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 member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He also manages local activism and events for Global Justice Now.

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.


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He also manages local activism and events for Global Justice Now.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’


2