A new era of food alliances?

Imagine a world that was set up so your food came directly from farmers or co-operatives ensuring a fair price to the producer, perhaps via a zero waste locally-owned supermarket. Any household waste is collected by a state-run system that distributes it to community fridges, where anyone is free to collect extras or deposit their surplus. Any further leftovers are composted and then delivered to community allotments, where children and families spend quality time together outdoors and produce some of their own food.

Naïve, perhaps. Unrealistic, maybe. But potentially worth thinking about, as all those things are already happening on a local scale somewhere in the country, as communities everywhere respond to a global food system that perhaps doesn’t offer everything they need or want. But what if those local initiatives joined together and became part of a national food policy?

An urban farm in Chicago, US. (Creative Commons)

Speaking at last week’s Food Ethics Council conference, held to celebrate its 20th anniversary, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said: “Our food systems are in crisis. We have been buying and developing a low-cost food economy, that is to say, the idea of lowering the cost of food for households.”

This system has been quite successful in increasing food production, according to De Schutter, but it has failed on a number of grounds, including environmental impact; a decline in the number of farms as smaller farmers are priced out of the economies of scale model; and the public health impact of a food system that favours large-scale processed food businesses.

In his keynote speech, De Schutter discussed various ‘solutions’ to the problem, including new alliances between alternative food networks that could pave the way for a fairer and more sustainable food system.

There has been an “extraordinary rise” in the number of community food initiatives, De Schutter said, noting ideas such as urban agriculture, local supply networks and community fridges.

The problem is that many of these new food movements are driven by different ideas and do not represent a united alternative, he said, meaning they are unlikely to operate at a scale that can really change a food system.

“The food movements that produces these citizen-led innovations are still quite divided, they have different messages and slogans, and they are centred around different ideas such as food justice, agro ecology, or food sovereignty,” said De Schutter.

“For the moment they are not really coming together, but over the past five or six years there has been a major transformation in this respect.

“For example, in Europe we are seeing anti-hunger groups who are now forming alliances with groups of small farmers,” he said. “They see that low-cost food is making families unhealthy, and the food system is not providing the nutritious food that even poor people have a right to.”

Olivier De Schutter is the former UN special rapporteur on the right to food

Alternative food networks do have limitations aside from scale, De Schutter warned, as ‘citizen-led’ food initiatives can be used as an excuse for the state to ignore its own responsibilities, such as a community urban farm allowing a city council to say it is developing a sustainable food supply.

Other trends that are shaping a future food system include new forms of food activism and the ability for consumers to easily and effectively voice concerns online, the “awakening” of cities to the question of sustainable food, and the rise of national food policies.

De Schutter said political systems are largely unable to make necessary changes due to the fact larger food businesses are able to influence decision-makers to ensure food policies benefit the existing system. “We need to address the question of power in food policy. Food systems answer the needs of the incumbents,” he said.

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