Monday, January 12, 2015

Taking a Critical Look at UK Food

A recent report by the think tank, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), looks at the problems and unsustainable practices of food production, distribution and consumption in the UK.

The report, called Urgent Recall: Our Food System Under Review, is the result of 9 months of research into how the food systems promote economic wellbeing. The NEF's findings are that the system needs a fundamental transformation.

From the report:
Since WWII, European agriculture has been increasingly driven by the belief that food, and farming, is a commodity like any other tradable asset. The failure of policymakers to understand that food and farming is not a commodity – but a culture – is the root of the many failures of our food system today.
For a short version and summary on the true cost of food on the environment, our health and our communities read the NEF blog here.

The point of a food system should be to advance our wellbeing, in a way that is socially just and sustainable over time. A system that does so would have some defining characteristics; for example, it would: have a neutral or positive environmental impact; be productive in its use of energy and other inputs; support good jobs; be dominated by short and simple supply chains; foster a positive and thriving food culture and the highest levels of public health; and make food affordable to everyone.
In our latest report we find that the UK food system fails on almost all fronts:
  • It is unsustainable: we estimate the total environmental impact of the UK food system to be in the region of £5.7–7.2 billion per year, or 6.3–7.9% of the market price of food, and probably higher.
  • It is energy-intensive: we calculate that the UK food system uses roughly eight calories of energy to produce every one calorie of energy from food.
  • It supports bad jobs: the UK food system employs approximately 11% of the UK labour force, but most of them are in the least-well-paid jobs, with salaries of less than half the UK average.
  • It is highly complex and opaque: both the decreasing share of total value going to farmers and recent events such as the horsemeat scandal testify to the extreme and increasing complexity of our UK system.
  • It is unequal: all 17 million hectares of agricultural land is owned by about 0.25% of the UK population and the price of an acre of bare land has increased more than threefold from 2004.
  • It is volatile: Britons spend less on food than almost any other EU country, but recent price spikes have hit poor households the hardest.
So we have to ask ourselves: is this system really working in our best interests?
Back to the report:
 ... how have we become stuck in this food system that doesn’t work for either us or for the planet? Much of the answer lies in the wider socioeconomic system – persistent and growing inequality, grinding poverty, and enduring unemployment forces many to compromise on the quality and healthfulness of what they eat, propping up companies that provide these products. 
The distribution of working hours – with most people either overworked or underemployed – forces households to seek time-efficiencies, opting for fast food and ready meals. The public policy fixation on economic outcomes, particularly GDP growth, crowds out alternative understandings of what matters for good lives. The non-monetary outcomes of systems, especially natural systems such as food and agriculture, are not used to the greatest advantage.
Hat tip: Organic Ilford

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