There is a vibrant food movement in the UK and Brexit means that there will be a national food and agriculture policy in the future. Will the UK stick to its neoliberal free trade politics or will it take the opportunity to re-shape its food system? A People’s Food Policy want it to be fundamentally transformed.
In Sweden, it is very difficult to discuss food or agriculture outside of the prevailing market paradigm. The story goes like this:
The consumers determine which food is produced, how it is produced and where it is produced through their purchasing behaviors. Therefore there is no need (well, very little need) for government interventions or other kinds of regulations in the food sector. If people want farmers to take care of their animals, the environment and their workers, they will favor producers doing so by buying their products. By and large it is a question of information and linking the proper information to the particular product.
The more advanced proponents add that this should be complemented with Payment for Ecosystem Services and the Polluter Pay Principle, whereby all external costs and benefits will be priced. I will not expand on all the arguments against this notion in this article, but you can read about it here, Can we shop our way to a better world? And here, Food: from commodity to commons.
Stepping away from market imperatives frees our minds and thinking about food and farm production. Agriculture and food systems, the resources needed for producing food and the landscapes where this takes place are a kind of commons or a public good. The more food is viewed as a public good, the less appropriate it is that the productive factors needed to produce foods, seeds, land, water etc., are private property and provided by the market.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 already defines food as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25).
Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons is what I would call a real shift in paradigm (a most overused word!). It doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribution, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies, and rejects the view that market forces are the best way of allocating food producing resources.
Political actions to reform the food system can take many forms and happen on many levels. Citing America’s Declaration of Independence and the Maine Constitution, the one thousand or so citizens of Sedgwick voted in 2001 in favor of a local ordinance stating that “Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing.” In similar ways many municipalities and counties in Europe have declared themselves to be GMO-free zones. All the Austrian Bundesländer (states) have declared their intention to remain GMO-free and more than hundred municipalities have signed resolutions to the same effect. Of course, these are primarily provocations, rather than a practical policy. But the system certainly needs provoking.
The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact commit the signatories to “develop sustainable food systems that are inclusive, resilient, safe and diverse, that provide healthy and affordable food to all people in a human rights – based framework, that minimise waste and conserve biodiversity while adapting to and mitigating impacts of climate change.” The 144 cities having signed on to it includes New York, Beijing, Milan, London and Buenos Aires (no Swedish city has signed, so much for progressive Sweden).
One of recent political projects regarding food is A People’s Food Policy, in England. In the policy 80 organisations have agreed that
“Our vision is of a food system where everybody, regardless of income, status or background, has secure access to enough good food at all times, without compromising on the wellbeing of people, the health of the environment and the ability of future generations to provide for themselves.“
There is a vibrant food movement in the UK and Brexit means that there will be a national food and agriculture policy in the future. Will the UK stick to its market-liberal free trade politics or will it take the opportunity to transform its food system? The policy builds on the concepts of Right to Food and Food Sovereignty and elaborates a hundred different proposals, which, if implemented would largely re-shape the English[i] food system.
The policy strives to relocalize production and consumption of food produced according to agro-ecological methods. It wants to support the kind of produce which currently is mostly imported, e.g. horticulture, as well as environmentally friendly farming methods. Meanwhile it proposes a ban on GMOs, several pesticides and antibiotics and environmental taxes on artificial fertilizers.
Two thirds of the population is malnourished or overweight and more than eight million people are short of food (scandalous in one of the world’s richer countries!). Better access to food and regulations and taxes for junk food, sugar, salt and fat are proposed.
Only one percent of the population owns half of the agriculture land in England. Land and housing ownership contribute to growing inequality and limits the opportunities for new entrants into food production. The policy falls short of radical redistribution of land (a “Land reform”) but it calls for strengthened community access to land and a number of other measures to make access to land easier.
In an interesting twist the policy rejects both agricultural support based on production (which was the case earlier in the EU) and based on land management. The former drives intensification overproduction and the latter favours big land owners over small ones. Instead it suggests that support could be distributed according to the amount of work involved or the jobs created, whatever you prefer to call it.
Finally, the People’s Food Policy calls for a very different view on trade and markets. It calls on protective tariffs and quotas to protect producers as well as renegotiation of the WTO agreement on agriculture. Trade agreements should not undermine social or environmental standards, in the UK or overseas. The existing Groceries Code Adjucator (a kind of ombudsman for supermarket suppliers) should be given much extended powers including ensuring that a “fair proportion of retail price goes to producers”.
The measures described above of the above are radical, but wouldn’t amount to a “transformation” of the food system, taken one by one. But taken together they might actually tip the scale towards a new system. A system for which we don’t know how it will look like in any detail, but where the guiding principles are food as a right and public goods.
[i] There are other processes going on in Scotland and Wales which is why the policy is for England and not the UK.
Teaser photo credit: (C) Niel Howard