In early sci-fi movies, when robots were given conflicting orders the sparks flew and their heads blew off. Being a food retailer trying to respond to contradictory government policy must sometimes feel just like that.

For example, the international development department says invest in African countries and give them access to high-value UK markets as Defra monitors transport miles and tells us to support UK farmers.

A lot of bits of Government have fingers in the food policy pie. Co-ordination is well overdue.

It’s a point the BRC made strongly at the event we staged with the Food and Drink Federation and National Farmers’ Union at Labour’s conference this week.

When food policy is spread among disparate departments and agencies, how can we know what the Government’s real priorities are and how can anyone expect effective delivery?

Take obesity. The health department and FSA are succeeding on reformulation and labelling, but what about physical activity? For children, that involves the education department; for adults, it’s partly the Department of Health, partly Culture, Media and Sport.

The report Food Matters, prepared by the Cabinet Office for Gordon Brown this summer, got a lot right by recognising how diverse food policy is – prices, farming, health, environment, nutrition – and by calling for a food strategy task force to bring it all together from across Whitehall.

Let’s hope it happens. Certainly it’s important retailers are involved – a point we’re making to the Government now.

In Manchester we debated two other issues that Food Matters actually gets right.

Firstly, food security does not equal self sufficiency. Food imports have been crucial to Britain since the industrial revolution, but we actually import no more of our food today than we did in the 1870s – around 40 per cent – and less than in the first half of the 20th century.

In fact, most threats to our food supply in recent times have been at home – from flooding, fuel strikes, animal disease and farmer protests.

Of course, UK retailers are huge supporters of UK agriculture. We’re its biggest – though not only – customer, but keeping the nation fed is about robust supply chains that can take the knocks, not believing the myth that overseas supplies are riskier supplies.

The second issue is that retailers should not be the only target for policy, particularly on environmental issues. In that and many areas, we’ve already come a long way.

Big wins on emissions, waste, energy and water use can only be achieved by involving the whole supply chain and that includes farmers and manufacturers right through to customers.

Industry groups will always fight their own corners – that’s what we’re for. But, debating this week, we’ve shown we want joined-up policy on how we produce, sell and consume our food.

Like those overloaded robots, we function much better with our heads together.

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