|The sort of food Tim Lang disapproves of..|
Quite a few years ago I want down to the Borough Market to a conference about markets - the foodie sort of market not the economics sort of market (although the former is a subset of the latter). I was speaking about what we were doing in Bradford, trying to use markets as a driver of regeneration. And apart from meeting Thomasina Miers and sitting on a panel with Will Alsop, this was my first experience of Tim Lang.
Professor Lang (as he might have been back then but I don't recall) is a certain sort of foodie's favourite academic. The kind of academic who provides a rationale for those who don't like cheap food, abhor supermarkets, hate McDonalds and prattle on endlessly about urban growing, 'independents' and food deserts. All this means that the professor gets plenty of space to promote his views. And, as I found all those years ago, Tim Lang's views are deeply and profoundly unpleasant yet somehow they appeal to a constituency of middle-class, urban greens.
I've written about Lang's obsessions a couple of times before but they can be summed up quite quickly - we eat too much meat which is destroying the planet, we eat to much cheap carbohydrates which is destroying the planet, and we eat too much processed food which is destroying the planet. Onto this main meal of climate change wibble Lang sprinkles a liberal covering of health warnings mixed up with a sort of militant semi-vegetarianism. At the heart of Lang's argument is the belief that food is too cheap.
Which bring us to the news about Tesco reducing the sugar content of its soft drinks (I'm guessing by substituting it with some sort of artificial sweetener). And unsurprisingly Prof Lang has weighed into the argument:
But not even mighty Tesco can sort out obesity. That would require a re-engineering of the entire food system which works hard to over-produce food, and flood markets with ever-cheaper salty, fatty, sugary non-food foods. We’d also need to build exercise into daily living, and curtail out of town supermarkets which can only be reached by gas-guzzling obesity-inducing car culture.
Here we have the distillation of the trendy foodie greenie left's position on food. Who cares whether we make food more expensive so the poorest in our society find it harder to feed their families. Who gives a monkey's about the idea of choice. And let's pretend we're going to save the planet by producing our food in a less efficient, more resource intensive manner - a sort of Sally does Subsistence Farming approach to the food economy. I love farmers markets, trendy delis and artisan baking to bits. And I'm rich enough to be able to indulge myself on the produce these folk are selling me.
Anyway Prof Lang has got himself even more hyped up over the matter of sugar - despite the fact that in the UK sugar consumption has fallen - presenting it as the core element in the food culture he dislikes:
Sugar is put into a vast range of food and drinks today, as is salt. Hence these two ingredients being targeted by public health advocates. They symbolise the world’s uptake of ever more processed, factory-made, instant satisfaction non-food foods and snacks, and the rise of the “permanently eating” culture among those populations who have access and can afford such products.Note the last part of this quotation - "can afford such products". This is of course the man who, like many of his Guardian reading fans, thinks the solution lies in more expensive food:
Observers of food policy certainly believe that cheap food is a problem or, as Professor Tim Lang of City University tells it, that too much of the true cost of food is born not by the consumer or the retailer. The environmental and health damage caused by modern food production and its transport, as well as by excessive consumption, entails vast costs, often picked up by people far away from Tesco's catchments. But it is the supermarkets' eternal price wars – their one-track marketing philosophy where "value" trumps all other qualities in food – that have driven prices so low.
That's a Guardian editorial - an endorsement for the idea that the poor, the working classes the left purports to love, should be made to pay more for their food. Yet what these people fail to appreciate is that much of our food waste isn't about markets or the policies of supermarkets but is a consequence of regulation, agricultural policies and the failures in food education - all things that are down to government not markets.
But there's a bigger point here about the environment. Nearly all (about 83%) of the carbon emissions in the food chain are generated by the production process. This is the case regardless of the actual production process - it applies just as much to free range poultry as it does to factory-farmed chickens. However - and this really is important - the fewer imputs to food production the less it damages the environment. And this means that large scale agriculture and food processing is less carbon intensive than the small scale production systems that Prof Lang and his fans promote:
Agricultural economists at UC Davis, for instance, analyzed farm-level surveys from 1996-2000 and concluded that there are “significant” scale economies in modern agriculture and that small farms are “high cost” operations. Absent the efficiencies of large farms, the use of polluting inputs would rise, as would food production costs, which would lead to more expensive food.
Us trendy foodies don't want this to be so. We want high welfare, grass-fed, free-range, rare breed meat to be less damaging to the environment than the products of machine agriculture but the terrible truth is that it's not Big Food that's destroying the planet but an unholy alliance of us trendies with out resilient local economies and the subsistence farmers who're chopping down and burning all the forests. Think about it for a minute and it becomes clear. Imagine the big industrial coffee plant where they squeeze every last bit of coffee flavour out of those beans while trying to minimise the cost of doing so and compare this to your home roasted , home ground beans. Per cup of coffee who's generating the most carbon dioxide? You are of course - Big Food (and the bigger the better) is where we should be going if we want to reduce carbon emissions and stop damaging climate change.
And the really great thing here is that, not only do we reduce damage to the environment by intensifying food production but we are also able to produce the food a whole lot cheaper. This means we can feed more folk and free up money and time for those folk to spend on other things than where the next meals coming from. All this means less resource use, more economic growth, healthier people and a boost to the world's happiness as fewer folk are scratting at the soil from dawn to dusk so as to keep body and soul together.
Prof Tim Lang and all the folk pushing his green version of food fascism are not just wrong, they're dangerously wrong. These people want to make poor people poorer simply because they've decided they don't like the choices such folk have made. And in doing so they not only reduce economic growth but also increase the damage being done to the planet by the production of food.