The struggle for sustainable food systems

Agricultural workers accomodation at Coleraine, Co Antrim, N Ireland (image: © Copyright Sarah Charlesworth and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

With the rise of protest movements around climate change in recent years, an increasing spotlight has been shone on the question of food production and distribution.

On one hand, global food production is estimated to account for 18% of carbon emissions according to a 2006 UN study, while including the global food system as a whole accounts for as much as 40%. On the other hand, the impacts of climate change on food production are already being felt, with both heavy rains and droughts in different parts of the world limiting wheat harvests adding to the already high wheat prices as a consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Increasingly the question of how to ensure a stable and sustainable food supply is posed by such developments. It is to answer this question in the UK that the Landworkers’ Alliance produced their report, Vocal for Local: Why Regional Food Systems are the Future. The Landworkers’ Alliance is a union of small farmers and other land-based workers (such as foresters) established in 2012, with a membership of around 1,200, and is the UK affiliate of the 200 million-strong La Via Campesina peasants movement, mainly based in Latin America. They are particularly interested in the role that the members they represent would play.

Despite the UK being the fifth or sixth richest country in the world, the Vocal for Local report details how “food poverty in the UK is increasing year after year: approximately 8.4 million people struggle to get enough to eat and 4.7 million go a full day without eating. This has been further brought to the fore by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen the levels of UK food insecurity quadruple to 16% of the population”.

The report is unequivocal about the cause of these problems, stating “these failures are grounded in a food system whose first concern is the free market economy and the expansion of transnational corporations”. Whilst the report’s authors don’t say the word capitalism, it is precisely a system rooted in the idea that the free market knows best and with a tendency towards domination of sectors of the economy by monopolies, such as transnational corporations.

In particular, the way food is produced and distributed in the UK squeezes farmers’ incomes. The report cites farmers receiving just 8% of the sale price of products, whilst also absorbing the costs of various supermarket practices including “last minute cancellation of orders, invoice deductions, unexplained fees, and the cost of wasted produce due to cosmetic faults”. This has resulted in the closure of 33,500 farm holdings in the UK between 2005 and 2015.

The report’s answer to this problem is threefold – local food systems, short supply chains, and decentralised routes to market. The first two are relatively straightforward, local food systems and short supply chains both mean shortening the distance and time between harvest and consumption. This usually means producing food nearer to where it will be consumed, and cutting out as many middle-men as possible. Not only would this save on transportation costs, but generally fresher food is more nutritious.

In the UK a majority of the food consumed is imported, but there is potential to grow far more food locally. One study cited in the report suggests that increasing domestic production of vegetables in the UK could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7% and the water footprint by 1.1%.

Decentralised routes to market can involve both of the above, but “distinguishes both local food systems and short supply chains from the supermarket supply system”.

Whilst the report mentions the problems capitalism foists upon the food system, the authors seem incapable of envisioning any way that the supply networks built up by the supermarkets can be organised in an alternative manner.

As the report is forced to recognise, “supermarkets and their industrial production and distribution systems have undoubtedly been successful at delivering convenience, choice and affordable food to many”. This reflects the economies of scale supermarkets have been able to build up. However, there are several negative sides to how this has developed, as the report points out. “The economic model of the industrial supply chain relies on being able to sell huge volumes of processed food”, it says, “which provide a large margin on cheap raw materials. This means that unhealthy, processed foods are aggressively marketed”.

Whilst it is true that due to the additional labour time incorporated in the production of processed foods there is a greater possibility for extracting profits from them, this is only one side of the story as to why they are stocked.

Another important factor, which unfortunately this report does not touch on, is what food people have the time to prepare and consume. With some of the longest working hours in Europe, is it any wonder that processed food, generally less time-consuming to prepare, forms a significant part of some people’s diets? Demands such as a shorter working week, as well as the availability of cheap, good quality workplace and community canteens, would address some of these issues.

Likewise the report isn’t wrong to condemn the relatively low levels of pay in the supermarkets, nor the “guise of choice” which supermarkets say they offer – whilst often stocking limited selections of varieties of foods, such as only a handful out of the hundreds of apple varieties that exist.

In the main they pose the idea of establishing more peer-to-peer and other small scale projects linking consumers as directly as possible with producers. Despite even posing the idea in the report that “it is the role of the government to tackle this market failure”, the authors don’t raise the idea of bringing these companies into public ownership.  Instead the report argues that the state should intervene in the market in order to curb the growth of supermarkets through means such as refusing planning permission for new developments, or through the use of public procurement in relation to local government and other public services.

Such a solution of effectively organising around the sides of the supermarket supply system, is not far removed from the ideas put forward by some on the left, including in the Labour Party’s 2017 Alternative Models of Ownership Report sponsored by the then shadow chancellor John McDonnell, that the alternative to nationalisation is the establishment of ethical competitor companies or co-operatives.

But this leaves the supermarket supply system, with all the problems the report highlights, in place. In reality it is only a solution for relative handfuls of people who can afford to pay higher than the market rate, and the relatively small numbers who can be subsidised by them.

The report includes a 25% target for market share of food supply for “independent food businesses”, leaving 75% still in the hands of the supermarkets and big business. Throughout the report the case studies given whilst citing these charitable schemes, mention people paying higher ‘solidarity’ prices, or receiving ‘funding’ from unnamed sources to fund such schemes.

This limited approach flows from seeing the supermarket supply system as a monolith, with the supermarkets having concentrated economic power and facing no challenge which could transform them. But like all capitalist businesses, supermarkets are not run by their capitalist owners and shareholders, but by the retail and distribution workers they employ. The potential power these workers and their trade unions have is not really considered by the Vocal for Local report.

It is though perhaps understandable why this might be the authors’ viewpoint – given that the main union representing retail workers in the supermarkets, their distribution network and their supply chains, is the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW). The leadership of USDAW has adopted a partnership strategy with the major supermarket chains over the last couple of decades, a strategy based on a lack of confidence of retail workers to be prepared to struggle and therefore accepting the crumbs management has to offer. Until 2021, USDAW had only conducted a handful of strikes in that period amongst workers to defend or improve their pay and conditions.

USDAW has suffered some membership loss during the Covid-19 pandemic – down from a high of 430,000 members pre-pandemic, to around 370,000 now. However, according to the 2021 annual report, the union has 147,029 members working in Tesco, the largest supermarket company and employer in the UK (additionally Unite is also a recognised union in several of the company’s distribution centres as well). The potential power of these workers was demonstrated when nine USDAW distribution centres (alongside four Unite-organised centres) voted to take strike action forcing the company to increase the pay rise being offered to workers.

But such power isn’t just limited to the question of pay and conditions. During the early stages of the pandemic as shelves were beginning to run low, for example, workers in stores took their own impromptu rationing action to try to ensure people could get supplies, ahead of official action on this issue.

The government eventually suspended competition laws to try to ensure supplies were maintained. But the logic of capitalism isn’t to organise to ensure access to essential goods for all when there are supply shortages, but to first and foremost ensure they remain profitable, with any ‘fairness’ in this policy coming afterwards. So the policies adopted by companies to maintain profits included heavier goods with lower profitability being lower down the pecking order for restocking the stores and the shelves.

But the action taken by workers early in the pandemic on this, and on questions of health and safety, including unofficial walkouts at some retailers, show how a fight for workers’ control over how the supermarkets operate could potentially develop. Taking the supermarkets out of the control of private profit and into democratic public ownership, run by elected joint committees of representatives of retail workers and the wider working class, could democratically decide priorities, including what and how much to stock amongst others.

Such ideas are unfortunately absent from the Landworkers’ Alliance report. Indeed the only role prescribed to workers reading it is to “contact their MP”, “consider where their food comes from”, “support local growers and producers”, and “spread the word”; in sum actions taken by individuals rather than any notion of collective action.

Fight for sustainable, high quality food

Yet, some of the ideas in the report make far more sense as supplements to taking the supermarkets into democratic public ownership, instead of being alternatives. For example, in terms of shortening supply chains a number of examples are given of the difficulties of small producers accessing public procurement systems, with a case study given of an attempt to try this in Gloucestershire highlighting “a lack of processing facilities” and “weak local distribution networks” as two of the three major obstacles identified. But opening up and co-ordinating the distribution networks and processing facilities of supermarkets and their major suppliers would provide the resources to tackle this.

Without the motive of profit, pushing supermarkets to seek suppliers who will drive the pay of their workers (and sometimes themselves) into the ground, then alternative priorities could be decided including minimising the distance food needed to travel from farm to fork. This would require planning to work out what levels of different foodstuffs could be produced locally in each area, and where they would be required as raw ingredients in homes, workplace canteens, restaurants, for processing, and so on.

Fundamentally, a programme to fight for sustainable, high-quality food, is not one of trying to smuggle in sustainable food systems around the sides of our current capitalist system, but of tackling that system head-on. Such a programme must have at its heart the necessity to bring the decisive parts of the economy into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management, in order to be able to plan and co-ordinate the production and distribution of food. Not to meet what makes the most profit for the big supermarkets and food multinationals, but the needs, nutritionally and so on, of the population and our planet.

Vocal for Local: Why Regional Food Systems are the Future

By Isabelle Thompson, Rebecca Laughton and Tony LittleA report by The Landworkers’ Alliance, 2021

https://landworkersalliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Vocal-for-Local.pdf

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