The UK is in dire need of improvement to its food production and distribution systems, much of the population is in food poverty and access to healthy unprocessed food is a luxury many cannot afford. Meanwhile, domestic food production systems are rife with unsustainable practices focussed around short term extraction of profit. Soil erosion, wildlife decline and the pollution of water courses are common problems, meanwhile the country imports and then wastes a huge quantity of fresh produce because supermarkets are unwilling to accept the seasonality of agriculture in a temperate climate.
These are issues, says the Communist Party of Britain’s Environment Commission, which should be being tackled in the government’s new Food Strategy, sadly however, this does not seem to be the case. The new strategy has much in common with the old strategy; a series of weak reforms which do nothing to challenge the highly exploitative and environmentally damaging way in which we produce our food.
The government seems to believe that the UK should maintain current production levels, which presumably means continuing to import a huge portion of the food the country needs from oppressed nations in the global south – hardly a strategy for greater resilience from global issues such as climate change and war in key food producing areas. Nothing is proposed in relation to tackling the third of food which is wasted in this country, where measures to force supermarkets and food distributors to eliminate their wasteful cosmetic standards and redistribute unsold food to community projects and low income households which would do so much more to tackle sustainability and access to healthy food. Legislation like this would bring the UK into line with other European countries who have employed similar strategies in tackling food waste with great success, but this government is unwilling to do anything to hold the capitalist class to account for their environmentally and socially destructive practices.
The strategy claims to back farmers, but it does nothing to challenge the monopoly of the supermarkets who will, counter to the government’s stated goal of ‘levelling up’ farming, continue their exploitation of farmers and farm workers in the pursuit of profit. This ‘levelling up’ is said to focus on skills with the aim to “create a new professional body for the farming and growing industry to step up professional training and develop career pathways” – something that was traditionally one of the roles the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) which was abolished by the coalition government in 2013. Meanwhile the government do nothing to tackle the casualisation of the industry, the exodus of young people from farming and the ongoing crisis of farm closures – all of which has led to a loss of skills in the first place.
The strategy also sets out to increase the number of visas available to migrant farm workers; rank hypocrisy given the Tory government’s appalling policy of exporting asylum seekers to Rwanda (all while forbidding them to work in this country). It also runs counter to the stated desire to level up skills in farming – something which would be better achieved by tackling the decline in wages since the abolition of the AWB and improving working conditions in UK farming to create incentives for workers to get involved in this vital industry. However this would no doubt affect the bottom line of the capitalists who currently do so well off cheap, highly exploitable labour from overseas. The government’s refusal to make positive changes – preferring to allow the continued brutal exploitation of workers – lays bare whose side the government is on, showing clearly that they are still firmly on the side of big businesses and all this document does is pay lip service to necessary social change.
Much of the health aspect of the food strategy seems to rely on the idea of ‘educating’ the working class on how to make healthy food choices. This is patronising and misguided. The government is refusing to acknowledge the correlation between income and obesity/poor health in favour of buying into the classist myth of feckless people who ‘don’t know how to eat salad’. This and the sugar tax are an attack on working people. Rather than forcing industry to improve the health standards of its products, or subsidising the cost of healthier food choices the government is simply increasing the price of unhealthy goods, contributing to the ever increasing cost of living. Nothing is done to address the increasing cost of basic goods – a pressing concern evidenced by the growing reliance by many on foodbanks.
The strategy mentions the government’s desire to maintain food and animal welfare standards but also says that the animal welfare provisions will be based on labelling so that UK consumers can buy food which meets UK standards if they wish, this implies that the government will allow imports or production of food which currently don’t meet our food standards, undermining their claim and potentially allowing a back door influx of cheap, low quality food which will further cripple the bottom line of this country’s farmers, leading to more farm closures and greater monopolisation of UK farming and potentially create a class divide on food standards where food which meets the current standards will become a luxury out of reach of many low income households. There are also likely to be much lower standards of food bought and prepared in institutions where consumers don’t get a choice over food standards such as schools and hospitals due to budgetary considerations brought about by decreasing funding of local authorities and the NHS.
Britain’s Communists say this strategy is woefully inadequate. It does nothing to tackle the root causes of the issues in our food system and merely pays lip service to measures to help improve the health of working people. Without a strategy which takes control of food production and distribution away from the monopoly capitalists there will be no solution to the problems which plague our food systems.