21 December 2014

United Kingdom: a study demonstrates the failure of the British food system

The New Economics Foundation (NEF), a London-based ‘think-and-do’ tank, published a report on the UK food system last November, with the title: Urgent recall: Our food system under review.

Starting from fundamental questions such as: ‘‘What should a food system be for? Is it just to feed people by continually increasing production? Who should benefit from it? Is it to sustain livelihoods and public health? Should it enhance local environments?’’, NEF decided to review the UK system which, if one takes for reference the typical post WW2 objectives assigned to the food and agriculture system (‘‘more food production, lower food price, reduced deficiency-related ill-health’’), definitely is a success story.

NEF staff conducted interviews, reviewed available research and data, and on the basis of their findings selected a suite of indicators to measure the real extent of ‘success’ of the UK food system, when measured against what a food system is really expected to do in the 21st Century. In NEF’s words:

  1. ‘‘have  a neutral or positive environmental impact;

  2. be productive in its use of energy and other inputs;

  3. be diverse in species and genes;

  4. support good jobs;

  5. be dominated by short and simple supply chains;

  6. be composed of assets that are controlled by a wide and inclusive set of stakeholders;

  7. foster a positive and thriving food culture and the highest levels of public health;

  8. make food affordable to everyone’’.

The results of the research conducted by NEF shows that the UK food system isn’t working at all in these directions: obesity and diet-related diseases are spreading and killing an increasing number of people, agricultural land is being degraded and the system is a major contributor to climate change. This is nothing new for our readers, but the study has the merit to provide clear and quantified evidence to support this view:

  1. The environmental impact of the UK food system costs between £5.7 and 7.2 billion per year (between €7.3 and 9.2 billion), the cost of loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, and water pollutants from industry not included. This cost represents roughly 6.3 to 7.9% of the market price of food.

  2. Energy-wise, the system is very inefficient: for one calorie returned, eight calories are being spent (12,5% efficiency only)

  3. Like the global food system, the UK food system relies on a limited number of species, breeds and varieties: in the UK 76% of farm animal breeds are at risk as a result of increasingly homogenous farming

  4. The vast majority of food system workers are in the retail and service sectors – waiters or waitresses, chefs, and supermarket cashiers - and have very low salaries compared to   average UK salaries

  5. Land is in the hands of a tiny minority (0,25% of the population) and its price is increasing very fast (by more than threefold in between 2004 and 2013)

  6. On average, a household in the UK spends less than 10% of income for food

  7. 10% of farms are unprofitable, even after subsidies

  8. The distribution of working hours forces households to seek time-efficiencies, opting for fast food and ready meals.

This evidence is enough, according to the report, to justify urgent action. Like is the case in many other sectors, the food sector has become a highly concentrated profit making business that does not care much about human well-being and preserving our environment. But the report says that there are ways to change this, getting inspiration from some success stories that the report reviews. For this, the report provides four key steps that need to be followed:

  1. Recognising the true value of what we expect from our food system

  2. Developing and using new tools and metrics to measure whether these expectations are met

  3. Building a democratic movement to support changes to be brought to our food system

  4. Changing policy, regulations and the organisational set-up so as to create conditions that will orient our food system towards our expectations. In the case of the EU, changes will need to be implemented in the EU Common Agricultural Policy, but more broadly, more regulation is required for advertisement of food products or financial speculation in food commodities.

It is highly probable that the diagnosis and recommendations made in this report applies to a large number of countries, particularly but not exclusively among rich countries, and even globally. Evidence presented corroborates earlier studies on the high environmental cost of our food system [read Food, environment and health]. They largely corroborate several of the recommendations made by A. MacMillan in his opinion piece published on in June of this year [read Hasn’t the time come for some brave new thinking on food management], with the difference that NEF is not very clear on how to resolve some of the contradictions in what it expects from the food system, in particular how to reconcile better remuneration of all the workers in the food chain and making food affordable to all while ensuring that the true value of food is recognised. Two important aspects are not highlighted enough in the NEF report:

  1. The first is the enormous wastage of food and resources our food system is causing [read] and that suggests that there is a need to give more value - financial but also ethical - to our food

  2. The second is the increase of hunger that has been observed in the UK recently [read]

Although the pathway to change should be democratically determined, one could have expected to see the NEF report produce some some key policy recommendations for consideration.

We can only formulate the hope that other studies similar to the efforts undertaken by NEF for the UK be conducted in many other countries, even though we know that their results are also likely to be very preoccupying. Let’s hope that this kind of studies will then help launch the movement that NEP wishes to see emerge.


Further readings:

  1. -New Economics Foundation, Urgent recall: Our food system under review - Summary report, London November 2014

  2. -New Economics Foundation, Urgent recall: Our food system under review - Complete report, London November 2014

  3. -A. MacMillan, Hasn’t the time come for some brave new thinking on food management,, June 2014

  4., Food, environment and health, December 2014


Last update:    December 2014

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