Whose problem? Fixing our food systems

Published on 22 June 2017

Santiago Ripoll

Research Fellow

You’ve heard it all before. Our food system is flawed, or more accurately, doomed. Obesity coexists with hunger and malnutrition, outrageous corporate profits with poverty, exploitation, and the depletion of natural resources.

What should be done about it? The mainstream solutions that are put forward today often emphasise individual behaviour change by producers and consumers as the solution to fix the food system. In fact, in order for our food and farming to be more sustainable we need to look at the food system as a whole and the role that collective action plays in its transformation.

The obvious choice for the consumer?

In reality, how capable are consumers of purchasing ethically and healthily? The food industry spends over half a billion pounds a year on advertising, mostly promoting fattening foods. If advertising didn’t influence consumer choice, why would they spend that money? Even when consumers do make ethical and healthy choices, the sheer myriad of choice, both in which supermarket you shop in, to the millions of products you can buy, means that the ‘ethical’ and healthy choices consumers make get watered down and co-exist alongside ‘non-ethical’ and unhealthy products. Therefore, the entire system doesn’t ever really change, it just incorporates some ‘ethical’ and healthy lines into its existing infrastructure.

Even committed ethical consumers can struggle with making purchasing choices. The knowledge required in order to make informed choices is immense. You need to be well versed in carbon and methane emissions, food miles travelled, water footprint, agro-ecological characteristics of the area of production, use of agricultural inputs, use of energy, deforestation carried out (or avoided), incomes generated, poverty reductions, labour standards, animal welfare, and the list goes on. There can also be contradictions, should you buy fair trade chocolate in order to support cocoa farmers in getting a fair price for their produce, or is this an unethical choice because of the food miles those products travelled (therefore producing carbon emissions)? If you want to start a debate between foodies, just ask “should I become vegetarian or can I eat pasture fed meat?” and you’ve got your evening sorted.

The lure of value chains for the producer?

On the side of producers, they are expected to adopt new technologies, become ‘entrepreneurs’ and tap into markets.  Yet the idea of an ever-flowing teat of ‘market value chains’ to which any enlightened producer could access provided he/she upgrades into a new form of intensive commercial production is little more than a legend. It is a myth to keep farmers from realising that their marketing channels are in fact becoming more and more limited, and that what they have left is a devalued marginal wholesale market.

It is not that farmers are not tapping into value chains, but rather that the market space has been co-opted by large players which in turn only trade with acquiescent large scale producers, demanding a battery of standards that no small-scale farmer can meet. This is compounded by a lack of access to land by farmers and a progressive privatisation of natural resources.

Moving from individual to system action

Slavoj Zizek says that in today’s world, consumers are burdened with the injustices that the capitalist system delivers and are made responsible for them. If the food system is appalling, you must blame yourselves for not purchasing appropriately. And, Zizek argues, by conflating consumption with ethical goals, the food industries reproduce the capitalist dynamics that produce exploitation and environmental destruction in the first place. Food industry and retail hence succeed in shirking their responsibility and carry on with business as usual. This applies to attitudes of family farming as well. Failed agricultural development policies are blamed on small-scale farmers lack of vision or entrepreneurship, rather than on the neoliberal free-market policies and bias in subsidies that has discriminated against them.

How do we break this cycle of victim-blaming within food and agriculture? By realising that what lies between the producer and the consumer, including ‘the market’ is a very complex system (or rather a multitude of systems) involving many actors and multiple chains, and that the dominant corporate version of ‘the market’ that we currently have is only one of many possibilities. We need to understand how these different actors in food systems yield power in different ways. By being able to understand its systemic nature we understand key obstacles to a more socially just and environmentally sustainable food system.

Bringing the politics back into food and agriculture

The first step to break the cycle is understanding that individual action in ‘the market’ is just one flawed tool for social change. While there are clear examples of individual purchasing behaviour that have had a positive effect, such as the shift to free range eggs, or the sale of only Fairtrade bananas in high-end supermarkets, these are few and far between. There are also emerging examples of small alternative marketing channels where consumers can purchase relatively more ethical food, such as veg-box schemes, consumer cooperatives or community supported agriculture, or ethically minded food retail stores. And those of us who have the capacity (financial or otherwise) to participate in them should pursue them. Yet, to date, these marketing channels represent a tiny fraction of the overall food market: 70 per cent of the market share of food retail in the UK is channelled through five supermarkets. On its own, ethical consumerism risks being co-opted by manufacturers and supermarkets and put into a niche.

Consumer action can only thrive together with personal and collective political action. Engage and support local food groups, pressure your MP to support a sustainable food policy, join consumer groups, participate actively in community supported agriculture, and engage with social movements around food. These can range from local initiatives such as seed exchanges to broader global movements driving for system change such as the Via Campesina. Because ultimately, the questions that have to be raised are not ‘what should I buy in the supermarket?’ but rather, ‘who shall I join to fight for a fairer food system?’


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