Tuesday 24 August 2021

Why does feeding Britain require a larger navy?


The food we eat: where it comes from, how nutritious it is, if we have access to healthy food, are vitally important topics. We make food choices every day. We question why food is flown from Peru when it appears it could be grown in the UK. We see endless repetitions of slogans aimed at improving our food consumption (“five a day”!) Is there any logic behind it? 

So it’s all the more disappointing that Tim Lang’s book, Feeding Britain, is such a poor discussion. I have to report that if you are interested in the above questions, Tim Lang’s book is not the place to start. Sadly, Tim Lang, despite being Professor of Food Policy at City University, has not written a very coherent or well-argued book. Anyone trying to get an idea of food policy from this book will be left confused and, I’m afraid to say, led astray by some very curious arguments. 

Perhaps one reason for the disappointing book is that appears to be based at least in part on a 2018 report, of which Professor Lang was co-author: Feeding Britain: Food Security after Brexit. Notice the change in subtitle from the report, and this book: Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. The title of the report sums up this book more accurately, but I would never have bought a book with such a subtitle, and I think I’m not alone in that opinion. This might also explain why his book is called “Feeding Britain”? Surely the problems the author describes are universal, or at least apply to all the wealthier countries of the world, as the author himself admits on page 424? 

Unfortunately, there are other echoes of what appears to be a UK Government policy document. For example [p135] “But PAS 96 took HACCP one stage further, proposing an ancillary system to HACCP it named TACCP – Threat Assessment Critical Control Points.” 

I can’t claim to have read all the book, but I have read enough to see it is not worth my time completing it. In this post, I will cover his main argument, then give some examples of problems I have with the rhetoric, and some specific examples where I think the argument plain wrong. To save you, reader, from having to plough through the entire book, here is my summary and commentary. 

Argument of the book

Mr Lang argues that Britain needs a food policy. To be precise, Britan needs a “food system” policy, by which he means a policy for the entire process of food creation, delivery, sale and consumption – not just the food supply chain. His book comprises three parts:

In the first part, he argues that Britain needs a food defence policy: Britain has to make sure that it is less reliant on imported food. He calls for government intervention to ensure this policy is carried out. To ensure this, he calls for many changes, including a larger navy to “protect” food imports.

In part two, he discusses several of the most important “food problems”. He lists 12, and some of them are central issues for discussions about the food supply. 

In part three, he suggests a “food plan”, which comprises largely a series of centralized government initiatives for managing a food policy.  After yet another repetition that “too much prime land is being built on” [p434], his recommendations are mainly exhortations for more government input and centralized planning.  For example:

o   A Food Defence Review [p445]

o   An audit of what could be grown more in the UK [p446] (an excellent idea)

o   A tax on food advertising and e-media [p449]

o   A new National Food Resilience and Sustainability Council [p450]

o   Inequality reduction must be a principle at the heart of UK food policy [p454]

You get the idea. The ideas are worthy, but have little political or economic awareness. They don’t include any discussion of the implications of trying to impose food policy on a populace that prefers Mars Bars to apples. 


Tim Lang is one of those slippery writers who claims he isn’t saying what he really wants to say. Moreover, he makes these claims not once, but several times. Saying one thing while you mean another – combined with repetition:

Page xx: “The UK has undue food reliance on external sources”.

Page 14: “Britain does not feed itself. Some say it doesn't matter. I think it does. I do not favour autarky – only food from here ... but argue that to allow the current decline is risky.”

Page 27: “There is a mismatch between what our current food system delivers and what we ought to be doing to make UK food secure … I am not arguing a “pull up the drawbridge” position; simply that we would do well to face our own contradictions”

 There are several further references to “autarky”, a word the author is clearly fond of using. The aim is to make us feel uncomfortable that we Britons do not farm more. 


Of course the term “sustainable” has become one of those words that means whatever you want it to mean. In this book, the author appears to conflate food sustainability with food security (two very different topics). It is the food security angle that leads Prof Lang to complain that the British Royal Navy has too few ships (but more about that later).


Without the above summary in mind, any reader risks getting lost in trying to follow Mr Lang’s various tangential discussions. For example (page 28)

UK land use is profligate … We keep building houses on prime land, or putting motorways across it … land is a precious resource. 

As far as I know, the UK Government is currently paying farmers not to cultivate some of their land. I did not realise the UK needs to cultivate more land. But that is one of the recommendations Lang makes in part three, as part of his “Great Food Transformation”.  

So much of the book’s excessive length is because it keeps drifting from the subject. How else can you explain, for example, the lengthy descriptions of Ro-Ro ferries (page 170), most of which, the author admits, are not carrying food at all? What is the relevance of the dividends paid by Eurotunnel? What is the relevance of the growth in capacity of Sheerness port, when it is not stated what proportion (if any) of this capacity relates to food? I cannot see any indication from the port website that it carries any food at all.  In any case, Sheerness port accounts for a fraction of a per cent of UK port traffic. 


·      Anything important will be repeated several times in the book. For example, Lang repeats descriptions of supermarket shelves: (page 14) “Britain is awash with food.” (page 26) “Supermarkets are full of food.”

Poor structure and indexing

The book is not helped by inadequate indexing. Terms such as “HFSS” are used throughout the book without, as far as I can see, ever being spelt out. “WRAP” is, in contrast, spelt out in the index, but not in the text of the book. Lang appears to differentiate “horticulture” from “agriculture”, but there is no clear definition of what he means by horticulture. He claims that horticulture represents only a tiny proportion of cultivated land in the UK, but without a clear definition of what he means by horticulture, it is difficult to respond to his assertion. 

Questionable claims

·    The author argues for greater state control of the food supply, referring mainly to rationing during and after World War II, without evidence that it improved the health of the nation. There is very little discussion of what wartime measures were implemented. The author repeatedly worries about the size of the British Navy:

In 2017, in the course of analyses of potential threats from Brexit, it emerged that the UK Border Force has just three vessels operations to protect sea borders … this remains a pathetically small border force to protect ship-borne food traffic. [p138]

Four pages (pp137-141) are devoted to the inadequacy of UK naval defences. This is the first I have heard of the UK Border Force having responsibility to protect merchant shipping. Does Mr Lane expect piracy in the English Channel, perhaps? 

Misuse of statistics

Here are two examples. The impression I get is that Prof Lang interprets statistics the way he chooses, regardless of the figures in front of him. These examples are sufficient to make me very dubious about his other arguments making use of statistics. 

Is the UK more or less self-sufficient in food today than 75 years ago? On page 8, we are told that the UK in 1939 produced a third of its food requirements. Today, we are told (on page xx) that the UK produces 50% of its food requirements. On page 14, we are asked to examine this “decline”. It looks like an increase to me. 

Two pages (pp30-31) are dedicated to graphs of life expectancy in England and Wales. The author shows statistics of increasing life expectancy over the last 100 years. However, the two graphs do not agree. Life expectancy for females is shown as higher than for males in 2001 in one graph, and lower in the other graph. Neither graph shows an absolute decline in life expectancy, although one graph shows a declining rate of increase. Neither graph includes the dotted line referred to in the text. In any case, the author continues, triumphantly: “It is true. Life expectancy has risen … but not all those life years are healthy.” How are we to interpret this? Life expectancy has not gone up, whatever the statistics tell you, and in any case, they aren’t the real measure. You could argue that life expectancy depends on many factors, of which food is only one. But the author claims (without attribution) that “food critics” who “have lost a sense of proportion” in claiming that “in the order of things British food is a great twentieth-century success story.” This is the straw man line of reasoning: misrepresenting an opposing argument in order to further one's own [Wikipedia]. 

Poor use of language

Mr Lang’s use of phrases to emphasise his message often have the result of making it more obscure. For example, the author describes “genetic chance”(not indexed) for the random way in which “a child born to affluent in-work parents thrived. Others did not.” [p10]. This is nothing to do with genetics. A child adopted by wealthy parents would thrive. And what has this got to do with food? Other dubious terminology he uses include a reference to the Whig interpretation of history, and a statement that the UK imports more food than it grows. This is true, but it is not what economists would describe as “market failure” (p78). Nelson did not look through his telescope with a “disinterested” eye [p439]. If he had, he would have seen the other ships. 


I came away from the book not much wiser about how to create a sustainable food supply, apart from thinking it would be best to start with a different book – and different publisher. 

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