City-level decision-making & the food system: What questions to ask?

The impact of Covid-19 caught Birmingham’s food system on the hop. Few if any city leaders realised either the fragility of the supply system or their powerlessness in the face of the disruptions it caused to the people of the city.

As we all know, this was a UK-wide problem (1).  It’s the driving force behind our work on how the UK can be better prepared for food system shocks. (2)

How, though, can city-level decision-makers respond? What can they do? As importantly, what can’t they do, i.e. what they shouldn’t waste their time on.

Here are the questions we’re asking ourselves:

  • How can 1.2 million Birmingham citizens have access to sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food? (3)
  • What role has Birmingham City Council/Public Health in meeting these needs over and above any statutory obligations? (4)

AND

  • If citizens’ needs are not being met, what can the City Council/Birmingham Public Health do?
    • Especially as an increasing number of city households will not have enough safe, nutritious food to eat because of the following:
      • Our food comes to us via a commercial system, and the numbers of households who don’t have the money to buy sufficient safe, nutritious food is going to increase (5, 6)
      • Brexit and its impact on the food supply system — which we’re just beginning to see play out.
      • The global competition for food in a world where there are
        • Population pressures, an accelerating pace of climate change, plus agri-food resources depletion (7)
        • A few global corporations that make and promote the so-called “drug foods”, thereby causing increasingly huge damage to both human and planetary health. (8)

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In summary, we need a few simple answers to these hugely complicated questions. (7)

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(1) See our first and our second Submission to the EFRA Commons Select Committee Call for Evidence on Covid and food supply (2020).

(2) See this on how a buffer stock system would make the UK better prepared for future food system shocks, also our Response to an IPPR Call for Evidence (2020)

(3) The emboldened words in italics are taken from the 1996 Rome Declaration on food security, to which the UK Government is a signatory.

(4) As for example, in food inspection, sampling and testing. See: Towards a food strategy for Birmingham (2018), also this comment on a blogpost by a Public Analyst (2021)
note: Owing to lack of resources, the City Council, as others, has a poor record in meeting its statutory obligations; see, for example the this 2015 Food Standards Agencyy report of an ‘unscheduled’ inspection, also their record under the Local Authority Enforcement Monitoring System (LAEMS). Of note, too, is that they haven’t directly employed a Public Analyst for years.

(5) See this blogpost about the scale of what it takes to feed a population, also this one about why GYO/urban growing is irrelevant.

(6) Which is why we’ve argued for a Universal Basic Income, see here.

(7) See our report: Global Risks to UK food supplies (2018)

(8) See this Rapid Response to a BMJ article by Tim Spector and Chris Gardner (2020)

(9) For more about the complicated question-simple answer adage, see this blogpost.

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Featured image of the Council House, Birmingham by Ian on flickr here.

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The Birmingham Food Council is a Community Interest Company registered in England and Wales number 8931789