On Future Food Systems, Empty Shelves and the 36p Octopus
Two images haunted me this week. One was of an octopus for sale in a supermarket. The yellow label read ‘REDUCED Fresh octopus was £1.41 now 36p’. The other was of an empty shelf with a ‘Best of British’ sign above it. If the first was a symbol of our horrific domination and desecration of nature, the second was a sign of the hopeless constitutional farce we are bound into and the wholly predictable food crisis unfolding before our eyes. In the week when Richard Burnett, the Chief Executive of the Road Haulage Association predicted: “the UK food supply chain was to collapse in ‘two or three weeks’ we need to think radically differently and act quickly. In the face of such system failure let’s look at some alternatives.
- It focuses on food for people: The right to food which is healthy and culturally appropriate is the basic legal demand underpinning food sovereignty. Guaranteeing it requires policies which support diversified food production in each region and country.
- Values food providers: Many smallholder farmers suffer violence, marginalisation and racism from corporate landowners and governments. Agricultural workers can face severe exploitation and even bonded labour. The role and knowledge of women are often ignored, and their rights to resources and as workers violated. Food sovereignty asserts food providers’ right to live and work in dignity.
- Localises food systems: Food must be seen primarily as sustenance for the community and only secondarily as something to be traded. Local and regional provision takes precedence over supplying distant markets. The ‘free trade’ policies which prevent developing countries from protecting their own agriculture are inimical to this paradigm.
- Puts control locally: Local food providers must have control over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations, and their rights are respected. Food sovereignty rejects privatisation of such resources, for example through intellectual property rights regimes or commercial contracts.
- Builds knowledge and skills: Technologies must not undermine food providers’ ability to develop and pass on knowledge and skills needed for localised food systems. Instead, food sovereignty calls for appropriate research systems to support the development of agricultural knowledge and skills.
- Works with nature: Production and distribution systems must protect natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In February 2007 more than 500 representatives from more than 80 countries, of organizations of peasants and family farmers, artisanal fisher-folk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pastoralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers, environmental and urban movements gathered together in the village of Nyéléni in Sélingué, Mali to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty. They defined food sovereignty as:
“…the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal-fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.”
In Scotland this means a challenging process of breaking the land ownership model that lies at the heart of much of the power dynamics at play. This is particularly difficult for a nation that has much of its ‘food and farming’ culture and policy dominated by landed interests. It also means championing our indigenous food and moving away from a system of export growth and globalised food.
A Local Food Revolution
Any truly sustainable food system that produces a healthy diet for people and planet must look very different wherever it is. A relocalised diet must be regional and seasonal, adjusted to the carrying capacity and conditions of place, it must be the opposite of the globalized food that knows nothing of season or soil.
This is difficult for us to comprehend but it’s an essential prequisite to creating food systems that are part of the solution not part of the problem. For a viable food system to have long-term resilience it must be grounded in place and seasonality. Place exists, geography exists, time exists.
A sustainable food system will not emerge from a lab, or a meat factory or from a ‘vertical farm’ or be created by Monsanto. You won’t get it by Deliveroo or Walmart. It will be delivered by small farmers and producers who sustain rich soil and who sell within short supply chains. It will be highly seasonal and organic, though in the sense that all food used to be ‘organic’. It will contain less meat, but of higher quality, and it will look very different not just within each country but within each region. It will be enriched by a living food culture that knows something of its own traditions but isn’t captured by them.
Small-scale tinkering with ‘local food initiatives’ are dwarfed by mainstream Scottish food policy which is aimed squarely at export-growth to the virtual exclusion of all other policies. A local food revolution does not mean swapping the Union Jack for the saltire it means rediscovering local food heritage, replanting orchards, creating municipal-scale Cuban-style urban farming, and building regional local food economies. The good news is we are blessed with natural produce; innovators; think-tanks and research bodies, campaigners, chefs and gardeners, community food projects and farmers and producers with an advanced understanding of the way ahead. We know what we need to do.
We have an advanced and articulated good food movement that needs energised not suppressed.
Future Food Means Climate-Viable Food
Any food system we intend to create must not be an attempt to restore a tradition from the past, it must be forward-facing and contain the following key ingredients. It must be low-carbon and engage in a major shift away from the high-intensity, polluting and displaced globalised food that has dominated our plates in the post-war era. It must be affordable beyond the metric of artificial food at artificially cheap prices. Affordable is not the same as cheap. And it must be ethical both at the point of production and consumption.
All of this is perfectly possible but not if we contain the discussion and the vision within the current extremely narrow terms of the debate, where corporate capture and business as usual are the norms, with only peripheral innovation allowed as window-dressing to the dysfunctional juggernaut that has brought us our now well-worn list of diet-related ill-health. At the moment there is no credible strategy for reducing carbon in food, or for dealing with the childhood obesity epidemic or the long list of other diet-related disease, or for tackling food poverty and insecurity. The empty shelves are only the most recent sign of an already broken system.
The scale of carbon emissions from the way we produce, transport and consume our food are routinely ignored behind the ‘big ticket’ items like energy, which Scotland has made some ambitious strides. By comparison in ‘food’ we are barely out of the blocks. This is because unlike in energy where the big carbon gains are made from switching from one power source to another – in food the changes have to be experienced by us.
Food that Feeds People
With the revelation that the Trussell Trust’s 400 food banks in Britain distributed enough emergency food to feed almost 1.2 million people for three days in 2016–17, a number that has spiraled ever since, the first thing to recognise is that a substantial amount of people are going hungry every week in Britain today. That’s morally unacceptable and any other considerations need to be based on – and stem from – this reality.
So the first and most basic human right and essential element of the ‘food system’ must be an ability to feed people. In an advanced Western, post-scarcity society the fact that we are not able to do so is a direct result of government economic and social policy and this takes the issue beyond technical fixes or innovations and into the realm of social justice and social struggle.
The affordability of decent food isn’t just about making that food dirt-cheap. It’s about increasing the number of jobs in local communities; increasing wages for those with the lowest incomes; making jobs more secure.
In this sense, the precarity and waste in the food system is mirrored in both production and consumption. The current system offers stability only for a handful in the nexus of relationships — for many it offers a combination of economic instability and ill-health by being enthralled to a vast corporate machine or faced with the over-consumption of highly-processed, nutritionally-dubious foodstuffs.
Who Feeds Us?
One of the problems with changing food systems is we are locked into a series of myths about abundance. The 24 hour supermarkets and the idea of a-seasonal food – you can have anything anytime from anywhere – is it perpetuates the idea that food is just on-stream at all times. This worldview feeds-in to the idea of the land and sea as places just to be endlessly plundered as if they are inexhaustible. Our massive over-consumption of meat and dairy, our massive over-exploitation of the seas and the subsequent carbon cost and biodiversity loss tells us this isn’t viable. But the idea that the corporate food system is benevolent is still deeply embedded with us.
We are told that corporations are the creators of food, the providers of security and the harbingers of future abundance, but this is a toxic myth worth dispelling. As Vandana Shiva wrote in her recent book Who Really Feeds the World?:
“Women, who are the primary growers and providers of food, nutrition, and nourishment in societies across the world, have evolved agriculture. Most farmers in the world are women, and most girls are future farmers: they learn the skills and knowledge of farming in fields and in farms. Women-centered food systems are based on sharing and caring, and on conservation and well-being. What is grown on farms determines whose livelihoods are secured, what is eaten, how much is eaten, and by whom it is eaten. Women’s food is diverse and sustaining, and when women control the food system, everyone gets their fair share to eat. Women are the world’s biodiversity experts, nutritional experts, and the economists who know how to produce more using less. Women make the most significant contributions to food security by producing more than half the world’s food and by providing more than 80 percent of the food needs of food-insecure households and regions.”
So our emergent food system, fighting against gigantism and vested interests has three dynamics in interplay with each other: soil, democracy and creativity combining to produce new models and ways of working. As Vandana Shiva writes: ‘While women manage and produce diversity, the dominant paradigm of agriculture promotes monocultures under the false tenet that monocultures produce more.’
This urge for productivism, a force of top-down technocratic control of the commons is a nightmare worth resisting. What does a sustainable food system look like? It looks like the opposite of that. Diversity versus monoculture, small-scale and multi-varied rather than a one-dimensional food system.
We are all suffering from what Wendell Berry has called ‘cultural amnesia’:
“The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much. The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical — in short, a victim. When food, in the minds of eaters, is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.”
So the first act of creating this sustainable food system, what we can call a ‘restorative practice’, is to remember. This act of remembering is to cast off the dead hand of corporate food which serves up swill for profit. It is not the octopus that is reduced, it us.