14 December 2006

Feed Me!

The publication of a report on ethical consumption sponsored by the Co-operative Bank was rapidly followed by an article in the Economist telling us we are wasting our money. We can ascertain that the real food movement is building in power and starting to threaten the mega-food corporations. This is unsurprising since ethical consumption now accounts for 5% of all spending, overtaking spending on alcohol and cigarettes. The various co-operative shops take up a similar proportion of the total retail market.

The report shows that sales of organic food increased by 30% from 2004 to 2005, with a nearly 40% increase in fair-trade purchases and nearly 55% increase in sales of ‘sustainable fish’. Some of these rather dubious categories cause me to have a little sympathy with the Economist's scepticism, but I interpret these consumption changes as indication of a deeper concern about how we are feeding ourselves.

Food offers a perfect case-study of how the domination of the profit motive distorts the system of distribution in our globalised world. Economics is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Economics as ‘the study of how scarce resources are, or should be, allocated’ . How can capitalism possibly justify itself as an efficient system, never mind the only system in town, when it achieves this so badly that we have some people dying of starvation and others dying of obesity? No, it isn’t the vending machines, or the corrupt dictators it is the economic system that is to blame. Green politics is about limits and meeting needs, and an efficient economic system would respect these; conventional politics is about profit, and profit can be increased by the encouragement of greed. That is the central explanation for the rise in obesity.

We are encouraged to be greedy, to buy a new sofa to sit on while we over-consume and absorb advertising to persuade us to consume even more, interspersed between programmes instilling our patriotic duty to keep the economy afloat by shopping and terrifying us that we are heading for premature death because of, yes, over-consumption. This is the sort of self-contradictory message which generates internal confusion and mental dis-ease. No wonder that people over-eat to try to fufill the hunger that artificial and chemically based foods cannot satisfy. And no wonder that rates of anti-depressant prescription have increased by 125% between 1993 and 2002. Profits are made by advertisers, food corporations and drug manufacturers, while the costs are borne by us, not consumers but human beings.

Is it too outrageous to see a link between the pseudo-religious commitment to growth amongst policy makers and the accompanying growth in our waistlines? Clive Hamilton identifies the addiction to growth as a ‘fetish’ which he compares to the cargo cults that grew up in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. ‘Cargo cults and the growth fetish both invest magical powers in the properties of material goods, possession of which is believed to provide for a paradise on earth.’ The fact that ever-increasing consumption does not bring happiness is not an exciting new thought for most environmental campaigners, but the fact that a book called Growth Fetish received such wide publicity may be.

Our need to be fed runs deeper than just our daily bread. We have lost our relationship with the land and with other people. We have lost our ties to those close to us in our own communities in a world where we buy stuff on faceless estates made by nameless children in countries we could not locate on a world map.

Stroud Community Agriculture offers a model for how we might rebuild meaningful economic relationships, and the sense of wholeness and purpose that comes with these. The strap-line for the community agriculture project in Stroud is—‘Become a Member: Share the Harvest’. We do not buy our vegetables, we support the livelihoods of two farmers who manage the rented land by buying a share of the farm; we contribute our own time on fortnightly workdays; and we collect our share of whatever was produced that week. The farm also organizes festivals and events to mark the turning of the year.

This is a wholly different relationship to food and one that leaves you feeling satisfied on all levels. Food arrives not only infused with the vitality of your local soil but with a real sense of belonging to you. Ownership is not a right. Unlike the sanitized meaningless exchange of money for dead, pre-packaged vegetables that takes place at Tesco, in the world of owning your own food pounds sterling are a debased currency and only physical work will do. In the new green economy we have all to become producers; demonstrating our principles through ethical consumption will not be enough.

Find out more about community farms here.

You can find out more details of the ethical purchasing report here.


  1. Community Land Trusts is another way. Research is being done by a Stroud-based group into the possibilities this route might offer to revitalise farming. The community buy-out of Fordhall farm earlier this year by the 5,500 people provides a great model: community land trusts mutualise landholding using a cooperative, non-profit model. By mutualising land we can enable it to be forever affordable to individuals and accessible to the community. Land is effectively taken off the market, rather than at risk of being privatised. Currently there is controvesy within the County as opposition councillors are claiming the Conservative County councillors have established a group to oversee farm land disposal. Conservatives deny they intend to sell farms but have not backed motions to support the current acerage owned by the County. These farms would be better off as Community Farm Land Trusts: http://www.communitylandtrust.org.uk

  2. Another important angle that often gets forgotten when we look at food is meat and CO2 emissions. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation has just issued a stunning report on global warming that shows livestock production is responsible for: more climate change gasses than all the motor vehicles in the world; 70 per cent of the Amazon deforestation; 64 per cent of all the acid rain-producing ammonia; and 15 out of the 24 vast global ecosystems that are in decline can blame livestock.

    More than this, livestock production is at the heart of almost every other environmental catastrophe confronting the planet – rain forest destruction, spreading deserts, loss of fresh water, air and water pollution, acid rain and soil erosion.


    All this suggests we should be looking to reduce meat consumption considerably.

  3. Free market capitalism makes no claim to be fair, just, universally beneficient, or sustainable. It is simply an economic system maintained by those who either gain most from it, or believe they can gain most from it.

    Consider that the majority of people are stupid and greedy. Under a democratic system with regular elections, politicians consequently maintain power only by pandering to stupidity and greed with short-term policies.

    Capitalism is the perfect economic system for this political and social model.

    None of this has anything to do with the maintenance of a sustainable, just, or universally beneficient civilisation.

    The trappings of what we term 'civilisation' (culture, art, social justice) only survive on the surface of social groups, like icing on a Christmas cake.

    All the component parts of human civilisation that we value are built on power centres that are themselves built by violence and greed, and all eventually fail. Our's will too, quite possibly destroying most other living species, and sapping the planet of habitability.

    To maintain the constructs of justice, equality, culture, and the guarantee of a basic quality of life for all is a constant battle against the cults of consumption (conspicuous or otherwise) and of the individual.

    The jewel in the crown of modern civilisation in the UK is the welfare state, and it is now being badly eroded. Thus the social cohesion fractures, and the decline and fall begins.

    Within 50 years, central London will be under water. Perhaps the politicians will consider long term sustainability issues when their feet are getting wet. Or perhaps they will just move to higher ground. I suspect the latter.