The Food and Agriculture Organization (2003: 29), states that ‘food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs’. The British government currently utilises food security in departmental policy papers, emphasising the aim of improving trade relationships, in which food is considered a market good as part of neo-liberal frameworks such as the World Trade Organisation (McMichael 2003: 171-2). While popular assumptions relate lack of access to food to developing countries, food poverty is becoming more well-known in the UK due to the growth of food banks. Recent estimates state that 8.4 million of the UK population are undernourished (Taylor and Loopstra 2016: 1), forming the basis for many of the arguments concerning the necessity of change in UK policy (Taylor and Loopstra 2016: 1). In this guest post, Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu assesses the UK’s food system by looking at the central concepts of food security versus food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is an alternative to food security. Food sovereignty as a concept emphasises the right of people ‘to define their own food and agriculture systems’. It was founded by the international peasants movement La Via Campesina (2011) in response to the WTO’s 1994 Agreement on Agriculture, which allows domestic producers to be undercut by large multi-national corporations (MNCs). Research has demonstrated that sustainable methods advocated by food sovereignty models are able to produce yields which would meet the demand of population growth (A Matter of Scale 2017) as well as protecting the environment and providing local control. Smallholder farmers are represented in La Via Campesina by the Landworkers’ Alliance and the food sovereignty movement as a whole is growing in the UK thanks to the support of many NGOs and workers’ collectives.
Due to a complexity of economic factors, a growing proportion of the UK population is unable to access sufficient and healthy food, resulting in food poverty and diet-related health problems. Therefore, there is a demand from members of the food sovereignty movement for the creation of national legislation to realise the UK’s international commitments to the right to food as well as a change in welfare provision and targeted interventions towards vulnerable groups, such as children, to tackle these issues. The devolved Governments of Scotland and Wales have made progress on some of these proposals, including a Child Poverty Bill and the provision of school meals in deprived areas during summer holidays. Local authorities across the UK have also implemented measures to improve public health and reduce obesity. Consequently, food sovereignty proposals are practically possible and politically feasible.
In regards to the UK’s reliance on free trade for food imports, the risks of shocks to the global market have become apparent in the 2007-8 international food crisis, which strongly impacted supermarket prices. Due to the UK’s membership of the WTO and current negotiations for free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), there is limited policy space to make significant changes to international practices and the power of MNCs. Food sovereignty campaigners argue that these FTAs undermine production standards and the competitiveness of domestic producers. While public opposition towards such agreements and those which limit seed exchange has been mobilised, further action is needed to successfully block related legislation.
|Photo by Global Justice Now|
Such arguments can be linked to those purporting the problems associated with the dominance of corporations in the current food security system, in which major supermarkets can exert influence over government policy and drive down prices paid to farmers for their produce. This can also be linked to the commodification and deregulation of food by the food security model. Protection for farmers’ livelihoods and against abuses is therefore necessary to ensure domestic food production is able to continue. Food sovereignty provides current alternatives in the form of local enterprises, such as farmers’ markets, urban community growing spaces and local food policy councils, which value and connect producers and consumers, further people’s capacity to access food and increase the control of communities over their local food system. Such initiatives are often self-sustaining and some have previously received local council and EU funding, suggesting that food sovereignty models, and proposals to incorporate them in policy, are viable.
The final aspect of the UK’s food system which will be explored is the environment as it is negatively impacted by the current food security regime. Industrial agriculture is unsustainable, because it has become the primary cause of air pollution in the UK and has also reduced biodiversity and soil health. Neo-liberal corporations offer genetically modified (GM) crops as the alternative, yet there is concern over their health and disease risks. Food sovereignty’s principle of working with nature highlights the importance of using techniques acquired by local farmers and therefore supports the use of agroecology, a method involving renewable resources that enhance the environment. As an All Party Parliamentary Group previously composed a draft Agroecology Bill (A People’s Food Policy 2017: 29), it is feasible that this could be incorporated into legislation with further support. Looking to the future, challenges to the food sovereignty movement as a whole include industry co-option as well lobbying from neo-liberal networks against the implantations of changes by food sovereignty’s policy proposals. Consensus in favour of food sovereignty requires further research but could be built by increasing awareness and collaboration between food and social justice groups.
Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu successfully completed an MSci in International Relations and Global Issues in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham in October 2017. Her dissertation on the food sovereignty movement in the UK received a Distinction level mark and was awarded the prize of best MSci Dissertation of the year.