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An appetite for change in the food system

James O’Nions investigates the potential for a movement for food sovereignty in Britain

October 19, 2012
11 min read

James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.

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Illustration: Cressida Knapp

Chingford is firmly part of outer London’s Tory belt. Both urban and conservative, it might seem a strange place for the birth of a movement for a radically democratic approach to our food and agriculture system. Yet it was here in July, at the Hawkwood Plant Nursery, that an enthusiastic bunch of food growers, activists and educators gathered for two days to work out how to bring to the UK an idea that is already common currency in parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America: food sovereignty.

Go to Hawkwood and you immediately see not only why the meeting was held here, but why initiatives already underway in the UK mean food sovereignty has a hope of catching on. Originally run as a market garden by Waltham Forest Council, the four-acre site had been unused for years when it was leased in 2009 to Organiclea, a workers’ co-operative that grows and distributes fruit and vegetables. With glasshouses as well as outdoor land on the site, Organiclea also provides educational and volunteering opportunities and runs a vegbox scheme and cafe in nearby Walthamstow.

The gathering itself was inspired by a week-long European encounter in Austria last year, which aimed to bring together a cohesive European movement for food sovereignty. With delegations from every European country and quotas to ensure producers and community groups were properly represented, the event catalysed a number of initiatives and a European action plan.

Yet while the UK sent a delegation and just managed to meet its quotas, its engagement was still dominated by the enthusiasm of NGOs that understand food sovereignty from a global perspective. With Britain’s farming politics long dominated by the high Tory, free‑trade outlook of the National Farmers’ Union, and no equivalent to France’s radical Confederation Paysanne, for instance, the UK lacks organisational structures and a certain militancy when it comes to progressive farming politics. This was one challenge that July’s gathering was trying to resolve.

Host of initiatives

A host of initiatives have sought in recent years to facilitate local and sustainable food production, funded by local councils, central government or lottery funding. Capital Growth has nurtured urban food production in London and similar projects exist elsewhere. Making Local Food Work is a national project that provides advice and support to community shops, farmers markets, buying groups and other initiatives in their hundreds that help people take ownership of where their food comes from.

Yet this has all happened largely in the absence of a radical narrative about transforming our food system. Indeed, it has been accompanied by the onward march of supermarket expansion, with 25 million square feet of supermarket retail space either under construction or with planning permission approved at the end of 2011.

Protests by dairy farmers this July over supermarket attempts to reduce the amount they pay for milk to below the cost of production are indicative of the direction this is leading, but also that a fightback is overdue. The UK now imports £37 billion worth of food, drink and animal feed per year, and exports £18 billion (although £4 billion of this is whisky). On top of the huge environmental impact of this international trade is the race to the bottom it allows in terms of working conditions in production, local environmental impact, land grabs and animal rights.

Alternative solutions

So where do we start if we want an alternative? The Kindling Trust in Manchester has been behind a number of initiatives that have begun to show what can be achieved. Helen Woodcock, one of its founders, explains where it all started: ‘Feeding Manchester is a network of sustainable food practitioners: commercial growers and retailers, community gardens, educators and so on. It meets three times a year and discusses what the barriers are to sustainable food production, and what solutions we can come up with.’

One of the solutions is the Land Army. During harvest times organic farmers can face a shortage of labour. Fruit, for instance, can literally rot on the bushes because hiring extra help at a reasonable wage would push the cost of production above what the fruit can be sold for. The Land Army organises volunteers who want to learn about organic farming to help with picking and other jobs. Helen hopes the initiative can feed into a better apprenticeship scheme.

Manchester Veg People is another project. It is a co-operative bringing together the five organic farms closest to Manchester and a range of buyers, including both small caterers and cafes and bigger buyers such as the University of Manchester. It was established to tackle both the lack of variety of organic food coming into Manchester and the fact that organic growers struggle to sell their produce above the cost of production, which results in rural poverty and people leaving farming.

Organic farmers plan crops each year based on their conversations with buyers and get a more secure market. Particularly central to the project is involving the public sector (schools, universities, prisons, hospitals) in procuring sustainable food. ‘It is about trying to make sure a wider range of people have access to it even if they don’t feel they can afford it in their own personal shopping,’ says Helen Woodcock.

Community supported agriculture

The principle is very close to that of community supported agriculture (CSA), whereby a small community organises to buy the produce of a particular local farmer in return for a say in what is produced. The community takes some of the risks (such as crop failure) with the farmer and gets affordable food with known provenance in return. The model is being promoted by the Soil Association, among others, and a European CSA conference is planned in October in Italy, a country where the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale model is well established.

Helen Woodcock was most inspired by the model she saw on a recent trip to the Basque Country, however: ‘They have CSAs but with a collective of growers, about seven to ten per group. Farming can be a lonely, hard existence, and in a traditional CSA, the grower is often the poorest paid person in the group. With our projects in Manchester, what we’re not doing is creating another market; it’s political. In the Basque networks they do an induction with new farmers who join where they talk about the political issues and collective solutions.

‘They also have a global outlook, and an idea of having networks of co-ops in the global north and south for getting things they can’t grow. The issue isn’t that we need to be better at growing local food, it’s that we need to stop treating people so badly.’

Challenging the CAP

Whatever the viability of solidarity-based alternatives however, there’s no getting round the fact that government policy firmly supports big business agriculture. Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a case in point. This year, however, as the eurocrats negotiated the CAP’s regular seven-year cycle of reform, they were met by a popular mobilisation. For the first time, the European parliament also got a say in CAP reform alongside the Commission, and the organisers of the Good Food March, which culminated on 19 September in Brussels, sought to use the opportunity to influence the direction of the CAP on issues ranging from the structure of the subsidy system, to support for ecological agriculture, to supply management in grain markets.

It’s an agenda that resonates with Jyoti Fernandes, a smallholder farmer in Dorset who was planning on joining the march as it reached Brussels. She is particularly interested in pushing for the CAP to support new entrants into ecologically sound farming.

‘The subsidy system pays people to own land, which pushes up the price of land. If you want to get into farming, buying land with a farmhouse is totally unaffordable,’ she says. Fernandes and her family live on a 43-acre farm they share with another family, in a house they built themselves. They practice low input mixed farming, keeping sheep and chickens in their orchard, growing barley and keeping pigs. They make a living on a small farm because they add value themselves, making jam and bacon and brewing cider.

Much of this kind of production needs access to expensive equipment and premises that conform to health and safety regulations. That’s why, in 2006, Fernandes and other local farmers formed the Peasant Evolution Producers Co-operative, an informal way of sharing the costs of production and helping each other to sell their produce, as well as making certain products together, such as cheese. This approach is hardly the norm for British farmers, Fernandes acknowledges: ‘It’s similar to what happens in some parts of France for instance, but UK farmers don’t usually want to work in co-operatives.’

The problems for small-scale agro-ecological farming aren’t just limited to the CAP and British individualism, however. For a start, DEFRA policy seems to encourage farmers to do anything but grow food. ‘You can get funding for a catering business, or to open a bed and breakfast, but no help for the basics of farming,’ says Fernandes.

She’s also concerned about the de-skilling happening in farming, especially when it comes to anything other than chemical agriculture: ‘Agricultural colleges aren’t teaching the basics about ecosystems. You just get a series of certificates in corporate-controlled farming. It becomes an industrial system: buy this grain, spray this pesticide and so on.’

Pushing GM again

Alongside carbon-intensive farming, we’re now seeing a renewed offensive by the GM industry. The climate change crisis has been seen by Monsanto and others as an opportunity to push GM crops again in places where they decisively lost the battle in the 1990s, particularly Europe.

The climate argument for GM is easy to demolish. Not only do polycultures offer the best prospect of resilient farming in a world faced with unpredictable and often extreme weather patterns, but organic agriculture actually sequesters carbon dioxide into the soil – at a rate of up to 900 kilos per acre per year, according to a 10-year study by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.

Yet surely there’s no harm in scientific experimentation?

If science was some realm of reason that could be separated out from capitalism, that might be the case. But GM trials take place in a context. The recent trial of GM wheat at Rothamsted may have been publicly funded, but the beneficiaries of any research are likely to be corporate. While the organisers of the ‘Take the Flour Back’ action at Rothamsted highlighted a panoply of objections, from raising doubts over food safety to claiming the science itself is flawed, contemporary anti-GM activism largely situates itself in a narrative about food sovereignty in a global context.

The Rothamsted protest featured as a speaker Gathuru Mburu, co-ordinator of the African Biodiversity Network, who put his finger on the key issue: ‘Beneath the rhetoric that GM is the key to feeding a hungry world, there is a very different story – a story of control and profit. The fact is that we need a diversity of genetic traits in food crops in order to survive worsening climates. Above all, people need to have control over their seeds.’

Against the ever-tightening grip of multinationals, the global food sovereignty movement asserts a democratic food system. Local food is an important aspect of this, not only because it reduces our food’s carbon footprint, but because it renders visible the social relations that feed us. Britain’s incipient food sovereignty movement hopes to both galvanise opposition to corporate control and fertilise the shoots of real alternatives.

A small multitude of community-supported agriculture schemes, non-commercial growing projects and co-operative enterprises have sprung up in the UK in recent years. Whether they are incorporated into the logic of capitalism, fail completely or become the basis of a new solidarity economy around food is dependent on many factors, but the beginnings of a self-conscious movement for food sovereignty is surely one of those factors. It’s a long-term organising effort that could bear much fruit in the struggle for a better world.

For more on the UK food sovereignty movement go to

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.

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