Trading in futures

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Borough Market trustee and food policy expert Tim Lang talks to Market Life about how city markets can thrive as the world economy changes

Ever since the seeds of its presence were first sown around 1,000 years ago, when traders gathered near London Bridge to sell their wares, Borough Market has had an important role to play in feeding the people of Southwark and the wider population of London.

In the millennium that followed, the evolution of the market reflected many of the economic and social shifts that changed the face of the city—urbanisation, population growth, the arrival of railways, the decline of independent traders, the British food renaissance. As London has changed, Borough Market has adapted. Now, as it enters the latest phase in its lengthy existence, the Market is looking to address some of the problems of the future—notably food supply and nutrition.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London and a trustee of the charitable trust that oversees the Market, is one of the people at the heart of these initiatives. “This is a very exciting time for Borough Market,” he says. “In recent years, we’ve been embroiled in a process of discussion and engagement, designed to look at how we can help shape society, food and the environment.”

Tim is a man of influence within the worlds of food and politics. For more than 30 years he has been working to improve the quality of people’s lives by improving the food that we eat. He has done this in many different ways: from removing unnecessary additives, to reducing air miles—a phrase he first coined.

How we live and eat
He was one of the founders of the London Food Commission and Sustain—campaigning groups that promote healthy heating and sustainable food production—and his work contributed towards the Food Safety Act of 1990 and the creation of the Food Standards Agency in 2000. Suffice it to say, Tim is someone who thinks deeply about how we live and eat.

You or I might regard Borough Market as an appealing place to buy some wild chanterelles or fresh fish for dinner, but Tim sees within its lively food stalls and restaurants the potential to fundamentally change people’s lives.

As he explains, to understand Borough Market’s potential, you first have to look at its past. “Twenty years ago it was a small London wholesale market in decline—a relic of its time,” he says. Wholesale markets across the country were losing trade as supermarkets streamlined their supply chains and changed how they sourced their food. As independent food shops began to close, unable to compete, wholesale markets were left with their businesses decimated and their numbers diminishing.

The first farmers’ markets were created to help small producers sell the produce that had once supplied the wholesale markets, and these markets began to find a customer base of Britons who were just starting to understand that we too could produce food that rivalled that of France or Italy—from dry cured bacon to crumbly Lancashire cheese. Suddenly, it became conceivable that you might be able to buy some delicious British apple juice or traditional game pies, rather than settling for lesser goods in a supermarket.

Renaissance in authentic foods
“Borough Market was turned around and the physical space and location were used to create new retail opportunities for primary food producers,” says Tim. “It led the renaissance in authentic foods, where primary producers sold their food on the basis of its quality, not its cheapness, and it created a proximity between primary producers and the consumer.”

Tim believes that Borough Market captured the moment, working in a space that had been created in the public mind by food campaigners such as Elizabeth David, Derek Cooper and Elspeth Huxley, all of whom questioned the nature of food quality. As Tim says, “it’s a huge credit to everyone involved in the Market to have had the social vision at that time to have successfully reclaimed a bit of urban space.”

Borough Market has acted like a magnet to the nation’s growing legions of food lovers—from chefs to food writers to enthusiastic home cooks. It has proved accessible and exciting, offering the chance to magic up a meal out of superlative produce.

It wasn’t long before the supermarkets were mimicking the likes of Borough Market: some offering genuine local foods, others a pastiche of a local market. Today, you can find faux market sections in supermarkets across Britain.

Cheap calories
Now, says Tim, the world is changing once again. The globalised system of food production upon which most large food retailers depend has for many decades ensured a ready flow of cheap calories on to our tables, but cracks are starting to appear.

“The future of our food economy is uncertain,” he says. With western economies floundering and environmental concerns rapidly mounting, Tim believes that a major shift is underway. “These are major issues. You have to consider food in both its financial and political context.

“We have a highly concentrated oligarchic food retail sector which is owned by very big, powerful food companies and supermarket chains who dictate what, how and where the British eat and shop,” he says. “Compared to, for example, the 1930s, we have vast amounts of cheap foods arriving on our supermarket shelves.”

But the supply of this cheap food is heavily dependent on oil, which is used in pesticides, fertilisers, packaging and transportation. “The energy markets and food markets are now integrally mixed,” says Tim, and as energy prices rise, a system predicated upon its cheapness begins to look considerably less appealing.

Financial and environmental shocks
Mass production of food also requires an abundant supply of water, but water tables are dropping across much of the world due to the increasing intensity of human consumption. Tim believes that these financial and environmental shocks can help bring about a beneficial change in how we shop.

“At the moment people have to work hard to earn money to drive to a hypermarket. To get there they have to sit in a traffic jam, often with children who don’t want to be there, and they have to pay ever more for their petrol to do so. It’s becoming expensive to shop in this way. It’s squeezing people’s time, lifestyles and money.” Equally importantly, he says, a high level of oil dependence has now been linked to an unhealthy diet and obesity.

Markets have always been implements of change within society—from the formation of medieval markets to supply towns with food, to the Victorian municipal markets which were created to feed the growing urban workforce in the 19th century. Tim believes that, as uncertainty mounts in globalised mass food production, Borough Market can again be an engine of positive change—offering Londoners a sustainable supply of good, healthy food.

“I’m very optimistic about the future. We’re taking on the debate of how to address the issues that will affect us all in 2020 or 2030, such as run-away obesity, climate change and the gross squandering of water through agriculture,” he says.

Connect to the masses
A wide variety of ideas are being aired. “My own view is that we have to address the lives of ordinary people instead of being elite. We need to connect to the masses,” he says. He cites as an example the possibility of introducing local delivery schemes to nearby offices in order to reach the hundreds of workers that have poured into the area in recent years, following the completion of the Shard and other developments.

There is, Tim says, a desire to develop local, sustainable sources of produce even further, and to change our national diet so that we eat less processed food and more fruit and vegetables. As more questions arise as to the real costs of food production and what constitutes true value, is it possible for Borough Market to show people a new way to live and eat, cook and socialise?

Tim believes it is. The first step was the transformation of Three Crown Square into an ingredients market. By providing a coherent space for shoppers to buy their produce, the Market has added convenience and structure to its long list of other qualities—the vibrancy of the surroundings, the interaction, and the nutritional, culinary and ethical worth of the food.

In their book Cities for a Small Country, Richard Rogers and Anne Power explore what makes a vibrant, happy city: “Combining physical attraction with the excitement of activity seems the recipe for success,” they write. “This helps people to connect up in an informal, often random way. A sense of community, of shared interest, grows in functioning public spaces where streets, shops, cafes and public institutions help to weave together our private worlds.” It could be a description of Borough Market.