Living with an unsustainable food system: can food democracy resolve the dilemmas?

1 Dec 2011


Tim Lang proposes that a set of 'New Fundamentals' are now clear yet policy-makers have so far failed to get sufficient intellectual, political and economic grip on the seriousness of the situation. For a moment, in 2006-08, this looked possible. Rising oil and food commodity prices shocked even Western policy-makers. They were used to food prices troubling developing but not developed countries. When prices dropped, sighs of relief were heard, but troubles have re-emerged in the 2010s. Are the tectonic plates merely moving only to resettle in a new place, or is food economic volatility now the status quo, adding to the world's financial instability?

In this lecture, Tim Lang will take a long view. He will suggest that the 20th century's apparent progress in resolving the Malthusian question (about land, food and population) has been done at considerable cost. Oil underpinned the 20th century drive for productivity. As it went through technical and managerial revolutions, the food system's impact on the environmental was increasingly well documented. The impact on soil, water, climate, land use, and biodiversity are now all serious. The social implications, too, are sobering. Food culture is distorted. Social inequalities in consumption are both global and intra-national. Health indices show both hunger and obesity; and diet-related disease delivers huge healthcare costs. Surely the prevention of such problems ought to be driving policy yet it does not. Surely, we ought to be debating resource allocation, price-setting, and what is meant by efficiency, yet business-as-usual reigns. Or does it?

The lecture will present some signs that the enormity of the challenge is troubling policy-makers' normality. The lecture will suggest that governments, food companies, and civil society (ie all of us) need to engage with this debate. It should not be left to vested interests alone. Thus, the 21st century looks set to resuscitate an old strand in food policy: the pursuit of food democracy, how to ensure that all people are fed equitably, healthily and with dignity in a manner that enables others to do so too. This is a socio-political not a purely technical or managerial or scientific problem. In that respect, the lecture,.

Currently, much attention is on technical innovation – not just GM but an array of novel solutions to food on and off the land. Less attention is being given to social issues where the possibilities include: restructuring food markets, rapid consumer behaviour change, re-shaping cultural tastes, altering price signals. These require the state and citizens to act differently: less 'leave it to markets' and more 're-frame markets'. Less 'let consumers choose', more open support for 'consumers are choice-edited anyway'. The dominant policy language is, at best, replete with 'nudge' thinking, the fashion for behavioural economics. The lecture will propose the need for open and democratic debate about food futures. It will propose that the food security debates are no more and no less than a key test for whether our food system is shaped by food control or food democracy. It will warn against technical triumphalism and urge a more balanced integration of societal and supply chain change.


Duration: 29.55 mins

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