The UK government should develop a comprehensive set of standards
covering all aspects of the impact our food has on the environment and
society, according to an influential food policy adviser.
Tim Lang, who coined the term "food miles" and is an adviser to the
cabinet office, said that consumers are baffled by conflicting advice
about food. He said the government should set up an independent body of
experts to integrate information on all aspects of food's impact,
including how healthy it is, its environmental effects and the social
consequences of the way it is produced.
This could be translated
into easily accessible information on food labels for consumers such as
"food flowers" in which each petal indicates a food's impact in a
He acknowledged that this would be an extremely
complex task, but said that consumers wanted reliable information. "The
classical approach to this is to let prices and the consumer decide.
But health and environment, justice and equity are all surely
reasonable and decent aspirations," Lang told the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool, "We need a food system to improve standards across a variety of equally important fronts."
hoped that his proposed "omni-standards" would help consumers to
navigate contradictory information. For example, the nutritional
evidence for eating fish is very strong and the government advocates
eating two portions of fish a week. However fish stocks are in crisis
and overfishing is having a significant ecological impact. "Which
evidence do I listen to and shape my behaviour by?" he said.
green beans from Kenya are good for you and if they are Fair Trade they
may help the local economy where they are grown. However, he said each
green bean stem has 4 litres of embedded water and they must be
transported thousands of miles.
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Lang said that at present,
scientists and NGOs often focussed on only one part of the problem.
"Actually we are part of the problem. We've got to come together and
start piecing information together," he said.
information to consumers will not be easy, but he said packaging could
have basic data in the form of a graphical representation of a food's
social, health and environmental footprint. More information could be
made available via interactive screens in the supermarket or online.
acknowledged that the practicalities of putting together a panel of
experts to formulate the standards would be fraught with difficulty.
One issue would be whether NGOs should be included directly.
"If I was off the record and there weren't microphones here I would say something more interesting," he said.
think there are very interesting tensions within government I will say
very tightly - very interesting nuances between the various
departmental chief scientists of their various positions."