The Conquest of Bread

Food writing often strays into political causes, from chlorinated chicken to sustainability and animal welfare – but it rarely mentions the key ingredient to food production worldwide: the capitalist system.

As much as the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an eye-opener for people who have suddenly realised that things like ‘restaurants,’ ‘food systems’ and ‘society’ are built on shakier ground than they think, it’s also been a real boon for people saying things like “I told you so” or “didn’t I warn you?” and “I’m pretty sure I said this years ago and have been repeating it ever since”. No more is this apparent in the food industry where doom-laden prophecies from nutritional Cassandras are finally finding the platforms that they should have had before the pandemic.

For some it’s a case of exquisite timing. Professor Tim Lang’s book Feeding Britain – which dismantles the idea of British exceptionalism that has led to the complacencies inherent in our food system and our reliance on the supermarkets – hit the shelves on March 26th, just as supermarket shelves were bare from panic buying and supply chain issues. It’s meant that Lang has been omnipresent ever since, popping up in newspapers and podcasts alike.

For Lang, “whether we like it or not, the role of government is now a central issue for UK food security,” something he recently echoed in a podcast with The Green Alliance when asked about the potential of increased community spirit and mutual aid networks posing a solution to problems of food insecurity, answering that “it must be the state reflecting on it and it must be the public contributing to that reflection” rather than the other way round. 

This isn’t exactly what people are used to hearing. The idea of the state getting heavily involved in the food system has always made some people feel uncomfortable, even those who are naturally inclined to support it. The unprecedented power given by the government to supermarkets during the pandemic reflects their status as a symbol of the free market that feeds us; you only need to recall the (likely apocryphal) story that it was Boris Yeltsin being shown around a Texan branch of Randall’s that completely purged him of any lingering Bolshevist tendencies.

Since the end of rationing in the 1950s we have become used to a productivist food system that has been allowed to grow into ever more labyrinthine complexity under the guidance of a handful of conglomerates, with the charity of community-led schemes such as food banks filling in the glaring absences by redistributing its surplus. For the most part, it has worked, in that the mass food shortages and famines that were widely predicted with exponential population growth have not come to fruition. But it has affected us in unseen ways, from biodiversity, to health and the environment, and needs to change.

That is Henry Dimbleby’s problem, for whom timing has been less fortunate. This summer was meant to see the publication of a National Food Strategy led by Dimbleby – the co-founder of Leon and co-author of the School Food Plan – covering everything from farming and supermarket power to the environment, food access and food justice, but this has now been delayed by the pandemic. Perhaps the timing may eventually work to his advantage. Although a two year review of the food system was set up during Gordon Brown’s premiership, before being ended by David Cameron, the last full-scale food strategy was undertaken under a Conservative government which was forced into doing so by the circumstances of the Second World War.

Today’s strategy, initiated by Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was intended to be a post-Brexit panacea, an exciting but not too exciting opportunity to cleave Britain’s food system from the European Union. Now it represents something much more significant.

Not only does Dimbleby now have hard evidence of what the food system could look like when put under the stress of a worst-case scenario, but he also has a government which has been forced into undertaking aspects of wartime socialism and cowed into a U-turn over the provision of free school meals during the summer. Ultimately all Dimbleby’s strategy will do is make recommendations, which the government are free to ignore in their subsequent white paper, but the pandemic at least allows room for more radical ideas and an increased possibility that the government could implement them.

Still, a national food strategy alone will not solve things. There is a tendency to treat problems of food insecurity as a discrete issue that can be tackled only with solutions that explicitly relate to food. In fact, food has the opposite problem: it feeds into way too many other things.

‘A People’s Food Policy’, a list of policy recommendations put together by over 150 food and farming initiatives, community groups, grassroots organisations, unions and NGOs, positions food insecurity as the locus formed not just by farming, healthy eating and food labelling, but also by lack of access to land, welfare, education and an increasingly inhumane work-life balance, all of which fall under the remit of different governmental departments at various levels from nationwide to ward.

It argues that while this dispersion could potentially act as an asset, allowing certain regions to experiment with different policies that could be learnt from and more widely implemented, in practice the lack of coordination between them has stalled any progress, or actively hindered it. 

This is precisely why matters of food security and food justice cannot be left to the free market or to one government department without also attempting to solve wider issues of inequality. In the 2009 book Food Policy: Integrating health, environment and society, which Lang wrote with David Barling and Martin Caraher, the authors conclude that “policy-making needs to ensure that the evidence of societal inequalities’ impact on food, and food’s reinforcement of social inequalities, are at the heart of the 21st century food policy project”.

This idea is something that American agroecologist Eric Holt-Gimenez calls ‘radical’ food justice, to differentiate it from “weaker or “progressive” forms. These lesser forms tackle the food system in various ways, but radical food justice seeks to tackle structural causes. It’s the difference between advocating for more funds for food banks and campaigning for policies that seek to eliminate the need for them.

For campaigner Dee Woods, this also means tackling food inequality and insecurity while acknowledging that they fundamentally rest on “the inequitable distribution of resources and uneven relations of power. A radical food justice builds equity in the food system and equity in society across the board.”

Woods, who runs the Granville Community Kitchen in Kilburn and is also a food educator and urban agriculturalist who contributed to the ‘People’s Food Policy,’ came to food activism not through food but through her work in Black feminist spaces and her personal experience of food insecurity due to delayed decisions on disability benefits. Woods is adamant that radical food justice should not just call for radical solutions within the food industry, like breaking up supermarket monopolies and land ownership, along with an increased democracy and participation in how food is produced – but also call for structural overhauls of other areas.

“This means welfare policies and labour policies to ensure that everyone has sufficient income to afford food, plus fair working conditions. So that could mean universal basic income of some sort.” Woods further explains; “food sovereignty calls for the rights of women and children to be met, by ensuring that there is legislation in place that protects them from violence, access to decent and suitable housing, to education, to healthcare. It will call for and challenge the systemic structures that uphold racism, sexism, classism, ageism and ableism. It should challenge and call for changes in planning, trade, aid and development, environment, climate justice, water and transport. All these things that affect food but aren’t necessarily food related.”

The British food media does have its political shibboleths and its good causes, championed by middle and upper class writers insulated from the worst effects of the food system, but it still insists that problems with the food system are either down to consumer choice, or due to the bad decisions of supermarkets and conglomerates. There are exceptions, like Rebecca May Johnson’s ‘I Dream of Canteens’ which links canteens to issues of creeping pseudo-public space, gentrification, poverty and resistance, but they are few and far between and often self-published.

Food writing blithely acknowledges inequality but offers nonsensical solutions. If only we bought meat from high street butchers rather than supermarkets then animal welfare would be better; if only we stopped buying sugary and processed foods our diets would be healthier; if only we ate locally and ate British, the flaws in our farming systems would be ironed out. There is a reluctance to admit that not only are all these things caused by a capitalist food system that will always put profit margin over any duty of social care, but that they are also characteristics of the system itself rather than defects that can be eventually ironed out.

There is one exception to this political shyness: Brexit. Here British food writers are very happy to get political, both to protect the rights of European workers who staff the restaurants they eat at, as well as shielding the British farming industry from the meat standards of Trump’s America. The groundswell of opposition towards the Agriculture Bill currently passing through parliament ticks all the bogeymen, particularly the pungency of American chlorinated chicken being sold in the UK.

To be clear, the trade deal would be extremely bad news if it passes – particularly for British farmers and for those least well-off. However, it is not just because of chlorine but because it decreases the level of democracy and choice people have within the food system about what goes into the food they buy, all justified by the push for cheaper and cheaper meat that feeds a meat industry complex that not only damages animal welfare but the welfare of those who work within it. 

When Dimbleby releases his recommendations for the National Food Strategy they will be pored over by food writers. There will almost certainly be some helpful ideas, some good news for farmers and hopefully for consumers. I hope it will be ambitious enough to seriously test what Johnson’s government is comfortable implementing.

But food writers will not find solutions as long as welfare, education, health and economic policies are seen as separate issues. From Piotr Kropotkin’s ‘The Conquest of Bread’, which argues that any revolutionary movement must take control of the food system, to Land In Our Names which challenges the racial divide in land ownership, the left has known that food isn’t just political, it is politics. Lack of affordable housing is a food issue. Gentrification is a food issue. Access to free education is a food issue. Our attitudes to colonialism and race are food issues. 

Food writing has the potential to move beyond what is traditionally considered its remit. It can go further than fetishising the food cooked by immigrants and push for humane immigration policy. As well as saying we should eat locally and seasonally it can discuss ways that this ideal way of living can become possible for those on lower incomes, and how to raise those incomes.

Rather than waiting for shops and restaurants to be threatened by predatory landlordism, like Brixton’s Nour was in the recent ‘Save Nour’ campaign, it can write more sensitively about the gentrification issues that precipitated it. Food writing can be more than just a ‘chlorinated chicken’ soundbite. It has to become something it is currently uncomfortable being – an advocate not just for a fairer food system, but a fairer society.