Food must become Political

Luke Pollard MP – Source: Author

In spite of some ropey internet connection and little chance to give a full speech, Luke Pollard MP stated very clearly that food must become more political. Pollard is the Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and the Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He was speaking at the forward-looking and energetic Sustain 2020 Conference, which was focusing on the role of food, farming and fisheries in the UK’s economic recovery post-Covid.

Sustain is a leading alliance on sustainable food and farming in the UK and through its conference on 9 December, was able to continue infusing those involved in forward looking food and farming with more energy and plenty of ideas.

In response to a question, Pollard further pointed out that in becoming political, a point he has repeated throughout this year, including at the Labour Party conference, it didn’t mean food had to become party political. Instead, food needs to take a more central role in politics and there needs to be a better understanding in politics that food must be approached holistically. Food cannot be broken into sterile categories of nutrition, trade and agriculture etc. 

Mainstream Science misses the point

This can be somewhat contrasted with the far more conventional conference held by the New Scientist on the Future of Food and Agriculture, held on the 28 November, which seemed to misplace far too much hope onto silver bullet-like technology and innovations, rather than in humans, politics and crucially our environment. This seemed to confirm a worrying idea that is purveying conventional agriculture, that through “land-sparing”, where certain fields or land is given over to nature and rewilded and the rest of the fields continue to be used for cash-crops and production, farming can carry on as normal. Such a concern is reinforced by the government’s recent announcement that the future of agricultural subsidies is to go from one extreme of production-ism to another of environmentalism. The growing reliance on “land-sparing” as a means of becoming more sustainable and the government’s new emphasis on it through subsidies, gives limited direct consideration of combining both production-ism and environmentalism, as is done through agroecology and regenerative agriculture.

There was certainly an acceptance at the New Scientist’s conference that things needed to change, but most speakers saw change coming solely within the farming sector and rather than in other parts of the food system. There was an interesting discussion on localised systems led by Rosario Michel-Villarreal, a lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, including the importance of veg box schemes, which deliver fresh fruit and vegetables, often locally grown and organic

Nevertheless most speakers seemed to fail to truly approach the food system and policy holistically. They also seemed reluctant to see the need for political change to support a more sustainable food system. Maybe this was because many of the talks were by scientists, including several Cambridge University Post-doctoral researchers. Their research largely focused on individual issues, and did not consider the bigger picture and the food system as a whole. 

This tunnel vision is often what government policy gets blamed for, yet it seems agriculture and agricultural research also suffers from this. It prevents consideration of the wider issues around the economic and political systems in which our food system operates. The weakness of this vision was shown to me in how, at the New Scientist conference, one of the speakers stated that the corporations they had worked with had been willing to accept the changes they were seeking. Of course corporations will accept particular reforms in farming practices if it means they continue to maintain their market and don’t have to fully end their exploitative practices An example of this is Cargill’s marginalisation of indigenous people on the Cerrado savannah in Brazil

But there is an Alternative

Chris Smaje has rightfully argued in his Small Farm Future, that the centralised system within our politics, our food system or our economy cannot continue sustainably. It will break and though lumping various individual problems together under one analysis can be simplistic, it is important in showing us the larger direction of travel we could be heading and why individual reforms are not enough. 

Both the Sustain and the New Scientists conference did seem to flinch from truly linking the problems or challenges faced by our food system with the current failure of our social, economic and political systems, which food at the moment heavily underpins.

To truly change our food system, our socio-economic systems must change too. There is a reason why for far too long food has not become political. 

Politicians of all persuasions, and businesses alike find it convenient to continue the ‘leave it to Tesco mentality’. Even when there are some attempts to move away from this mentality, there is absolutely no real exit from the ‘leave it to Cargill, Bayer, Syngenta etc’ mentality. 

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Whilst many farmers are apprehensive about Brexit and whether we face a ‘no-deal’, Brexit has done something which has long been needed. Winston Churchill once said, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. Brexit is the crisis, and to some extent the government has not wasted it in seeking change within farming, driving it towards more environmental practices.

The government has however greatly failed to holistically approach the food system. No real attempt has been made to confront the wider socio-economic system that requires our cheap food system to underpin it. As UK farmers attempt to become greener and more conservationist, much of our food production will continue to erode soils, whether in fields in the UK or globally. Farmers will continue to struggle as they balance trying to be environmental, in order get some form of subsidy, whilst also paying out through the nose for expensive inputs that ‘promise’ them ever greater yields within the smaller number of fields they will put into production. 

We need to challenge the Global Players

Even while the government is happy to challenge farmers to change and adapt to a more equitable and sustainable system, they cannot bring themselves to truly end the cheap food system. To end the cheap food system the monopolies would have to be broken up, whether that be the supermarkets, such as Tesco’s 27% share of the UK grocery market or global food giant Cargill, or the 60% share of the world’s seed market held by Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and the de-mergered Dow-Dupont. 

These monopolies will not fall unless the wider economic system is altered. Other corporations from McDonalds to Amazon would protest that their supplies as well as the indirect economy of cheap food would threaten them. Though many of these businesses are based in the US, their reach is extensive in the UK. The government may find it easier placing the “polluter pays” principle directly upon farmers. However the farmers are not the main financial and systemic winner from much of agriculture’s use of polluting agro-chemicals and fertilisers. It is those who enable and financially monopolise the system. Farmers should not be fined or charged for pollution when they only contribute 12.5% to the Gross Value Added of the national agri-food sector and other contributors go scot free.

The food system and thus the socio-economic system must change if we want a more sustainable, healthier and equitable society. To do this politics must be involved, the system must be challenged and monopolies must be ended. In short, food must become political.