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Food Sovereignty Now and Beyond COVID-19

Food Sovereignty Now and Beyond COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed daily realities in nearly every corner of the world. But for millions of people, fears about access to food have made the crisis even worse. Recently the UN warned of disruption to food supplies and further loss of incomes and livelihoods – up to 1.6 billion workers affected in the formal economy alone. Food banks and community organisations are doing their best to help those in immediate need. But as the pandemic collides with inequality and climate emergency, it’s clear we need major changes in our approach to food and agriculture.

Ecological Farmer in Kenya © Cheryl-Samantha Owen / GreenpeaceFarmers in Kenya are effectively applying ecological farming practices that are increasing their ability to build resilience to and cope with climate change. ©Cheryl-Samantha Owen/ Greenpeace

The food system was broken long before coronavirus came along. The current crisis has exposed the fault-lines and renewed urgency to tackle root causes. This means asking hard questions and digging deeper for solutions. How is it that 30% of food is wasted globally and unhealthy food is fuelling obesity and diabetes, while 820 million people don’t have enough to eat? Why are millions being “forced to choose between hunger or COVID-19”?

The industrial and commodity-based food system has failed to adequately feed many people in this world. This isn’t due to a lack of food but to the conditions of extreme inequality, and the wrong type of food being produced, traded or promoted by powerful corporate interests that control the food and agriculture sectors. COVID-19 has once again shown us just how risky it is to let corporations be in charge of feeding people.

Ecological Produce at Farmers Market in Paris. © Peter Caton / Greenpeace

Shopping at Raspail Market in central Paris. Raspail is one of the largest ecological markets in Paris. © Peter Caton / Greenpeace

Changing our food system

An alternative vision is gaining momentum — of a more collaborative, socially just and ecological food system, where communities have control and power over how it’s shaped. As public money goes into economic recovery packages, some governments and organisations are pushing for systemic changes, so that communities can build back with greater resilience, better able to cope with future shocks.

resilient food system is an ecological food system, designed to help people and the environment rather than make profits for multinational corporations. It supports food justice — with “communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food” and acknowledging differences such as class, ethnicity, and gender in shaping solutions to meet their food needs. In some places, this transition has already begun.

We need a system that protects human rights, such as access to food and fair treatment and recognition for workers, and respects the ecological boundaries we depend on. It’s called food sovereignty, and we all — local and national governments, international agencies and cities — must support the shift towards a sustainable food system that can support us during the COVID crisis and beyond.

Organic Rice Art at Ratchaburi in Thailand. © Greenpeace / Athit Perawongmetha

Samnieng Huadlim, a 62 year old Thai farmer holds rice stalks harvested at Greenpeace’s “Rice Art” field in Ratchaburi province, Bangkok, Thailand. © Greenpeace / Athit Perawongmetha

To start, here’s some of the things we should change in our current food system:

  1. Food is a common good. Food should be considered an essential common good, not just another commodity, with principles like food sovereignty a part of all crisis recovery packages. The transition to ecological food systems, away from industrial agriculture, is already happening in some parts of the planet — now it must be funded, amplified and mainstreamed.
  2. All levels of government have a role. Countries and cities need to be proactive in making sure that people have access to food so no-one is left behind. For example, Victoria, Canada has assigned parks staff to start growing food for residents. Let’s encourage city networks, like Milan Urban Food Policy PactCityFood and C40, to make access to nutritious food better for all.
  3. Food justice. Food insecurity is linked to inequality, not lack of production. It’s a question of justice. To ensure the right to healthy food for all, we need to adopt social measures like universal basic income to help tackle poverty and redistribute wealth.
  4. Essential workers are valued and compensated. To strengthen our capacity to cope with current and future shocks, we need to value all in the food industry as essential workers. People growing, producing, sharing, and distributing food should receive a decent income proportionate to their vital functions. Policies and rescue packages must invest in farmers, farm workers and other people who feed us, to enable a just transition to a more ecologically and socially resilient food system. Taxes, subsidies, and procurement policies must be redirected to achieve these goals.
  5. We use our power to accelerate change. In addition to holding governments to account, the changes we make at household level can shift how society values food and those producing food for the better.

Harvesting Plants during an Ecological Agriculture and Bees Event in Japan. © Kengo Yoda / Greenpeace

Children are harvesting vegetables grown organically at a farm in Tokyo, Japan. © Kengo Yoda / Greenpeace

Here are practical actions we can take now as individual citizens for better food:

  • Reduce food waste and shift our diet towards more local ecological, in season, and mainly plant-based food.
  • When preparing meals at home, use raw and fresh ingredients rather than purchasing convenient but packaging-heavy, highly-processed pre-made food.
  • Get our hands dirty and appreciate how difficult, but also rewarding, it is to grow food. There is already a vibrant urban agriculture movement which cities need to support more and help amplify further.
  • Connect more directly with local farmers and share with them the risks and rewards of growing food through community supported agriculture. Let’s make sure that any recovery plan also includes meaningful investment for such systems to make them even more mainstream. Let’s buy more food directly from farmers who are already transitioning to a better food system.

Let’s not let this moment pass without planting the seed for a better food future for all. We all can join the food sovereignty wave! Join us?

Source: Resilience




No Time for Justice?! – Food Policy and Emergency Thinking in the Brexit Moment

Imagine a process in which food and farming policies were designed with social justice as the central tenet. What would such a process look like? Whose voices would be heard, and whose interests would be represented? What questions would need to be asked and how would we know that social justice had been addressed?

Our recently published article speaks to these questions by looking at debates around UK food and farming policy in the post-Brexit context. We examined how and to what extent social justice was represented in the policy discourse on food and farming in the 18 months following the Brexit referendum.

So, before we get into more detail, what are the headlines?

  • We found a lack of direct attention to many of the issues that have been central to a food justice approach.
  • Despite the potential for change prompted by crises such as Brexit, lead organizations appeared to default to policy and ‘solutions’ that largely benefit the dominant and privileged interests and actors in society.
  • Despite this, there were important and inspiring examples that we found in our study that signalled to us five questions that can help policy actors and advocates reflexively “read for justice” in their work.
  • Further resources can be found on our accompanying webspace at:

Brexit, Crises and Centering Food Justice

Brexit opened what has been referred to as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to transform British society, prompting a frantic rush to influence what that change would entail and who it would benefit.

This is a feature common to crises: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is surfacing similar responses from across society, including how food systems should be (re)organized to mitigate future shocks. There have been hundreds of opinion pieces, special journal issues  (e.g. here and here) and soon surely many policy-position papers arguing for different visions of food systems in a post-COVID world.

At such moments of crisis and opportunity, it is crucial to remain attentive to the place of social justice and equity in our proposals and justifications for change. What rises to the surface in debates at such moments? What is pushed to the back-burner? What is erased? And what remains unsaid and unseen?

In our study, we looked at how social justice – or “food justice” – was reflected in a sample of policy proposals being presented by a range of stakeholders in the British food and farming sector, including NGOs, industry associations and government bodies.

To do this, we analysed 20 documents published in the 18 months immediately after the referendum decision. We engaged in a process of ‘reading for social justice’ using the twin lenses of ‘distributive justice’ (i.e. who gets access to what resources?) and ‘procedural justice’ (i.e. who makes decisions about resources, and how?).

Let’s dig into a few examples in our twinned analysis…

Distributive Justice

We identified four main categories of ‘distributive justice’ issues in our sample of policy documents: land, labour, public goods, and food. While many of the documents referred to these issues, it was clear that distributional justice was a low priority in the majority of documents, with a few notable exceptions.

Land: The primary focus across the documents was land use, including suggestions for changing the way land is managed, what is produced on it, and how environmentally beneficial farming practices could be identified. Only a quarter of documents addressed the issue of land ownership, control and access and just three contained substantial proposals for land reform – despite being regarded as one of the most entrenched social injustices in the UK.

Labour: Issues such workers’ rights, low pay in the food and farming industry, and the gender pay gap were raised in only a handful of documents. On the other hand, ‘access’ to labour was widely discussed, with the majority of documents urging the government to ensure the availability of labour for the industry. In this sense, the dominant narrative reflected the idea of labour as a commodity, rather than considering the human impacts of casualization, low pay, poor working conditions and the plight of migrant workers in the food system.

Public Goods: Public goods were most often framed in terms of providing access to nature or delivering ecosystem services, such as nature conservation. There was a broad distinction between ‘market’ oriented and ‘rights-based’ conceptualisations, indicating a deep – though unspoken – division. The House of Lords report, for example, claimed that the provisioning of public goods “were crucial to the British brand”, downplaying the broader social or environmental benefits foregrounded in other documents. There was very little acknowledgement of the inequity around who benefits from so called public goods, while it is clear that white, middle-upper class and land-owning citizens benefit overwhelmingly disproportionally from for example the aesthetic, amenity and property-related (e.g. value) benefits that arise from public-goods.

Food Access: Access to food was mentioned in fewer than half of the documents, but even then, was rarely discussed in detail and with very little consideration of the root causes of food security or “food poverty”. Again, there was almost no distinction between the inequity within the ‘consuming public’ where it is clear that structural racism, gendered inequality, the asylum system (e.g. no recourse to public funds) and other structural issues place many inhabitants of Britain at substantially greater risk of food insecurity that a general approach will not address, and may exacerbate. Most documents focused primarily on agriculture, maintaining the conceptual distinction between ‘farming’ and ‘food’ policies which has often been observed and problematised by those seeking a more holistic approach to solving food injustice. There was a gulf between those advocating a ‘right to food’ approach and those looking to market measures such as increased competitiveness, resource efficiency, quality and traceability.

Procedural Justice

As food justice advocates often point out, how people are engaged in decision-making has an important bearing on what changes are actually made, and their capacity to benefit those most in need. As the now-famous campaign slogan goes: “Nothing About Us Without Us!

With this in mind, we were again surprised that less than half of the documents discussed issues of governance and decision-making, and even those that did rarely offered any substantial details. A notable exception to this was A People’s Food Policy, which outlined a series of policies ranging from statutory “food partnerships” in each regional, metropolitan, and local authority that would feed into a national people’s food policy council. Throughout the documents there again was no recognition of multitudinous dimensions of inequity that exclude, disenfranchise and/or marginalize from decision making processes including for example women, BME, people on low incomes and those in marginalized regions of the country.

There was also little evidence of democratic procedures being built into the drafting of the documents themselves. Conversely, there was a preponderance of single-author, or elite group-authored documents, which we felt represented a missed opportunity to use the “Brexit moment” to redress shortfalls both in broadening the debate to include a better representation of society and to democratize food governance. This is in tension with calls for more substantial civic participation in food system governance advocated by the food sovereignty and food justice movements (note: some work that fell outside of the scope of our study from Sustain and Nourish Scotland amongst others in the UK is also advancing the Right to Food as a framework to re-assert the rights and agency of people in the UK).

The lack of detail on democratic governance or participatory policy-making is perhaps one of the biggest ironies of the Brexit process, a process ostensibly intended to reclaim and strengthen political sovereignty. Shortcomings such as this illustrate the extent to which the Brexit discourse was shaped by fears of economic shock and political division.

A Five-Point Framework

In the spirit of learning from these experiences and insights, we proposed a five-part framework for ‘reading for social justice’ in policy documents and processes.  This framework is intended as a practical tool to help activists and academics to scrutinize future policy materials in terms of ‘distributive’ and ‘procedural’ justice issues. It can be applied and used to help evaluate the extent to which social justice issues are addressed in any policy document, charter or vision statement. This framework is presented in the final section of the article and summarized in the video below.

Picking up the pieces

As the Brexit process unfolded, any hopes for transformative change gradually faded, replaced by an awareness of the retrenchment of vested interests keen to preserve the status quo in food and farming policy. Little did we know, an even greater calamity loomed on the horizon. COVID-19 and Brexit together have gone a long way to expose the deep vulnerabilities of our food system – from food bank dependency, exploited ‘frontline’ food workers, to a ‘just-in-time’ distribution system stretched to breaking point. And while such moments undoubtedly present opportunities, they do so equally for those with the resources to consolidate positions of power.

The need to view all social and political issues through the lenses of inequality is not new, and our work only draws further attention to issues that social movements have been raising in struggles around the world. In light of the inequities and racisms laid bare by George Floyd’s killing by the police and the resulting mobilization of Black Lives Matters in the USA and beyond, it is clear that policy advocates and makers must redouble their commitment to centering anti-racism and food justice in their work.

The ‘double-punch’ of Brexit and COVID-19 is an important reminder that such ‘shocks’ do not stand in isolation in the development of food and agricultural systems. Like the famines and oil crises of the 1970s, they can combine to undermine more expansive, politically diverse visions of what agriculture is for. And more shocks are certainly on the horizon – not least the cascading crises brought by climate change, biodiversity loss and widening inequality.

Instead of being drawn into the vortex of this rather grim historical moment, we take this opportunity to underline the importance of being alive to the transformation that occurs beyond the narrow confines of elite ‘policy processes’. It is in social movements, community organizing, and grassroots struggles that we view the most powerful potential for change, and from where the most creativity and hope is emanating in these difficult times.

Source:  Resilience



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