For the past 12 months I’ve been taking a serious look at the reality of our modern food system and the impacts it has on our environment, our health and our communities. It was a sobering experience.

The point of a food system should be to advance our wellbeing, in a way that is socially just and sustainable over time. A system that does so would have some defining characteristics; for example, it would: have a neutral or positive environmental impact; be productive in its use of energy and other inputs; support good jobs; be dominated by short and simple supply chains; foster a positive and thriving food culture and the highest levels of public health; and make food affordable to everyone.

In our latest report we find that the UK food system fails on almost all fronts:

  • It is unsustainable: we estimate the total environmental impact of the UK food system to be in the region of £5.7–7.2 billion per year, or 6.3–7.9% of the market price of food, and probably higher.
  • It is energy-intensive: we calculate that the UK food system uses roughly eight calories of energy to produce every one calorie of energy from food.
  • It supports bad jobs: the UK food system employs approximately 11% of the UK labour force, but most of them are in the least-well-paid jobs, with salaries of less than half the UK average.
  • It is highly complex and opaque: both the decreasing share of total value going to farmers and recent events such as the horsemeat scandal testify to the extreme and increasing complexity of our UK system.
  • It is unequal: all 17 million hectares of agricultural land is owned by about 0.25% of the UK population and the price of an acre of bare land has increased more than threefold from 2004.
  • It is volatile: Britons spend less on food than almost any other EU country, but recent price spikes have hit poor households the hardest.

So we have to ask ourselves: is this system really working in our best interests?

It seems clear to me that we need an urgent and systemic transformation to re-orient our relationship with food towards the goals that really matter to us: wellbeing, social justice and sustainability. To get some inspiration we visited a number of projects throughout Europe where pioneering food producers are building systems that look much closer to our idea of success.

In Germany we learned about circular, resource-efficient energy systems and integrated local supply chains. In Spain we saw how creating good jobs in food manufacturing can strengthen and support vulnerable local people. In Italy we were introduced to the principles of farming in collaboration, not competition, with nature. And back in the UK we experienced the cultural and community dimensions of farming. The overall lesson: good food is possible and it’s already happening. But the examples we saw are the exception to the rule.

Food should be something that we can savour as part of a system that nourishes our environment, our communities and ourselves. Our current food system, which is based on the exploitation of all three, is nothing to celebrate.

Click here to read the full report 

This article was originally published by the New Economics Foundation. Featured image by Chrishna Simmons

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  • Anthony Davison

    I am a 5th generation farmer and like most farmers, I am sure, despair at the state of the UK food industry. An industry where we grow commodities, not food, and are paid, on average, less than 10% of the retail price. We have had to cut back on labour and have to spend vast sums on mechanisation to achieve economies of scale.

    In my grandfather’s day we grew 15 types of vegetable and employed 200 people. Today we grow grain, rent another 2,000 acres of land, and employ 2 people.

    We farmers have all seen an increase in the value of the price of our land but can’t afford to buy any more. Most farmers have borrowed against the value of their land to improve their business so will be forced in to bankruptcy if the price suddenly dropped.

    To change things we need to;
    1. get people out the supermarkets and shopping locally where they reconnect with the producers of their food.
    2. get cooking and growing food as part of the curriculum so that the next generation know how to cook and grow
    3. build communities around food by having a place to buy and trade local food. This should include local people growing and swapping food at the local shop, pub or restaurant
    4. encourage more farmers to set up farm shops and growing areas to become the local food hub. Or provide land for local growers.

    This is why I gave up farming 14 years ago and set up BigBarn.co.uk A Community Interest Company with a mission to build a social, local food industry to compete with the anti-social, national one.

    We get 4,000 visitors a day to http://bigbarn.co.uk have 7,000 local food producers and retailers on our local food map, of which 540 have set up shops in our MarketPlace. We also send a post code specific newsletter to 20,000 consumers and supply our map and MarketPlace to 90 other websites paying each an affiliate commission on trade. We have set up a ‘Crop for the Shop’ initiative that 800 retailers have opted in to and have a KIS (Keep it Simple) Cookery video channel to encourage more people to cook.

    We are now looking for more producers and retailers to add their details to the map and tell their story, (preferably using our video upload facility) and join our MarketPlace.

    We want to share our technology with local food groups so that together we are all building one database. A database that each of those listed can update, and can be offered to all the major newspapers and media as a data-feed. This local food information will help more consumers buy local food and divert some of the £120b spent with supermarkets to local communities with massive social benefits for all.

    If anyone would like to help please email ant@bigbarn.co.uk

    • Isabel natrins

      SO well said Anthony! BigBarn is a beacon of light in our dimly-lit super-market driven world. I completely agree with your proposed four-point plan. Many will argue that it’s all too late. But it’s as simple, and as challenging, as this: If we value our health, we HAVE to value our food. And if we value our food, we have to go BACK – to the future.

  • Isabel Natrins

    I completely agree with your analysis Stephen – especially your concluding paragraph. However, doesn’t it strike you that unless our food system actually delivers healthy, clean, nutrient-dense, REAL food in the first place (which sadly it does not) everything else is…redundant?