A Social Ecology of Food


The relocalisation of food isn't just a bulwark against the contamination of our social life by supermarkets, Big Farming and Big Pharma, it's an opportunity to recreate citizenship and to foster international solidarity through food sovereignty.

From the Problem of Chemicals in our Food System, to Bhopal, from Fordist fast-food to contemporary urban agriculture, food has been at the heart of the ecology  movement. The way we eat defines us, gives us social meaning and sets the table for the physical reality of our world. It is one of life’s fundamentals and we have got it fundamentally wrong.  

It is the means of alienation, the carrier for ill-health, it is the degenerate industry that defiles us all with animal abuse and industrialised farming. It brutalises food-factory workers and degrades human and non-human alike in abattoirs. Globally it creates the ‘stuffed and the starved’  and the vast interlocking global food chain creates a huge carbons emission trail, ghost acres, food speculation and a bland monoculture of fusion and uniformity, dwarfing regional and cultural food heritage and exterminating the quality of ‘taste’ itself. 

But there is an antidote to McDonaldisation, what José Bové called "malbouffe - bad food". Now the local food movement presents a unique opportunity to unite the developed world and the Global South, create community and build sustainable cities. But more than that -  these fundamental changes to the way we source our food are an essential part of the battle against climate change. Now there is the growing opportunity for a restorative practice that can offer a practical empowering alternative to Big Food.

Food Sovereignty and Community

Whilst lifestyle tv gurus expound local food and seasonality, the political reality behind the food movement is the demand for food sovereignty: the right to decide what we eat. 

Together, we defined food sovereignity  as "the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of the food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations."

Time has passed since the first farmers' groups expressed that new idea. It has now become blatantly obvious that the free market and agribusinesses won't feed the world. In 2008, the number of hungry people grew from 800 million to 1 billion, and since the onset of the latest food crisis over the past year, 44 million more people have fallen below the poverty line.

So while the mainstream media churns out propaganda about the need for technological fixes and ‘intervention’ to help build ‘yield’ to feed the growing global population, much of the answer is in our hands and the soil beneath our feet. 

As the Nyeleni European Forum for Food Sovereignty spelt out in August 2011:

“Food systems have been reduced to a model of industrialised agriculture controlled by a few transnational food corporations together with a small group of huge retailers. It is a  model designed to generate profits, and therefore completely fails to meet its obligations. Instead of being dedicated to the production of food which is healthy, affordable and benefits people, it focuses increasingly on the production of raw materials such as agrofuels, animal feeds or commodity plantations. On the one hand, it has caused the enormous loss of agricultural holdings and the people who make their living from those holdings, while on the other hand it promotes a diet which is harmful to health and which contains insufficient fruit, vegetables and cereals.”

Now local food projects like my own the Fife Diet and through networks like Blasda (gaelic for tasty or delicious)  are beginning to bring together the global politics of Via Campesina with the everyday lives of thousands of people. We have realised that you can’t have a food revolution in one country alone. The local food revolution in Scotland is being led by a handful of innovative farmers but mostly by communities re-defining their access to food and demanding the right to grow. 

The Fife Diet project started from the assumption that there is something fundamentally wrong with the food system as presently constructed. It’s our analysis that the environmental impacts stem from an almost total dislocation from place, a ‘mislaid food culture’ and an almost criminal failure of environmental justice. These result in two striking facts: One is that food is the average household number one contribution to climate change, responsible for nearly a third (31%) of our greenhouse gas emissions  - through an accumulation of emissions from primary production, transportation, processing, storage, consumption and waste. (Source: Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead speaking at the debate on food policy at the Scottish Parliament). And the second is that the food we eat also has a major impact on the nation's health through the familiar litany - obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and allergies. According to Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, poor diet has overtaken smoking in Scotland as an avoidable cause of cancer.

Listen Marks & Spencer!

In England towns like Incredible Edible Todmorden have redefined public space and productive landscape, but much of the focus has been on protest. John Harris who has been opposing supermarkets in England writes “What unites us is simple enough: the conviction that if we're not careful, we will sleepwalk into a future where the Big Four represent the only choice we have.”   

Britain – or what remains of it – is like many western countries dominated by a handful of very large food corporations.  There are just over 8,000 supermarkets in the UK, and they account for 97% of total grocery sales. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons take 76% of that market. Their share of non- ood retailing currently stands at 14%, a figure up by 75% since 2003. In the two years up to November 2010, planning permission was granted to 480 stores run by the Big Four, which works out at one supermarket every other day. Since 2008, they have accounted for 87% of the retail floor space given planning permission. In May, Channel 4 News reported that by 2014 retail space operated by the Big Four was set to increase by 20%: as its report put it, "an expansion drive on a scale never seen before".

Cities of Food

As Carolyn Steel wrote in her account of food miles and history ‘The Hungry City’, Rome was importing iced-oysters from London in the 3rd century. There’s nothing new in this and an element of trade and exchange is an essential element to human existence. But as Steel charts the history of technology, transport and food she unravels the commodification of food and how it has transformed us.

Her focus is food and the city and how the process of feeding cities has transformed our world. It’s a history of food miles. The relationship between the urban and rural was she says transformed by the invention of the train and of canning techniques which allowed us to wreck the notion of a city boundary and its relationship to agricultural land around it. Quickly food could be stored and transported hundred of miles. Food became boundless. Freshness became an anathema and a key tie between land, people and seasonality was immediately broken.

She argues: “Feeding cities arguably has a greater social and physical impact on us and our planet than anything else we do. Yet few of us in the West are conscious of the process. Food arrives on our plates as if by magic, and we rarely stop to wonder how it might have got there.”

In her book ‘Hungry City’  Carolyn Steel follows food’s journey from land to city, through market and supermarket, kitchen and table, waste-dump and back again, to show how food affects all our lives, and impacts on the planet. This raises the question of how we might use food to re-think cities in the future – to design them and their hinterlands more effectively, and live in them better too. 

The potential for food to transform cities is exemplified by Hackney’s Growing Communities project, who define their key principles here.

Growing Communities argue that all of their principles are required together, each on there own are inadequate: “Growing Communities works on the assumption that we are moving into an energy and resource constrained future - we need to constrain it voluntarily to prevent runaway climate change and it will be constrained through limits on our ability to find, process and pay for sufficient supplies of oil and gas. As a society, it makes sense to respond accordingly by reducing the amount of energy, fossil fuels and resources it takes to feed us and to create a food system that is sustainable and resilient.”

What we are seeing here is a societal shift, if it can be further focused it can become a powerful part of the alter-globalisation movement. If this movement can draw inspiration from the principles of Social Ecology, it can be energised to form part of a community-based transformation, moving from resistance to resilience and re-imagining our food culture.

Local Food as Paradigm Shift

A good part of this shift is to realise that: the idea of ‘limitless choice’ is endemic but the idea of ‘enough’ is also resurgent . The move away from ‘cheapness’ as the only measurement of value in our food is a massive step forward in our understanding of where to go.

So some of this shift will be hard, because market domination of food shopping is so total and the values they espouse are so prevalent. But on the other hand people are literally hungry for change. We know that at least part of this change will mean several things. Innovation in what we grow and a re-localising of institutions will be important. So will councils responding and showing leadership.  Closed-loop systems (ie waste, fuel, compost) will be a central factor, as will the need for land being shared and worked collectively. Last, but not the least, we will then have better food and better connected communities.

The tendencies that need to be avoided by the local food movement are clear. The movement can easily become sidetracked by purely lifestyle issues, it become soft or fluffy and needs to embed itself in wider struggles of climate justice, poverty and health, environmental justice and land ownership.

A socio-ecological perspective brings to mind a wider focus of exploitation, hierarchy and deeper relations.

The obstacles to developing a radical and transformative food movement, rather than a soothing one appear to be a tendency to focusing only on behaviour change (individualistic), to maintain ‘food activism’ within a small self-selecting group, or to retain ‘local food’ as a premium benefitting only a small group of specialist producers.

The massive shifts required to transform our food system from one based on exploitation of natural resources, pillaging of the seas and the degradation of our soil is underway. The challenge  is now can we take it to a level of connectivity and impact that makes a lasting difference.