The Food Ethics Council is 20 years old this year. And to celebrate the fact it held an interesting afternoon’s workshop last week with, as its key speaker, the Professor of International Human Rights, Olivier de Schutter, who served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food from 2008 to 2014.
It is generally accepted that our food supplies worldwide are not in great shape. Billions go hungry, millions of our children are obese, food security (knowing that you will have enough to eat) is no longer a given even in the first world – and that is before you look at climate change or our plummeting bio-diversity.
This is obviously a hugely complex situation but much of the blame is currently being put on the drive for low cost foods back in the 1950s and 60s, bringing in its wake the ultimately disastrous green revolution and the retreat of subsistence economies in the face of growing food for cash.
The basic failure of this approach was to assume that if food was cheap families would eat well. But cheap food does not equate with good or nutritious food.
However the drive for cheap food has resulted in huge multinational food companies who produce just that – cheap but un-nutritious food. As a result they have a massive vested interest in continuing to do so. So, how to move forward…
A few notes on Olivier de Schutter’s presentation:
There are three main drivers of corporate decisions:
- The financialisation of the economy
- Financial incentives for top company executives
- Gobal competition
Although it would be heart warming to think that Corporate Social Responsibility was amongst those drivers, realistically, while it remains important to reward good practices, it will not seriously influence the final decisions.
If we want to change this situation, how to do so?
- Do we need it to implode so that we can start again and do it better? But, that rarely works as no matter how good the intentions, all too often the rebuild is merely rerun of the original.
- Do we work for a partial change in the existing system by cooperating with those who currently control it?
- Do we work from within the system – making alliances and creating innovation that will change it from the bottom up?
The third option seems to be the way that most activists are now going. Although the food movement remains quite divided into special interest groups (food justice, food democracy, food sovereignty, right to food, agro-ecology etc) there is an opportunity for these groups to come together and create new alliances. And much is already happening across the world where local groups are no longer prepared to use traditional forms of protests such as voting politically or even ‘voting with their shopping baskets’.
- Over 150 cities worldwide are now implementing their own food policies in order to create their own sustainable food systems. These include urban farms, social groceries, peoples’ fridges, incredible edibles and many more.
- There is a realisation in many countries/states/cities that they really do not have a food policy. They have agricultural policies, health policies, environmental policies – but no food policy which pulls them all together.
- As ‘food democracy’ grows and more people are becoming involved, so it is becoming institutionalised – which in turn is giving it a stronger voice in the corridors of power.
A note on food cultures. As the need for food programmes emerges worldwide so does a divergence in approach. So while US or UK food programmes focus entirely on the nutritional content of the food, in countries with a stronger food culture (countries like Brazil for example) eating together, eating at certain times or preparing food at home are as important in the context of the food programme as the nutritional content of the food itself.
Notes from other speakers who took part:
Professor Liz Dowler, a long standing member of the Food Ethics Council, pointed out that 50% of today’s teenagers do not eat at home but in food service outlets of one sort or another. There is therefore a huge opportunity to work with these outlets to improve food/nutritional awareness and involvement.
She also pointed out that the biggest users of payday loans after NHS staff are those who work for the major food retailers. Our nutritional/health crises have little to do with availability of cheap food but much to do with low incomes.
James Whetlor of Cabrito. James is a chef of some years’ standing, at the River Cottage and elsewhere. Aware that 50% of the goats that are born in the UK are billies and so are put down because they are no use for milking, he has pioneered the use of goat meat in the home but especially in the restaurant trade thus creating a far more sustainable goat farming industry.
He also pointed out that there is currently a huge divide between chefs/the food service industry and rural suppliers which needs to be bridged. Moreover, the significant number of chefs between the ages of 35 and 45 who leave the industry because chef-ing is simply not compatible with family life, are ideally placed to make those connections.
There was also general consensus that young people, should be given more space to innovate within food systems, rather than being preached to! Not only in food systems….