There's more to Food Policy than chlorinated chicken

Food related policies are likely to be a part of most parties’ manifestos for the December election. Both English and Welsh governments are currently reviewing their future food policies and it will be interesting to see the direction of travel suggested by the different political parties.

Food is a complex and contentious policy area. We all have a view on the subject of food and there are inevitable tensions as the demands of different interest groups are often not compatible. The players in the global food supply chain vary from some of the biggest retailers in the world to an individual smallholder in a developing country. This juxtaposition of powerful versus subservient organisations is relatively unique to the food industry and can result in inequalities in the supply chain.

As food is becoming increasingly politicised it is becoming more difficult for consumers to be sufficiently informed to make a rational decision. A typical supermarket may have 25,000 products, each of which has a different impact on health, the environment, the supply chain and the economy. For example, switching to a plant-based, non-dairy milk may appear to be a simple and rational choice but this decision may have far-reaching consequences including:
• Contributing to a decline in the UK dairy industry;
• Exacerbating the severe water shortages in California (where almonds are grown);
• Damaging the environment as bulky cartons are shipped around Europe (if not the world);
• Potentially affecting health, as dairy milk can contain 7 times more calcium that an equivalent plant based milk.

Of course, advocates of a plant-based diet can also highlight some of the advantages of a non-dairy diet but the purpose of this example is to show some of the complex issues involved in making food choices. The concept of “food miles” is now too simplistic and carbon footprint analysis is a better measure of the impact of a food’s environmental impact. Is it better for the environment to have tomatoes grown outdoors in Spain and shipped by road to the UK or to grow tomatoes in energy-hungry glasshouses in the UK?

These complex issues cannot easily be understood, especially during the millisecond that a consumer takes when making a decision in a busy supermarket aisle or in the queue at a fast-food outlet. At a policy level, the decisions are even more difficult as there will inevitably be trade-offs. For example:
• encouraging more UK food production may benefit food security and farm incomes but could have a harmful effect on choice and the environment (we aren’t very good at growing bananas);
• higher animal welfare standards may cause food prices to increase;
• taxing unhealthy food and drink may reduce consumption and improve health but could cause job losses.

There are no easy answers in the world of food policy and ideally, policies are analysed using a systems approach, which analyses the activities, outcomes and players in the total food supply chain. According to the Global Food Security Programme, this systems approach is recommended, “because the food system is highly interconnected and this approach avoids unintended consequences from interventions in one part of the system adversely affecting another”.

So when you are reading the parties’ manifestos, consider the trade-offs and potential implications of their proposed food related policies. How will the policies impact farmers, food prices, health, the environment, the economy, global trade, developing countries, jobs…?

And please, don’t even think about chlorinated chicken.

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