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Reclaiming our food system

Democratising our food system is the key to securing the right to food and sustainability, writes James O'Nions

October 1, 2009
4 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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It is surely one of the most damning indictments of global capitalism that one sixth of the world’s population is chronically malnourished. Yet merely to use this statistic as propaganda against the current system is not only to ignore a pressing problem but to do a disservice to the myriad struggles over our food system taking place around the world.

The globalisation of agriculture over the past 30 years has placed ever more of our food system into the hands of multinational corporations. But it has also called into being an increasingly co-ordinated movement of small producers trying to reclaim democratic control of that system.

Most obviously organised through La Via Campesina (‘the peasant way’), this millions-strong movement has managed not only to campaign at the international level against the likes of the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Agriculture, but to formulate a radical alternative in the form of ‘food sovereignty’.

Defined as the ‘the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems’, food sovereignty is a political demand for land reform, the rolling back of corporate control and the protection of natural resources. It is also a vision of ‘agroecological’ production, using modern sustainable techniques to work with nature, and of prioritising local markets over exports.

The 20th-century left tended to see the solutions to feeding the world as large scale and equated democratic control with the state. The realities of the 21st century demand a different approach, albeit one that doesn’t rule out state intervention. In Venezuela, the Chavéz government has embraced food sovereignty and mobilised its resources towards empowering small producers. By extending low-interest credit and buying produce for distribution through its network of subsidised supermarkets, while encouraging co-operatively run farms and food-processing factories, it has sought to secure the livelihoods of producers and affordable access to food for consumers at the same time.

Climate change demands that we localise our food systems in the global North too, but progressives can tie themselves up in knots when trying to marry this with the South’s current dependence on food exports. Food sovereignty could go some way towards squaring this circle, bolstering local and regional trade and ending the South’s subordinate role in the global food economy.

Yet reclaiming the food system is not just an imperative for the global South. Supermarket dominance continues to squash local communities, and the price squeeze they impose on producers makes sustainable farming unviable. Queen’s Market in east London is recognised as a multicultural community hub. It has fought off an Asda but is still under threat from property developers. Defending existing local alternatives such as this is among our first tasks.

Building new sustainable and ethical alternatives is also vital. Initiatives such as Growing Communities (page 13 in our October/November issue) are trying to make organic, locally sourced food an everyday reality in one of London’s poorest boroughs. The model of consumer co-operatives that has taken off in some US cities could start to provide a means by which ethical sourcing and affordability can co-exist. And the popularity of allotments, once a staple of working class life, is a sign that people are starting to reconnect with what they eat in a more meaningful way.

These initiatives and others can start to return a level of autonomy and democracy to our food system, but we should be careful not just to content ourselves with an ethical subculture serving only the concerned citizen with money and time. As Kath Dalmeny argues (page 10 in our October/November issue), we can and should demand government support for these initiatives to make them mainstream.

However, another of the themes of this issue of Red Pepper points the way to an interesting and complementary possibility: worker involvement in a green transition. It is more than 30 years since the workers at Lucas Aerospace presented their alternative plan for the company, but as Hilary Wainwright points out (page 24 in our October/November), while some of the political conditions are now very different, the example of Lucas can perhaps inspire some creative red-green thinking today.

Whether it is in the global food system via food sovereignty, or in industrial production, by insisting on putting the people involved at the centre of the solutions, we can ensure that producers’ creativity and intelligence are used to build a sustainable world. Effectively this means building forms of economic democracy.

By building into the Green New Deal, with its reliance on traditional forms of state intervention, new demands for economic democracy, we can provide a real challenge to the hold of corporate power and chart a path beyond, towards a post-capitalist future.

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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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