Settling on something to write about for this issue wasn’t easy. In the past couple of months we have had the surprise of the sugar tax, a worrying first assessment of UK food crime and a fascinating insight into what consumers want our food industry to look like.
It was interesting that the Food Standards Agency, in publishing the latter, included this quote from one of the consumers they questioned for up to a day at a time: “The government needs to start taxing companies that use sugar and E-numbers … If they do nothing else I’d like them to do that. Make it harder to be unhealthy.”
Pushing through a sugar tax won’t be easy, but as the chancellor has since confirmed, there is no going back now. “It’s the way it’s going to be,” George Osborne said after reports that the big drinks companies would launch a legal challenge to the levy.
To my mind, the drinks companies should suck it up. They have spent the last 12 months or so pushing the message that they are spending big on marketing their diet and sugar-free ranges, and sales are booming. If so, then what’s the big problem?
Having said that, I wonder whether a face-off is much-needed. For one, it’s clear from the FSA’s extensive research that consumers don’t really trust the food industry (corporate control of our food supplies is a major concern). But they also want government to step in and do more.
Osborne has done just that. Perhaps Liz Truss at DEFRA will follow his lead? She said the promises made to the food industry won the election for her party. However, the Conservative manifesto presents the economics of food, with little or no thought for the environmental impacts and implications.
The 25-Year Food and Farming Plan, as we discuss in this issue’s Political Print, is likely to head down the same path. Some of the leading experts in this field don’t think it’ll be worth the paper it’s written on within five years.
“Competitiveness is fine, it’s the language business likes but it’s not the language that improves public health,” said Professor Tim Lang recently. Neither is it the one that will curb carbon emissions, as researchers at Oxford University recently claimed.
The enormous size of the change to the food system that the evidence says is needed is “not a tweak here or there”, as Lang put it. Is a sugar tax just the first tweak in a new approach to food policy? Could a carbon tax now be a serious consideration? Or perhaps tougher regulation on food waste? Perhaps the government will define sustainable diets? If that happens, then I really might have to pinch myself.
David Burrows is editor of Footprint magazine