Article

The future of food: Prof Tim Lang

Categories: Reflections and opinions

From new technology to the next big trends: in an exclusive series of interviews for Borough Market Daniel Tapper asks some of Britain’s most respected experts to foresee the future of food

Tim Lang is a professor of food policy at City, University of London and a trustee of Borough Market. His new book, Sustainable Diets, is out in March.

What food issues should we be most concerned about over the next decade?
Unless we—the British—can change the way we eat, then we will be contributing in a major way to the bankruptcy of the NHS, the further depletion of the environment and additional burdens on the treasury.

Sadly, the Food Standards Agency is being diminished; the Environment Agency is being denied contact with the European Union, the Department of Health is fixated on the fiscal crisis of the NHS and Defra has 30 per cent less workers than it did five years ago, despite the fact that 40 per cent of EU legislation relates to food. In this context, we have little chance of promoting healthy, sustainable diets, which is what we ought to be doing!

And what do we have to be optimistic about?
When food prices rise and European food markets destabilise as a result of Brexit, I think more people will begin to take food issues more seriously. With the shortages from dire weather in southern Spain, our reliance on EU sources is emerging.

What ingredients will soon disappear from our plates?
We are a rich country so I don’t envisage any specific ingredients disappearing. The source will change, however. Britain’s major retailers are very concerned about supplies of fresh imported food. In five years’ time, post Brexit, there is a distinct possibility that Britain won’t be getting its fresh fruit and vegetables from southern Spain and areas like that. Instead, we could be importing these foods from Turkey, where food standards and regulations differ in many areas from those in the EU.

And what new ingredients will we embrace?
The EU can be infuriatingly bureaucratic at times. But it is also democratic, accountable and has forced the British food industry to raise its standards. We, of course, have chosen to leave this system. And I fear that as we establish trade deals with the USA we may start to see more American meat sourced from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, a type of intensive farming that subjects livestock to untold misery.

What scenario is more likely: Britain goes meat-free or gives-up alcohol?
Neither. If anything, we are consuming more alcohol and processed red meat than ever before. Is this a good thing? No, definitely not. There is endless scientific evidence that shows both are bad for us. Having said this, I’m not in favour of a ban. Some nutritionists argue that in small quantities red meat can provide a good amount of iron and other micronutrients. And I’m certainly in favour of good quality alcohol—it’s all about quality over quantity. This is one of the reasons I’m a long-time trustee of Borough Market.

What technological innovation will soon revolutionise the way we eat, drink or cook?
I’m convinced that new technologies will soon help us to phase out plastic packaging. Whether or not countries choose to adopt these alternatives is a different question altogether.

Will the average British diet be more or less healthy in 10 years’ time?
It will entirely depend on your social class and income. Our diets look set to become increasingly polarised over the next decade.

Picture yourself in a restaurant 100 years from now—how has eating-out changed?
I’m currently corresponding with some of the biggest climate change experts in the world and it looks like temperatures will rise by at least two degrees in the next 50 years. During this time, we will see massive destabilisation of traditional food networks. This could lead to enforced frugality, with only the very wealthy being able to dine-out.

What will drive the way we shop for food in the future: price or provenance?
People make decisions about the food they eat using multiple criteria. Price is obviously a major shaper. Somebody on a low income, for example, probably won’t buy a whole pheasant. But there are so many other quality controls beyond the price tag, ranging from issues of cultural and religious acceptability, to provenance and authenticity. I don’t see this changing anytime soon.