What's stopping progress?

Ed Dowding - 10 February 2011

Ed Dowding: This afternoon, Monty Don headed up an excellent panel in a session entitled "What's stopping progress?"

"The evidence for changing everything is overwhelming," says Prof Tim Lang (Food Policy at City University, London). "The good news is that the process of articulating the necessity has begun. The bad news is that we don't have the leadership to take it forward."

I couldn't agree more. Way more people are going to die from the effects of a climate change and food shocks in the next 100 years than died from war in the last 100. This is not a happy or easy situation we find ourselves in, and any politician, or business leader who fails to comprehend and act upon this fact is being negligent in their duty. We are still steering full on for the iceberg, and the captain and the second mate are talking about how the crew might like to be empowered to take hold of a little bit of the handle each and reduce the speed.

As Colin Cox (from the public health project Manchester Food Futures) said, "The problem with 'nudge' politics is that it focuses on the small things, and not the big, and we need big changes."

Joanna Blythman took the tack that the Soil Association (and presumably some other lobbying groups) need to shake off the perception of elitism. "In the UK we have the idea that food is a status symbol [and] anyone who tries to improve food here gets it in the neck for being elitist." It would be handy, she suggested, if the Soil Association made itself more accessible to help it it gain mass adoption. Echoing the 'nudge' zeitgeist, she suggested a regular price bulletin comparing prices between leading supermarkets and the organic market rate, to introduce transparency into the chain. It's a great idea which has never been easier to implement. One smartphone app and a quick website and you're away... (nudge, nudge @soilassociation ... )

Guy Watson from Riverford Organic was sublime. There's a man who has transcended from a state of rampant ego-led business growth to high-functional statesmanship, having personally made peace with the mistakes he's made in the last decade. With transparent and abundant honesty, he told how sales have plateaud since April 2007. In that time, their cost of customer acquisition has risen by 5-10x. He's realised he no longer has the energy to fight, and is going to surf the zeitgeist instead, which in Riverford terms means telling everyone they have high quality, healthy food and tickling their probably-TV-induced enthusiasm for cooking. Classic choice architecture, classic nudge.

A representative from the Co-op asked what one big nudge the panel would go for, if they had the chance. The consensus was less meat, more plants, and more home cooking. And an aside to take VAT off tables to get more families eating together.

But Monty was right to focus back on the question. These things are not stopping progress, they're just the reasons it's going slowly. As Colin said, "it's a difficult challenge to find the balance between cheap food, healthy diet, and a healthy ecosystem." So why the obsession with cheap food? Some history from Tim: in 1819 the Peterloo Massacre took place in Manchester following a period of famine and unemployment. By 1882 it was cheaper to buy a lamb from New Zealand than from down the road. We want cheap, reliable food, and we want well paid jobs.  We have to alter that culture... but .... how?

Tim Lang would like to see Tesco's split up since it has a virtual monopoly in a couple of areas of food supply, which is one further than Joanna Blythman who wants the Soil Association to stop working with them. Guy Watson would like to see fuel price quadrupled, which I found most reassuring since it's a point I've made myself many times, in order to price-in the benefits accrued to farmers from externalities. That man is fast becoming my new hero.

But the key thing to come back to is that farming is NOT a business like any other. It's the only thing which is worth a damn, and - unlike banks - it actually is too important to fail.

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Organic Multivitamins
17 June 2011 22:53

Excellent blog. No doubt we should take organic food. We should also take iron and vitamins side by side with our food.

Tim Belcher
16 February 2011 11:16

I agree with the points made by Joanna re: organic food being seen by many as elitist and expensive. I would like to see the SA & other groups emphasise the benefits of organic food growing on the environment and tap into the interest in the UK in this area. The RSPB have over 1 million members in the UK and the Wildlife Trusts 800,000 with numbers growing year on year. Locally produced food sales are also on the rise as consumers take an interest in helping their local economy and reducing food miles as well as eating delicious artisan food, and yet organic food sales are not increasing. At present the message is not getting across. There's a desperate need to promote all the benefits of producing and eating organic food but for now let's concentrate on one or two positive messages that people can identify with.

mark houghton brown
11 February 2011 19:24

Careful what you wish for. Fuel price probably only needs to double just now to cause a major dislocation for industrial civilisation. Most organic food businesses will find it a challenge to survive in that environment.

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