The UK is facing a vicious crisis of living standards, with food prices soaring alongside sharp rises in costs for energy bills, rent, transport and other essentials. In the past year, over seven million people—more than ten percent of the population—have faced food insecurity. Among these, 1.7 million children are living in households facing food insecurity.
For food workers, almost one in five have gone hungry because of lack of money, according to a study published by the Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers Union. The very people responsible for growing, processing, and distributing our food are often those with the most precarious access to it.
With living standards on track for the biggest hit since the 1950s, it is inevitable that food poverty and food insecurity are going to rise further, with profound and dangerous consequences. In this context, the case for a ‘Right to Food’, a legal guarantee of access to food, is clearer than ever. But for a Right to Food to work and thrive, the current food system needs to be reshaped.
In a food system dominated by larger and larger farming operations and a handful of huge multinational corporations, simply legislating for the universal right to nutritional and culturally appropriate food is not sufficient to secure greater environmental and social justice. Instead, ending hunger requires a food system based on the common good. A sector controlled by the needs and interests of profit-seeking corporations and large landowners is incapable of delivering that vision.
Reactionary forces are also using the current inflationary moment and ongoing supply chain issues to push back against proposals to make farming and food production less ecologically harmful. Although far from the reality for millions of people, certain foods are currently produced, to an extent, ‘cheaply’. This cheapness largely comes from concealed social and ecological exploitation, the refusal to accept responsibility for the social costs of the current system, and state support across the world for certain ways of farming.
Advocates for a Right to Food should recognise the need to link their calls with those demanding a just transition for food. Equitable access to foods produced in ways that rely less on fossil-fuel derived inputs, profit-friendly processing, and complex supply chains is vital to ensuring a Right to Food that brings us closer to systemic change.
Given the hardships faced by many, the structural impediments which create such consumption must be recognised. Many of the problems associated with our current food system are deeply entwined with our daily lives: how we work, live, and rest. Legislating for a Right to Food cannot solve these problems overnight, but it can serve as a starting point for a programme of change that looks to foster greater empowerment and justice across the food chain.
To achieve these ends, campaigns should focus on building new institutions that can facilitate and develop greener production methods, more equitable supply chains, more accessible and affordable local produce, and the capacity for communities to build food democracy and food security.
In this context, the work of existing community food projects such as Locavore CIC in Glasgow and Cae Tan CSA in Wales, as well as the UK’s hundreds of food sector co-operatives, illustrate that a better way is possible. Rather than depending on companies driven by the need to turn a profit, these institutions demonstrate that collective power and common needs can be at the heart of the food system. With the cost of living crisis raging on, and many large companies making extraordinary profits, collective alternatives are well-placed to help relieve the pressure on living standards.
Community food kitchens and mutual aid networks demonstrate the potential for systems based on solidarity and collective power to ensure food justice within communities, particularly during moments like the early stages of the pandemic. Agricultural co-operatives have in turn demonstrated the social value of farms run by and for workers, while ventures likes Tamar Grow Local CIC look to integrate actors into networks along cooperative lines.
County farms, farms on land owned by county councils, also demonstrate how collective models of ownership can provide effective, concrete alternatives to extractive models run for and by shareholders and landowners. Together, institutions like the above—based on collective ownership and democratic control—would allow for a food system guided by radically different objectives. This could significantly reduce the food system’s dependence on the whims of the market, and through collectively-run projects, can help to insulate those on lower incomes from the immense pressure being placed on living standards.
To deliver a food system which genuinely meets social needs, we need to radically scale up such projects. My recent report for the think-tank Common Wealth, ‘A Right to Food Systems’, lays out how to do this as part of a mission to deliver a substantive and equitable Right to Food.
These processes would take time and experimentation to mature. However, policy measures such as a National Food and Food Sovereignty Bill could instigate the groundwork required for this transition and bring about significant results in the short-term. This would involve legislating for a Right to Food and the expansion of universal free school meals, alongside enhanced powers and responsibilities for local authorities and national government to promote food democracy and food security in collaboration with existing networks of growers, distributors, citizens, and community groups.
Alongside this, a number of measures would need to be designed to support and scale-up democratic models of ownership in the food system. This should include a shelter organisation to provide support, cheap lending, and protection to emerging food and farm co-operatives—ensuring these organisations have space to build up capacities.
National government could take a similar role in supporting local authorities to take land back into public hands and create new county farms, challenging the dominance of a narrow group of landowners and companies.
Reforming existing farm subsidies can serve both of these two ends, repurposing the large sums ploughed into supporting existing farm-owners into incentivising democratic ownership.
These policies can work in tandem with Community Wealth Building, an approach which has seen councils in places like North Ayrshire and Preston use procurement powers to promote co-operatives, local public ownership, trade union rights, and better wages. When applied to the food system, Community Wealth Building can be a powerful tool for supporting co-operative farms, kitchens, and shops, better pay and conditions for workers, and county farms and democratic public ownership of farmland.
Together, this programme should form part of a Green New Deal, through major public investment and coordination to bring about a green and collectively run food system organised around social and ecological needs.
Together, these changes would break up the dominance of private landowners, large companies, and organisations seeking to maximise profits, instead supplanting them with community-led, co-operative, and public sector alternatives. These new institutions would be much better placed to prioritise the interests and needs of those on low and average incomes, placing food security, participatory democracy, and public needs ahead of the whims of the market. In light of growing insecurity and the intensifying attack on people’s living standards a major shift in how the food system is organised could not be needed more urgently.