In the region of 10m people in the UK could be said to be living in ‘Food Poverty’ or find it difficult to obtain sufficient healthy and affordable food. This will have worsened under the Coronavirus lockdown.
The link between income (wage) poverty and food poverty has been important to Governments since people moved from the land in the early years of industrialisation. Wages had to be kept low to guarantee profits but workers who were too poor to buy expensive food in urban areas wouldn’t be able to work. Industrial capitalists were big supporters of the repeal of the Corn Laws, that was protecting high prices of food grown in Britain.
In more recent times Governments and Agri-business have conspired to make ‘cheap’ food available with the help of the oligopolistic supermarkets. Cheap often meaning low on nutrition and high on additives. This suits the (big) agri-producers and retailers and allows neo-liberal governments to avoid dealing with the income issue. It also loads the production side in favour of large-scale production reliant on farming methods that are dangerous to both the environment and people’s health. For example, 13 dairy firms worldwide are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the UK.
The ‘Brexit’ impact on food and agriculture, therefore, is not just any immediate impact of a no deal. The big danger is a ‘free trade’ deal with the US. This would set us (both as producers and consumers) back decades in our quest for sustainable and healthy food supplies.
In the final part of his four part post on food production and just transition Mike Downham puts forward some ideas for the demands we should fight for and how to organise. We’d welcome comments and responses to this important discussion. You can read or download the full text here.
Choosing and formulating demands has to be collective. If a large number of people, all of whom can see the benefits of winning the demands, haven’t been involved in the process, the demands will fail. This is so obvious that it might not seem worth pointing out, but a lot of GND proposals have fallen into the trap of making detailed proposals drawn up by a small number of well-intentioned activists.
A further general point about demands is that addressing them to governments is only part of their purpose. Equally or more important is that they should reach the whole of society – workers, Unions, civil society organisations and the general public. It helps in formulating them to remember that. The purpose of demands, beyond whatever response governments make or don’t make to them, is to increase the size, diversity and solidarity of the mass movement, giving it something concrete and specific to come behind.
With regard to local food production, it’s enough for now to suggest that we need two sets of demands, one about making land available and one about educational opportunities.
Land demands will need to take land reform much further than the pallid 2003 Right to Buy Act. It’s common knowledge that land ownership in Scotland is more archaic and more unjust than in any other industrialised country in the world. For lots of reasons on top of local food production, any GND needs to confront that fundamental class issue head-on. It would not be difficult to construct an immediate demand that landowners should be compelled to relinquish tenure on a quota of their land for allotments or community gardens or educational gardens or farms producing for the local market, as long as each proposal fulfilled centrally specified conditions.
Educational demands will need to cover classroom and kitchen staffing levels in schools, teacher training, and higher education course choices and staffing, formulated in discussion with workers and their trade unions. Given the recent strong protests of unionised college and university workers, we are in a good position to discuss with these workers and their unions whether this is the moment to demand that higher education should be taken back into public ownership.
Both land and educational changes will have to be anchored by state intervention, and democratically controlled at a local level. Our demands must include these conditions.
In considering how we should organise to achieve these demands the overriding point is urgency. The urgency of climate change is widely accepted, and we can’t afford to take our eye off the climate emergency just because air quality and carbon emissions have improved dramatically through lockdowns – though this does show what can be achieved by states when their backs are against the wall. The point is also being made by a lot of people and organisations that if we’re determined not to go back to the same normal once the pandemic is under control, we should start now to get together and say whatever it is we want to say about the new normal. It could take years, with further catastrophic waves of infection, before the pandemic is under control. We absolutely shouldn’t wait to act until then. Even these few weeks before the possibility of a second wave of infection in Scotland mustn’t be wasted.
An additional point argument for urgency in relation to Scotland’s food strategy is the growing prospect of a no-deal Brexit, which could leave the shelves of supermarkets empty again, and not just transiently.
But how do we get together? Building community knowledge, consciousness and solidarity in the context of neoliberalism can take years. In Jackson, Mississippi, they’ve been at it for 40 years. The poor neighbourhoods of North Edinburgh have been at it for at least 10. We don’t have time for that. But the pandemic has created a unique context, in which governments across the world are in a weaker position, and communities in a stronger one, than at any point in the history of industrial capitalism. One immediate opportunity in Scotland is to build on the mutual solidarity networks which have mushroomed during lockdown. Some of these networks are new, while some developed from previous neighbourhood organisations. Other groups are likely to emerge as the full economic consequences of the pandemic bite. As the structure of the economy has changed over the last 50 years, with workplaces that are smaller and often distant from where the workers live, some people working from home, and the predominance of services over production, it’s become clear that we have to organise not only where we work, but also where we live. So we need to join and become active in any local formations which are concerned about the future for working class people, and for most of us there are or will soon be opportunities to do that. And we shouldn’t see existing legislation, including the legal obligations of Local Authorities, as things which can’t be swept away by a mass movement.
More will have to be done about Scotland’s food than the development of local food production. That was illustrated by the traffic chaos in Glasgow last week on the day 31 Macdonald’s drive-ins opened. But development of local food production, as an integral part of a Green New Deal focussed on both a Just Transition and a Just Recovery, bringing with it jobs and training and neighbourhood solidarity, is a good place to start. We can take on Macdonalds and intensive farming later.
In this penultimate part of his extended article Mike Downham looks at different forms of local food production. Production and local democracy are fundamental to radical change. Tomorrows final instalment explores demands and organisation.
I’ll consider local food production under four headings: allotments, school gardens, community gardens, and farms.
Allotments have a long and mostly successful history. In 1908 the Small Holdings and Allotments Act placed a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments, according to demand. Originally a plot was defined as 250 square metres, based on the area needed to produce enough vegetables for a family of four. With the escalation of land prices and the erosion of local authority funding by central government, local authorities, desperate to sell land they owned, fell behind with provision. This led to waiting times of as long as 10 years in some places. Length of waiting list became a criterion for additional provision, but with the loophole that there was no statutory timescale within which local authorities were expected to meet their obligation to increase provision. By 2007 most local authorities had responded to unmet demand by simply halving the size of plots. Communities responded by trying to persuade private landowners to lease land to associations of local residents. Their efforts often failed, or leases were grudgingly granted with conditions slanted to suit the changing whims of landlords. Private sites are now common but the people working them often experience insecurity of tenure.
Individual plots are relatively affordable, at around £50 a year, paid to the site Association, who pays the landowner. Though plots are worked individually, sites are in practice usually strongly collective in the sharing of knowledge, skills, implements, plants and seeds. For many plot-holders they are an important place of belonging.
For some people, particularly those living on their own or without children, a 250 metre plot is too big, and plots are often halved. Others, who have developed the knowledge and skills needed to produce reliably good crops of vegetables and fruit on every inch of their plots, would like to expand. “I just wish my plot was bigger” they say.
School children love to garden. Without necessarily articulating it they recognise that growing veg and fruit isn’t just play but an opportunity to contribute their work to necessary production. Even nursery children can contribute significantly, their small fingers well-suited to sowing seeds, planting out seedlings and fine weeding. You have to be 5 or 6 before you can wheel a barrow, usually best if you have a partner to help you not to cowp your load of muck before you get to your destination. Digging straight trenches in gangs works well with older children. All ages like watering and love harvesting. Even weeding, notoriously unpopular, turns out to be satisfying if the task of clearing a specific area is shared between the right number of hands or hoes.
The learning opportunities in all this are enormous – I’ve heard primary teachers say they can teach everything on the curriculum while children are working in a veg garden – plants, wildlife, habitats, ecosystems, climate, weather, maths, history, the meaning of work … and of course food.
But there are certain conditions for making school gardens a success which these days often don’t exist. The first of these is that the garden has to be significantly productive. Too often school gardens are side-lined to an area which is too small, may be shaded and impoverished by trees, bushes or hedges, and may be badly drained.
Secondly, there needs to be a teacher or a parent who has gardening knowledge and skills, and the time available to plan and work the garden with the children. There’s often no teacher in the school with the necessary skills and knowledge, and anyway their timetable may not give them enough time or flexibility to devote to learning in the garden. Parents sometimes or grand parents often come to the rescue, but they are increasingly unlikely to be able to give enough time now that two or more jobs per family is the norm, the grandparents preoccupied with caring for the pre-school children.
Thirdly, the whole educational experience in relation to food only has an impact if children have the opportunity to prepare and eat the food they’ve helped to grow, as experienced by children growing up on farms or in families with allotments or veg gardens at home. Most larger primary schools have their own kitchens where the school meals are prepared. Many of these schools have school gardens, but few if any of these gardens yield enough produce to contribute significantly to meals in the school.
Secondary schools contract out the preparation of their meals, so students who don’t have the privilege of living in families which produce vegetables are one further step removed from the experience of preparing food from vegetables they’ve helped to grow.
The current community gardening movement in Scotland began in the late 60s with a renewed interest in green spaces in cities. As health and social issues for working class people have escalated during the neoliberal period, so has the number of urban community gardens.
Though there is much diversity in the design and aims of these gardens, the main driver has been social or therapeutic, rather than scale of production. In terms of physical and mental health, community adhesion and organisation, and as habitats for wildlife, community gardens have become important for a large number of communities.
Among the many benefits of community gardens, the therapeutic opportunity they offer to people with mental health issues stands out as a priority. At this moment there’s a conjuncture between on the one hand a new wave, precipitated by lockdown, in the epidemic of mental health issues spawned by neoliberalism 40 years ago and inflamed over the last ten of those years by austerity; and on the other hand the dialectic response to that epidemic now emerging in the revolutionary form of tearing up 60 years of psychiatry. Community gardens have the potential to play an important part in the new multidisciplinary mental health service.
But most community gardens are not productive to a significant scale. One reason for this is that they are generally sited on land whose fertility and soil structure have been compromised by previous industrial use. They are physically hard to work, and fertility isn’t easy to restore unless there is a farm or stable nearby. As with education, the health and social benefits of growing fruit and vegetables are enhanced if production is significant in relation to use by the number of people involved
By ‘farm’ I mean any area of land for commercial food production too large to be farmed by hand, whatever its acreage. Defining a farm according to its acreage isn’t helpful because production methods depend on what is being produced, which in turn depends on the quality of the particular piece of land. It’s perfectly possible to raise a cow, a few sheep or goats, or hens on an acre of poor land without mechanisation or draft animal power, but very difficult to grow vegetables or fruit by hand on an acre of good land, unless it’s in a walled garden or covered by greenhouses or polytunnels. The term ‘market garden’, which attempted to capture 1-10 acres of land good enough for the production of vegetables and fruit, was never well-defined and has fallen out of use. With the escalation of land commodification, if you google ‘smallholdings’ you are offered for sale at extortionate prices every manner of land which can just about get away with not being called a garden along with a house. In the Highlands and Islands we also have crofts, which, despite their importance to remote communities and in relation to the radical legislation governing their land tenure, I’ll leave to one side because they aren’t able to contribute significantly to food production for urban populations by virtue of their location.
Farms, so defined, will play a highly significant part in a radical GND. Scotland is particularly well provided with land and climate suitable for growing vegetables, fruit and cereals in the east and for raising cattle and sheep in the west. Much of this land is close enough to the centres of population to supply locally, and the quantity of food production land is adequate for the size of Scotland’s population. There are not many countries in the world which are in this fortunate position. In this context agricultural skills and knowledge have remained strong despite industrialisation. Exceptional skills in low-cost field-scale vegetable production have developed in the face of low profitability, absence of subsidies (in contrast to other agricultural products) and increasingly fickle weather as a result of global warming.
Yet a staggering 80% of food is imported (that’s a UK-wide figure – I’m not aware of a separate figure for Scotland but there’s no reason to think it would be much different). The chief reason for this mismatch is of course the global commodification of food. What determines the food we eat isn’t where it comes from, how healthy it is, or the impacts of its production and distribution on carbon emissions and biodiversity, but how profitable it is to the big food corporations.
But the other big reason we don’t eat more food produced in Scotland is the price of land. If people had affordable access to land, we could have more allotments, more community gardens sited on good growing land, not the left-over, infertile land which nobody wants, and bigger and better school gardens.
And if affordable land was available we could have more farms producing for the local market, with lots of new job opportunities – a range of jobs all of which would be satisfying because they have a close connection to a product essential to society, and which would include jobs to suit people with different physical and mental abilities . We could have farms of 1 to 5 acres for people who want to have a go at producing food commercially for the first time, whether young people looking to make farming their career, or people who have lost their jobs or never had one, or retirees, or people ready to expand from a successful allotment or community garden. We could have community-run 10-acre farms acting as local food hubs, providing training, advice, start-off tools, seeds and plants for a local network of allotments, community gardens, school gardens and small farms, as well as producing for the local market. We could have larger farms for secondary schools and colleges, as common in the days before land prices exploded.
In the final part of this article to be published on 13th June Mike looks the kinds of demands we can raise and how we organise . If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.
The second part of Mike Downham’s four part series in which he looks at the extent to which local food production features in different versions of the Green New Deal. You can read the introduction here.
Green New Deals
One of the demand formulations now gathering widespread support is for a Green New Deal. There are many versions of GNDs, but they have in common huge expenditure by states, decarbonisation, new jobs and, to a greater or lesser extent, urgency. Until recently GND movements tended to focus tightly on renewable energy. Proposals then began to embrace additional approaches to decarbonising energy, particularly through improved heat efficiency of buildings and public transport initiatives.
But now something new has come into sight – the idea that a GND should not be focussed exclusively on energy but should cover every sector of society. The International Panel on Climate Change, in its October 2018 Report responding to the Paris Agreement’s readiness to settle for a 2.0⁰C rise in global temperature, said that “rapid, far-reaching , and unprecedented change in all aspects of society” were necessary to limit warming to a 1.5⁰C rise. But their definition of ‘all aspects of society’ included only “land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, cities” – a limited definition of society inevitable given the political influence the IPCC is subject to.
A few months later, in February 2019, Senator Markey and Representative Ocasio-Cortez proposed a more radical GND for the US, which includes job security for all, along with “providing high-quality health care; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature”. But the way this was presented exposed them to dismissive right-wing attacks that these non-energy proposals were just ‘socialist add-ons’.
Later last year, in November, A Planet to Win – Why We Need a Green New Deal by Aronoff, Battistoni, Cohen and Riofrancos was published in response to the Markey / Ocasio-Cortez initiative. I was among those who had an opportunity to meet with three of the authors at a ScotE3 zoom meeting on 15th May (see report on this website). They have developed the idea of a trans-sector GND extensively. Just as the root causes of global warming go beyond energy policy to the whole capitalist system steered by the market, they argue for a GND which addresses energy, jobs, housing, transport, recreation, nature conservation, education, and health and social care services. They explain that these aren’t just add-ons, but practically essential to reduce emissions, in three ways.
By shifting more people from carbon-emitting jobs into carbon neutral jobs, which include education, health and social care services, overall emissions will be reduced.
Secondly, as a GND can only be effective with intervention and massive investment by the state, market control over what is produced will necessarily be replaced by regulation. Without the distortion of profit, the ‘good life’ will be more closely aligned with the rationales of low resource use, low carbon emissions and well-being, rather than with status based on consumption of what the market tells us to buy. As the authors of Planet to Win give as an example, people will prefer to spend their money on dancing classes than on another ipad. This shift will leave large numbers of workers without jobs – those who are currently employed by companies selling products which emit carbon, either in their manufacture or their use. In the context of a cross-sectoral GND these workers can readily be offered carbon-saving or carbon neutral jobs, accompanied by whatever training they need.
Thirdly, a just transition from fossil fuels can only be achieved through public ownership under local democratic control. Local control cannot be truly democratic and effective without removing inequality and poverty. Job guarantees for all workers are a pre-requisite for reduction of poverty and inequality, so we will need a flexible and responsive employment sector. Any job whose purpose is to improve the quality of life, and which does not emit carbon, will be understood as a climate job.
A Planet to Win came out just one month before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The book’s recommendations are extraordinarily timely. They might have looked far-fetched at the point of publication, but now here they are – proposals which we can immediately move forward with and develop. That they are available at this point is a bonus for the climate movement, which has no time to lose.
The pandemic has not only ripped off the protective blanket from the capitalist system, revealing the bankruptcy of its ideology for all to see. It has also presented us with new opportunities for organising. But before I move on to discuss those opportunities, what is it that at this moment is so important about local food production?
Local food production as part of a Green New Deal
Few would disagree with the importance of local food production, the benefits of which I summarised at the start of this piece. In contrast, few of the GNDs which have been tabled have dealt with it in any detail. But, if for no other reason, the fact that food production and distribution are estimated to account for at least 30% of global carbon emissions, food has to be given a prominent position in the articulation of any GND. Furthermore, as agreement grows that GNDs should be trans-sectoral, the argument for putting food at the heart of a GND becomes stronger, given the big but less easy to measure impacts of food on the physical and mental health, security and biodiversity of communities.
The authors of A Planet to Win acknowledge that food is an important omission from their book, implying that it’s too big a subject to cover in a short book. This perhaps says something about the extent to which American people have become habituated to the commodification of their food.
The IPCC did not include food in its list of societal factors which we need to address (though it did list land, without saying anything more about it).
The US Green New Deal recommends access for all to “healthy and affordable food” but is silent on how that might be achieved.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the EU GND, trotted out again last week by the European Commission in the context of a Just Recovery from the pandemic, does better by giving a whole section to food in its proposals, headed From Farm to Fork. Butthat section reads, along with its heading, as if written 20 years ago, with nothing more radical than improved labelling.
The Labour Party’s Green New Deal, agreed at its conference in September last year, is broad and radical and has urgency. But the word ‘food’ appears only once in the large document, at the bottom of the list of Universal Basic Services the Party intends to introduce, without any detail about what that ‘service’ would consist of.
All GNDs need to some extent to be country or region specific, while learning from each other about how best to articulate their demands. In Scotland the Green Party’s GND proposals, announced in April 2019, are limited to investing in low carbon industries, restoring our natural environment, giving everyone a warm home, and providing access to cheap, reliable and green transport. Food is not mentioned.
In contrast the Commonweal GND proposals for Scotland, put out in November last year (the same month as the publication of a Planet to Win) include a wordy 17-page paper on food. This, along with all the Commonweal GND proposals, is about long-term strategy. The proposals do not articulate the urgent demands which we need to make at this moment if we are to limit global warming effectively. They also do not address the imbalance of power which confronts us. Notably, the paper on food says “It’s easy for food to become a class battleground, and we need better ways to talk about it”. But we don’t – a class battleground is precisely where we need to muster if we are to change food policy in Scotland, because the current confused policy is a reflexion of the class struggle, as is global warming. Once we’ve won that battle the Commonweal proposals will come into their own as contributions to the public debate about our collective strategy. To give them the respect they deserve, the Commonweal proposals were put together before the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed everything.
The climate movement in Scotland needs to make urgent demands, addressing them not only to the Scottish Government but also to workers, including the many who have lost their jobs, or will soon loose them as a result of the coronavirus epidemic and the simultaneous collapse of the North Sea oil and gas industry. Rapid change will only be achieved through the combined agency of the state and of workers. But we have to be clear first about what changes we are going to demand as part of a radical GND. As there’s been little discussion so far about demands in relation to food, here are some suggestions for starting that discussion. The suggestions are all about the production of food locally. Production and local democracy are fundamental to radical change.
In Part 3 to be published on 12th June Mike looks in more detail at different forms of local food production. If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.
Over the next four days we publish a series of articles by Mike Downham on local food production in the context of a just transition to a sustainable zero carbon economy
The local food story so far
Growing veg wasn’t in my family, and from what I can remember I never had any contact with anyone who grew veg when I was growing up in London. But from some instinct – perhaps because it’s not so long for most of us since there were farmers in our families – as soon as I had a garden, I wanted to try growing something I could eat. As I liked to eat purple sprouting broccoli and strawberries, I chose to concentrate on those – it was only a small patch in front of a terraced house in central Newcastle. Thinking I’d better do something about fertility, and with no farms nearby to beg or buy muck from, I collected some buckets of waste from the local slaughterhouse. This raised some eyebrows in the terrace, but my reputation was restored when the neighbours saw the size of the broccoli plants and the strawberries.
Having been overpaid by the NHS for 20 years I was privileged to be able to move on from that front garden to an allotment, then a subsistence smallholding, then a commercial farm with a Community Supported Agriculture scheme.
It’s not surprising that people, on their own or getting together with others, have been producing food in their urban neighbourhoods for a long time – it makes so much sense at so many levels. Theoretically the benefits embrace physical health, mental health, biodiversity, food security, food sovereignty, reduction of carbon emissions and political organisation. On top of theory, both the work of producing food and the eating of it are a lot of fun, especially if done collectively. Wherever working class people can get hold of land, in backyards, allotments, unused corner sites, reclaimed industrial sites, school grounds, or, if they can’t find land, in window-boxes and pots on doorsteps, they will grow vegetables and fruit, run hens for eggs, and when they have a bit more elbow room even raise a goat or a cow or two for milk, or animals for meat.
Historical surges in this activity, successfully driven by states because they were so popular, include the UK County Council smallholdings made available for servicemen returning from the first World War; the UK Dig for Victory campaign in the second World War; and urban food production in the Cuban Revolution. These surges did not last for long once war or the threat of war had subsided. In 2006 there was a resurgence of local food production driven by the Transition Towns movement across 43 Countries, mostly in the Global North. But this initiative soon petered out because it did not seriously challenge the powerlessness of communities, particularly in relation to land tenure, even when producers and consumers came together in cooperatives.
Across the Global South, and in the less industrialised parts of the Global North, small farmers producing for local markets are under increasing pressure from one set of capitalists who want to buy their land to farm it intensively or sell it on, and another set who want to sell them chemicals, seeds and machinery as must-haves for ‘modernisation’. Despite this, 70% of the world’s food supply still comes from small farms, and there’s a strong international movement of small farmers fighting to hang onto their land and achieve food sovereignty – the right to choose what food they produce, and how they produce it, in local partnership with the people who eat it. Via Campesina represents 200 million producers across 81 countries.
The new opportunity
The conjuncture of the coronavirus pandemic with the rising global movement for climate jobs as the basis of an effective strategy to limit global warming, and with the discreditation of capitalism by its evident inability to deal effectively with these two emergencies, has the potential to change the balance of power between labour and capital. Demands which were unrealistic a few months ago have become realistically achievable. As consciousness of new possibilities grows, organisations have started to formulate demands, or to push more urgently through coalitions for demands they had already formulated.
In Part 2 to be published on 11th June Mike looks at the extent to which food production is integrated into proposals for a Green New Deal. If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.