1940s-present: The rise of a food production system now in need of redesign

No Knead Bread by remmelt.
No Knead Bread, uploaded to flickr by remmelt

From the BBC

A sustainable global food system in the 21st Century needs to be built on a series of “new fundamentals”, according to a leading food expert.

Tim Lang warned that the current system, designed in the 1940s, was showing “structural failures”, such as “astronomic” environmental costs.

The new approach needed to address key fundamentals like biodiversity, energy, water and urbanisation, he added.

Professor Lang is a member of the UK government’s newly formed Food Council.

“Essentially, what we are dealing with at the moment is a food system that was laid down in the 1940s,” he told BBC News.

“It followed on from the dust bowl in the US, the collapse of food production in Europe and starvation in Asia.

“At the time, there was clear evidence showing that there was a mismatch between producers and the need of consumers.”

Professor Lang, from City University, London, added that during the post-war period, food scientists and policymakers also thought increasing production would reduce the cost of food, while improving people’s diets and public health.

“But by the 1970s, evidence was beginning to emerge that the public health outcomes were not quite as expected,” he explained.

“Secondly, there were a whole new set of problems associated with the environment.”

Thirty years on and the world was now facing an even more complex situation, he added.

“The level of growth in food production per capita is dropping off, even dropping, and we have got huge problems ahead with an explosion in human population.”

Fussy eaters

Professor Lang lists a series of “new fundamentals”, which he outlined during a speech he made as the president-elect of charity Garden Organic, which will shape future food production, including:

  • Oil and energy: “We have an entirely oil-based food economy, and yet oil is running out. The impact of that on agriculture is one of the drivers of the volatility in the world food commodity markets.”
  • Water scarcity: “One of the key things that I have been pushing is to get the UK government to start auditing food by water,” Professor Lang said, adding that 50% of the UK’s vegetables are imported, many from water-stressed nations.
  • Biodiversity: “Biodiversity must not just be protected, it must be replaced and enhanced; but that is going to require a very different way growing food and using the land.”
  • Urbanisation: “Probably the most important thing within the social sphere. More people now live in towns than in the countryside. In which case, where do they get their food?”

    Professor Lang said that in order to feed a projected nine billion people by 2050, policymakers and scientists face a fundamental challenge: how can food systems work with the planet and biodiversity, rather than raiding and pillaging it?

    The UK’s Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, recently set up a Council of Food Policy Advisers in order to address the growing concern of food security and rising prices.

    Mr Benn, speaking at the council’s launch, warned: “Global food production will need to double just to meet demand.

    “We have the knowledge and the technology to do this, as things stand, but the perfect storm of climate change, environmental degradation and water and oil scarcity, threatens our ability to succeed.”

    Professor Lang, who is a member of the council, offered a suggestion: “We are going to have to get biodiversity into gardens and fields, and then eat it.

    “We have to do this rather than saying that biodiversity is what is on the edge of the field or just outside my garden.”

    Michelin-starred chef and long-time food campaigner Raymond Blanc agrees with Professor Lang, adding that there is a need for people, especially in the UK, to reconnect with their food.

    He is heading a campaign called Dig for Your Dinner, which he hopes will help people reconnect with their food and how, where and when it is grown.

    “Food culture is a whole series of steps,” he told BBC News.

    “Whatever amount of space you have in your backyard, it is possible to create a fantastic little garden that will allow you to reconnect with the real value of gardening, which is knowing how to grow food.

    “And once you know how to grow food, it would be very nice to be able to cook it. If you are growing food, then it only makes sense that you know how to cook it as well.

    “And cooking food will introduce you to the basic knowledge of nutrition. So you can see how this can slowly reintroduce food back into our culture.”

    Waste not…

    Mr Blanc warned that food prices were likely to continue to rise in the future, which was likely to prompt more people to start growing their own food.

    He was also hopeful that the food sector would become less wasteful.

    “We all know that waste is everywhere; it is immoral what is happening in the world of food.

    “In Europe, 30% of the food grown did not appear on the shelves of the retailers because it was a funny shape or odd colour.

    “At least the amendment to European rules means that we can now have some odd-shaped carrots on our shelves. This is fantastic news, but why was it not done before?”

    He suggested that the problem was down to people choosing food based on sight alone, not smell and touch.

    “The way that seeds are selected is about immunity to any known disease; they have also got to grow big and fast, and have a fantastic shelf life.

    “Never mind taste, texture or nutrition, it is all about how it looks.

    “The British consumer today has got to understand that when they make a choice, let’s say an apple – either Chinese, French or English one – they are making a political choice, a socio-economic choice, as well as an environmental one.

    “They are making a statement about what sort of society and farming they are supporting.”

    Growing appetite

    The latest estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that another 40 million people have been pushed into hunger in 2008 as a result of higher food prices.

    This brings the overall number of undernourished people in the world to 963 million, compared to 923 million in 2007.

    The FAO warned that the ongoing financial and economic crisis could tip even more people into hunger and poverty.

    “World food prices have dropped since early 2008, but lower prices have not ended the food crisis in many poor countries,” said FAO assistant director-general Hafez Ghanem at the launch of the agency’s State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008 report.

    “The structural problems of hunger, like the lack of access to land, credit and employment, combined with high food prices remain a dire reality,” he added.

    Professor Lang outlined the challenges facing the global food supply system: “The 21st Century is going to have to produce a new diet for people, more sustainably, and in a way that feeds more people more equitably using less land.”

    Here is an excerpt of Tim Lang’s speech:

    During this talk I’m going to cover very quickly ‘structural factors’ that I think are shaping the world of food, then I’m going to explore ‘what the policy context is’ […].

    So the first:

    I could probably rant at this point! Essentially the twentieth century and all the progress, which there undoubtedly has been, has been built upon certain assumptions and certain infrastructural givens.

    I do want to stress, when we’re saying how terrible things are, that actually there have been huge advances in the 20th centaury; increased output of food, more people being fed, wider range and availability, people being fed better and life expectancy rocketing in many countries for all sorts of complicated reasons, but within that, diet has been a critical factor.

    Lets not forget that.

    BUT. The environmental cost has been astronomic. The impact on public health, which is what my colleagues and I work on a lot, is immense. Diet is now THE single, biggest factor in causing premature death worldwide.

    Even in Sub-Saharan Africa five percent of the population are obese. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    The impact of inappropriate eating, inappropriate diet, and inappropriate food ingredients on the globe is now really well documented. The problem is, and just recently on the 28th August the World Health Organisation’s commission on Social Determinants of Health came out documenting this, where does that leave the world of food?

    New Fundamentals

    Within the Royal Institute of International Affairs’ food supply working party, which I’ve been in for three years and which is coming out with a big report this time next month, I have been arguing that the new 21th Century world of food in going to be based on what I call the ‘New Fundamentals’. These fundamental factors might be obvious to you (Garden Organic members) but not necessarily to everyone.


    Firstly oil. Oil and energy. Cheap non-renewable resources of energy have underpinned everything; the agrochemicals, the fertilisers, the tractors replacing the land used to grow oats to feed the horses that drove the ploughs. You name it, you think it, its all based on oil. Even down to the oil that drives the Volvo that takes you six miles on average now to the hypermarket to get the cheaper food. We have an entirely oil based food economy. And yet oil is running out. The impact of that on agriculture is one of the drivers of the volatility in the world food commodity markets. Everyone knows that.


    Secondly, most of my colleagues in food policy around the world agree, that actually important though oil is, the thing that is going to bring 21st century approach to food to its knees, is actually not oil, but water!

    I speak as someone who was a farmer in the Forest of Bowland, which is the centre of God’s plughole! I have a friend whose farm has 120 inches of rain a year. It seems inconceivable that anyone speaking in the English language, let alone anyone with a British passport, could say that water is a problem. It is.

    50% of all vegetables coming into this country come from foreign countries. Think of the growth, the explosion of growth, just in Kenyan green beans. Well every stem of a green been from Kenya, each stem, has used four litres, yes four litres of potable water, and this in a water stressed country. We have a very complicated situation emerging around water.

    I am a commissioner on the Government’s sustainable development commission and I led a review of how the Government deals and doesn’t deal with supermarkets as the gatekeepers of the modern food economy. One of the key things that we tried to push, and I certainly pushed very hard and have been pushing behind the scenes, is to get Defra to start auditing, begin to develop the methodology for auditing food by water. It is going to be the decider in the next 30 years. Water economy, water exchange, and virtual water are going to be critical factors.

    Climate change

    Thirdly, climate change. Climate change is altering everything; where food can grow, how it can grow, etc. You know it; it is going to alter what we can do.


    Fourthly, biodiversity. The collapse of biodiversity is something that even worries the agro-chemical companies whose market is about selling. Some very strange things are happening now. The old black/white, them/us divisions that the organic movement, and the gardening world, have dealt with are going to begin to break down. You will start to get very radical thoughts coming out of the long-term thinkers and planners in companies that we’ve spent a lot of our time arguing against and with. Biodiversity is another of the key factors.


    Demographics. You don’t have to be a eugenicist to see that going from 6.7 billion people on the planet to 9 billion on the planet by 2050 means a lot more food has got to be produced. A factor is what diet people eat, so if you eat like the average American, well, frankly, we’re dead, the planet can’t do it. If you eat like us in Britain, the planet can’t do it. If you eat like the Chinese of a hundred years ago you can feed 12 billion. What you eat is a critical factor but none the less the demographics are an important feature now.


    Urbanisation is probably the most important thing within the social sphere. The shift we have now, it is arguable, is that we are just past the point where, for the first time in human history, more people live in the towns than in the country. In which case where do they get their food?

    That’s why I told you about my failures with my own garden. I can’t grow my own food. My wife and I try to have something from our garden, even if it’s just a herb each meal but we eat out a great deal. Any pretence of feeding myself is a nonsense.

    Now write that over 5 billion people. Who’s going to grow the food? Where are they going to grow it? Who’s going to be the labour force?


    There has been a collapse of the labour force. Look in Britain at the racism over the migrant labour. I was born in Lincoln; my home county has been a disgrace! The Fens are a major producer of vegetables. It has brought in migrant labour at very low rates and then treated them disgustingly. Now this is delicate stuff I know, but if British people are not prepared to go and work in the fields, how are we going to grow veg?

    We need to consume less meat, less dairy, more fruit and more veg – but from where?

    Nutrition transition

    The ‘nutrition transition’ is a phrase that in my world is critical. It is a transformation that happens when people get richer and they alter their diet. They eat more fat and more meat, unless from vegetarian culture. People shift from drinking water or tea to soft drinks i.e sugar. They get increased calories. It makes them fatter, leads to heart disease and degenerative diseases. The nutrition transition is not just an issue of nutrition, though it is, with direct impact on health, it is also a major cultural phenomenon. The culture, the psychology of it is very important.

    Health care costs

    The thing that gets me out of bed each day is health care costs. The reason the food system cannot go on as it is going on is because of the cost of health care.

    The cost of diet related diseases to the NHS in this, the 5th richest country, is unsustainable. Think what it does to India. The town I was brought up in, now one of the biggest cities in the world, Mumbai, has the highest rate of diabetes type 2 in the world. And it has no NHS. It is a disease of the rich. Here it is a disease of the poor. Poor people here are fat; in India rich people are fat. It is a return for us to the 18th Century. The health care costs are bringing the country to its knees.

    Think about how much it applies in the US where 40 million people don’t even have health care insurance. Now apply it to the developing world, which is going through a nutrient transition and then think of your Cargill or Monsanto or Nestle, one of the big companies. Nestle sells 1% of all food consumed on the planet and plans to increase this to 2% by 2020. That may sound very small, but it is awesome power and that’s my final point.

    Price volatility and Battles of power

    Volatility of price is coinciding with battles of power, of power and control.

    So these are what I call the ‘New Fundamentals’. But what’s the response of Government? What is the policy context?

    Firstly they have not taken any notice of it. We have been lonely voices. But actually there is incredibly good evidence that has been building up since 1975. The Government’s own report from the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy in 1974 said the health care cost of cardiovascular disease and diet related ill health is unsustainable. That is 34 years ago. Nothing new about this but the evidence has built up to a point at which the system is not going to be able to carry on in the same way in which it has been doing.

    Now let’s go back to the 1930s. The evidence creators, researchers and scientists said “We don’t need to have this crisis of collapsing farming, of malnutrition in the big Western cities, of absolute malnutrition in Asia.” and they came up with what my world would call Productionism i.e. that with suitable use of science, capital investment, and research, you can produce more.

    Has anyone here heard about Sir George Stapleton? Well, what Stapleton was about was that if you put drainage into the uplands you can grow different grasses and what looks like unproductive moor land, will deliver. It may deliver more meat, they weren’t thinking about heart disease then, but it will deliver.

    But basically that Productionist model is now what is under threat. That whole model, although it has gone through various changes and evolutions etc, is now in trouble.

    The economic mainstream thinking is essentially neo liberalism; let markets survive.

    But in fact what Productionism fed into in the 1940’s, in the post war reconstruction, symbolised by Lord John Boyd Orr who was the first Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation was the need to harness nature by investment and by rebuilding skills.

    And that is what is now coming unstuck, that whole diverse set of experiments gone off on different paths that people like Stapleton and Boyd Orr, like the organic movement in their different ways have done, is now hitting its soft brick wall.

    Mean-time one of the irons of doing things differently, the Common Agricultural Policy, (CAP) which actually was set up to stop malnutrition and hunger in Europe, people forget that, just became a subsidy milking scheme from you and me as tax payers to rich land owners. Particularly here in Britain. 80% off all the money from the CAP went to 20% of farmers. It was a siphon from the mass to the few.

    Now what is the British Government’s position of dealing with the New Fundamentals? The first is that it is actually ignoring it. In 2005/06 the Treasury and Defra put out major policy statements that said don’t have policies, let the markets decide! Sweep away the CAP, decouple! And that’s actually happened! So now just when we need a policy, a set of levers to address the New Fundamentals, we haven’t got one. We actually haven’t got any engagement. That is when I start getting worried and that is why I’m here because I think this is the policy vacuum that people like your good selves have got to get involved with.


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