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Food choice and change

Our CEO Richard Benwell discusses the issues of choice and change in making our food greener and healthier for both consumers and our environment.

January 2020

Changes to make our food system greener and healthier risk running up against our obsession with consumer choice. Yet so much of the current promise of endless, open food choice is in fact carefully constructed illusion, which can often mask a lack of healthy, greener choices. A bold food strategy can create real choice.

The Government has commissioned Henry Dimbleby, lead non-executive board member of Defra and co-founder of Leon, to design a new food strategy.

Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming Conference yesterday, Henry gave his first indications of the direction of travel. Progress sounds encouraging. Henry will tackle environment, supply chains, public health and affordability. He has negotiated a plan for government response and review, but remembered public engagement, so there is a citizens’ assembly ahead.

To be effective, though, the Strategy will ultimately need to influence people’s choices. We want people to make greener, healthier selections. So, what policy tools might the Strategy recommend? Government can:

- Regulate: setting standards that drive products with a higher environmental impact off the shelves, or simply ban goods that are deemed too unhealthy.
- Tax: pricing in health or environmental externalities to make the greener, healthier choices relatively affordable.
- Inform: introducing labelling requirements to differentiate between products so that consumers know what they’re buying.

These are listed in descending order of government interventionism, but also in descending order of their likely influence on UK consumers. A combination of all three will be needed to create real change. We should ban low-quality imports from abroad. We should price in carbon and water intensity. We should underpin farm assurance schemes with rigorous new standards so consumers know which quality marks they can trust.

But there are challenges ahead. At first glance, many of these interventions appear to restrict people’s choices. This runs in opposition to strong political pressure for open markets and a small state aversion to nanny state meddling.

What’s more, it also runs in opposition to some of the modern ideals of our food system. Alongside price, choice has become a sacred offering in UK food systems. Even budget supermarket chains offer multiple versions of single products and, if ever the shelves are short, complaints are quick to sound.

So, how can the Strategy avoid accusations of closing down consumer choice? Intelligent policy-making can also increase choice in obvious ways. Government can:

- Invest in R&D – supporting innovations to bring new products to market like artificial meat or new methods like low-intensity farming to give consumers a different pick.
- Play market-maker – supporting local markets and distributors, so that local and seasonal options that have mostly disappeared except in niche markets are widely available again.

And the third way that Government can create choice is perhaps the most important: it can reveal real difference.

There are 27 different types of Kit Kat on sale in the UK. A grand display of apparent choice masking monotony. Retailers are adept at marketing to snag our senses and lead our attention, so that the idle shopper is scarcely aware of the way their choices are manipulated, from the smells of “fresh bakery” pumped in the air, to the sugar-laden treats that lie in the perfect position to tempt weary shoppers and insistent children.

At the same time as inventing variety, many retailers cover up the real difference. They may have 10 different types of chocolate bar, magically creating choice through branding, yet they will present apples flown in from Israel as if they were exactly the same product as a low-input apple from Kent. They will package a beef wrap with meat reared in an intensive farm on deforested land in south America as if it were the same as a high-welfare, low-carbon product from the UK.

The free market promise of affordability and variety can also lead to hidden hosts and conformity. To me, 27 differently-identical chocolate bars that all contain palm oil is no choice at all. To me, a shelf of cheap chickens because the (infamous) chlorine-washed imports have undercut UK farmers is no choice at all. To the consumer in food poverty, an array of high sugar, highly-processed, low nutrient convenience foods offers little escape from the unhealthy food trap.

Part of the task of uncovering these differences and creating choice for consumers can be accomplished with the very tools that, at first glance, seem to restrict choice: regulating to ban harmful products, so that suppliers are forced to find better choices; taxing externalities so that greener, healthier producers can compete. Mandatory labelling to highlight harms and benefits.

So, Henry, please be brave: our food system is causing human suffering and environmental harm. Sometimes, to influence choice we will need to restrict choice. Sometimes, we will need to create choice. Sometimes we will need to unmask hidden choices or reveal where really there is no choice at all. Regulation, taxation and information will all have a part to play.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.