By Margaret Simonot
We’ve heard much about the successful campaign waged by Marcus Rashford to bring food poverty among children to the attention of the government and to effect policy changes in securing food help for children in low income groups.
Food poverty was not new information. On his visit to the UK in 2018, the UN Rapporteur Philip Alston stated clearly that Food poverty is part of child poverty in the UK and described this as “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity.” Not only has Marcus Rashford’s campaign drawn attention to the uncaring, privileged attitude of the Tories, but it has brought to the surface one of the most fundamental questions of any society – how do we get fed and what are the circumstances under which food is produced?
It is shocking to discover that in the UK we have not had a national food strategy since the 1947 Agriculture Act. Recently the COVID-19 pandemic has brought food into sharp focus, whether it be over food security, diet related ill-health or food sustainability, The recent Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and Environment (2019) referred to the necessity for stimulating broader system change stating,
“UK food insecurity is caused by a complex network of factors. However, poverty is the key driver which impacts the other factors. A food systems approach is essential for considering the inter-relationship between these factors, identifying win-wins, managing trade-offs and helping to mitigate less desirable outcomes. “
However, 70 years on from the Agriculture Act, The National Food Strategy Report Part One was produced this July. Compiled by an independent group comprising a range of experts from agriculture, academia, industry, government and NGOs, one of its main recommendations was that
“Making sure a generation of our most disadvantaged children do not get left behind. Eating well in childhood is the very foundation stone of equality of opportunity.”
In this context, they focus on the difficulties that Universal Credit has brought for claimants and on the appalling poverty inflicted on people with no recourse to public funds, such as asylum seekers and their families. The committee calls for urgent action to remedy these ills in a broader context.
These facts are not necessarily linked to unemployment but to years of austerity policies, to drastic cuts to local authority budgets resulting in the erosion of social safety nets, the elimination of many social services, the decimation of the legal aid system, falling life expectancy, and 14 million living in poverty.
And all this is in the world’s fifth largest economy.
Further evidence of food poverty is in the fact that The Trussell Trust sent out 1.6 million three-day emergency food packages between April 2018 and March 2019. It was an 18.8% increase on the previous year. InApril this yearthere was an 89% increase in the number of emergency food parcels given out by the Trussell Trustcompared with the same month in 2019. And the Trussell Trust is but one of the suppliers of food banks. They too stress that
“We are clear that food cannot be the answer to people needing a food bank – instead, we need to ensure everyone has enough money to afford essentials.”
We see, though, that people on low incomes are disproportionately affected by food prices. “Food statistics in your pocket: prices and expenditure” (Oct 2020 DEFRA) states that
“Income after housing costs fell 12% between 2002-03 and 2018-19 for low income (5th percentile) households. Over the same time period, food prices (in real terms) increased 3.5%.”
Before the pandemic, then, and increasingly since the start of this year, food banks have become part of the landscape. The average British diet is unhealthy and linked to serious illness; it is not ‘merely’ a question of being hungry.
This recent calamity has, however, had one positive outcome. Food poverty is driving forward initiatives around cooperatives in which communities can rid themselves of disenfranchisement and take the power back into their own hands by choosing where they shop, making use of ‘surplus’ food and opposing the power of the supermarkets.Community action groups are building power up and down the country. This is a development which could turn democracy into reality as opposed to the sham we’re faced with at the moment.
The UK imports more food than it exports – six times more fruit and veg, four times more meat and twice as much cereal. Even so, food and drink manufacturing in the UK adds £26.9bn to the economy (Gross Value Added), larger than car and aerospace manufacturing combined. One in eight of the workforce is employed in the food and farm industry. Many of them are casual workers, non-unionised and subjected to appalling conditions of health and safety.
Hunger is not necessary, even without factoring in poverty as a cause. Food waste is key. In 2018, the UK produced around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste, 70% of which was edible. Retail food waste makes up only 3% of the total UK food waste post-farm gate. The total redistributed from retail via charitable and commercial routes in 2018 amounted to almost 25,000 tonnes. This is food that would have otherwise ended up as waste. This could be a key change in fighting food poverty.
Tied up with a food strategy are food sustainability, the environment, agricultural workers’ conditions, and the welfare of animals and the scrutiny of trade deals accountable to Parliament. There are hard international facts to face up to post-pandemic: Vietnam, the world’s third-largest exporter of rice, temporarily banned international shipments of this staple crop to protect its own domestic supplies. Russia, meanwhile, continues to restrict exports of grains, and Egypt has temporarily banned exports of legumes, all in an effort to facilitate domestic food security in the short term.
So what are the implications for Labour Party policy? The 2019 Manifesto promised the Right to Food, the elimination of food banks within three years, the reduction of food waste, improved conditions for food workers and ensuring the sustainability of fishing and the aim to achieve net-zero-carbon food production in Britain by 2040.
If this is to have a remote chance of happening, Labour now needs to set itself the task of examining more closely the inter-relationship not only between capital, sustainability and agricultural workers’ rights, but also taking into account our international position on food – trade with the EU and with countries which are restricting their exports. The Party needs to listen to and support co-op initiatives as a way of hearing how citizens’ collective behaviour can challenge power and contribute to a more equal society.
As the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield says, a truly sustainable food future means we must shift to a more circular economy,
“That means changing the way we produce, shop and eat through a combination of taxation, legislation, educational and behaviour change initiatives. Only a coordinated approach across communities, local authorities and national and international governments will achieve long-term food security and restore fragile ecosystems as we face increasing climate extremes.”
Labour needs to prepare to put up an informed argument for system change towards eradicating poverty, providing a sustainable food supply, improving the conditions of food and farming workers and insisting on scrutiny by Parliament of any trade deal made. The Select Committee recommended that the government produce a White Paper within six months of the publication in early 2021 of the National Food Strategy Part 2. Let’s be on the front foot this time around. It’s not just about halting hunger.
Margaret Simonot is a member of Islington North CLP.