A few weeks ago, Part 1 of the National Food Strategy (NFS) was released. Rebecca Laughton, a grower and campaigns coordinator for Landworkers Alliance, and co-author of the Peoples’ Food Policy is on the advisory panel. However, she was not allowed to share the report with us for comment in advance of its release, nor was she given time to discuss and debate the content, as would be expected of an Advisory Panel. The need for a National Food Strategy is pressing. A NFS should be a collectively determined vision and set of policies designed to get there. It should be drawn from the lived experiences of a cross section of civil society. When compared to the People’s Food Policy, produced by LWA in collaboration with many other unions, organisations and NGOs on a limited budget, the democratic mandate, vision and strength of proposals is disappointing. As it stands the NFS is not a strategy; it’s a synthesis of information collected by Henry Dimbleby – an entrepreneur who owns LEON’s restaurants. He has met with a wide range of people and read a huge array of documents, but we’ve ended up with an essay of Henry’s thoughts on the food system, rather than a democratic roadmap for our food system.

Reclaiming our food system

The report begins with a damning critique of the health impacts of the industrial food system and makes some brave recommendations to a government that has historically left food to the market. It states that “The single most important force that shapes our food environment is the free market,” and makes the case for intervention to correct market failures. It calls for regulation to protect public health, defends taxation (the sugar tax) and other interventions. All these are important and will go some way towards encouraging big retailers towards changing their ways. However, we want to see more.

The recommendations are consumer based with no real commitments to regulating the power of supermarkets, and the truly innovative solutions needed to address the systemic inequalities aren’t included. We need a food strategy that aims to create alternatives to the industrialised food system that has caused so many of these problems in the first place, rather than entrenching unsustainable models.

The report analyses the COVID response from the supermarkets and food banks, but fails to mention the communities and mutual aid groups across the country who responded rapidly to the crisis, filling the many gaps left by the big retailers and big food banks, who were, in many cases, too cumbersome to adapt quickly. It fails to acknowledge that due to the close connections of these small businesses and projects to their local community, they knew who were most at risk and were able to respond. Analysis by the Food Foundation showed that independent farms expanded the number of veg boxes delivered to vulnerable people by 113% during lockdown. The Independent Food Aid Network response was a grassroots effort, using whatever means were possible to support the on the ground effort to get food to those who are often overlooked, such as people with ‘no recourse to public funds’ and those facing food insecurity in rural communities.

During lockdown, there was an issue with Fareshare and the Trussell Trust receiving huge amounts of government funding. While this was necessary at the time, this funding props up a wasteful supermarket based system. It  solidifies a two tier food bank model, where healthy food is accessible to those who can afford it, while people on lower incomes are given leftovers, reinforcing an industrial hunger complex. It makes invisible calls for real living wages and a strengthened, extended welfare system. During lockdown, food banks were filled with surplus supermarket foods, meaning the parcels they gave out were filled with processed and junk food at a time when health was at a premium. We need to find new ways to help people access fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Landworkers’ Alliance will soon be launching a Community Resilience Project to support projects that improve access to sufficient healthy food for people facing food insecurity. The idea is to move away from the food bank model and create supply chains and community farms that give reliable access to fresh food for people facing food insecurity, whilst also improving public health. We believe that changes to dietary habits are easier to achieve in the absence of temptation, and by providing people with a closer connection to seasonal, local, unpackaged, unprocessed food that is supplied through local supply chains, this can help make healthy foods affordable to those who can’t afford to pay a premium. We are calling for the Government to think ahead and invest in a Community Resilience Fund, peri-urban and urban farms, and initiatives to transition supply chains towards direct sales from local farms. These can form a more empowering solution to alleviation of food insecurity.

We need a deeper discussion about what causes food poverty. We agree that food poverty is poverty and that one of the solutions to poverty is jobs; in fact, some of those jobs could be created in the agroecological food sector. But there are other factors, such as the cost of housing, that need to be examined in relation to those jobs. It is critical that we see an increase in wages – 14% of households referred to food banks have someone in employment as part of the household. To reduce dependence on food handouts, there must also be a reform of the punitive Universal Credit system, removing the two child limit on child benefit, extension of benefits to those with no recourse to public funds and rules which give migrants the right to work.

We could go even deeper and have a discussion of the limits to a free market approach in food pricing to address public health, food poverty and environmental issues. “Right to Food” policies, such as price supports, could be implemented by the government to regulate the cost of basic food products. These could be used in combination with a stronger Grocery Code Adjudicator to keep prices affordable for the end consumer.

We also have deep concerns about the report’s recommendations on the trade issue. The LWA advocates for a law preventing the importation of agricultural goods which falls below British standards- whether or not the produce originates in European countries or anywhere else in the world. The criteria should be set by an Trade and Agriculture Commission with statutory powers to oversee trade negotiations, populated by a broad representation of experts from civil society public interest groups, large and small farmers unions and trade experts upholding a clear vision for trade based on food sovereignty, environmental justice, animal welfare and human rights. The Commission should be permanent and all of the recommendations of the commission should be ratified by parliament.

The Landworkers Alliance is not against trade, but we are clear that our trade regime should prioritise protection of our local food economies over maximising trade opportunities. Whether or not global supply chains held up, people felt as if they might not, and support for “growing our own” surged. It is clear that people want a strong local food supply – it’s a safety net that makes us feel safe and more in control.

The free trade approach in this report, backed up by flawed historical analysis and the outmoded concept of comparative advantage, is dangerous greenwashing of an agenda that is going to set us back a very long way on environment, climate, food insecurity, and farmers livelihoods.

What we need from Part 2 are bold recommendations for alternatives that help us move away from the corporate controlled supermarket model, which create good quality jobs in the food and farming sector, inspire healthier diets and build community food resilience.

The Landworkers’ Alliance is pulling together a report to be released in October looking at a land use vision for the UK, a food sovereignty focused trade policy and concrete policy recommendations for how we can strengthen our local food economy. Please send us (info@landworkersalliance.org.uk) any suggestions, evidence and case studies you have from your own work. The more specific the recommendations are, the better.

Together we lobby for a really exciting people powered National Food Strategy part 2, which, we hope will lay the foundations for a Food Bill over the next few years. 


Teaser photo credit: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash