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6 Nov 2013

An interview with Dr Tim Lang: "Dire times are one of the only moments when structures get laid bare"


When looking for insights into food, policy and politics, the first place I turn is to Professor Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London.  For decades he has been at the forefront of debates around public health and the role that food, and food policy, play in that.  With our theme for November being austerity, I was keen to hear his thoughts on food and austerity.  We caught up by Skype as he grabbed a quick sandwich between lectures.  You can listen to/download the audio here or read the transcript below.  

You’ve been involved for many years in food policy and issues around food. What’s your sense of how the austerity push over the last few years has affected those issues and those debates and discussions?

At one level what it’s done is bring back a very old theme into both public consciousness and debates around food policy in that here is one of the wealthiest societies on the planet, 5th or 6th by GDP, where there are not just pockets but enormous patches of food poverty, of people cutting back on food to make ends meet.

This is however overlaid onto long-term distortions in the food system between supply and public health. We already have a remarkable social gradient between life expectancy, body shape and income. Essentially, richer people are thinner, live longer. Poorer people die earlier and have more tendency towards obesity.

There are enormous gaps between the richest and the poorest in Britain, in which all of the problems of food are manifest. Availability, access, cost, all of these issues are not new issues. I could take you to debates in the early 1800s and these themes were emerging as industrialisation rapidly developed in Britain, as rural populations went to work in the new factories, as people were fed adulterated food because it was cheaper than good food. A whole complicated raft of cultural issues got laid down into British life, our expectations, like the expectation that food is and should and is good if it’s cheap. Those were arguments all fought out in the middle of the 19th century.

And here we are at the beginning of the so-called ‘new austerity’ at the beginning of the 21st century and some of those themes are coming back with remarkable echoes to the past and from the past. For someone like me – I’m a university lecturer, I’m well paid, but I cut my food policy teeth researching food poverty in Manchester and Sheffield with colleagues in the Thatcher austerity early 1980s. One saw an explosion of food poverty as people lost their jobs, as welfare systems were cut and pruned, and a process like that is now happening again but accelerated.

report coverThe only difference I would say between, not just the 1980s and now, but between now and the earlier periods where this theme has come up (and been enormously important by the way, in shaping British politics) is I think we’ve now got a situation where food has never been so cheap, yet even so, the Milburn Report three weeks ago pointed out rightly that five million people are living in really a very poor way, and that work is not the way out of poverty necessarily.

We have this extraordinarily split world of mega-rich bankers, to parody it, with a very very high concentration of wealth alongside a vast, squeezed millions of households at the bottom. The language of politics is not dealing with it, the language of policy is not dealing with it. Actually all that the government is doing is squeezing it further. It’s astonishing.

But it has also posed enormous problems to the environmental movement which has been saying that we need to make food more expensive to internalise cost. How do we get round this? How do we get round that argument in public health which also thinks cheap fat and cheap sugars are too cheap. That’s why people at the bottom of the heap are fatter, they’re eating poor diets.

But the food industry is pouring these things out. The food industry’s the biggest employer in Britain, 3.5 million people work in it. So it’s wrapped up in complications today, in 2013, that would have been unimaginable to people in the 1840s, let alone in the 1930s.

One of the things that we see now is the push towards saying supermarkets can provide cheap food, that austerity means that we need cheap food so we need supermarkets more. Is this a time when we need supermarkets more or when we need supermarkets less?

One of the things that is so interesting, and also worrying, about the present time on food poverty, is that it is coinciding with the first time since the 1870s that food prices are going up. Having said that, let me correct myself. There have been four occasions where the long drop in food process has stopped. The first was World War 1 and you can see it in the figures, the price goes up, and then the long drop in food prices carries on.

Then in the Second World War, prices went up but then came down afterwards. Then in the oil crisis of the early 1970s. And then the deal was done with OPEC and prices again carried on coming down. And then, when in 2007-8 the banking crisis triggered and coincided, was certainly symbiotic with the agricultural commodity spike, as it’s called, again the mainstream, dominant economists and way of thinking said “don’t worry, it’ll carry on coming down afterwards, this is situation normal”.

And some of us – I was one – were arguing “no it won’t, because we’re now entering a very different world, where it’s not just 20 OECD countries that are rich. Half the planet is now getting sufficiently rich to eat differently”. And indeed the western companies have gone in and sold and pushed the soft drink, fast food culture, ready-made food, processed foods, as modernity. That world will actually not be one where prices continue coming down.

Indeed, we’ve been proven right. Now the volte faces have gone on by the conventional dominant economics and the OECD now will say process rising and volatility is the new norm. I couldn’t have said that or written that. It was a totally marginal view that people like me had and, I suspect, you.


But this actually is tricky, because what it’s doing is undermining the consumer bargain. That you’ll get endless choice, endless cheap goods, and you can be in charge of browsing and grazing your way through the hypermarket of life. Even if people are well paid in a country like Britain, their kids aren’t. The bubble of property has blown up and is now re-puffing up again in London and the South-East, but people who are young can’t afford to buy houses. There are structural problems even if you just look within Britain, let alone globally. And food is at the centre.

The new austerity is a litmus test. For example, the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, in what is considered a brilliant piece of politics, has captured the high ground with his ‘the squeezed middle’ and austerity – but around energy prices, completely missing that exactly the same arguments apply in food. They are not unrelated commodities, food and energy. Yet there isn’t even the pretence of saying let’s cap supermarket prices.

There’s actually just a silence, which is interesting. Who knows what might come. But the hypermarket model is what the Conservatives in the Thatcher era and John Major era and indeed in the Blair-Brown era, they adored. When prices looked like they were going up under Blair, Blair sent for Wal-Mart and said “please buy ASDA and inject even greater price competition”.

But how low can food prices go? They can’t if we want to deal with climate change. They can’t if we want people to eat a healthy diet. When 40 -50% of British grain is fed to animals to give cheap meat, it’s not going to be cheap, and hey presto it’s cheaper if you get it from Brazil or Malaysia or Thailand. It just doesn’t add up. The picture of food policy for the last 30-40 years just doesn’t add up. But the politicians aren’t getting a grip of it yet.

But around the edges of politics I think there is rapidly growing agreement that interests of the environment, conservation, public health, social justice, need to come together and indeed have more sharing of ideas for the restructuring that’s now got to go on for food policy and the food system. That’s if we want to address the problem.

If we have a situation where in terms of the national obesity epidemic certain foods are too cheap, but still families can’t afford to feed themselves and that austerity situation is really only going to worsen over the next 5-10 years, what do we do?

Let me just throw in another factor into all of this. In the last 50 years, Britain’s food has come out of the ‘food as fuel’ model that essentially was ushered in in the 1840s onwards. Partly because of travel, partly because of supermarkets and this phenomenal capacity that they have had to control logistics and to improve distribution systems. Partly because of that, the British have got used to having extraordinary choices. They’ve travelled to Spain, travelled to Italy. They go much further now. The Brits think curry is a British food. Pizza is children’s favourite. In my childhood they were unthinkable, absolutely unthinkable.

I’m looking out of my window here, in the middle of the City of London, looking at, as it happens a brand new Sainsburys Local that’s just opened up in an empty set of shops built on a speculative housing block opposite me. Of course, the Sainsburys Local is there because from the 1980s onwards, essentially greengrocers and independent stores were driven out of business. Now the hypermarkets have come back into town with new formats and are on almost every street corner again. Food is plentiful everywhere. I’ve not been into this store. It’s only been open three weeks so I’ve not been into it yet, but I guarantee I could go in there and graze the world. Those expectations are now hard-wired into British food culture.

In that sense, politicians are in a really difficult position. They have expectations in the consumer i.e. voting public’s blood, in their deep veins, where the saturated fat has not yet got to. They have got this assumption that they have the right to go and eat what they like. That’s a very tricky bit of politics. Almost all of us outside know firstly that this has been a fantasy. Secondly that what we choose is class based, culture based, ethnicity based, gender based, social role based, and indeed has been made flotsam and jetsam in culture by the vast power of advertising and the cultural industries. All of that is part of the complexity now. All of that is part of the problem that the food industry knows it’s got to address.


To answer your question, there are great complexities here. But the great irony is some of the very big food companies are now looking ahead and saying “Oh ye Gods, we have got to lower our carbon. We have got to lower the embedded water in our food. We have got to deal with inequalities in Africa or Latin America where we source food, A, because they’re getting richer, B, because eagle-eyed, eager beaver NGOs are watching us and exposing us and so on. But finally, because we want to be around in 30 years’ time for our shareholders and our own pensions”.

So there is a very paradoxical situation in food politics. Right now, the coalition has walked away from food. I think if he has anything between his ears, our Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is obsessed about badgers, for obvious reasons, and is also obsessed about exporting more food to compensate for the yawning food trade gap. In that sense, he’s returned food policy to Thatcher’s time, because that’s what was happening in the early 1980s.

That’s why the British government set up Food from Britain. This lot has abolished it. It’s extraordinary how they’re locked into a very narrow view of what’s really going on in food. There’s much more open thinking about what we’ve got to so in some of the boardrooms of big and small food companies, alongside the radicals, the green, the progressive forces, the academics, the loose group of people who’ve got interested in food policy and contributed the vibrant food policy thinking in Britain that we’ve now very famous for around the world.

People ask me why there is this extraordinary debate in Britain? I always say it was Mrs Thatcher actually. She walked away and said the government’s got no role in this. So for 19 years we had the opportunity to ask big and very fundamental questions and to not take government particularly seriously.

But we ultimately need government to square the circle, to help set frameworks, and I see that coming again. The big companies cannot resolve the problems that have got to be resolved, but they’re beginning to be aware of the enormity of the problems that have got to be resolved. In that sense they’re joining us, the outer circle of people moaning from the margins.

There was a report that was published this week, by Adam Briggs et al. in the British Medical Journal, looking at the impact that if you actually tax the carbon emissions on food that it would lead to all the other health indicators going up. Are there ways in which government could intervene meaningfully to make a difference and not be seen as pricing people who already can’t afford to eat properly out of that food?

There is a difficulty, and the difficulty I have given the codename ‘sustainable diets’ (not my name). You’ll find this is a policy difficulty which is this term sustainable diets, first coined by two American academics, Joan Gussow and Kate Clancy in a paper nearly 30 years ago. Essentially the problem is we know a sustainable diet meaning living lighter on the earth means eating differently. It doesn’t mean you can’t eat some foods that you like, but it means the quantities change, the waste changes, the embedded energy, the embedded water, the impact on biodiversity, the seasonality, the variability will all undoubtedly change. The problem is that’s not the hypermarket model. I could walk into that mini-market over the road and it’s full of packaged goods. Everything’s pre-made, pre-processed, even the green vegetables are wrapped in plastic. The salads are pre-made etc etc.

That world is antithetical to a world of sustainable diets, some of us think. I think there are tensions. Others – and indeed when I was a government commissioner, I argued this – others argue that we can bring public health more in line with the environmental footprints of food than we think we can. It’s not as difficult a route to travel down as one might think. You don’t all have to be hippy Totnes or Hebden Bridge or Stroud-ites and eat the brown sandal when you’ve walked it to death. It’s not like that.

Significant, but not impossible, adjustments will remarkably alter the public health profile of your diet and also alter its environmental impact. The cost of that doesn’t need to go up too dramatically. That is the positive version. I think that’s true. I hold to my own schizophrenia. I think broadly there is a good message, that, by reducing the footprint and meeting public health, the two can align.

But there are some fundamental issues about land use that I think are tricky. One is if we want to have energy, unless the whole of Britain has its roofs covered with PV and we have windmills, I see problems with energy unless we dramatically alter car use, just turning to electric cars. If people want to travel to far-distant places, if they want their homes filled with electric gadgets and labour saving devices – I particularly like my Dyson hoover and I love my washing machine, I could do without the dishwasher but the washing machine I adore – that world has big problems for land use.

But if you look around the whole local food world, the stuff from farmers’ markets and CSAs and the Fife diet, all those sorts of things, can we see that those things could scale up? If they manage to scale up, should they be looking at themselves as being an alternative economy to the supermarket economy or as a complementary economy to the supermarket economy?

This I hope is not read amiss. I’m talking to you from a University, 7 storey glass block in and on some of the most valuable property space on the planet. I’m a University professor, you know where I’m coming from. But I have a totally bizarre world position in that I can look at this crazy world of food but yet I’m well fed and I’ve got a job and I’ve got a nice office here and I’ve got a nice office at home etc.

When I look at my own past, which you don’t know anything about: I left being an academic with a PHD and went and became an anti-hippy farmer for 7 years on the Lancashire hills. I dug ditches, built roads, fenced miles of fencing, planted 5,000 trees, had to go and get water from a river to have a bath, seen the joy of building a proper water system, had sawdust loos and seen the joy of having a loo indoors, etc. with our own septic system, which we built. So I’m not being po-faced and a professor with what I’m about to say. I’ve been there, seen there, done lots, etc.

I look at what goes on in the Fife Diets and the 100 Mile Diets and localism with immense affection and immense respect. I give many, many talks around the world and around Europe where I make reference to them and say these people are the experimental pilots. They’re not the canaries, they’re the pilots. They are ploughing into really stormy seas and daring to experiment in a really important way. That’s what I think they’re doing.

But I think the connection of Fife Diet or 100 Mile Diet, there needs to be a next stage or parallel process which is drawing the lessons of that into mainstream culture and also mainstream culture having to argue with it. Not everyone wants to go and eat a Fife Diet. It’s a magnificent voluntary initiative which experiments in a fantastic way, but I can’t see it taking off in Bermondsey. I can’t see it taking off in Balham. But we need to have those sort of experiments – you’ve tried it: Transition Towns, the Incredible Edibles. This constant attempt to take from rural, small town existence and apply it into big cities.

I think the big thing that’s got to happen is big cities have got to come up with their own big experiments. I see this really interesting process of the sustainable food cities and all of that thinking is coming from the planners, the geographers, my great, lovely friends at Cardiff, we’re part of that network here in our centre. I think that is going to be really important. Not to walk away from the Fifes and the Totneses and the Incredible Edibles. I’ve said I have deep emotional affection for it.

I have some roots in that world as well. But I know that doesn’t apply to cities. It doesn’t apply to Birmingham. It doesn’t apply in a multi-ethnic world. We’ve got to start experimenting with other ways of getting engagement and Transition. And this is why, boringly and academically, I came up with this phrase 20 years ago, “food democracy”. What I meant by that when I gave a talk in Canada about this, was that there’s a messy experimentation, and it’s about building more accountable food systems which meet needs and can evolve and can change.


What we’ve done in the post Second World War period is cede our accountability and reflexivity to very powerful capitalist enterprises which are very finely tuned to our every whim. They monitor us like no organisations other than the National Security Agency and GCHQ do, and right up there I put Tesco and its Clubcard and the intelligence gathering that has been done. They know everything. How we fart. How we breathe. When temperature changes, what we’re likely to want.

It’s astonishing. But it’s not democracy. It’s not accountability. And that’s why Tesco was found wanting when it came to the horsemeat. They knew the price of everything, how to flog anything, but they didn’t even know what was in their burgers. And they’re now in shock internally actually.

In terms of food and the food system and food policy, is there any way that we can see austerity as an opportunity?

It sounds very bizarre, but my answer is yes. I am a realist, as an academic, I can be airy fairy and look into the ether and think big thoughts, ask big questions. But I’m a pragmatist. I’ve been a farmer. I actually think very practically, believe it or not, at the same time as these airy fairy thoughts. But one of the things I’ve learnt from nearly 40 years of working in food policy and contributing in a small way to this really wonderful growth of experimentation that we’re all doing; the Transition Town movement is part of that wonderful democratic stirring. One of the things I’ve learnt is that dire times is one of the only moments when structures get laid bare.

The unease about the consumer bubble that emerged in the commodity crisis was paralleled in the world of food. It has left people making jokes about bankers, but not getting a grip on the politics that is handing over power to them again. There have been rule changes, and they are huge changes. Consumer credit has been reduced dramatically, because they were told to increase the actual rather than the fantasy paper figures, their actual assets.

In food, I don’t think a parallel thinking has gone on. Yet the skeleton of the food system is really being laid bare by food austerity. It is shocking. The Wellcome Trust, the biggest trust in Britain, I think in Europe, which funds a theatre group here in London, wanted to get the theatre group to do some plays around food and public health. They asked me and a whole gang of us from academia and also NGOs to come and brief 5 playwrights. And we did, for a day.

Then the first two plays came out, one by a very well-known playwright. It’s now about to go on tour around schools and educational things. In the first reading of this play, that I went to in the Bloomsbury Festival, and we had a debate with a fellow academic. This playwright was there, and professional actors read through this play, and it was just stunning. I spoke with the playwright afterwards – it was in private so I won’t say who it was – and I said this is just wonderful. How have you done this? Your skill is just breathtaking. To get these emotional nuances – it’s their trade, their skill, but it’s still wonderful.

This person said “two motivations got me to try and deal with this complexity you all poured at me. One was my fury that this rich country of Britain could have food banks. And the other was much more personal”. And I said, “you’re right, all is explained”. And she ended this play, you could see why, you could see that anger. But the play was actually a process of realisation. Once this person had said that about this play, I understood why she had written it.

There was a core anger, as if to say how has this come about? We’re awash with food, but there are people in food banks. The indignity! I, who have worked on food poverty since 1980 exactly, so 33 years, it just made me livid that when the Trussell Trust came out reporting on World Food Day, October 16th, that its food banks had trebled in throughput in the last year.  In other words, in the first third of the year they served as many people as they did in the whole of the previous year. The government’s response to that was that this is because there are more food banks. They didn’t see that this is because of need.

What we’ve got is a debate now exposed that is purely 19th century in its moralism of the distinction that writers from Emmanuel Kant, Karl Marx, right across the spectrum, it’s the distinction between needs and wants. That is absolutely at the heart of what we’ve got to address.

So, austerity at one level is shocking. Absolutely shocking. Is it an opportunity?  Yes. Would we rather it wasn’t there?  Yes. But we are where we are. We have to be pragmatic and say we cannot turn a blind eye to this. We have to see it for what it is, explain it for what it is, dissect the dynamics and get organised. Ultimately the reading of food policy that I and many of my colleagues around the world have is things aren’t made by experts. Things aren’t improved by technical fixes. Things are made by movements. We haven’t got an anti-food austerity movement yet, but I think we are poised to have one. I think we’re poised to have a really interesting period of food politics, and frankly, it’s about time we did.