Our food system is broken - here's how to take it back

Olga Bloemen & Bella Crowe from Nourish Scotland write for CommonSpace on the need for food democracy, and Nourish’s upcoming training programme. Demanding responsible behaviour from corporations hasn’t worked, they say – so it’s time to take back control of the food system.

IN RECENT years, the injustice of our current food system has become more apparent than ever.

The increase in food bank usage, the growing body of research linking food insecurity to poor diets, the prevalence of zero-hour contracts in the food sector, to name but a few of the issues which affect thousands of Scots every day. 

As with education and healthcare, food is a basic human need, without which individuals are unable to reach their potential and contribute to society. But unlike education and healthcare (to date) the rules and ideas that govern our food system are not decided by elected governments. Instead it is global corporations that largely dictate how food reaches our plate, with profit-making trumping the provision of healthy, tasty, sustainable food. 

Food is a basic human need, access to food should not come down to purchasing power

The post-World War II food system is characterised by long and complex supply chains, and an increasing concentration of power and ownership at all stages of the chain. For example, the ‘big four’ supermarket chains occupy more than two thirds of the grocery market in the UK. There is a distinct lack of democracy, transparency and accountability in how we do food. 

In recent years, much government energy has been spent on devising ‘responsibility deals’ for the food sector, seeking commitments from corporations on reformulation of products and communication with consumers. This approach fundamentally misses the point. If we accept that corporations control our food system, and the best we can do is attempt to influence them, we also surrender our landscapes, wildlife, health, wellbeing, food culture and community cohesion to the whims of undemocratic, profit-driven decision making.

To feed everybody well, without messing up the planet, we need whole-scale transformation. This is not going to happen while we let corporations make the rules.

So where do we go from here? How do we recapture the food system so that it provides good food for everyone, supports decent livelihoods and works with our environment?

It seems straightforward: If we are going to create a food system centred on the well-being of people in Scotland, it must involve people in Scotland. Certainly this means support for communities to grow food, as has often been mentioned, increasing urban and peri-urban food production, support for progressive food businesses and investment in infrastructure to shorten supply chains. But fundamentally, it means a real commitment to democracy in our food system.

The government’s hands-off approach to food policy has left industry to govern by default.

In the first place that requires political leadership to draw a line in the sand: they must state clearly that our food (and drink) is not any other industry. Food is a basic human need, access to food should not come down to purchasing power.

’We Are Fed Up’ demonstration against industrial agriculture, Berlin. Picture courtesy of Nourish Scotland

 

The International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UK has ratified, states that everyone has the right to ‘an adequate standard of living’, which includes the right to food. This week, the UN Committee responsible for monitoring compliance with the Covenant is conducting its 5-yearly examination of the UK. Nourish Scotland alongside other civil society organisations, is giving evidence in Geneva on how the UK government, and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments where the matter is devolved, are performing on meeting citizen’s basic rights. 

The ‘big four’ supermarket chains occupy more than two thirds of the grocery market … there is a distinct lack of democracy, transparency and accountability in how we do food. 

While this is a powerful international platform, Scottish civil society should not need to go all the way to the UN to influence food policy and legislation. Ideas such as ‘Open Government’ and ‘co-production’ in policy-making have been bounced around in the Scottish Government, but there has not been any serious application of this to our food system.

The government’s hands-off approach to food policy has left industry to govern by default, and policies that have been developed such as the Good Food Nation have not involved civil society beyond the initial consultation.

Cities such as Toronto and countries like Brazil are already showing what can be achieved through the co-production of food policies

With the SNP, Labour and Greens having committed to developing legislation on food in the new parliament, we have an opportunity to do things differently. To create a food system that works for the majority and delivers public goods, instead of working for the minority and delivering private profit, we need everyone’s voices to be heard. We need participatory deliberation and engagement mechanisms on food policy, as much as we need them for our other important societal pillars too, like energy, finance, health care and education. 

Cities such as Toronto and countries like Brazil are already showing what can be achieved through the co-production of food policies, with immense progress being made ensuring people have access to adequate food with dignity. 

At the same time, food democracy goes beyond policy and is about taking control of our food system at the grassroots level, moving from being passive consumers to active citizens. This might mean producing, preparing and sharing food as part of the growing community food sector or supporting farmers and local food enterprises in different ways. 

Turning the Tables: Groundwork for Food Democracy

For a democratic food system, we need a bigger and broader movement of people in Scotland committed to approaching food differently. We need to develop our understanding, skills and confidence to be able to raise our voice and to make things happen, at a community level and a policy level. 

To build capacity, Nourish Scotland is running a new training programme this Autumn: Turning the Tables: Groundwork for Food Democracy. We’re looking for people from across Scotland who would like to be trained up and supported to facilitate workshops about the food system and how to change it, building capacity at the grassroots. This can be in any format that fits you and the people you’re working with best – whether you’re part of a NGO, a community garden, a health centre, a trade union, a local food network, a church or a student campaigning network. You can find out more about the programme here. Deadline for applications is Monday the 20th of June. 

Pictures courtesy of Nourish Scotland

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