“This is my worst nightmare,” Professor Tim Lang tells me over the phone from his home-office. The 74-year-old is recovering from Covid and is short of breath by the time he reaches the top of the stairs, but that’s not the nightmare he’s referring to. Instead, the world-renowned professor of food policy at City University, London, is deeply concerned that the already frayed global food system is severely ill-prepared to cope with the shock of war in Ukraine. The UK won’t avoid the hit, he insists.
At the root of his fears is not just the rising cost of grain, but oil. In 2006, the Sustainable Development Commission (abolished by the Cameron-Clegg Coalition) engaged Lang on research into what would happen to food prices if a barrel of oil reached $100. It was a prescient move. By the time of the report’s publication in November 2007, prices had soared to $99.29. The ensuing global recession pushed 150 million people into poverty and, in the UK, the use of food banks took off. “It drove the country into austerity politics and that’s what will happen again now,” Lang says. Except this time he thinks things will get even worse: “It is going to be terrible.”
“Food prices were already going up before the war, and now they will go up faster. Oil equals fertiliser equals food in the current system,” explains the man who coined the term food miles. “So just as people are discussing [Europe’s] energy dependency on oil and gas, we need to realise that the food system also depends on these commodities.”
Ukraine’s status as the world’s breadbasket also means that the war’s disruption of planting this spring will have dire consequences, Lang adds. Nations such as Egypt, which rely directly on its exports, will suffer particularly hard, while humanitarian assistance required in places such as war-ravaged Yemen and Afghanistan will cost even more than previously thought. Awareness of these links probably motivated Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Lang believes: “If you have food, you immediately have influence in the Middle East and North Africa. Grain is an important point of leverage.”
Since food prices are globally connected, the poor in Britain and Europe won’t avoid the pain. Optimists may point to how the UK’s food system survived Covid, but this ignores the people whom the pandemic thrust into food insecurity, Lang says. Nearly five million people involuntarily went hungry in the UK between 2020 and 2021. The global shock of the war is only going to force more people into hard choices, Lang warns. 1.4 million people are living in fuel poverty in Britain, and Lang fears that food price hikes mean that, while the dilemma is often presented as either eating or heating, for many “neither eating nor heating is the politics that looms”.
What makes Lang particularly incensed is that, in the UK at least, much of the coming suffering could have been avoided. The Conservative government’s botched departure from the EU is partly to blame here, he says. Brexit border disruption has made it harder to import food (for humans and livestock) and has removed the UK’s “seat at the table” in terms of Europe-wide decisions. “If Boris wants Global Britain, well this is it!”
Yet the problem is also deeper than Brexit. Lang’s understanding of British food production reaches back to his days as a hill farmer in Lancashire, through numerous government advisory roles, to his work as a commissioner on the landmark 2019 Eat-Lancet report (which explored how to feed the world without destroying the planet). These experiences have repeatedly shown him that too much of the world’s food system is out of date. “The climate change and public health crises are all saying ‘stop, rethink, the mid-twentieth century model has had it’,” he said. “It has turned food into the biggest polluter on the planet, the biggest land user and the biggest cause of premature death.”
In the UK this global failure can be seen in microcosm. Successive Conservative governments have bought in to a corporate-heavy and highly internationalised vision of food production, Lang says. Lower prices have been prioritised at the expense of primary producers and health: squeezing farmers to the point where they only produce about half of food eaten in Britain; encouraging bad environmental practices; and contributing to food inequality that Lang believes is greater “than in the Victorian era”.
Instead of supporting policies that will strengthen food security and environmental stability, Boris Johnson’s government is also now using a green narrative to further undermine domestic food production. The 2020 Agriculture Act, which lays out new support schemes for farmers, is “all birds, bees and rewilding”, Lang says. This is not inherently bad, but it is when it “ducks out of” not supporting domestic food production too. The door is consequently “wide open” to opposition parties to win over the rural vote, he thinks.
Solutions lie in moving towards a decentralised system focused on “food defence”. This means actively encouraging people to eat more sustainably and to buy more British produce. It means the state taking back some control from companies, retraining populations and reinvigorating agricultural universities, among other initiatives, as Lang outlines at length in his book, Feeding Britain: Our food problems and how to fix them.
As with energy production, the Ukraine crisis could be the global shock that finally persuades governments to embrace these overdue green reforms. But equally, it could further cement intensive agriculture’s profit-driven stranglehold on food policy.
The European farming organisation Copa-Cogeca has, for example, called for Russian aggression to be countered with a “food shield”, suggesting that tree and hedge-planting requirements be stripped away and everything from pesticide to fertiliser reduction targets be reconsidered in the name of food security.
Lang, although tired, is anything but defeated. “We’re at a point where Westminster politics has to get a grip,” he says defiantly, as he prepares to write yet another journal article on the subject. “People like me are now watching and asking: is parliament going to run with this challenge? Or will politicians retreat to the same old bleat: ‘Leave it to Tesco et al.’”