This lecture, given by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, City University, London, focuses on the politics and social fissures that cut across contemporary food policy concerns.
The 2007-08 commodity price spike enabled a mainly technical, production-oriented approach to future food to stake its claim in mainstream policy discourse. Critics propose that this 'productionism' marginalises and downplays the social dimension of food systems. Food is not just a matter of farming nutrients but is a matter of culture, meanings, aspirations, social justice. In that respect, modern food policy can be helped by an old distinction between needs and wants. Yet the late 20th century left a legacy of food systems supposedly shaped by consumerism and consumer demand. In reality, so-called market economics are distorted and often dominated by increasingly powerful food corporations concerned with their market share more than the food system's sustainability or equitable distribution. The lecture proposed that modern food policy debate is a new phase in an old tension between on the one hand what William Beveridge called Food Control and on the other hand Food Democracy, by which we mean the pursuit of a more equitable rights-based food system. While one offers a technocratic and managerialist approach to policy, the other now needs to focus on the policy mess caused by declining state influence, rising corporate power and mass consumption premised on a diet that is literally unsustainable in that it consumes excessive resources. The lecture concluded that, whatever the attractions of productionism, more attention is needed on the democratic questions of how to improve accountability, governance and societal not just individualised choices. Some reform is needed of food institutions, instruments and policy frameworks. The challenge of achieving a good food system (where populations eat sustainable diets fed by sustainable food supply chains) requires a strong societal ethos and the articulation of a more complex model of the public good than has been exhibited in national and international debate recently. If just some of the crises anticipated by food analysts come about, the debate about Food Control and Food Democracy is likely to move from academia to hard politics.