the state has a duty to help get us there.”

She added: “This sort of nanny state narrative has got in the way of us thinking in a joined up way about what sort of food system and environment that we want.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University of London, agreed: “We’ve got to get out and engage with the people, and stop having this preaching from above by experts who aren’t connecting with people.”

Lang argued inequality was at the heart of UK food policy – in particular in England. He said: “If I’m asked what the big three or four fault lines are in the English and indeed UK food policy and the food system, they are: inequalities, inequalities, and inequalities.
“We’ve got a problem with health externalities. We‘ve got very cheap food relatively but the costs are dumped elsewhere – on health and on the environment. The food system is the major driver of eco-systems damage.”

Both Taylor and Lang told the committee that England had a lack of ‘vision’ when it came to food. It does not have a national food policy – unlike Scotland and Wales, which are developing ones.

The announcement in the summer that the Government planned to develop a new food strategy for England was welcomed. Taylor said it was an opportunity to have the national conversation about how to reshape our food system.

Lang said: “There’s a fundamental political problem of a lack of understanding of the multi level world – that food is something that operates at the global level, at the regional level, at the national level, at the sub national level down to the micro and domestic level. And we don’t have levers and understanding of how those dynamics work.”

Lang added: “We’ve got to somehow create a bridge between national thinking – the big strategic stuff, the food security stuff, the big health and environmental data, which we are very clear about now about food – food is a major driver of major problems. And we’ve got to have something that connects to ordinary people when they are at the point of ‘do they drink water out of a plastic cup or not’ – and we’re not doing that.”

* The House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee is due to report its findings by 31 March 2020.

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