Food security & resilience: What role should the WMCA play?

This blogpost is about West Midlands Combined Authority-level decision-making and its relevance to food security and resilience matters. In our assessment, this is the most important question they should be asking:

What are their plans on how to respond to future food system shocks?

  • In their assessment, what’s the likelihood and impact of the already-identified shocks?
  • Indeed, how prepared is the region for future shocks in terms of both impact vs probability, also in terms of the severity of the shock vs preparedness? (Covid wasn’t a severe shock to the system; it wreaked and is wreaking damage because we were so unprepared for it. note: the 2016 Exercise Cygnus Report has no mention of food supplies.)

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Future food system shocks

In our Report, One Scenario about how the UK could be better prepared for future food system shocks, Annex One listed known threats to the system, and is replicated at the bottom of this blogpost along with notes on  known unknowns and blindspots. Nonetheless, to our knowledge, there is still no risk and resilience planning regarding food supplies at a national, regional or city level. Moreover, among other matters, our One Scenario Report identified the UK’s worryingly limited capacity and capability in food preservation, processing and storage — surely an opportunity for the West Midlands given its location?

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What follows are four questions about today’s food supply system which we hope they are also asking:

(1) How many are going without?

  • What, given the national assessments, is their assessment of how many citizens across the region don’t have access to sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food?
    • Before Covid wreaked its damage on the UK supply system? During the pandemic?

(2) What could and should be their response to the causes of so many people going without?

  • The most significant reason why people go without or have an inadequate or unsafe diet, is because they cannot afford to buy sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food.
    • Given the economic status of so many West Midlands citizens, it is vital that the WMCA and city authorities plan for the future — a future when there will be an inexorable rise in the costs of a healthy diet. Thus it is not a matter of making safe, nutritious food ‘more affordable’, it’s a matter of every household having the income to meet all their basic physiological needs,
  • see also  this blogpost outlining 13 features of the pre-Covid food supply system which contributed to the UK’s lack of preparedness for it.

(3) Where does food safety, assurance and integrity fit into the WMCA strategy?

  • What are their plans to support their local authorities, given the consequences of under-funding England’s system of food inspection, sampling and testing which, coupled with the relaxation of regulations including the introduction of ‘virtual’ inspections, increases the opportunities for food crime and the chances of a food poisoning outbreak.

(4) What actions are they planning to take against companies that make and promote drug-foods?

  • The economic, social and psychological costs of diet-related morbidities before Covid were huge. Obesity and impaired metabolic health are major risk factors for severe illness and death from Covid.
  • Ensuring a healthy, well-fed population is necessary preparation for any future food system shock or disruption.
  • This is a matter of providing access to safe, nutritious produce at all times whilst also curbing the actions of corporations that make and promote the so-called drug foods.

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Given all of the above, what is their current thinking and approach? What questions have they asked? This is what we’ve gleaned from their website:

Community Recovery Roadmap
Their website has limited information about Community Recovery Roadmap,in particular regarding food supplies.  The featured image above, replicated below too, contains the six mentions of ‘food’ in that document:

There are three other specific issues with (what appears to be) the WMCA approach to citizens’ access to sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food during the pandemic and beyond:

  • Three of the mentions are about the voluntary sector stepping in when people can’t afford to buy the food they need. As we’ve said repeatedly (e.g in our Submission to the EFRA Commons Select Committee, para 3.1) neither the commercial nor the voluntary sector is equipped to ensure everyone has enough good food to eat.
  • It’s unhelpful to use  term ‘food poverty’ as it all to easily disguises that a significant proportion of UK citizens don’t have enough money (aka economic access) to meet their basic physiological needs of warmth, shelter, safety  . . . as well as food.
    • The word ‘poverty’ is differently unhelpful. It is a privative; i.e. denotes an absence of something, in this case money. Its use can obfuscate that money is needed to solve the issue; see this interesting analysis.
  • ‘People powered health’ ignores the social determinants of behaviour.
    • As Professor Stephen Reicher explains in this article, we shouldn’t conflate the study of behaviour with the study of psychology; e.g. it’s a fundamental attribution error (the tendancy to explain what people do in terms of their individual characteristics; e.g. if people have a poor diet, it’s because they’re motivated to do so, and must be punished, scapegoated, shamed if they do. Such an approach ignored the fact that behaviour is constrained as much by social and material factors as by psychological will.
    • It’s worth comparing the way we treat people with diet-related morbidities with people who have smoking-related lung cancer. We don’t blame smokers for l;ung cancer. Instead, we offer support, and take action against the tobacco companies; as referred to above, this Rapid Response to a BMJ article is on how drug food companies can and, the authors argue, should be curbed.

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‘Circular Economy’
Their ‘Circular Economy’  webpage baldly mentions ‘food and drink’; a June 2020 WM2041 programme  mentions ‘food’ a mere six times, each time in general terms.

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The role of the Midlands Engine Observatory
We couldn’t find any information on the Observatory website about the food or food supplies, nor in this October 2020 presentation of their work.

We look forward to seeing what they will  be doing regarding the food system.

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Other threats: Known unknowns and blindspots
If the list above were not enough, there are other threats which are difficult to chart or ‘see’, such as large-scale crop infestation,, or a big volcanic eruption, earthquake, or other emergency, let alone what we can’t yet imagine. Any such event could have significant if not devastating impact on global and well as harvest yields.

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