Dear Friends and Colleagues
How Food Democracy Can Transform Food Systems For The Better
The failings of the current industrialised food systems run by corporate giants are clear. Yet, these industrial food systems are locked in place, with current and future trajectories already defined by past choices made in the interest of export-led agriculture, and that primarily benefit the largest agrifood corporations controlling global supply chains. Meanwhile, the needs of small-scale farmers, producing food crops to feed their own communities or to serve local markets, have been largely neglected.
Change in food systems cannot, however, come from consumers, companies or governments alone. An article by Olivier de Schutter emphasises that what is required is not simply new ways of consuming food, but for people to change their relationship to food systems more fundamentally; to shift from being consumers to being citizens. Bottom-up citizen-led initiatives are springing up around the world, including community-supported agriculture (CSA), in which people contribute to support local farmers by entering into direct producer-to-consumer marketing schemes, joint management of community vegetable gardens, and fair trade schemes.
The author puts forward the concept of food democracy where people from all walks of life reassert themselves as legitimate stakeholders in the policies that determine the food they eat. It means that specific bodies should be established, in which various stakeholders construct a diagnosis of the food systems on which they depend and develop proposals for reform. Food policy councils of this sort have developed since the 1980s in the United States and Canada, and more recently in the UK and other parts of Europe. They have also been institutionalised in a number of Latin American countries.
Recommendations emanating from food policy councils can help to shape the market realities and supportive policies that will allow grassroots initiatives to truly flourish. This revolution holds the key to breaking current cycles and putting food systems onto genuinely sustainable footing.
uniformity to diversity, and from consumers to citizens: a dual transition
The significance of this buyout is not to be under-estimated. Too often, healthy and sustainable diets remain out of the reach of poor families or those living in areas with few fresh grocery stores. However, it also speaks to the illusory nature of change in food systems.
A private sector-led transformation of food systems has long been heralded. Turning to new players offering new scale advantages has long been the agri-food industry’s preferred response, both in terms of adapting to new market conditions and addressing challenges such as sustainability. New players entering the chain, so the ideal assumptions, will push the change. However, successive shifts in the industry have tended to reinforce the cheap commodity complex that underpins food systems and leaves a devastating social and environmental toll.
Ever-more concentrated and large-scale retailers generally prefer to source from large wholesalers and large processing firms, leading to a mutual reinforcement, often seen as a price-race to the bottom. In addition, large buyers can use their bargaining power to compress costs or pass them down the chain. The farmers who do gain access are systematically squeezed, and forced to scale up and shift to input-intensive monocultures in order to provide the requisite volumes of uniform crop commodities. Globalisation has accelerated concentrations with mergers and acquisitions of multinational industry players in agri-chemistry, commodities and food processing leading to dependencies and uniformity in our food systems.
That is not to say that nothing is changing. Indeed, there is no shortage of companies who are willing to shift this baseline upwards in the interests of sustainability – particularly when the customers on whom they rely are demanding it. However, the unfortunate reality is that where it is not profitable to invest in sustainability policies, companies may not do so. The ‘business case’ itself is a fragile one, given the costs that might be required to shift practices meaningfully - potentially translating into higher prices. As seen above, this runs against the key imperative of compressing commodity prices, seeking economies of scale and driving prices down at all costs.
If private companies are not well-placed to spark the shift, can consumers meaningfully reshape food systems themselves? Much has been written in recent years about the ‘consumerist turn’ and the increasing power of the fork to drive the farm. Increasing sales of organic and Fair Trade produce, among other ethical and sustainable sourcing initiatives, testify to this significant shift. However, here again, there are important limitations to such a wholesale consumer-led transition. Firstly, the tastes and consumption habits of the average consumer remain those that years of industrialisation and globalization have shaped. Moreover, today’s consumers have little time to spend buying food and cooking.
Others, still, look to governments to spark the shift to sustainable food systems - or at least to ensure that developments in the agri-food industry are serving the public good. Indeed, governments have a crucial role to play in aligning economic incentives (e.g. taxes and subsidies) with the requirements of sustainability. They could also support good practices, and reward the ecosystem services provided by sustainable agricultural production: attempts at valuing such services or, conversely, at ‘full cost-accounting’ of the impacts of industrial food systems, prepare the ground for such interventions.
Governments could also tackle imbalances of power in food chains. Democratically governed farmers’ cooperatives could allow smaller-size farming units to have better access to markets and to strengthen their bargaining position vis-à-vis both input suppliers and buyers. And they could use competition law to address the question of concentration or abuses of dominant position.
But governments, in turn, are constrained by the underlying dynamics and power relations in food systems. Policy decisions are only the topsoil of a complex ecosystem. For decades, governments have interpreted their duty to deliver the public good as a duty to support competitive industrial agriculture and the cheap calories it yields. The expectation of cheap food from consumers, combined with the strong ability of farmers to lobby for the preservation of their interests, has led to a system in which high subsidies remain in place, mostly rewarding the larger-size farms. It would hardly be possible for politicians to campaign on a platform of higher food prices. Indeed, cheap calories are sacrosanct and locked in by broader social policies, or the lack of them: until now cheap food has functioned as a de facto substitute for redistributive social policies that would allow all families, including low-income families, to have access to healthy diets.
What emerges is a picture of industrial food systems that are locked in place. The challenges are urgent and the failings of current food systems increasingly clear. Yet, the various components of food systems have co-evolved and have now become mutually supportive, meaning that choices made a long way in the past continue to define current and future trajectories. Investments in research and development and in infrastructure have been made in the interest of export-led agriculture, benefiting primarily the largest agrifood corporations controlling global supply chains, or (increasingly) by these private actors themselves. Meanwhile, the needs of small-scale farmers, producing food crops to feed their own communities or to serve local markets, have been largely neglected.
These decisions, in turn, are reinforced by the intellectual edifice - the way of thinking - built around industrial food systems. For example, the way we define food security and the way we measure success in food systems tends to reflect what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver - not what really matters in terms of building sustainable food systems. Measuring the yields of specific crops, or productivity per worker, tends to favour large-scale industrial monocultures and to under-value the benefits of alternative systems. As such, we tend to ignore the ample benefits offered by diversified agroecological systems, often practiced by smaller farms. These can include higher total outputs taking all crops cultivated in combination; greater resilience to shocks; more diversity resulting in improved nutritional quality; and the provision of ecosystem services on and off the farm.
In this context, change in food systems cannot come from consumers, companies or governments alone. The Amazon buyout promises to update the roster of dominant players in food systems, and to usher in new modes of delivery. But it offers little in terms of meaningful change in the logic underpinning food systems. Indeed, logistics firms and e-retail giants like Amazon are merely assuming the role that has previously been played by traditional retailers, processing giants, grain traders and state marketing boards before them.
How then, might change occur, and from where? What is required is not simply new ways of consuming food, but for people to change their relationship to food systems more fundamentally. In other words, they must shift from being consumers to being citizens. Bottom-up citizen-led initiatives are springing up around the world, including community-supported agriculture (CSA), in which people contribute to support local farmers by entering into direct producer-to-consumer marketing schemes, joint management of community vegetable gardens, and fair trade schemes.
While dwarfed by the scale of mergers and acquisitions in the global agri-food industry, these social innovations may yet prove to be more significant in the long run. They are calling into question the fundamental assumptions of the industrial food model, proving that people value equity and sustainability over price alone, and are willing to play an active role in building the food systems they want. It must not be forgotten that unsustainable practices and misaligned incentives are locked into food systems at every turn. Steps to circumvent the multiple middlemen of food systems, e.g. through direct marketing schemes, may therefore be the only way to truly change food systems. Beyond those participating directly, the new logics and preferences embodied in these schemes can force all actors in the food system to rethink their positions, and to cast off the assumption that there is nothing to be done.
However, a shift to sustainable food systems also requires parallel shifts in policy. Ultimately, consumer and retail revolutions versus policy-led change may be a false dichotomy. People from all walks of life must reengage with politics beyond elections, reasserting themselves as legitimate stakeholders in the policies that determine the food we eat. This is food democracy. This does not simply mean that elected politicians should work in the public interest, and avoid capture by special interests. It means, rather, that specific bodies should be established, in which various stakeholders of the food systems construct a diagnosis of the food systems on which they depend and develop proposals for reform.
Food policy councils of that sort have developed since the 1980s in the United States and Canada, and more recently in the UK and other parts of Europe. They have been institutionalised in a number of Latin American countries, with Brazil taking a leading role in this regard. Many are established at the local or municipal level, often at the initiative of municipal authorities; others have been set up as initiatives of civil society; and some States show examples of food policy councils established at national level.
This development is important and promising, because of the potential for food democracy to overcome the obstacles to reform identified above. Recommendations emanating from food policy councils can both broaden the imagination of elected politicians and ensure that they will be held accountable if they fail to consider solutions that have shown their potential in real-life experiments. In turn, such recommendations can help to shape the market realities and supportive policies that will allow grassroots initiatives to truly flourish. This revolution may not be as eye-catching as the mega-mergers of the agri-food industry, but it promises to be just as disruptive. And crucially, it holds the key to breaking current cycles and putting food systems onto genuinely sustainable footing.