Sue Pritchard assesses risks and opportunities for a resilient food system
26th May 2022
Climate, Covid, Conflict – and the power of community to set a new path
Speech given at the University of Exeter's Food Research Network
Next to me on my desk are my aged copies of Only One Earth, by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos, commissioned by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, alongside Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows, the best-selling ecology book of all time, both now a full fifty years old. They painted the scenarios that would unfold in the following 100 years, if humanity did not act on the evidence of the growing ecological and economic crises.
And here we are, half way through that once long term timeframe. Climate shocks are more frequent and extreme in number, from storms and floods, to droughts and fires. Nature is collapsing, with species loss accelerating, or out of balance, with swarms of pests decimating crops. Parts of the world are becoming unliveable, with wet-bulb temperatures in India approaching the point which kills people. Powerful countries go to war, or buy up land in other countries, to shore up territory and secure access to increasingly scarce resources. People leave their homes, or are displaced, to try to get to safer places. Affluent countries can no longer insulate themselves against the ensuing global shocks and start to experience increasing poverty and inequality. The international institutions, set up decades ago to broker some sense of global responsibility, for peace and a more sustainable future, struggle to mediate the conflicts of interests.
These multiple crises, as both Ward and Meadows explained in 1972, are fundamentally interconnected, created from our inability to see systems. As Meadows said, “There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.”
We have known for a long time the risks in front of us. It has been a perilously slow path to arrive at a fragile global consensus on the ecological crises we now face. Yet, in response to the latest manifestations of these – coronavirus, conflict in Ukraine – too many so called ‘solutions’ are a rapid retreat to more of the old business as usual activities. Fossil fuel companies are revising their pledges to slow up and end coal, oil and gas extraction, in the name of “energy security”. Industrial agriculture is doubling down on intensive production and land clearances, citing “food security”. In the UK, commentators and MPs alike are pressuring government to hold back on introducing policies to improve diet related ill health, to “help the cost-of-living crisis”.
All of which brings us to a curious place where the right and left appear to be aligning around the pause button… The right-wing ERG appears to be reforming around a new Net Zero Scrutiny Group, opposing their own government’s policies. Labour and the Lib Dems are calling on government to slow down the transition to Environment Land Management schemes, to help struggling farm businesses, but potentially jeopardising moves to restore the ecologies of the farmed landscape. Jay Rayner criticizes “middle class obsessions with small scale agriculture, organics and localism”, undermining the efforts of all the regenerative farmers and community groups who are already working for more sustainable futures. And everywhere I went over the weekend, I found fields ploughed right up to their edges in response to the looming grain crisis, where just last year, farmers were leaving 2m habitat corridors and riparian buffer zones…
Fritjof Capra said: “The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realise that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.”
The fundamental challenge to governments everywhere is this. We will not solve these multiple and interdependent crises by reverting to old and siloed solutions. In fact, many of the proposed solutions, acting on single issues or metrics, will themselves create consequences that could be more destructive than the problems they are intended to solve. Consider the growth of synthetic proteins, intended to provide an answer to the growing global demand for meat. Its advocates argue that this could reduce or eliminate industrial livestock production of cheap meat in the giant poultry and pig sheds, and ‘concentrated animal feeding operations’, which are so damaging to the environment and to animal welfare, and ultimately, for people’s health. This would be a good thing. Yet, critics ask, will this development simply consolidate power and control of the food system in a few global agribusinesses, who are already deeply implicated in creating the very problems we now have to solve? How will such products affect human health, when all the evidence suggests that people need to eat much less over-processed and packaged food, and eat much more seasonal, fresh, diverse, whole foods, all essential to a healthy microbiome? Picking another dilemma; advocates for organic and extensive livestock systems (which improve animal welfare, remove reliance on synthetic fertilizers through better use of organic manures, and provide nutritious produce in short supply chains) struggle with the issue of the land take required for the widespread use of such systems - unless we also tackle the connected issues of food waste and diet change. In tackling one (pressing) problem, the solution can throw up a whole new set. And it is generally citizens and tax payers – now and future generations - who continue to shoulder the risk and pay for the ‘externalised’ costs.
Moreover, alongside all the talk of solutions – the novel innovations to help grow our way of these crises – we now have to face into the equally essential task of ‘hospicing’ the old – that is, helping destructive and outdated sectors – and indeed ideas - to ‘die well’ and come to an end. This is – arguably – the more difficult part of the challenges ahead, but inherent in the work for a just transition.
Which prompts the question: are there are some sectors that the world simply cannot afford anymore? Those businesses whose core models rely entirely on externalising their impacts - on the climate, on nature, on people’s health and wellbeing - whilst accruing huge profits for themselves? Chief amongst them are fossil fuel businesses. Investors and shareholder activists are rightly focussing their attention on disinvesting from coal, oil and gas and focussing world attention on how to rapidly exit the sector. Then there is the global industrial agri-food sector. The links between these two are increasingly clear, with its reliance on synthetic chemicals derived from fossil fuels and the long supply chains enabled by them – some say that our current food system is fossil fuel on a plate. But thus far, the food system has managed to avoid the same focussed and aligned scrutiny from shareholders.
Perhaps this is because it has been built on an economic narrative which asserts that it is the best for providing “abundant quantities of affordable food for everyone”. But such a laudable aim has become corrupted - commodified and financialised. Global food businesses have now normalised an operating model which is predicated on asking; how many ways can we make a profit out of the thing that everyone needs, every day, reducing and externalising costs, through intensive production of fewer commodities, developing ultra-processed, over-packaged novel foods (which exploit human appetites for sweet and rich tastes) and using sophisticated marketing techniques to persuade us to buy more than we need. But here’s the thing. Whilst food has become cheaper and more abundant, food security has become more fragile. The UK has the third cheapest basket of food in the developed economies, but the worst food poverty in all Europe. Worse still, many workers in this sector are doing precarious, low paid, exploitative work, leaving them reliant on state benefits or charities to eat (another example of externalising the cost of cheap food onto the benefit system).
In the last five years, the fragility of our food system has been revealed through crisis after crisis. Climate impacts, a global pandemic, geo-political conflicts, not to mention the UK’s self-imposed burden of navigating changing trading relationships with its nearest neighbour…
In a sector which is critical for all of us – which is foundational to human life – how can we start to tackle these multiple and interconnected crises, not in a piecemeal or siloed way, but which starts to tackle all the interdependent root causes?
FFCC commissioned Chatham House’s report, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, from Professor Tim Benton and Dr Helen Harwatt. It affirms we cannot hope to make long term, sustainable change to a globalised food system, with fewer unintended consequences unless we fully consider all components of it. It reveals for us one of the flaws in the current debates; that unless we also consider the economics of the food system – the assumptions we make about demand, as well as supply – we risk embarking on a pathway which will fail to tackle the material problems and likely create a whole heap more. Further, they confirm that the problems in front of us can not be solved by the environment science alone. “Which narrative of sustainable agriculture will be adopted in future… will not be determined by their scientific evidence bases. Instead, it will depend on a political and ideological process.”
So where do we go from here…?
The issues are too complex, too contested, too nuanced and too overwhelming to be left to one or two hero leaders. Instead, it requires thoughtful, deliberative, engaged, participatory scholarship with citizens voices at the centre. And this requires us to confront the most toxic of the prevailing narratives, weaponised by those who cling to regressive Business as Usual ideas. They say: “People don’t care about all this stuff. All consumers want is enough cheap food.” And worse: “We make the food that poor people can afford. We’re the ‘good guys’ who really care about them; anything else is a middle-class privilege.” The inference in this kind of argument should enrage us: people’s poverty and insecurity is being manipulated to shore up a dysfunctional food system, in which the poor already bear the brunt of its environmental and ill-health impacts.
The good news is that people do care. We know this because we can draw on the experience of many citizen assemblies, ‘food systems dialogues’, citizen juries and public engagement to demonstrate it. Our work, with Local Trust and Big Local with 150 of the poorest communities in the UK, and in our Field Guide for the Future, tells stories of people getting on with making changes. They all demonstrate that, with the right information, evidence and involvement, people in communities come to balanced, fair and plausible – and similar - recommendations. They want to see a fair food system that rewards farmers and growers, and food workers, that prioritises healthy food for people, produced in ways that do not harm the planet.
Meanwhile, people are already doing things. Often far from ‘old power’, they are ploughing on with work that makes sense to them and their values. From farmers choosing to change their practices, adopting regenerative, organic or nature friendly practices; to people in communities developing more dignified, inclusive and responsive approaches to poverty, through community kitchens and cafes, redistributing food ‘surplus’, helping people through crises, providing materials and teaching new skills. These projects also confront the idea that ‘the poor’ are somehow a homogenous group, with single concerns, but rather are members of communities, with different needs and perspectives, and who are, when out of crisis, as just as concerned with their health, their family’s health, and their future wellbeing, in a changing climate. It is in these communities that the creative, respectful, and responsive designs for a good life are co-created and enacted – ultimately more resilient and adaptive to whatever scenario may unfold…
Meanwhile “global leaders” are meeting again in Davos. Among other things, they are concerned that they are witnessing the end of globalism and the rise of nationalism. To some extent they may be right, and arguably not before time, when globalisation has proved to be less a route for ‘trickling down’ wealth and opportunity, and more ‘hoovering up’ resources to the already rich and privileged. But we should resist a return to insular nationalism. It is right that the global north takes more responsibility for meeting its own needs, within its ecological conditions, without exporting environmental impacts or depleting the resources of the global south. It is fair and just that the global north rebalances the way we use our scarce planetary resources more equitably towards the global south, who struggle to meet the basic needs of people in their own countries.
We also need strong and aligned global governance to moderate the power of global businesses and billionaires – a new internationalism which evens up the relationships between the global and the local, the rich and the poor, which works to hold together the fragile global consensus and accelerate action on climate, nature and a just transition to a more sustainable world.
Therefore another important lever is shareholder action. Activist shareholders in global businesses - those willing to take a long and wide view on shareholder value – must scrutinise food businesses more thoroughly, appraising their claims and testing their impacts – asking who benefits, and who really pays?
Back to the Chatham House report: “To enable more sustainable agriculture and food systems does require changes in governance. These might come from changing citizen attitudes and consumption behaviour, which can politicize the need for change and create the political space for decision-makers to engage. They might also originate in disruptive events that undermine the resilience of the system to such an extent that large-scale change quickly becomes possible.”
Fifty years on from Only One Earth, “disruptive events” are our new normal; citizens are rightly asking serious questions. Institutional leaders – in corporations and in government – risk getting left behind. This is not time to slow down, but to double down in our resolve to act courageously on the root causes. We are seeing a quiet movement growing, where people are rising to the challenges, with grounded and practical leadership, in their communities. Can our political leaders catch up?