Banks and big food corporations won’t save our food system

8th Jun 22 by Lucy Antal, Regional Food Economies NW Senior Manager & Lead for Food Justice

Our food system is broken, and it's past time for change. We can start by re-localising our food supplies and supporting food growers.

The recent out of touch commentary from various MPs around the Cost of Living crisis advising people to get a better paid job or work harder demonstrated the huge gap between the haves and the have nots. What if you are working all the hours you can, but are only paid minimum wage? What if there are no better paid jobs available in your area or you don’t have the education or skills needed to progress? This isn’t something that’s happened over night.

The “level up” programme focuses on the private sector, but an issue is that private investors are not, by and large, altruistic. They are interested in profit, for themselves and for their shareholders.  And the profit to be gained from school meals, care homes, utilities, transport and a whole host of other life enhancing services is miniscule – unless  you cut wages, cut quality and cut services, and then use those cost savings to create an artificial level of profit that cannot be sustained nor be resistant to unexpected global problems such as pandemics, wars and weather events.

Food is the perfect way to illustrate these points. It is necessary to maintain life. It plays a multitude of roles – enabling us to grow physically and mentally, to bring joy and social connection, to provide jobs and security, to nourish our bodies and brains. It can also be abused: with nutrients debased via additives or other additions to extend shelf life; to bulk up an expensive ingredient with much cheaper ones to stretch it further and increase profit; to be over produced and wasted; to be responsible for pollution, wasted energy, worker exploitation and destruction of natural habitats. Food is a business, but it is also a necessity and as consumers, we must understand how the system is currently broken and what we can do fix it.

A focus on private investors is not going to solve the problems of households surviving on low incomes in aptly named food deserts. Some commentators have refuted the use of food desert to describe an environment, saying it dishonours the integrity and resilience of the communities living there. But resilience is doing some heavy lifting there, and survival shouldn’t be accepted as the measure of wellbeing. Too many are bumping along the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of need – and sometimes not even managing the basics of shelter, warmth, food and water. Where are the opportunities to step beyond basic survival mode and start living with security, accomplishment, physical and mental wellbeing?

UK media has been full of headlines such as “value pasta doubles in price” and more disturbingly, 7.4M adults are skipping meals due to the cost of living crisis. Much is being made of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and subsequent potential shortages of wheat and oils. But this is not a new thing. In 2021, Canada experienced a prolonged drought, massively reducing their wheat harvests, which supply the world with flour. 80% of all UK pasta is imported from Italy, using that very flour to make their pasta. The Canadian wheat price rose, so did the cost of flour and so now has the cost of pasta.

For years, food campaigners have said food is too cheap. No-one listened. The tremendous breadth of choice in every supermarket, the oversupply and thereby waste of food in more stable times led to alternative methods of redistribution, creating the secondary food economy that supplies food banks and now food pantries with discarded but edible foods that people in food crisis or simply living below the poverty line are forced to rely upon. The cumulative effect of this has been to grow the food bank “business” to levels that should shock politicians, not be a cause of celebratory ribbon cutting when yet another one opens.

Part of the reason why food campaigners have argued food is too cheap is that someone, somewhere will be paying for that cheapness. That could be the farmer, reaping 9p out of every £1 spent on vegetables and fruits grown in the UK, or it could be the pickers and supermarket shelf stackers, managing on zero hours contracts and minimum wages. It’s certainly not the shareholders from the big corporations who are tightening their belts.

It’s past time for change. And to be honest, if we don’t start making a conscious choice to change our food systems, we may find that the planet will make those decisions for us as climate change begins to impact more and more of our food supplies.

To ensure there is going to be a future, we can start by re-localising our food supplies. This means shorter supply chains, seasonal eating, reducing over supply and thereby ceasing to create edible food waste all needs to be invested in. It also means support for food growers and producers, with procurement bodies and entry into local markets to empower them to step away from the symbiotic but toxic shareholder relationship with big conglomerates whose primary purpose is to create wealth for their shareholders.

Food is too important to be left to the bankers and the big food corporations. We must fight for a food system that sees food as more than just a mere commodity and that is resilient so we don’t have to be, so everyone can access good food and thrive as opposed to just survive.


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