Four things I learned about the UK food system


26 October 2015

I must confess, I thought that I didn’t know very much about the UK food system before this weekend. As a campaigner against the corporate take-over of Africa’s food system, I am more familiar with the aid initiatives that are benefiting corporations at the expense of small scale farmers or raising awareness about seed law changes in Ghana.

And so I went to the national gathering of the UK food sovereignty movement with the intention to learn about UK food issues. I enjoyed learning from the rich experiences and insights from food growers, farmers, community organisers, activists, educators and academics and was so impressed how much collective knowledge there was at the gathering. But I also realised that I could contribute and that I actually knew more than I realised. Because although the specifics maybe different, the struggle against corporate power is the same.

So here’s four things I learned this weekend:

1. Improving access to land is needed for local communities to grow food

The issue of land reform to improve land access was a recurring theme in many discussions. The concentration of land in the hands of the few is making it difficult for aspiring food growers and farmers to access suitable land . Less than 0.1 % of the UK population own half of the UK’s land. Land price inflation and interest from private developers also exacerbates the lack of affordable land.

2. The chemical in the weed-killer, Roundup probably causes cancer

Actually I’m slightly cheating here as I did know about this before the gathering. Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation classified the chemical found in Monsanto’s Round up  could cause cancer. What I learned though, was that this product is readily available in garden centre s and can be found in many garden sheds across the UK. The widespread use of chemical inputs is damaging to the soil and the environment and is also expensive and many farmers across the world have fallen into debt due to dependency on chemical fertlisers and pesticides but it is now shown that it could also be a cause of cancer. In spite of this massive public health concern, Monsanto continues to profit from the sale of this product.

3. There is very little freedom to save and swap seeds in the UK but even this is at risk

UK has a highly formalised (i.e. highly legislated) seed sector which favours big seed companies. In the EU, only seed which is certified and registered can be traded or exchanged. The process is expensive, involves strict criteria for seed quality and can take up to three years and then requires an annual fee. However there is an exemption from these regulations in the UK for home gardeners or amateur growers. But this exemption is at risk in 2016 when the regulations will be reviewed.

The freedom to keep and swap seeds is fundamental to keeping control of food in the hands of small scale food producers and local communities.

4. We need a national food policy

This was a big discussion led by the Land Workers' Alliance and will continue beyond the gathering and will involve more people inputting and exchanging ideas. We started by thinking about what it would look like if we had food sovereignty in the UK and what policies would be needed to achieve it. There were many ideas put forward ranging from subsidising organic produce especially for low income households to putting agroecology onto the national curriculum, from taxing the use of chemical inputs to establishing local food councils. The dialogue will continue but what was clear was that we need a national food policy and that it needs to be coherent and comprehensive which takes account of the public health, the environment, sustainable livelihoods, education and training.

A common struggle

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise to me that the four things I learned about the UK food system are  around land, seeds, chemicals and policies as these are core aspects of the struggle that many communities around the world are fighting for. Being part of the gathering this weekend, has reminded me that we are in the same struggle here in the UK and across the world.

Here's a round-up of the weekend:

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