Food Policies

Summaries of two Food reports

The United Nations Report on the Right to Food (published January 2014)

Brief Summary:

Written by the UN Special Rapporteur, Olivier de Schutter, based on research visits to 4 low-income, 8 middle-income and one high-income (Canada) countries, and on the principle that all people have the right to adequate food, by growing their own, or by having sufficient income or social benefits to buy what they need.

In the 20th century food policies gave priority to increasing food production, but this did not reduce the number of people going hungry (except as a percentage of the world’s population), has caused increasing obesity in rich countries, and serious environmental damage (soil erosion, CO2 and nitrous oxide emissions etc).  Levels of fishing and meat production are unsustainable (70% of agricultural land is used now for grazing or animal fodder and meat production contributes between a fifth and half of all human-caused greenhouse gases).  Structural Adjustment Programmes have added to these problems, by transferring power from governments to private enterprise.  Many poor countries now depend on food imports, especially for their growing urban populations, from rich countries’ surplus production.  These surpluses are produced by highly mechanised farming which is heavily subsidised (by nearly $260 billion worldwide in 2012), and extravagant in its use of fossil fuels (both for powering machinery and producing chemical fertilizers), so adding to climate-change through greenhouse gases.

Support for small-scale farming is vital:  they more easily adopt sustainable and ecological methods (though this is not impossible on larger farms) and can create rural employment.  But they need protection against competition, and support for co-operation to achieve economies of scale.  Small farms near to cities are important for supplying urban areas, but there needs to be increased purchasing power (from urban industrial and service workers) to enable this to happen.  Social benefits (to cover unemployment, illness etc) can allow the price of food and the rewards of farming to rise, but at present three-quarters of the world’s population lack these benefits.

Curbs are needed on the expansion of crops grown for fuel (mandated and subsidised in both the USA and the EU), on luxury cash crops grown for export (to pay off foreign debt), and on food wastage (in poorer countries mainly due to lack of good storage facilities).  The development of sustainable food policies needs the participation of those who are most directly affected by such policies: small-holders, migrants, urban and agricultural workers etc, and above all women.


A People’s Food Policy:  transforming our food system (published July 2017)

The Main Points of the Report:

The UK Government is bound by international law to secure the right to food for all its people- but there have been large increases in malnutrition, hunger and the use of food banks-  an estimated 8 million people today experience food insecurity.  The “industrial” food model has led to a crisis in England’s diets, where highly processed and low nutrient foods are widely available and easily accessible.  As a result, for example, a third of all elderly people admitted to hospital are at risk of malnutrition (elderly women are twice as likely as men to be malnourished).

Supermarkets drive down prices paid to farmers and distort our understanding of the real costs of producing food.  This era of ‘cheap food’ consistently sees producers’ livelihoods and businesses becoming precarious, and the sector is increasingly made up of a labour force faced with long hours, low wages, and short-term contracts.  We need better ways of ensuring fair prices for farmers.  Meanwhile the UK is a net importer of food products, totalling £39.6 billion in 2014.

Today over 50% of farm business income depends on subsidy, while policies coming from different government departments tend to be developed in isolation from each other.  Under the current Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) rules, subsidy depends on the number of hectares owned and maintained in a state fit for cultivation.  These subsidies are not available to small farms with less than five hectares (12 acres) of land.  So Brexit could represent an opportunity to create a better food policy that guarantees everyone’s right to food, provided the Government re-thinks its policies. Meanwhile, at a local level, Food Councils, Food Partnerships and Food Strategies are becoming more common, with community food growing and urban agriculture expanding in all parts of England.

Basing food policies on the concept of “food security” is not adequate- it merely refers to the result that everyone has enough food, which may include from charitable giving.  A better concept is that of “food sovereignty”, which is supported by those worst affected by the current food system, and which includes a strong democratic control and participatory governance over our food system.  Within such a system farming subsidies would use public money to support farms that are producing good food while also protecting and improving the natural resources that farming depends on.  This would imply a revival in small- and medium-scale farming, where greenhouse gas emissions have been cut to a third of 2010 levels through the uptake of ecological food production methods.  It would also imply a substantial increase in the agricultural labour force, and priority for food-growing given to land around cities, by means of zoning and taxation policies.


The “People’s Food Policy” includes sections on Governance, Food Production, Health, Land, Labour, Environment, Knowledge, Trade, and Finance.  Each section includes a Vision of the desirable future, the case for change, and detailed policy proposals to achieve that change.  We hope to look at these in more detail on March 3rd.


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