Making sustainable food affordable

[originally published on Clarity News]

Is there always a trade-off between low prices and eco-friendly food? Can we make sustainable food affordable?

Food has become a key issue for activists and campaigners in recent years, and when you look at the statistics, it’s easy to see why. A new report has found that there has been a 54% increase in the number of meals given to people in food poverty from 2012/13 to 2013/14; in the same time span, there has been an increase of almost 300% in emergency food assistance given by Trussell Trust foodbanks (not to mention numerous food banks run by other organisations).

Around 15 million tonnes of food is wasted every year in the UK alone – which accounts for almost 10% of British greenhouse gas emissions. About 870 million people in the world are severely undernourished, and 1.5 billion are overweight. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, fishing and forestry have nearly doubled over the past fifty years – the global food system is the single biggest human cause of climate change.

Food is an environmental, social, and economic issue. It’s also something that every human being needs in order to survive.

The tension between food poverty and sustainable systems

However, there is a disconnect in the UK between different kinds of food-related campaigning organisations – a disconnect that stands in the way of effective systemic change. On the one hand, organisations like the Trussell Trust, who have become particularly prominent during the last year and a half due to the unprecedented rise in the number of people needing emergency aid from food banks, provide immediate relief to people in food poverty through, for example, co-ordinating food banks. You could classify these organisations as working on “food poverty and access”.

One the other hand, many organisations throughout the UK are focusing on what could be classified as “healthy and sustainable diets”, for example promoting organic food; campaigns to shop at independent grocery stores; and campaigns to buy only locally-reared, grass-fed meat.

The question, then, is where does the link come in? How do we provide for people in dire need of emergency food aid whilst at the same time creating a system that provides a more sustainable food system for everyone? How do we ensure that “food poverty and access” is not detached from “healthy and sustainable diets”, further entrenching the class divide evident in these issues?

If somebody is in need of assistance from a food bank – or even if they are not at that dire stage, but are on benefits or minimum wage, and have dependents – preaching the evils of 99p packs of sausages and insisting that the person in question must only buy meat directly from the farmer who lives two bus rides away might not win you any supporters.

An interconnected world

However, it is undeniable that climate change is going to change our food system drastically. We are interconnected throughout the world in an unprecedented way, and the same is true of the global food system. In 2008, the effects of Cyclone Nargis on rice production in Myanmar caused a spike in the price of rice, which impacted prices of grains globally due to the imbalance caused in the global food market (financial speculation which treated food as a market commodity was also at play here), leading to foot riots throughout the world and a drastic increase in food insecurity. It is only since the world has become so interconnected that one localised poor harvest could cause such a rippling effect on food prices throughout the world.

In light of this, it becomes clear why one of the key responses to climate change is localising food production and reducing “food miles” – not only does this cut the carbon footprint of food, mitigating the climate impact of the produce, but it also creates a resilience amongst communities where they break free of dependence on the global food system.

If cheap, imported food is therefore unsustainable in the long run, is the opposite also, inevitably, true? Is sustainable food simply never going to be cheap?

The alternatives

Luckily, cheap and sustainable food is not a pipe dream, and there are people and organisations working to create a food system that bridges the gap.

Jack Monroe is one such writer. Ms Monroe rose to fame through her blog, A Girl Called Jack, particularly through documenting how she was able to feed herself and her young son through a period of poverty. Instead of reaching for ready-meals, she would cook more nutritious, and tastier, recipes using basic ingredients. Through the emphasis on nutrition and taste as well as price, Monroe demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to eat well on a tiny budget – but it takes determination to tread the middle ground in the face of bargain-basement ready meals and those with more disposable income whose faces light up in horror at the mere mention of supermarkets.

Another example of such determination comes from the Yorkshire town of Todmorden, home of theIncredible Edible movement. The Incredible Edible premise is simple: “If you eat, you’re in”. Incredible Edible began from the frustration of waiting around for the government to do something about climate change, and the belief that health and community could be transformed through local food projects.

From its outset, Incredible Edible worked on the premise that if the work they were doing was exclusionary to the most disadvantaged members of the community, it would be in vain. This key tenet of the movement meant that whilst the temptation may well have been to create a community growing project suitable only for people with land to grow food on, and the spare time (and money) to participate, Incredible Edible however actually moved beyond this and focused on providing training, education and above all inclusivity in their campaigns.

The future

Food activism should not be about dictating to people the need to eat a diet they simply cannot afford. However, it should also move beyond immediate aid to look at the underlying structural causes of food poverty, the UK’s dependence on a fragile global food system threatened by climate change, and ways to improve health and community in a society where people are increasingly alienated from each other. Food activism should be about building resilient communities in the face of opposition from slow-acting governments and dominant corporate powers.

When we talking about food, what we are talking about is no less than the future of humanity, and bridges between different strands of food activism should reflect this complex and incredibly important vision.

2 thoughts on “Making sustainable food affordable

  1. Of course, what you choose to eat has a huge impact, not just where it comes from. Cutting out meat, dairy and eggs from your diet can mean a drastic reduction of the environmental impact of your food.

    1. Absolutely – a block of cheese produced locally actually has a much larger carbon footprint than bananas brought by boat from the Caribbean!

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