Sustainable food the liberal way


Globally, the way we produce food is unsustainable. In the UK alone millions of tonnes of food are being thrown away, soil quality is deteriorating and dairy farmers are shutting up shop on a daily basis because of crazy supermarket price wars.

At the moment 800,000,000 people are ‘food insecure’ meaning they go hungry periodically. Not many are predicting the situation to improve, there is forecast to be a 69% gap between the crop calories produced now and those needed by 2050.

I see the problem as divided into 3 main sections: not enough food for a growing global population, an increasingly unsustainable global food production system and resource intensive diets.

It seems that many of the solutions to those problem are not instinctively liberal. China style ‘One Child’ policies, tax increases on carbon intensive foods or even the return of rationing might help the food system become more sustainable. But I believe that a more liberal approach could incorporate these advantages with increased social and economic benefits, without compromising personal liberty.

So how can those three issues be addressed using liberal policies?

One way of giving farmers more of a chance to farm sustainably would be to slow global population rises.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s hungriest places and its population is forecast to grow enormously in the decades to come, yet if replacement level fertility could be achieved there by 2050 the world’s food gap would shrink by 10%.

Better education, especially for girls would be a very beneficial way of dealing with this. Research shows birth and child mortality rates fall when the number of girls going to secondary school goes up, as well as having wider economic benefits.

With UK International Development spending on education standing at around £900 million annually I believe the case for increasing DfID spending above 0.7% of GDP is strong.

Moving on to the second point, the global food production system needs to be made more sustainable. A quarter of food is wasted between field and fork and 30% of wild fish stocks are overfished with an additional 57% already being fished to capacity.

Working together with the international community is crucial and has many success stories in improving these problems. The European Union for example has banned discards in Europe’s fisheries, a policy which saw up to 50% of fish caught being thrown back dead as a result of quotas.

It isn’t a liberal approach for governments to try and control what we eat. Yet Western diets often rely too heavily on unsustainable foods: overwhelmingly too much meat which uses far more energy to produce than arable crops. Beef for example converts about 1% of animal feed energy into food for people and its production is worryingly forecast to grow by 92% by 2050.

As a chef I have a rather woolly belief that people will eat less meat when they learn how delicious the alternatives can be. However government has a role to play in creating policy to ensure that food in hospitals and schools as well as other public sector establishments comes from sustainable and preferably local sources.

Creating a sustainable food system by addressing growing populations, bad food production practice and unsustainable diets is a fiendishly difficult task. But by taking more personal responsibility and working together in the international community they can begin to be addressed. Whilst it might be temping for policy makers to drift away from liberalism when looking for solutions, I believe it is always the liberal policies which are capable of not only addressing the issues themselves but also having wider social and economic advantages.

* Sam Lomas is a Lib Dem member, a River Cottage chef and a former LDHQ press office intern.

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  • One really important aspect of food security is tackling waste – currently around 1/3 of what is grown is thrown away. In developing countries it’s mainly about food losses due to poor storage and transportation whilst for the rest of us, it is waste throughout the supply chain. I’ve been working on various aspects of this for the last two years

  • Matt (Bristol) 15th Dec '15 - 11:55am

    “However government has a role to play in creating policy to ensure that food in hospitals and schools as well as other public sector establishments comes from sustainable and preferably local sources.”

    I think you don’t understand how much of an accounting and commissioning revolution you would need in local government and public health and the NHS to genuinely drive this sort fo thing through and make it stick in anything other than a symbolic way. Local commissioning in most local authorities and health trusts is a pipe dream the other end of hellish tunnel of short-term thinking and abding, central-government-aided helplessness and panic.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Dec '15 - 12:45pm

    Heston Blumenthal did a programme about improving food in hospitals on Channel 4. Create food that the staff want to eat and make it available to patients. If the patients will eat it the improved nutrition can speed their recovery so that they are discharged sooner. Therefore a narrow focus on cost is counter-productive. There is no need to increase cost, but the thinking should be holistic.

  • Good to see this Sam , regardless of what the suggestions are , lets have the discussion. I am a very non dogmatic vegetarian , but I have to say , human obsession with meat eating is one of the biggest drawback s to sustainability policy having the desired effect . Less meat eating frees land and helps with health issues. A holistic approach , once this could be accepted would be more possible . Simarlaly an understanding that organic production is not to pander to middleclass whims , but to protect and sustain the natural cycles, and is needed . . An environmental Liberalism , combining economic dynamism with social awareness could happen to be possible.

  • Your first paragraph has the most resonance for me especially when those in the food industry in South Lincolnshire are working day & night to ensure that our supermarket shelves are piled high with vegetables much of which may not actually be consumed because it has gone off in the packaging before people get around to it. For me packaging has to be looked at – why does so much of it have to be prepacked & why does the packs have to be of a size that only large families are ever likely to use it? I am lucky in that I have local markets where I can buy produce that the supermarket wholesale buyers don’t want & I do have a veg plot in the garden, but how many don’t.

  • Denis Mollison 16th Dec '15 - 9:21am

    Matt – “I think you don’t understand how much of an accounting and commissioning revolution you would need in local government and public health and the NHS to genuinely drive this sort fo thing through”

    Perhaps it would be revolutionary, but a large part of what’s needed is simply for local government etc to do less. We need less central procurement, allowing schools and hospitals to make their own local arrangements for food rather than being compelled to use stuff shipped hundreds of miles from whatever large organisation has won a competitive tender. Central procurement may look as though it saves money, but it’s at the expense of quality (and thus value for money) and the environment.

  • Denis Mollison 16th Dec '15 - 9:24am

    More generally, for the sake both of sustainable food and minimising climate change, we need to reduce carbon-intensive transport. Sadly, the Paris agreement doesn’t as far as I know support the necessary carbon taxes on shipping and aviation fuels.

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Dec '15 - 2:04pm

    Denis – quite agree, but I think the culture change that would bring that about would require central government to actively empower encourage local government to resist constant demands for more auditting, more targetting, and force the outsourcing sector to back well off.

  • Richard Underhill 17th Dec '15 - 12:04pm New Scientist magazine 12/12/2015 page 17 says that Hippos are not vegetarian.
    This is itself a quote from Mammal Eating the carcasses of elephants, impala, wildebeest and other hippos “could explain why they have a higher death rate from ungualates that eat only grass”. LDV readers may be aware that there are occasional prosections of people trying to smuggle “bush meat” through airports, in the hope of saving money, but carrying unidentified health risks.

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