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Tim Lang says the world is headed for catastrophe

Tim Lang says the world is headed for catastrophe if food practices don't shape up, writes Nick Galvin.
With his wire-rimmed spectacles, linen jacket and lanky frame, Tim Lang looks like everyone's idea of the mild-mannered Englishman abroad.
However, any impression of diffidence is dispelled the minute he begins expounding on his topic of expertise: the problem with food. His passion and conviction is unmistakable as he argues our food system is essentially ''broken'' and failing to act will be catastrophic.
Lang, visiting Australia for a series of symposiums on food security, is the professor of food policy at London's City University and president of British charity Garden Organic

He is the academic best known as the ''father'' of the food miles concept (see below), convinced the global food system must be remade from the ground up.
It's not yet a full-blown crisis - in the developed world at least - but we are facing disaster unless we rethink everything about the way we produce, distribute and consume food, he says. Think of a global issue, from peak oil to biodiversity and climate change to obesity, and it can be tracked back to food.
To understand what he is getting at, it's necessary to take a brief detour into history.
In the 1940s, mainstream thinking was captured by the view that applying science and technology such as chemicals, plant breeding and fertiliser to agriculture could solve the world's hunger problem.
''This vision was a very optimistic, humanitarian use of science,'' Lang says. ''It essentially triumphed in the 1940s and it's what we are living with still. We are living with the view that the problems of the world are caused by underproduction and that we have to raise production in order to increase consumption.''
Lang admits technology has brought about great improvements in public health but believes the old way has run its course.
''Seventy years on, we know that model, which the West has successfully spread around the world, may have been humanitarian but it was flawed,'' he says. ''By the end of the 20th century it was already clear that it was running out of steam. Look at the environmental problems, the growth of obesity and the gross inequalities in consumption.''
The sort of inequalities to which Lang refers are revealed starkly by the fact that an estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide are overweight or obese, while 800 million humans are believed to be underweight. Then there is the fact about a third of the grain the world grows is fed to livestock. ''Converting'' grain into meat, milk and eggs on this scale is notoriously inefficient. Or consider the estimated 31 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions contributed by the European Union's food-production sector.
''This is, frankly, cuckoo,'' Lang says. ''It is a crazy system and we must not do what some agricultural scientists are asking to do - unleash new technology. I'm not speaking against those technologies, I'm just saying, 'Hold on, let's have a proper debate.' We must think about supply and consumption and distribution in the sense of social distribution.
''Our politicians have got to address the elephant in the room - an increasingly fat elephant called consumer choice - but no politician likes to do that because the consumer is their voter.
''We have to take stock of this and have to realise that more production completely misses the point. We have to address not just the 'how' question - how we farm and grow things - but also what we grow.''
Obviously, for a system so vast and complex there will never be one easy answer to its problems but a more sustainable approach to food would inevitably involve a big reduction in the amount of meat and dairy consumed, more seasonal fruit and vegetables and more animals reared on grass, rather than cereals. It would also be a more labour-intensive way of feeding ourselves.
As to where the impetus for change is likely to come from, nothing can be done without the political will but Lang has faith in the power of consumers and the outbreak of what he calls ''democratic experimentalism''. He puts initiatives such as community gardens, seed saving, farmers' markets, fruit and vegetable co-operatives and the organic movement under this label.
''I think there is something very, very interesting happening,'' he says. ''The social scientists have been very rich on this but they have been ignored by the policymakers … It has been decried as middle-class foodie-ism but they are trying to develop a different food culture and I think there is something very moving about it.
''We don't expect urban agriculture to feed the masses. No way. But it is a sign of a shift in culture. A shift in consciousness. There is a remarkable growth of interest in the nature of food, the quality of food and the impact of food on the planet.''
When Tim Lang minted the concept of ''food miles'' about 20 years ago, he couldn't have predicted how influential - and controversial - it would become.
''Why I did it was very simple,'' he says. ''I was thrashing around - we all were - thinking, 'How can we engage with this and take back some better understanding for a world that is increasingly being dominated by consumption?'
''Food miles was my attempt to contribute something to this.''
Since then, the concept has been taken up enthusiastically by many environmentalists, spawned the influential local-food movement and even made its way onto the labels of the supermarket giant Tesco.
But the concept has prompted a storm of criticism, including the fact it fails to recognise the often-substantial emissions generated when the food is produced and that, by focusing narrowly on distance, it doesn't take into account whether producers are fairly rewarded.
But Lang is unfazed by detractors, saying food miles were never intended to be the only indicator.
Rather, he insists, the food-miles concept has been a ''magnificent proxy'' for opening up discussion about the sustainability of food.

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