A new movement is born: food sovereignty in the UK


12 July 2012

Today 2,500 dairy farmers descended on Westminster to express their outrage at cuts in milk prices paid by the processing companies. Six companies control 93 per cent of UK dairy processing, giving them huge power. Farms are crashing out of business in a “market place that does not work and is not fair,” said the NFU’s deputy president. “I have never seen such frustration… Enough is enough.”

The mood could not have been more different from another gathering of food producers that took place this week – the first for the UK food sovereignty movement. “I am so incredibly fired up! It really was the best activist gathering I've ever been involved in, with some concrete results, lots of like minded thinking, and loads of energy,” said one farmer from a Dorset co-op.

I joined over 100 growers, co-operative workers, researchers, campaigners and activists to help build the food sovereignty movement here in the UK. (Click here to see a word cloud showing some of the exciting activities people are doing.) Our hosts were Organiclea, an organic food growing co-op just outside London, complete with vineyard!

Our inspiration came from the six principles of food sovereignty, which were developed by farmers and social movements from around the world at a 2007 forum in Mali. In essence, food sovereignty is about valuing food and the work and knowledge of the people who produce it, reclaiming democratic control of our food system and natural resources, and practising sustainable methods. We also built on last year’s European gathering, which rejected policies that prioritise competing for international trade over a fair food system.

At the UK gathering, we asked the vast questions, ‘What needs to change?’ and ‘What needs to grow?’ Here are our top ten answers:

  1. Valuing food and farming properly – we currently pay more for a bottle of water than a pint of milk!
  2. Democratising the food system by making councils more powerful, holding government to account or building participatory channels
  3. Connecting communities and farms to help localise the food system, through local currencies, sustainable food bonds, exchanging labour for food, box schemes etc.
  4. Challenging GM and celebrating our seed heritage – as in the recent ‘take the flour back’ action
  5. Changing the unjust and untransparent distribution of land in the UK, where 1 per cent of the population owns 69 per cent of the land. This could mean land occupations, mapping unused land or offering start-up capital to new farmers
  6. Building networks and solidarity between producers, workers, campaigners and researchers to show that there’s a strong movement for change
  7. Educating children and young people so they can grow and appreciate food
  8. Changing how schools, hospitals and other public bodies buy food, with Brazil a good example
  9. Switching the research agenda from industrial methods to agroecology
  10. Transforming government policy in the UK, Europe and internationally to slash the influence of corporations and financial speculators 

After an evening of local ale, Dorset cider and folk music, we gathered early the next morning. We had just one day to translate our ideas into plans before heading back to our offices, fields or stores. Soon we’ll be able to share an action plan on the updated website, where you’ll also be able to sign up to get involved. You might, for example, want to join the international solidarity group to help organise the Good Food March on Brussels in September and respond to call-outs from groups in the global south. Or you could join future actions to protest the corporate power and risks of GM food. You could support radical land reform with Reclaim the Fields in the Forest of Dean. Could you help the newly formed group that will lobby DEFRA from a food sovereignty perspective? Or help us reach out to conventional farmers, whose demo today shows that they want a different food system?

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