WHEN YOU associate Margaret Thatcher with food the first thought that springs to mind is probably milk. Yet the Iron Lady’s legacy to the industry is far greater than denying kids a free glass of the white stuff.
Supporters would, with some justification, argue that the food system we now have – characterised by bountiful supplies of cheap, convenient, value-added food from all four corners of the globe – stems from her strident belief in the free market and policies that encouraged trade liberalisation and globalisation.
Another less intentional legacy of Thatcherism has been the growing importance of the NGO (non-governmental organisation) sector amid the ever- increasing shift from public to private governance of the food chain.
The government is reluctant to play the role of nanny or big brother. So organisations such as Friends of the Earth, WWF UK, Sustain and Oxfam have stepped into the breach, ensuring that the social, environmental and health aspects of sustainability do not get overruled by the private sector’s need to deliver returns to shareholders. It’s a constant battle, but there have been some notable successes.
Whether it’s campaigning for salt reduction in food, sustainable palm oil or better labour standards in developing nations, the charitable sector has scored some critical political victories in recent years (in many cases, lest we forget, this has happened with the support of the more enlightened members of the food industry).
Nor is it merely reactionary. Where government ambition is lacking, NGOs are increasingly prepared to fill the void and take a lead on issues such as sustainable diets and food poverty.
So let’s raise a glass of milk to those organisations that, when the private sector’s interests diverge from those of wider society, are still prepared to hold it to account.