This week the government’s very own food strategy was published. It set out exactly what the Conservative Party wants from a food system in its deregulated, low-wage and job-insecure economic dreams. Landlords and corporates can rest easy, as techno fixes (like gene-editing and feed additives) supposedly needed to become ‘greener’ will be subsidised by the government. Meanwhile low-paid working families with hungry children are forced to grovel for long-term help with food.
Sadly, this was partly to be expected. Tim Lang, a retired professor in food policy, highlights that behind repeated “Conservative politicians’ mishandl[ing] of food politics” is a “constant politics” of “distaste for the nanny state”. And ultimately this is a consequence of the continued dominance of landed and capital interests. Capitalism and colonialism continue to govern our food.
Time is up for strategies
There must also be a readiness to accept that the time for ‘strategies’ is over. Lang notes he was involved in the development of a 2030 food strategy in 2007. I bet few have even heard, let alone seen, the genuine changes following that strategy. We are in an extremely vulnerable and fragile state at this time where strong corporate powers are increasingly becoming reactionary in the face of environmental and economic pressures. Environmental interests are being dragged to align with profit margins.
The actual strategy this week fixated on growth through boosting technology and regurgitating previous measures to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, deliver environmental improvements in farming, and improve access to food. It made clear where power lies and will remain in the food system under the current government, with capital.
What we actually need is a transformation of both the food system in parallel with wider economic change. Agriculture and food need to encompass the needs of ecosystems and society.
Cheap food can no longer subsidise extortionate rents, low wages, expensive heating, electricity, and fuel bills with limited investments in sustainable and better infrastructure in return. These rents, wages, and bills have been allowed to persist to such an extent that even cheap food is no longer able to serve its purpose. No longer can we be confident that everyone will have food on the table, either for themselves or others. 2.5 million children are food insecure, unable to know if they will go to school fed or hungry.
And even if it is on the table, this food drives obesity and poor health, and destroys ecosystems. The food and the rents, wages and bills it has enabled, has in turn been funded by the government through farming subsidies. Shareholders and landowners have profiteered.
Time is up.
Time for a food transformation
Now there must be the legislation, investment and mobilisation of communities to actually make sure good food is on every table.
A right to food must be enacted into law, meaning that every child who needs a meal can have one in school and the holidays without a query. It should mean the inadequate roll-out and digitalisation of Healthy Start vouchers can be taken to court. And instead of dependency on supermarkets, accessible local food markets should provide healthy, local and environmentally-friendly food to all without being patronizing or exclusive. It should mean that food banks are no longer accepted by government policy as inevitable or permanent.
On top of this, we need a movement that will mobilise, resource and ignite local communities to develop their own local food systems. Many are already doing this.
The movement, though, needs to be catalysed in an institution that is strong enough to drag power away from corporations and profit growth within the food system, and end the exploitation of people and nature by the food system.
Time for a National Institute for Feeding England
A National Institute for Feeding England (NIFE) should be created to provide resources, research and advice for the rapid expansion of agroecology. It should resource communities and individuals seeking to undertake agroecological farming, and support important grassroot transitions to community and worker-centred, sustainable and regenerative food production, processing, and distribution.
NIFE is not aimed at dictating specific farming practices, with a tenant farmer telling me a couple of months ago at a farming discussion group, how policy is rarely able to drive complete cultural change in farming practices, and he is right that changes to the food system must come from the grassroots. Instead, NIFE can oversee the development of agroecology, ensure food security is guaranteed, and improve justice in access to food, including the means to produce, process and distribute food.
Through holding and using subsidiary funds within the UK infrastructure bank, NIFE can offer a local food infrastructure fund supporting local food systems, and an agroecological practices and transition fund for farms. A community land fund can propel land reform, enabling support for a fairer distribution of land to communities across the country with an end to ownership of 50% of land by less than 1% of the population. Farmland is currently unobtainable with farm prices growing by 273% over the last two decades.
NIFE will enable more communities to produce food for themselves, gain community wealth assets, and obtain greater economic autonomy. Urban farming can be promoted and on-farm advice provided.
Through laying the foundations of a new agroecological food system, NIFE can drive restrictions on environmentally-destructive high-inputs within food production, especially imported feed for animals, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. These restrictions should be staggered to avoid a similar catastrophe to that in Sri Lanka, and achieve the successes of Andhra Pradesh (India), Cuba and Mexico in moving away from their dependence on pesticides and synthetic fertiliser. As the IDDR think tank and the Sustainable Food Trust have shown, we can produce enough food in the UK for a 2050 population without pesticides or synthetic fertilisers, and with 20% less agricultural land than we currently use.
The burden of £40bn debt on farming due to the existing intensive system can also be lifted.
The time is now
We have the technology at hand, in the form of agroecological farming practices. We know that access to food is being restricted by low wages, poor food infrastructure, and the costs of a failed privatized system in energy, water, transport, and housing. The food system is left to pick up the pieces. Working families have no means to find alternatives or diverse routes to access food. They do not have the time, money, land or education to produce their own, or the access to diverse food markets. Our soils are eroding and pollinators are dying.
The techno-fixes and growth obsessions of government are shams. They give all to profit and nothing to people.
Time is up. The strategies are dead. We must now have a transformation of our food system, our society and our economy.
George Richmond grew up on an organic dairy farm in Gloucestershire and studied history at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He now works as policy officer for the Young Fabian Environment Network. The views stated here are his own.