A new economic framework

By Dr John Clements

The contemporary economic system has broken the vital relationship between Land, Food and People. There is a crucial need to renew the system that has produced this breakdown. Brexit represents a propitious historical moment to respond decisively to a range of critical issues relating to the disproportionate empowerment of corporations, landowners and shareholders—an empowerment that has come at the cost of our national health, the democratic concerns of systemic stakeholders and the legitimate expectations of land-workers, in particular.

The figure below models and critiques the current economic system, using three overlapping circles, representing Land, Food, People and the crucial overlaps between them, of production, consumption and participation.

land-food-people

Land

The vast majority of UK land is owned by a tiny minority of the UK population. Wealthy landowners include: aristocratic families, the Anglican Church, the military, the government, utility companies and financial institutions. As a result, most agricultural land forms part of large estates, inevitably effecting how it is managed. Just 2% is built upon. Put simply, land ownership is undemocratic because the general population, even rural dwellers (and particularly land workers) have practically zero influence over how UK land is utilised—such as how to appropriately respond to the housing crisis.

People

The UK population is increasingly urbanised, so that even those who live outside of towns are increasingly resourced by urban services (surgeries, hospitals, supermarkets, shops etc). It is also increasingly diseased: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer etc. Our national health system is pharmaceutical-centric, yet drugs are generally unsuited to curing chronic disease, root causes of which lie in diet, lifestyle and environmental factors, leading to lifelong prescriptions: good for pharmaceutical corporations, bad for patients.

Food

The basic problem with the food we eat is nutritional. Many people, including (actually, particularly) obese people, are undernourished. Consuming a surplus of calories, yet lacking an adequate intake of healthy nutrients. Furthermore, there is endemic, damaging confusion about the pros and cons of carbohydrate and fat. “Time-poverty” has led to a perceived need for convenience, leading to the availability, promotion and use of processed foods and subsequent deterioration in the social value of food and food preparation as an integral element of family life.

Consumption

The relationship between food and people is dominated by supermarkets. Supermarkets, like all corporations, are driven by the need to create shareholder profits. When corporations calculate their profits, they typically ignore large, un-costed ecological consequences. Despite ubiquitous TV programming, fresh food preparation is an increasingly lost art in many homes, as well as hospitals, care-homes and schools.

Production

Currently, food production is based largely on an intensive, industrialised model, which relies upon exploiting ecological resources, in unsustainable ways, such as those that lead to soil nutrient erosion, widespread use of chemical pesticides, livestock welfare issues, flora, fauna diversity loss, ecological destruction, erosion, flooding etc. These economic patterns have also contributed to a general loss of social, economic, cultural diversity in rural regions.

Participation

The link between land and people is essentially broken: a whole generation of young people lack understanding about food origins, whilst urbanised populations associate “countryside” primarily with recreational activities and believe that countryside issues should be left to farmers to resolve. As allotments have disappeared, the growing of vegetables—once a national pastime—is now considered “quaint” and irrelevant, despite our nationally importing about 40% of our food, raising important issues of “food sovereignty”.

Is systemic renewal possible?

There are reasons to be hopeful. Fresh, innovative perspectives are being informed by emerging research, highlighting formerly-overlooked issues. Useful examples include: Common Wealth, by Martin Large1, Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken2 and Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth. 3

The figure below models some primary elements that need to be addressed if the current economic system is to be renewed in favour of creating one more appropriately weighted towards the holistic needs of the general population, systemic stakeholders (everyone holding a stake in any particular system) and land-workers, in particular.

land-food-people-2

Production

By focussing economic rewards on marginal, small and family farms, it becomes possible to move steadily towards environmentally-sustainable means of production, such as organic, biodynamic and permaculture. Local food production and distribution can go hand-in-hand with allowing more people to live on the land—as envisaged by Wales’ innovative—but currently under-utilised—One Planet Policy.

Consumption

A renaissance in freshly prepared, local, organic food, based around authentic nutritional knowledge and use of local food produce, will allow the relationship between food and people to be restored. Nutritious, (chemical) pesticide-free and organic food will contribute to better health amongst populations that partake—of special relevance to schools, care-homes and hospitals.

Participation

As people become increasingly ecologically aware, the possibility exists to integrate rural and urban living more holistically than before. Innovative expression such as Food Assemblies—now over 900 existing around Europe—such as the one I am involved in pioneering in Llanelli, and Community Supported Agriculture schemes, such as Banc Organics, established in the marginal land of the Gwendraeth Valley, herald unique opportunities for participation, including volunteering, education and potentially significantly higher employment rates per hectare, compared to intensive farming.

Summary

In comparing two economic models, I’ve highlighted a series of critical issues relating to the contemporary system in relation to land, food and people.

  • The first model illustrates how the current system “distributes” wealth to shareholders and landowners. It is my contention that the current state of the UK economy and health of the population-at-large confirms that in this scenario, there are few winners and many losers.
  • The second model illustrates the potential for reimagining and “redistributing” economic empowerment to stakeholders and land-workers. A scenario, I would contend, with the potential to create many winners, few losers. Getting there will require not only innovative thinking—thankfully, there is much of it about—but more importantly, a great deal of determined, pioneering action, coupled with political liberation from the shackles of the contemporary system—if there is to be any hope of significant change.
  1. Common Wealth—For a free, equal, mutual and sustainable society, 2010, Hawthorn Press, Stroud.
  2. Blessed Unrest—How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, 2007, Penguin Group, New York.
  3. Doughnut Economics—Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, 2017, Random House, London.

John Clements is based in Llanelli and writes at https://jbclements.wordpress.com

 

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Food: A conversation we can all take part in

By Rosa Robinson (published in the Western Mail & Wales Online 27 August 2015)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a food expert or an environmentalist. But I am worried that our food system is making us ill, that it’s harming nature, and that the most vulnerable people in society are the worst affected.

I’m troubled by the increase in diet-related illnesses (NHS data analysed by Diabetes UK reveals that diabetes had increased by almost 60% in the decade since 2005) and the increase in malnourishment, often going hand-in-hand with obesity.

I think it’s scandalous that people living in the UK—the 4th richest country in the world—are going hungry while food goes to waste. (The UK is the biggest producer of waste in the EU, throwing away over 14 million tonnes per year).

And I’m concerned that the way we’re producing food is compromising the earth’s capacity to provide us with food in the future.

The truth is that a lot of the food we eat is unhealthy, damaging to the environment, cruel to animals, and unfair to workers it depends on. It’s wasteful and unsustainable.

We need to change the way our food system works. We’re beginning by gathering opinions and experiences from people across Welsh society—academics, businesses and community groups—and we are identifying a list of practicable actions that government can take to support social, economic and environmental equity, through food. We’re writing a food manifesto for Wales.

By ‘we’ I mean a small but growing network of people who think sustainable food is important, and are contributing the time and skills needed to get the food manifesto idea off the ground.

The manifesto isn’t funded and isn’t owned by any particular person or organisation. That’s intentional – we want the manifesto to be developed collaboratively, with people working across society.

What should the Food Manifesto contain? The proposals in Professor Kevin Morgan’s recently published paper, Good Food For All provide an excellent place to start. The paper emphasises the importance of expertise in sustainable public procurement. It identifies the importance of the public purse in delivering value in its broadest sense—i.e. community benefit, training, jobs and other sustainability goals. And it recognises the importance of making ‘good food’ highly visible in the public sector by demonstrating commitment through a credible and recognised catering mark like Food For Life.

What should be included in a food manifesto doesn’t sound much like a dinner table discussion. It’s unlikely that deliberations about food systems, sustainability and ethics often seem relevant to everyday life—not when you’re trying to get dinner on the table for a hungry family—but it’s still vital that the significance of food at a family, neighbourhood and community level is addressed in any food manifesto that is written.

It’s vital because what matters to people – what people value – drives change.

There is substantial research from social psychology and other disciplines, which explains how values work. Values shape our identity and our society. Values influence what we do and how we feel. They connect people and issues. (If you’re interested in finding out more it’s worth looking up Common Cause).

Earlier this year I did a social research project, talking to people living in some of Wales’ least affluent communities about what food means to them. It means family. It means comfort. It’s a celebration. It’s an important part of culture. It’s about sharing with friends and neighbours. It’s about trust, fairness and friendship; it means home. It means nurturing and nourishing the people you love. It means the same things to them as it does to me, but we don’t often have these conversations about food or connect to that deeper meaning—the things we really value.

Food isn’t just a commodity. It brings families, friends and communities together. It connects us with the nature. It provides comfort and security. It builds skills, confidence and feelings of self worth. It increases resilience. These things make people thrive.

Food unites us. It’s a conversation everyone can take part in, and talking about food is how we can make sustainable development meaningful and relevant across society. By finding common ground and shared values we can build a collective commitment to creating a fair food system. This is what the Food Manifesto is all about.

Rosa Robinson is Director of the Work With Meaning Community Interest Company www.workwithmeaning.org.uk

Developing Sustainable Dietary Guidelines

by Pamela Mason

Wales should consider developing sustainable dietary guidelines. Like most existing dietary guidelines, dietary guidelines in the UK have a narrow view of how diet relates to health. In essence, they restrict the concept of diet to the amounts of nutrients contained in foods and the concept of health to the presence or absence of diseases caused by the lack or excess of of one or more nutrients in the diet. While the amounts of nutrients in foods and diets is of course relevant for health, this is only one of the characteristics of diets that are relevant to disease, health and well-being.

Foods and diets are more than carriers of nutrients. Foods are produced, transformed and supplied within food systems whose characteristics influence health through their impact on society and the environment. Food systems can be socially and environmentally sustainable promoting justice and protection of the living world. Alternatively they can create many types of inequity and threats to natural resources and biodiversity. At a social level, the context of eating, like when, why, where and with whom meals are consumed as well as the symbolic and emotional values of foods, dishes and meals contribute to the enjoyment of eating, the building of memories and customs and the strengthening of relationships and connections, all of which are important to health and well-being.

Conventional dietary guidelines treat foods as mere carriers of nutrients, so understating the relationship between diet and well-being. They treat foods as mere carriers of nutrient, overlook the cultural dimensions of diet and typically fail to consider the link between diet and the social and environmental sustainability of food systems. Healthy, sustainable dietary guidelines derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.

In Wales, we need sustainable dietary guidelines that take into account not only the nutrient content of food and diet, but also the impact of the means of production and distribution of food on social justice and environmental integrity. The Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is about improving the social, environmental, economic and cultural well-being of Wales and sustainability must be embedded into everything public sector bodies in Wales do. Given that food is essential to, and at the centre of, life sustainability should also be built into the food system across Wales. Sustainable Dietary Guidelines would help to improve the availability of healthy, sustainable food choices and hence, over time, a more sustainable food system fit for the 21st century.