From Farm to Fork: Fixing our Broken Food System

By Alex Colás

Marcus Rashford’s campaign to restore free school meals over the summer holidays has thus far been this year’s most radical individual political intervention in the UK. It’s gone to the heart of one of the class and racial inequalities that the Corona pandemic has so scandalously accentuated in this and many other countries: food poverty. Covid-19 itself is the product of a reckless global food system which, through both intensive factory farming and extensive agriculture, facilitates the animal-to-human transmission of the virus and other comparable epidemic diseases like SARS, swine or avian flu. But food also appears at the consumption end of the system as a marker of sharp disparities in people’s health outcomes and life-chances starting from early childhood – that is, of deep social injustice. What are the possible socialist responses to this?

The first is to connect the political struggles from farm to fork. Cheap food benefits no-one but the handful of corporations that control the global food chain. As in other industries, ‘low-cost’ means under-payed, super-exploited, anti-union, precarious employment. It involves cramped and dangerous working conditions that have turned meat-processing plants and industrial farms – mainly staffed by immigrant, seasonal and insecure labour – into Covid-19 hotspots in Germany, Spain, the USA and Britain. These are the very food workers who are more likely, through stress, poverty wages, irregular shifts, poor diet, inadequate housing and lack of active leisure-time to suffer underlying conditions (obesity, coronary disease, Type II diabetes) that make Covid-19 so lethal. They are also likely to be among the one in seven working adults living in poverty in Britain today. The way we produce determines the way we consume, and so the route out of food poverty is not to reduce further the price and quality of food, but to increase pay and reverse years of austerity in ways that secure access to a varied, affordable and nutritious diet for all.

One powerful instrument in doing this which combines the highest social and environmental standards, is to develop a National Food Service like that proposed by Labour for a Green New Deal. Millions of publicly-funded meals in schools, hospitals, and prisons are provided every day across the country. The pandemic has encouraged naked privateering like the £234 million-worth of government contracts directly awarded to private firms to deliver ‘free’ school meals in Britain. Such provision needs to come back under public control, with local authorities working in tandem with accountable and representative community groups to ensure food security for all. (Mutual aid groups have rightly been seen as one potential vehicle in this regard, but some of these associations are more about charitable aid than cooperative mutuality). New public procurement rules that incentivise a full transition to a decarbonised, agro-ecological food system with shorter supply chains and de-centralised, worker-controlled farmer cooperatives must form the basis of a more equitable and inhabitable future. As the Agriculture Bill progresses through Parliament in the coming months, there is an opportunity to challenge and re-envision the place of rural areas and livelihoods in the country’s existing food system. The Bill replaces the EU’s wasteful Common Agriculture Policy for a more environmentally-friendly focus on land management geared toward ‘public goods’. But Britain’s dependence on overseas food imports means much of this good intent can be undermined by post-Brexit trade deals that sacrifice food standards and quality for ‘cheapness’.

Towns and cities also have major role to play in democratising our food system. The lockdown has put up to a million hospitality jobs at risk, most of them in cities, but Rishi Sunak’s risible ten-pound discount voucher on early-week meals does nothing to address the main stranglehold on bars, pubs and restaurants, which is rent. Developers have turned much of our city centres into American-style Central Business Districts where big landlords extract sky-high rents for office and retail space with little social or community value. Online platforms like Uber Eats ad Deliveroo who were aggressively capturing the urban food-to-go market before the pandemic, are now struggling since so much of their customer base relies on office workers who have yet to return to their city-centre workspaces. There is a rapidly-vanishing window of opportunity in the coming months for metropolitan authorities to transform our built environment and transport systems so that urban consumption of food and drink is more closely aligned to democratic versions of a 15-minute city. Food deserts must be eradicated, neighbourhood pubs protected. A socialist right to the city has to involve accessible, sustainable and communal ways of consuming food and drink.

Above all, a socialist fix to our broken food system requires ambitious and creative sector-wide unionisation drives, like those pioneered by the Fast Food Rights campaign who gave us successive McStrikes. The public now knows food workers are key workers. That recognition needs to be translated into properly-paid, secure and safe working conditions for all employees across the food chain – something only organised labour can ultimately deliver. In addition, we must constantly return to that basic human need for reliable access to affordable and nutritious food. Marcus Rashford’s mum worked hard as a cashier to feed her young family, but like millions of other British workers she also relied on universal public services like school meals to meet that need. Free school meals cannot be an optional extra in a just and democratic society – it is a fundamental right that can begin to address all manner of other food-related inequalities across the world.

Alex Colás teaches international politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is co-author of the book Food, Politics and Society.