It's Christmas time and the food industry's saccharine adverts have graced our screens, presenting to us a vivid image of choice, sustainability and homespun happiness. But how wholesome is our food, really?
Stephen Devlin is an environmental economist at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and his report – the aptly titled "Urgent Recall" – released today, paints the UK's food system as an unsustainable mess, one that's ravaging the environment, perpetuating disease and exacerbating poverty and inequality.
Advocates of the UK's food system will point to the sheer volume of products available as evidence that choice exists and that consumers can vote through spending. But most of these products will be owned by the ten or so behemoths (Pepsico, Kraft, Nestle etc.) that dominate the supermarket shelves. The "choice" between different brands is what these multinationals are heralding here – the choice between Doritos and Cheetos, Robinsons and Rubicon – but real alternatives just don't exist.
"We're fed the story of empowered consumers shaping the markets for the better, that through their purchasing power, product selection and preference for environmentally friendly goods they can shape the world," says Devlin. "The reality is it's just not that convenient, especially when it comes to food. If anything they're probably the disempowered half of the producer-consumer relationship."
This is partly due to the fact that, shamefully, hunger in the UK has now reached an epidemic level, with the annual number of people given emergency parcels from food banks last year just shy of a million. It was 128,000 just three years ago. Just over one in five of those receiving an emergency food parcel said low income was responsible.
"People are struggling to afford food, but that's a reason to change the system, not perpetuate it," says Devlin. "The whole point of the system was to make food cheap and it did that pretty well for quite a long time, with food prices falling pretty consistently in the decades after the war. But if you're objective is to eradicate hunger constantly trying to reduce the price of food won't work. We've basically proven that with the food system we have."
The UK spends a smaller proportion of its income on food than any other EU country, bar Luxembourg. This is an aggregate though; even if food here is cheap, on average there is still a large demographic in society who can't afford it. The increasing reliance on food banks is testament to that. The problem worsens when you factor in the disproportionate food price inflation that the UK has experienced over the last eight years.
But the issue isn't really expensive food, the issue is poverty. The obsession with rock-bottom prices has failed to eradicate hunger in the UK, or the rest of the world. If anything it's contributing to the problem. Instead it's proliferating dangerous practices – the use of fertilisers, fossil fuels, battery farming, wage poverty – and jeopardising the environment.
"Growing food is probably the most profound way in which humans deliberately alter the environment, so getting it wrong is a pretty serious risk," says Devlin. "Climate change and the food system are totally intertwined. It's almost a unanimous opinion amongst commentators and analysts that the way we produce food is hugely detrimental to the environment."
The modern agricultural methods utilised are unprecedented in the natural history of the world; the widespread use of fertilisers and pesticides, the sheer stress soil goes through in churning out such phenomenal yields and the huge carbon emissions built up across the supply chain are all contributing to climate change.
The risks posed to the environment are probably the most severe, but that's far from the only problem. "If it was just a case of doing the environmental stuff right then maybe we could just tinker with the system around the edges. But that's not all it is. It's just failing on so many other levels as well," says Devlin. "Diet related illnesses are ruining us at the moment – obesity, heart disease, diabetes, various cancers – so much of it is about how we eat and that's determined by the food system. The health impact is completely unsustainable."
As is the way food is produced. So much of what we eat will travel an intercontinental web of laboratories, farms, factories and supermarkets before hitting our plates. Sophistication is the buzzword often used to celebrate this complex agricultural supply chain and such a feat is hailed as an achievement. But the potential risks of genetically modified crops, increased exposure to fraud and disease, excessive carbon footprints and wages for producers suppressed by a chain of middlemen don't get factored in too much.
The "sophisticated" system thrives on consumer ignorance, with many people having a warped perception of how food is produced. Labels rarely offer more detail than the standard traffic lights and percentages on the packets, let alone factory conditions and wider environmental impact. The Food Standards Agency recently published its findings on the dangerous levels of the campylobacter bacteria in supermarket chickens, but that wasn't before its former chief and current Tesco director Tim Smith lobbied hard against its release.
As the physical distance between food production and the consumer grows so too does the psychological distance. More than one in three 16 to 23-year-olds didn't know bacon came from pigs according to a survey conducted by LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) charity a few years back. An extreme example, but with food hygiene, safety and integrity at the forefront of the average consumer's mind, ignorance is probably bliss.
"Everyone was horrified at the horse-meat scandal of course, but really what's most surprising is that something like this or worse, didn't happen sooner," says Devlin. "Of course there's always the possibility that it did and we just don't know about it. People are terrified about the safety of their food but it's actually as though we've designed our food system in order to maximise the risks."
The problems are obvious and the consequences dire, but with the UK's production and distribution system so firmly established making changes will require more than a shift in consumer demand. Resistance to change is strengthened by the highly concentrated agricultural land ownership (0.25 percent of the population own all 17 million hectares), heavy government subsidies that still leave 10 percent of farms unprofitable and convoluted supply chains.
"We can categorically classify it as unsustainable. I'm a big believer in the idea that the power lies with communities, at the grassroots," says Devlin. "That's ultimately where most of the change comes from in order for it to be sustainable and democratic. The problem is the current system puts up a lot of boundaries to that kind of community action, so we'll probably need state intervention to deconstruct or reform this. We need change from above and below."
NEF's report cites plenty of European agricultural models that have focused on renewable energy and localism; simply scaling these up may not be the answer, but they present possibilities worth exploring. At the top of the food chain there's been little imagination or appetite for a more sustainable system, or to think beyond the mantra of low prices. But the UK still remains one of the wealthiest nations and producing high quality, sustainably sourced food as well as the eradication of hunger is achievable. For once it doesn't have to be about choice.
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