A revolution for the food system

How can we reform the food system so that it produces the food we really need? With malnutrition – both starvation and obesity – causing devastating problems in society, Natalie Bennett discusses the systemic changes that need to take place to ensure the food system works for everyone.

Close up of agricultural crops
Close up of agricultural crops
Natalie Bennett

This is a world profoundly out of balance. As Greens we know that’s true in terms of our economy, operating for the one per cent not the 99 per cent, and our environment, which we are trashing while creating a miserable society.

But there are few areas where this is clearer than in the food system. When we think about the term ‘malnutrition’, the historical thought has been of hunger and starvation – and still nearly a billion people around the world regularly go to bed hungry.

But the World Health Organisation (WHO) is increasingly focusing on a different form of malnutrition: the consumption of excessive calories, demonstrated by the 1.5 billion people worldwide who are overweight (of whom 500 billion are obese). Many people are taking in more energy than they need – although quite possibly that’s because their bodies and minds are hungry for other things, from micronutrients to security, which their diets and lives are not delivering.

That’s not surprising when you look at the current nature of our food system.

It is well known, certainly to Greens, that we have to stop feeding grains and protein sources to animals, for reasons of food security, as well as the many issues arising from factory farming – animal welfare, nitrogen pollution, the spread of antibiotic resistance and climate change. This is food waste, something even Tories will tell you they want to reduce.

But what’s yet to really rise up our agenda – and it should – is how we reform the food system so that it produces the food we really need. The technical term for the food-growing side of this is ‘nutrition-sensitive agriculture’ – an approach to agriculture that focuses on making nutritionally rich, diverse and sustainable foods accessible to everyone.

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A large scale dairy farm
Modern intensive farming practices are not producing enough healthy food for everyone

 

Currently, if we think about why most farming takes place – what its primary product is – the answer is money. Farmers are in hock to banks for high-cost land, in debt to multinational seed and agrichemical companies, caught in a system that all too often forces them to ‘get big or get out’.

That’s not the choice of farmers. It is how the whole system is designed. Behind that is a post-WWII focus on producing calories.

Output is chiefly judged in these terms, even though industrial agriculture (including plant-based growing) has reached an astonishingly inefficient place, with up to 10 calories going into putting one calorie on your plate. (By contrast, a century ago, it was three calories out for each calorie in.)

Those plate calories now come from an extremely narrow range of sources – more than 50 per cent of them from four plants (wheat, rice, maize and soya), with a huge bulk from a tiny range of varieties. That’s not only incredibly dangerous in terms of food security – a single disease or pest that these plants can’t resist could wreak havoc – but also extremely bad for our health.

As we come to understand the importance of our microbiome (the microbes inside our bodies whose cells far outnumber our own), we’re increasingly understanding that a diverse diet is crucial to maintaining it, as well as to securing the full range of nutrients that we need.

What we need are more vegetables and fruit, lots more. The WHO says that for a healthy diet, the world needs to produce about double the quantities of fruit and vegetables it does now, and less grain and oils – a lot less if we stop feeding them to animals.

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Fruit and veg close up
The world needs to produce about double the quantities of fruit and vegetables it does now

 

“More food!” I hear some cry, “but where will we find the land to grow it?” We know we need to ‘rewild’ some of our current denuded countryside to prevent further collapse of our desperately nature-deprived land. We know that the UK is even worse than the global average when it comes to production, with 40 per cent of our fruit and vegetables imported, so we need to nearly quadruple production to get to healthy, self-sufficient levels.

Well, here’s where the good news comes in. There are case studies across Europe of how organic systems can produce huge quantities of food from very small spaces, replacing extensive chemical and energy inputs with human labour and skill. The book Miraculous Abundance is a great English-language source of information on this.

That’s not just great food, but also huge economic opportunities – good, skilled jobs, the chance for thousands of small businesses and cooperatives, food produced locally with very short supply chains boosting food security in an uncertain world.

Demanding changes to the food system is one way that we can start to crack apart the entire system.

But of course our current food system isn’t just growers. Between us and the growers there is a whole network of manufacturers producing processed foods, alongside the supermarkets that sell the vast majority of the food consumed at home in the UK.

They’re set up for big mass production, not small-scale local distribution. And they chiefly promote the highly processed, often high-calorie but low nutrient foods with the highest profit margins. Let’s call it what it is: junk food.

Moreover, in the time-poor UK, where we work the second-longest hours in Europe, while commuting for twice as long on average, it is hard for households to find the time and energy to prepare meals from scratch – that’s not an approach that is often promoted, in the adverts that assault us from every side for pop, crisps, alcohol and highly manufactured junk.

More than just a broken food system, we have a broken society and economy. But demanding changes to the food system is one way that we can start to crack apart the entire system.

Demanding healthy, fresh, local food that truly feeds us sounds like a relatively small ask in light of the changes we need in the world, but it is potentially a revolutionary one.

Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party, and a graduate in agricultural science

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