Who controls our food and how people are fighting back
19 October 2015
Is there a problem with the UK’s food system? When you’re buying the ingredients for dinner, supermarkets and shops do a brilliant job at making you feel like we live in a land of plenty. An infinite bounty of options is at your disposal. And so long as you have the money, you can walk home with a bag full of products shipped from all corners of the world. Food appears on the shelves devoid of the story that brought it to its destination. No mention of the supermarket worker that stacked it, the factory worker that packed it, the driver that shipped it, the farmer that picked it, the seeds that sowed it. But when you start to apply a little bit of scrutiny to that pack of lettuce on the shelf, it’s like opening a Pandora’s box of issues.
The problems are almost as plentiful as the products on the shelves. Supermarkets have monopoly control over the way food is bought and sold. The workers stacking the shelves are paid poverty wages and pushed on zero hour contracts. The dairy farmers are forced to sell their milk at less than the cost of production. The migrant labourers are working in slave like conditions so that the commercial farmers can keep pace with the falling revenues resulting from the supermarket price war.
Some of the problems go back more than a thousand years. Groups like the Land Workers Alliance highlight that the concentration of land in the hands of the few is making it almost impossible for new budding farmers to afford farm land. In the last ten years, land prices have escalated, increasing by an average of £2000 per acre. UK is already one of the world’s most unequal places when it comes to land ownership. The country’s landed gentry (about 40,000 people – less than 0.1% of the population) still own half of the UK’s land - and some of this land has been in the same hands since 1066!
These are just some of the domestic problems. The UK’s self-sufficiency has dropped from 80 per cent of home grown food in 1980 to 62 per cent today, and is heading further downwards to 53 per cent in 2040 on current trends. As we have come to rely more and more on imports, our collective purchasing power has exported problems onto countries around the world. Instead of using their fertile land to grow food to feed their own populations, countries like Kenya (green beans) and Peru (asparagus) are diverting more and more of their resources to plug the demand in global trade. It’s not just our demand that we export. As corporations rampage across the globe, buying land and privatising resources as they go, they rapidly diminish the likelihood of the profits going to the farmers who grow our food.
So who really controls our food? And how do we reclaim the control over food that we have lost? These are the sort of questions that will fuel the national food sovereignty gathering happening in Hebden Bridge next weekend. Global Justice Now has jointly organised this event because we believe that we cannot solve the global problems that face our food system without fighting for changes here in the UK at the same time. Food sovereignty is all about power. It sees the way power has been taken away from growers, workers and consumers and works out ways of pulling it back. And whatever problems we face, whether it’s access to land, poverty wages, pollution, soil health, climate change or workers’ rights, we’ll inevitably uncover corporate power and vested interests as the source of the problem.
The gathering will be a unique opportunity for activists, growers, food workers and community organisations to discuss alternatives to the current food system and to put together a plan of action to bring these about. It is only by building these solidarity networks between us that we will be able to tackle corporate control over the food system head on. The energy, ideas and renewed sense of purpose that are bound to come out of the gathering next week will be a powerful step towards realising our goal: a food system designed for people not for corporate profit.