Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City university and co-author with Erik Millstone of The Atlas of Food. He explains us the consequences of Brexit on food and farming in the United Kingdom.
"I am 69 years old and I've been talking about food policy for 40 years. I have without a doubt become an annoying old professor!" Tim Lang has no fear of self-deprecating English humour. Eighteen books to his credit, hours of teaching at the University of London, and Brexit have made him a bit loony.
You were one of the few individuals who predicted a yes victory for the referendum of Britain exiting the European Union. How do you see the current situation?
I would describe it as what the French called the drôle de guerre (the Phoney War) in 1939. War was declared, but neither the terms, nor the conditions were known. I think there are three possible scenarios: First, we leave the European Union completely and permanently. Second, we enter into negotiations that lead us to a status such as that for Norway, Switzerland, or Iceland. Or third, we make a 360-degree turn and end up staying. Right after the referendum, I thought that the last theory had a 50% chance of happening. Today, I think that it has fallen to 10%.
For several reasons. I believe above all that the ultra-nationalist ideas, which are currently influencing the entire set of European laws on immigration, are still highly prominent. And this is a severe point of view for the food industry who is extremely dependant on immigrant workers. This is Britain's biggest industry, greater than the automobile and aeronautics industries and it employs 38% of foreign workers, even up to 70% in central London. And I can tell you, having attended a good number of meetings lately, that the sector is very nervous about this issue.
What are the other consequences of Brexit on food policy?
The first is simple to understand. In 1945, the United Kingdom was self-sufficient. Today, 30% of what we eat is imported from Europe, primarily fruits and vegetables. That is to say that healthy products need to be looked at against what we export, which is mainly whiskey, meat, and fat! All of Britain's food industry, which represents 20% of our GDP, is based on this economic model and that cannot be changed in a day. And then there is the Pound which has lost 17% against the Euro, the other consequence is already being seen in the increase in prices.
Finally, the most extraordinary, just when we abandoned the negotiation of 27 [EU trade agreements], we accepted to discuss deals with 166 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO)!
Is the situation different in Scotland or Wales?
This is a big topic. The autonomy of the regions of England is unlike in other countries such as France or Germany. Nevertheless, Scotland, and, even more so, Wales, have specific legislative provisions. For example, the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, which was voted in Wales in 2015, has had remarkable effects. It forces administrations and institutions to consider all of their regulations using long-term and sustainable development criteria.
What would you consider are the elements of a good food policy?
In addition to strengthening the power of the regions, it would be absolutely necessary to implement a real food policy that takes into account all of the elements in play - public health, the environment, climate changes, economy, jobs, justice - and that the government develop an overall policy of sustainable food.
Tim Lang has been Professor of Food Policy at City University London's Centre for Food Policy since 2002.