One of the UK’s most influential thinkers on food policy has issued a challenge to the Co-operative Group.
Professor Tim Lang, Head of City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, says it is time for a radical re-think on the way food is delivered and distributed to the Group’s 4,800 retail outlets.
The distinguished academic, who has led debates on national and international food policy for over 35 years, has contributed dozens of books and articles on the topic.
In a TV broadcast in the early 1990s, he was the first man to coin the term ‘food miles’ to describe the distance groceries have to travel to reach us.
At a time of growing interest in locally sourced food, he thinks there should be far more support for producers supplying direct to local stores.
He says: “I think the co-op has lost its way a bit. Back in the 19th century, the first co-operators led the movement against the adulteration of our food and sourced local food which everyone could afford.
“Unfortunately, the Co-operative Group has gone down the road of emulating the supply chain model of its major competitors with regional distribution centres and centralised supplies.”
He adds: “The major trends in the food system are very contradictory. What’s remarkable is the current interest in food, the like of which there has not been in this country since the Second World War. The general concern about health, environment and well-being is good news and people generally have become more aware of different cultures and foods.
“But our food supply is being more and more standardised by very big and powerful companies. There are more local artisan and special interest foods, so we have come a long way, but small producers are held back by lack of access to land, ownership of which is dominated by large landowners.”
Professor Lang knows more than most about the realities of food production. Back in the early 1970s, while working on his PhD in social psychology, he and some friends took over a 105-acre hill farm in Lancashire where they raised sheep and cows and grew their own produce.
A series of teaching jobs in polytechnics, running some of the first food policy courses in the country, led to an invitation to set up the London Food Commission in the 1980s with the Greater London Council, which did some of the earliest work on the effect of food poverty.
Professor Lang was also one of the first to point out the damage being done to school and hospital meal services by Tory government policy and his work made a major contribution to both the Food Safety Act of 1990 and the creation of the Food Standards Agency in 2000.
He has been a consultant to the World Health Organisation, a special advisor to four House of Commons select committee inquiries on food standards globalisation and obesity, and was on the Council of Food Policy Advisors to DEFRA.
One of his current concerns is the growing concern around food security — the availability of food and access to it.
Worldwide, the figures show around two billion people are going hungry and, for the first time in decades, the UK also has a problem with the number of food banks tripling in the last 12 months.
Professor Lang says: “For the first time since 1945 we are living at a time of rapidly rising inequality, with around five million people living in poverty according to the recent report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. That is unacceptable and the Co-operative Group needs to be at the cutting edge of changing it.
“In 1994, the Group set up the Responsible Retailing Code, building fair and sustainable relationships with suppliers across its whole supply chain across the world, also leading the way on Fairtrade.
“It was pioneering stuff, but we need to be building upon that knowledge and working for more sustainable food thinking concerned with the future of biodiversity and our eco-systems.”
Professor Lang would also like to see the Co-operative Group take the radical step of changing its policy on meat production and supply.
“Like the other major retailers, the Co-operative Group goes for cheap meat reared on cereals. Around 40 to 50 per cent of our cereals are fed to animals. We need more grass-fed meat and dairy and we all need to eat less meat and double consumption of fruit and vegetables because we are storing up huge problems for the future.”
He cites the example of London’s ancient Borough Market, which in the past few decades has earned a global reputation for its food — supplied direct from farmers and producers to consumers.
“ There is real demand for local food. Interesting things are happening and many people are starting their own horticultural businesses and co-operatives.
“The Co-operative Group ought to be leading the way in building a whole new generation of businesses, encouraging them and offering a totally different vision for the future. We don’t need supermarkets offering 35,000 lines or people working hard to earn enough money to buy a car so they can drive to the local hypermarket.
“We need to look at what things will be like in 2050; the effects of climate change and the billions more people there will be on the planet. We need to establish a good food culture which is also good for the environment.
“Stores have to have better access to local food with a shorter supply chain and we have got to re-design the whole food system because frankly it is environmentally crazy.”