SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 226 March 2019

Post-Brexit food production

Making Food Sovereignty a Reality: recommendations for post-Brexit agricultural policy

By The Landworkers Alliance,, 2017


Bittersweet Brexit: the future of food, farming, land and labour

By Dr Charlie Clutterbuck, Published by Pluto Press, 2017, £19.99

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

The debates around Brexit following the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union have mostly focused on Britain’s membership of the single market, customs union and the alternative ‘free-trade’ arrangements.

Where food has been debated, this has been more from the point of view of whether a deal with Donald Trump’s America will mean such low-quality products as chlorine-washed chicken being available on supermarket shelves, or whether without a Brexit deal there will be food shortages across Britain. The British Retail Consortium has written to prime minister Theresa May to claim that "the UK’s highly complex food supply chain – and the excellent value and choice it offers UK consumers – depends upon frictionless trade with the EU".

For the most part, the trade union leaders have mainly focused on what EU legislation they would like to keep – instead of setting out a positive view of what a workers’ Brexit could look like.

A number of useful publications have appeared, however. Making Food Sovereignty a Reality has been published by the Landworkers’ Alliance. It is an organisation of small farmers linked to the international La Via Campesina network, largely based on peasant organisations in the neo-colonial world, especially Latin America. Dr Charlie Clutterbuck, a food policy researcher and former food scientist active in Unite’s agricultural sector, has authored Bittersweet Brexit.

Clutterbuck starts by highlighting that there is more than enough food in the world to feed 14 billion people. He comments: "While we may be obsessed with the starving millions, the owners of food capital are obsessed with the opposite – what to do with too much food. This is the continuing problem for food markets – yet we don’t talk about it. We cannot feed the voracious appetite of capital expansion. We cannot eat enough to feed its hunger for accumulation. Capital is obsessed with saturated markets, not saturated fats. Humanity and capital have completely opposite concerns".

Yet in Britain today there are large numbers going hungry. Clutterbuck writes: "Since 2007-8, we have opened nearly 2,000 food banks in the UK, some 1,300 operated by the Trussell Trust and 650 by independent organisations". The Trussell Trust gave out 1.3 million three-day food parcels in 2017.

He continues: "These food banks are now part of our society. Inequalities have grown to the point where many of the people who use these food banks are in work – but so poorly paid that they cannot afford to buy food in conventional retail outlets. Judging from our local food bank in Burnley, it is the big local manufacturers who provide foods such as biscuits, bread and brown sauce, which would not pass school nutritional standards".

Making Food Sovereignty a Reality attempts to discuss how food and agricultural policy could change after Brexit in order to support environmentally beneficial farming practices and assist small farmers. A further goal is promoting ‘food sovereignty’ which, it says, "simply means that, in addition to achieving a measure of food security through increased domestic production, we need to ensure that consumers and communities are engaged with where their food comes from and how it is produced".

At the moment, so-called ‘free-trade’ policies – promoted by the EU’s single market – when applied to food, are mostly about being able to dump shoddy, environmentally unsustainable, subsidised food into other markets to drown out local competition. That is not in the interests of working-class people and small farmers – nine UK farms were lost every day between 2005 and 2015. This weakens the ability of local systems to produce food locally. Instead, they are forced to rely on substantial imports, and super-exploited labour.

There are some missteps in Making Food Sovereignty a Reality, however, such as suggesting that means-tested vegetable boxes or food stamps should be used at farmers’ markets, rather than making the case for wages and benefits set at a level people can live off without invasive measures.

One issue not addressed directly – it is in Bittersweet Brexit – is the exploitation of migrant workers. Since summer 2017, there have been numerous reports of fruit and vegetables rotting in fields due to a lack of casual labour. According to a National Farmers Union survey, 99% of seasonal workers come from eastern Europe.

The establishment media attribute this crisis to an increased perception of xenophobia following the referendum vote, undoubtedly reinforced by the rise in racist attacks over the last few years. The drop in the value of the pound since then, however, has also meant that these super-exploited jobs are no longer attractive even to workers from the low-waged economies of eastern Europe and elsewhere.

It was welcome, therefore, that at the 2018 Tolpuddle Martyrs festival, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Labour would reintroduce the Agricultural Workers’ Board (AWB), setting a higher minimum wage, and policies for sick pay, paid holidays and rest breaks.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is a subsidy system which primarily benefits big landowners and multinationals. Eighty percent of its subsidies go to just 20% of all farmers. The most recent reform of the CAP in 2013 meant that farms under five hectares now get no support whatsoever – adversely affecting 18,000 UK farmers.

These payments are unrelated to the level of productivity. So, as Making Food Sovereignty a Reality points out, as long as there is some farming activity, even a negligible amount, "landowners are paid to own land". This has led to a more than doubling of farmland prices, and this is linked directly to the introduction of area-based CAP payments. Bittersweet Brexit suggests that, rather than subsidising landowners to the tune of £3 billion a year, subsidies should go directly to rural workers, to help bump up their wages to a real living wage, overseen by a new AWB.

The Common Agricultural Policy’s operation actually promotes the use of cheap labour in general, but particularly in horticulture. The limited subsidies available to fruit and vegetable growers are tiny compared to other agricultural sectors. A further factor is that just 8% of the price we pay for food goes to farmers, due to the monopoly bargaining power of the supermarkets. Making Food Sovereignty a Reality raises the issue of regulating middlemen, including minimum prices for goods. Bittersweet Brexit echoes this call: "We simply cannot leave these matters to the supermarkets".

But why just regulate them or only intervene to correct market failures? We should go further: nationalise the big supermarkets, food processors and wholesalers under democratic workers’ control – and the banks to give farmers access to cheap credit. On this basis we could guarantee farmers a price that allows farmworkers to receive a living wage. These are not just policies in relation to Brexit, they are also necessary steps in the struggle for socialism.

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