A national food policy needs to address the pressing challenges facing modern food systems to ensure that food from its production through to its consumption is sustainably managed into the foreseeable future. How do we do this?
A first step is to identify these challenges and a second step is to design policy to address them accordingly. There is mounting evidence of key areas where the current operations of food systems are unsustainable.
In terms of environmental impact, the current practices are rapidly diminishing the natural resource base and the ecosystems upon which food production depends. Inputs for food production are increasingly expensive or becoming less available.
The consumption of food among populations shows stubbornly high levels of hunger and under-nutrition that exist next to mal-nutrition from poor diets with over-consumption of sugars, saturated fats and salt. The latter has lead to rapidly increasing obesity levels accompanied by diet related diseases. In developed countries low wages and increasing poverty are exacerbating this reliance upon poor diets for cheap calories and energy dense food products with poorer nutritional values.
Waste is prevalent along the food supply chains, including at the end consumption, with contemporary packaging and merchandising techniques and retailer led supply contract demands playing a large role in the food waste in developed economies.
The modern food economy in as a whole is marked by low wages at both production (farm workers and temporary harvest workers) and consumption ends (food processing and retail and food service). The corporate business focus sees manufacturing, retail and food service companies seeking to take a greater share of value from the food supply chain often at the expense of suppliers and their workers. This is an industrial sector whose parts are often engaged in competition yet, ultimately, they are mutually reliant upon one another. Smaller farmers and growers are developing separate value chains to reach the consumer, as a result, including innovative producers in Wales.
The awareness of these challenges to the future sustainability of food producers and their consumers, led Wales, initially, to deliberate and consider a Food Strategy that addresses these challenges in a more direct and integrated fashion. It echoed, in some ways, the attempt at a more integrated and consumption facing food policy that was formulated in the later days of the UK Labour Government with the Food Matters Report and the subsequent policy strategy entitled Food 2020 Vision in 2010. In both England and Wales, however, subsequent policy actions are prioritising shorter-term economic growth and a more narrowly focused industrial policy over longer-term sustainability design.
The publication of the Policy Review of the Welsh Government’s Food Strategy and Action Plan serves as a timely corrective. The review re-states the priorities for both Wales’s food economy and for Welsh society, in line with the flagship Well-being of Future Generations Act. It makes clear the priority areas for action and the policy interventions that can create the enabling processes to address them. It puts back on the agenda a Food Policy strategy whose design is fit for purpose, which is fit to meet the key food production and consumption challenges facing Wales and a sustainable future.
About the author: Professor David Barling is the Director of the Centre for Agriculture, Food and Environmental Management (CAFEM) at the University of Hertfordshire. His research focuses on food policy, food security and sustainability, and the governance of the agri-food sector.