In our latest blog post, Coordinating Group member Oli Rodker investigates what the Covid-19 virus has unearthed about our food system, and how we can build something better for the future.
For those willing to scratch the surface, the system was already clearly broken and in need of a rebuild a long time before the virus hit. From the health and equality issues of diet and food poverty, through labour and workforce failures, to biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, the need for change has been clear for a long time.
This article attempts to briefly summarise what is wrong with the current system and point towards solutions, topics we’re hoping to expand on in future blogs.
Supermarkets account for around 90% of food retail. Their ‘local’ and friendly face masks a highly complex, international, and industrial food model. It is dependent on driving down costs of production through reducing labour costs, growing in monocultures, factory farming for animals, and ‘just-in-time’ delivery . Its aim is not healthy food for all but to extract maximum profit for shareholders – eg. £2.2 billion for Tesco in 2019.
This is not a resilient model. Just as health services are not resilient when every worker and corner and process is squeezed to get maximum output for minimum cost, neither does it work for a food supply. For resilience you need a diverse range of contented and committed producers, with the knowledge and capacity to adapt activities, within a healthy natural environment, who are closely linked to their communities, so that you can respond to changing situations.
This resilience will be even more necessary in the future as the effects of the climate crisis become ever clearer.
One of the loudest alarm bells being sounded now is the potential that a lack of workers will lead to food shortages in the UK later in the year. But our dominant system has been driving workers out of agriculture for decades, in an effort to cut costs.
Brexit had already revealed our dependence on imported migrant labour, and the fragility of this.
For a long time in the UK, we have had a model that underpays and undervalues food producers; farmers get a decreasing amount of the food pound, conditions are hard, and there is minimal support and oversight. All of these things are easy to change if demanded through policy.
Climate and the environment
Put simply, the conventional economic and agricultural model has been damaging soil, water, wildlife and our atmosphere for a good few decades now. That is not the fault of the farmers who have largely been forced down a particular route by economic conditions and systemic issues – eg supermarket control of the buying process.
Environmental groups have of course been cataloguing this disaster since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962. That is now nearly sixty years ago, during which time the loss of wildlife due to chemical usage has been outflanked in the disaster stakes by carbon emissions from fossil fuels and the climate crisis. These groups did make a grievous error in blaming farmers rather than the wider economic system and so they set up an artificial conflict that is still rumbling on – when in fact a love of the land and a desire for healthy food should be common to everyone.
Our dominant land use model is killing nature and destroying a healthy climate, and has huge ongoing financial costs, but these are all outsourced to other places while food stays relatively cheap.
We know the steps needed to dramatically reduce wildlife and climate loss: reduced pesticide use, better manure management, more mixed farms, more trees and hedgerows, and stopping the import of products from global deforestation zones.
It is tragic and disgraceful that in a relatively rich country like the UK, we have seen an increasing use of food banks in recent years, with potentially hundreds of thousands of children going hungry. The virus has further revealed glaring inequalities in who can access which foods and how easily. There are complex social and economic reasons for this, but it is a clear sign of failure in our food system. The virus has also revealed communities working together to try and get food to those who need it, but in the medium and longer term it needs political commitment, strategic oversight, plus policy and investment to address the injustice of food deserts, and food inequality.
There is currently no overarching UK food strategy, and this has been left ‘to the market’ for years.
This is the consequence of a dominant neo liberal economic model that has held sway since the 1980’s. But its failures are now clear, and becoming clearer all the time.
Consumers and farmers have no real decision making role, as the system is geared to increasing production of bulk commodities and low prices. Some independent farms and retailers can buck the trend, but usually only by having higher prices, which makes them ‘niche’ and inaccessible to many.
And there is a global toll too, as peasants and family farmers around the world are forced from their land, and diverse planet-cooling agricultural systems are replaced by monocultures based on imported seeds and fertilisers. This in turn leads to increased poverty, migration to cities, and more dependence on global trade and retail models.
But also more sales from the corporates, which is their aim, so the cycle continues.
Age and succession
We have an ageing farmer population, with official figures saying the average age is about 60. There are only a few thousand new entrants annually, at most, within a farmer workforce of 200-500k (depending how you count it).
With the virus affecting the elderly more strongly, and with the resulting self isolation, this highlights the vulnerability of our food system and issues of work capacity and farm succession are exacerbated. A support package to protect food producers should also look at long term transition issues and how we can support new entrants into farming.
Building a better future
For all these issues, we know what is needed to improve or solve the problem. What we have lacked so far is political will and mobilisation.
We know how to set up alternative retail models that connect farms with consumers, through CSA’s, local farms and independent retailers.
We know how to ensure people are paid well and their rights are protected
We know how to reduce environmental harm, and in fact how to grow food whilst benefiting nature and cooling the planet – it’s called agroecology.
We do know how to increase participation and democracy, although addressing global trade issues is certainly very complex.
We know how to support succession plans on farms and how to help the thousands of young and new entrants who want to produce good healthy food in a healthy natural environment – just respond to what they are asking for: financial help, secure access to land, and reformed planning regulations.
We know what to do, we just need to work together to achieve it.
The time to transition is now.