Gardening in an era of food insecurity
Professor Tim Lang speaking at the Garden Organic AGM
Way before I was being mooted as Garden Organic's new president, (I'm a long standing member by the way) I have been thinking, we're at a point in Britain where food policy is very important. We're at one of those big moments when the entire food system is under threat and the situation could go in so many different ways.
So why do I come here to talk to you when I should be at home digging my garden in London? Well it is because I think that movements like us, like this, are going to become more and more important.
My own garden leaves a bit to be desired. I'm about to have written my tenth book, and the second since January so I'm ashamed to say that the garden came second to communicating with the computer at some points, which is actually the wrong way round. So what I'm saying is that I'm no paragon of virtue. I think it's all about priorities, a point which I'll talk more about later.
My own garden, which I do with my wife, is a very ordinary 100-foot long (slightly unusual for London) very narrow, north-facing garden and we have a hell of a lot of trouble with light. Light is a big problem. But it is fabulous; it is so wonderful to have routine contact with the earth and with growing things.
I give you that little bit of personal detail because what I want to talk about is a much bigger picture.
We're in interesting times, as the Chinese say, and I want to say that I think that Garden Organic is actually very well placed to be important during these times.
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' then I'm going to talk about, 'well, where does this leave gardening?' and then specifically 'what about Garden Organic?'.
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?
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.
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?
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.
What does this say for gardening?
My third point; what does this say for gardening?
I think this creates new horizons, new opportunities, it signifies the long-term commitment that gardening represents. You can't plant a fruit tree and get fruit the next year; you can't even do that with soft fruit.
The level of fruit production from Britain is 5% at the moment, yes 5% of the fruit we consume in Britain is grown here. And that is an inadequate basis of eating fruit, for health reasons alone. Forget this namby-pamby, stupid five a day! Nine a day and it starts getting sensible. The Danes have eight a day, the Greeks have nine a day, we're stuck on a politically pragmatic five a day, make it nine a day and the nation's diet starts altering. You're actually quite full, so there's not much room for the other crap, that's my theory!
We've been talking here at Garden Organic about Dig for Victory. My take on it is what I call Dig for Democracy. And I want to spell out why. I think we should remind people of when things can engender change, which is what the Dig for Victory campaign, did but although the fundamentals have got to change, it's the food culture that's got to change.
That means it's about people and what they do and how they live their lives. And that's why whether you've got a little garden box on your windowsill in a tower block or like me (because I'm middle class and a professor!) you've got a 100 foot garden, you can't feed yourself but you can at least participate. That is the key thing. And we know from the work of the great Amartya Sen and other people that people feed well when they have a sense of entitlement. People don't starve when they have entitlement.
It's never for lack of food; it's because of lack of entitlement. That's why there is a big debate in my world about food rights. And the phrase that I use, food democracy, is trying to capture that and build it into expectations.
This is where the humdrum ordinariness of being a gardener becomes so important. It's that daily skill, that sense of 'Oh my god I shouldn't be at my computer, I should be digging'. My wife always groans when I say, it's going to rain tomorrow, let's get those seeds in, well that came from my experience of being a farmer, if you don't do it you miss it. That's built into my psyche.
I think the part of my food democracy argument that Garden Organic subscribes to and I want you to subscribe to, is the inclusiveness. Not just having an elite of gardeners, of the few, but actually thinking about the mass. That is the real lesson of the 1940's and the Dig for Victory campaign, if we're honest, it was actually about democracy.
And so I have a vision, food is the hub and around it is what gardening does, its about skills, it's about non-priced food you put your own labour in, you buy the seeds, you have the tools but that's it, you do it, it's about health, it's about the home, it's about your nearest and dearest, it's about learning and sharing from others. That exchange you get from gardening that's not about work. It's about not having to fantasise about life being better somewhere far away. It's about building it into your locations. Food is at the heart of it.
Now what does this mean for Garden Organic?
The good news is that we are about fruit and veg. The Soil Association, which I'm a great supporter of, most of its money and business is in meat. In meat and dairy.
As gardeners you have some really good news with the capacity to produce fruit and vegetables. I speak as a member of the Government's anti-obesity task force.
You also have, as organics, a good take on sustainability. I personally, as a member of G.O. and the SA when I was a farmer, don't think that organics has the answers on everything. I'm not a missionary. I'm prepared to look at the evidence. Although there's no doubt at all that organics has great things to say on lots of fronts of sustainability.
So what about the challenges? As I said I don't think we've got all the answers for sustainable development and not all the answers for 21st century food. Think of my New Fundamentals. Organics is also oil dependent. Organics is good in terms of soil particularly, everything I've learned about soil has been from the organic movement, about water retention, especially from the experiments that have been done here at Garden Organic.
But we've got to be honest about where we think we've to things to contribute.
Secondly, in the same vein, we must work with others. I think working with the Soil Association is critical, I think working across different professions and organisations, across interests. I'm making a big plea for Garden Organic to make better links with the public health world and with social justice.
Thirdly the skills and growth issues. Getting people into gardening, developing their skills. I see gardening as a life skill. I've spent almost 30 years campaigning trying to get cooking back on the curriculum from 1980 when it was taken off. We're getting there, although we're not there at all. And Garden Organic has just been fantastic with their schools programme. I just want to salute that. It is just wonderful.
But it's not enough. We've got to make it wider and take it broader. And we're not going to do that if it's just us. And that means as I said working with others.
The fourth point that I think Garden Organic can play its part in, is trying to map what is a truly good food system. I am the world's only professor of food policy, I'm lonely, I don't know what a good food system looks like. I think my colleagues and I in my department and others around the world are beginning to understand what the criteria are by which we judge what a good food system is.
Don't think that we've got all the answers.
The Defra Food Security consultation document that was produced is THE most important opportunity for us all. This is the country's chance to decide what it wants to do with its food system. Go onto the Defra website. Please. Tell people about it. We have to get this to people. By September the 18th replies have to be in.
It came out at fairly short notice and was going to be something very different. But now a consultation process is in play. If we don't participate in that, we've just helped slit out throats. Because is it going to be business as usual? Is the national food policy going to be business as usual? Or is it going to respond to the very interesting tentative shifts in the cabinet papers?
The cabinet office has done a very important beginning to break away in saying that the future of British food has got to be a low carbon, healthy food system.
I was delighted by this as an advisor to it, but I said, that's only two criteria what about the other eight, the other New Fundamentals? What about water embeddedness? You know, you get my point? The shift that I think and you know has got to happen, is IMMENSE!
And we aren't going to do that quickly. Not in a Ford Mondeo, man dominated politics. So I think Garden Organic has got to be a major part in food democracy.
To summarise; we're in uncertain times. We have some New Fundamentals that I think are evidence based and incontrovertible. You cannot go against the International Panel on Climate Change unless you want to be classed as a lunatic. Equally it would be a fool who went against the International Agricultural Assessment of Science Technology and Development Knowledge, a group of 400 scientists from around the world pooling what they think is needed. The evidence base from the New Fundamentals is astonishingly good. The policy response is pathetic. But some interesting things are beginning to emerge, some little movements that are terribly important and they need us to participate.
I look at Garden Organic, all of us, we have to, have to participate.
My final point is that I think that Garden Organic has got a fantastically good story to tell.
Humility is needed but confidence is warranted.