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Food Policy Old and New

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI
Tim Lang, Professor, City University, London


Sheila Dillon, Presenter, The Food Programme, BBC Radio 4


Geoff Tansey, Independent Consultant
Duncan Green, DFID

1. Sheila Dillon opened the meeting. Simon Maxwell made some preliminary remarks. He emphasised particularly the very different nature of the food policy `discourse' in developing and developed countries. Whereas the developing country debates were mainly concerned with hunger and malnutrition, and with the supply of basic staples, the debates in developed countries were concerned with issues like the concentration of supermarket power, food safety issues and chronic dietary diseases associated with obesity. The `project' of the book had been to bring these two sets of issues together, and particularly to explore the need for a new food policy in developing countries.

2. Tim Lang then spoke about the continuing importance of food policy. He began with the impact of globalisation on the food system. In the same way that countries had moved from an agricultural base to an industrial base during the industrial revolution, the last fifty years had seen a major change in food production and distribution, associated with a technical revolution in food supply chains and with the growth in importance of `retail capital'. There were many issues of power and control associated with this change. Furthermore, the old productionist discourse dealing with aggregate supply had been replaced with a new debate entirely, concerned with health problems and diet. Tim Lang pointed to the new co­existence of under­nutrition, over­nutrition and mal­nutrition. For example, there were 800 million underweight people in the world and, simultaneously, as many as 1.7 billion overweight. There were many new issues connected to fat and sugar consumption, and, again, the issues were about control as much as about technical matters.

3. Looking ahead, Tim Lang said he felt there was scope for change, because of the emergence of new drivers of policy. These included; the concern with obesity, not just in developed countries, but also in countries like India and China; ecological worries, especially around global warming and water shortages; and interest in better governance of the food system.

4. Simon Maxwell then spoke in more detail about the content of the book (for a brief summary of the main arguments, see the ODI Briefing Paper. He referred back to thinking on food security and reminded the audience of the multiple roles of food, as necessary for health but also as a social matrix. He then explored issues around the old and new food policy, drawing on the papers in the book to provide evidence about the impact of urbanisation, the extent of the industrialisation of the food chain, the impact of supermarkets, and the consequences for food policy and food­policy making. He then introduced an evaluation framework for judging these changes, emphasising that hard economic and political analysis was necessary in order to judge change rather
than simply note it.

5. Finally, Simon Maxwell dealt briefly with policy options. These ranged from redesigning cities, to encourage people to walk more and burn more calories, to tax and subsidy options, market regulation, and better policy­making, for example involving competition authorities. He stressed that new actors would be involved and that budgets would need to be increased to enable new food policy issues to be dealt with. Of course, the new food policy was not universally relevant in all developing countries, but it was an emerging agenda which all countries needed to take seriously.

6. The first discussant was Geoff Tansey. Welcoming the publication of the book, he reminded the audience that food policy had been on the agenda at least since the mid 1970s, when the journal Food Policy was first published, and noted that many of the issues contained in the book were also on the agenda thirty years ago. The key issues had not changed: they were to do with power, control, the unequal sharing of risk, and the unequal distribution of benefits. The key actors in the modern era were input suppliers, traders, food manufacturers, wholesalers, and caterers. The tools they used to exert control over the food system included rules and regulations, for example the Convention on Biological Diversity, and various rules under the WTO. A critical issue was regulatory capture.

7. The second discussant, Duncan Green, also welcomed the book. He thought that obesity was probably the `headline issue', but also singled out some of the individual chapters, especially that on trade issues by Chris Stevens. He thought that the public­private cross­over would be an important issue for future research.

8. A number of points were made in discussion:

i. Increasing concentration in the food chain was emphasised, with projections that five global retailers would soon control most food purchasing in the world. Already, in the UK, more than 50% of all food was purchased in only 1,000 shops. There was a discussion about how to evaluate this trend, especially from the point of view of competition authorities. There were important issues to settle about what constituted a market and about how competition might be regulated on a global scale. ii. This led to a conversation about the difficulty of policy­making and the balance between state, civil society and business actors in the supply chain. It was noted that many of the issues here (and elsewhere) were generic -- for example, the textile industry raised many of the same problems. iii. Finally, the conversation returned to the history of food policy, and to the existence of long­standing critiques outside the mainstream (e.g. by Food First advocates). There was a discussion about whether or not some critiques were `right' (e.g. on cash crops and food self sufficiency).

9. Closing the meeting, Sheila Dillon thanked the contributors for opening up an important debate.


This event will launch the Overseas Development Institute's
Food Policy Old and New, edited by Simon Maxwell and Rachel Slater.

The character of the food system and the nature of food policy are both changing, as urbanisation, technical change and the industrialisation of the food system transform the way food is produced, marketed and consumed in developing countries. The food system can no longer be viewed simply as a way of moving basic staples from farm to (local) plate. Food is increasingly produced by commercial growers, feeding long and sophisticated supply chains, and marketing often processed and branded products to mainly urban consumers. Policy is no longer concerned mainly with famine and food insecurity, but needs to encompass issues like obesity, food safety, and competition policy in the retail sector. The challenges to food policy are daunting and immediate - and need to be on the agenda of policy-makers throughout the developing world.