27 Nov 2023 Book Review: Food Policy in the United Kingdom
Robin Ireland, Director of Research at Food Active and Healthy Stadia, reviews ‘Food Policy in the United Kingdom’ by Caraher, Furey and Wells, Routledge, 2023.
You could get distressed and overwhelmed by the regular government failures and confusions described in Caraher, Furey and Wells’ new book on Food Policy in the UK. As well as providing an excellent overview of historical approaches to food production and control, the book also reminds us that some things never change. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example, many influential individuals and organisations argued that those in poverty should be educated to improve their dietary practices and that ignorance not income was the cause of poor nutrition and health.
The book’s authors argue that food policy should influence the food system as a whole and not be seen as separate nutrition or agricultural policies. Yet when Henry Dimbleby’s ‘National Food Strategy’ tried to do just this in 2021, it was more or less ignored by the government and Dimbleby eventually resigned his role as official advisor. But, in a time of permacrises, where food production and prices are being affected by Brexit, energy costs, climate change and the war in Ukraine, we urgently need measures to tackle food poverty as well as the rising challenges of obesity and malnutrition. As described in the book, the same people who are overweight may have to go without food at times as food prices increase. Energy-dense foods have become the easiest and cheapest way to feed hungry children.
The chapter on food insecurity, recognised as the sixth richest economy in the world in 2020, highlights the many contradictions in how this ‘public health emergency’ is both described and addressed. Caraher et.al. detail how the contributory factors for obesity and food poverty are the same but are usually addressed separately. Food aid is highlighted as an area in which the state has left the responsibility for emergency food distribution to the charitable sector without seeking to address the upstream causes of food insecurity. At the same time, the mitigation of food waste to address food poverty, has meant that the problems and unsustainability caused by food over-production are not being properly considered.
There isn’t room here to describe all the chapters in the book. There are important sections on public sector food initiatives, food marketing and food scares. I just want to highlight one more chapter titled, ‘Global food trade and commodities’. In this, the authors describe the trade in agricultural and food commodities and the growing dominance of the commercial determinants of food policy. Whilst many struggle to get a meal on the table, the ‘financialisation of food’ has led to concentrations of power in the food sector by the ‘Big Food’ companies driven by commodity speculation.
If you get to the end of the book, frustrated and angry that food policies are not a higher priority in the UK, I can only reinforce some of the words from its preface, “To all those in the UK who currently are experiencing food insecurity: from the families that go hungry, to the activists and policymakers who attempt to make this word a better place. Keep on trying”. This book will help in those efforts.
Robin is the former Chief Executive of the Health Equalities Group having led the Heart of Mersey charity from its launch in 2003. Robin stood down as CEO in December 2016 and is now Director of Research (Honorary) for Food Active and Healthy Stadia.