MPs need to stop food becoming a political hot potato

The politics of food has been ignored by politicians to the detriment of the consumer for many decades. However, policy for food and feeding the nation is going to become a much bigger issue.

All the political parties have left food policy to the supermarkets who have had a more or less free rein on consumer and supplier policy.

Few in the 2010-15 parliament were interested in questioning the food we eat, the impact our food has on our health or the cost of food. This was particularly surprising as over that period we had commodity price spikes, the horsemeat scandal, the real entrenchment of food banks as part of our social fabric and the rising obesity crisis that was evident to us all.

It is not just armies that march on their stomachs; so do uprisings, revolutions and political discontent.

While no one is suggesting that the British public will end up on the streets at the sight of 10 per cent price rise for carrots in Tesco, politicians have been blind to the potential for food to become politicised.

As far as they are concerned the food system works perfectly: food arrives cheap and cheerful into our supermarkets and, as hypercompetitive businesses, they fight through promotions and supply chain pressure to deliver even cheaper food.

However, under this veneer of tranquillity the food story in Britain has not been positive. The quality of our diets has deteriorated dramatically and we must row back from high-sugar processed foods if we are to get a grip on childhood obesity.

The content of food is not clear and while the consumer believes that they have choice the food sector has not distinguished itself with transparency. Waste in the food chain has become systemic and retailers have played up to this in past years with promotions and incentives.

The biggest issue is food poverty. Some have hoped the issue will just go away; it is not going to and, with food price hikes due to currency deflation and commodity volatility, now is the opportunity for the government to take food poverty seriously.

Governments have been subcontracting the evidence-gathering to those in the food bank sector and this provides only anecdotal data.

In 2011 the government commissioned John Hills, a professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, to measure fuel poverty and boldly established a clear criteria and a set of measurements for this. This was very welcome to all those in the energy sector and those consumers who needed the help to get by in the face of volatile energy prices.

We need to do the same for food and urgently. Even in the US they measure food insecurity and in Britain the Food Foundation think tank and many other organisations have been calling for us to do the same. Without this data we will not be able to understand the scale of the issue that families face and will not be able to shape effective policies to address the need.

It is not just poverty and price increases that will bring food into the political spotlight. Brexit will be brought home to families up and down the country through food. It is therefore vital for us to have a comprehensive and sophisticated set of policies around food. Replacing the common agricultural policy will offer an important debate around what the consumer will want to bear in terms of subsidies to our food producers.

We will need some very neat and complex needlework to seamlessly construct our own policy levers without any loss in consumer confidence in our food system. Our trade negotiations will place the nature of the food we want to eat at the heart of the public’s awareness. How we regulate the quality and provenance of our food will require a new regulatory and consumer protection framework that will need to be put in place as we leave the EU.

While very good things have happened in food policy with next year’s introduction of the sugar tax; the groceries code adjudicator, which oversees the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers; and supermarkets tightening up their approach to promotions and bearing down on food waste, food policy is going to move from the shadows of the public’s consciousness into the spotlight.

The present vacuum needs filling with considered and complex policy so it does not become political.

Laura Sandys, a former Conservative MP, is chairwoman and founder of the Food Foundation.  This article originally appeared in the Times Red Box