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Food justice in the UK: The food system is not fit for purpose

This article will look into the definition of food justice, seeking to understand the impacts and causes of food insecurity within Bristol and the wider food system and consider how food justice can be established.

What is Food Justice?

Feeding Bristol defines food justice as equal ‘access to nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate food, which is grown, produced, sold and consumed in ways that care for people and planet.’

Food insecurity in Bristol

Food insecurity can be understood as when people struggle ‘to consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food for health, in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so’ (JSNA, 2023/2024).

Although Bristol has a rich food culture and received a gold sustainable food award, there is still a lot of inequality within the city in terms of who has access to good, sustainable food. The pandemic and the cost of living crisis have exacerbated and made these inequalities more visible.

The Bristol Qol (2023/24) report highlighted that households experiencing ‘moderate or worse food insecurity’ has increased from 5% for pre-pandemic to 8% in 2023/24.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlighted that in July and August 2023, 56% of adults in Great Britain reported an increase in their cost of living compared with the month before (JSNA, 2023/2024). This rise in living costs pushed more people into food insecurity. The JSNA Health and Wellbeing Profile for 2023/24 illustrates that around 1 in 23 (4.3%) households in Bristol experienced severe food insecurity, and 1 in 12 (8.3%) experienced moderate to severe food insecurity (JSNA, 2023/2024).

Moderate food insecurity can be understood as reduced access to sufficient and quality food as well as uncertainty around when a person can access food. Severe food insecurity often means people have run out of food, or are unable to eat for days at a time.

A map of Bristol broken down into areas, which indicates the percentage of households within in area which experienced moderate to severe food insecurity in 2023/ 2024. The areas with the highest rates (15 to 19%) of food insecurity are indicated in a darker shade of blue and the lighter shade indicates the areas with the lowest rates (2 to 5%). A key to the left hand side explains which shade of blue indicates each percentage group.
Map showing the percentage of households which have experienced moderate to severe food insecurity in each area of the city. Taken from the QoL survey 2023/24.

The causes of food insecurity are complex, but we can identify a number of contributing factors.

These factors can be grouped into categories of: financial environment, such as the cost of living or income; cultural, in terms of cooking skills, community networks and the marketing of unhealthy food; and physical environment, the availability of cooking facilities or access to shops and cafes selling healthy and affordable food.

The root causes of food insecurity are interwoven with broader social and economic inequality and therefore do not affect all people equally. The JSNA report highlights that people with a disability, or from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, single parents, carers,  LGBT people and people aged 16-24 are more likely to be affected by food insecurity (JSNA, 2023/2024).

The effects of food insecurity on the individual and the community are manifold. Access to sustainable, culturally appropriate, healthy and affordable food impacts the wellbeing of the community and the individual, having positive effects on physical and mental wellness.

The food system is not fit for purpose

The problems with the food system go far beyond the bounds of Bristol. In the UK the food system is not fit for purpose. It not only exacerbates inequality but exploits our land. The system is premised on the devaluing of food, farmers, land and ecology. The result is food that is for profit and not for the wellbeing of people and planet.

The current food system works from an industrial and globalised model whereby the driving force of food production is increased outputs and profit. The work of farmers is devalued in order for supermarkets and agribusiness to make a profit. This model relies on increased mechanisation and the separation of people from the land. This separation has a long history in land rights and capitalist ideology, which seeks to separate an unthinking ‘nature’ from a thinking ‘culture,’ deadening nature, transforming its living systems into objects to be exploited and extracted (Patel and Moore, 2020).

The hidden costs of a profit-driven food system

The industrial system of agriculture produces between ‘a quarter and a third of greenhouse gas emissions’ (Patel and Moore, 2020, p. 159). Profit is put before life, leading to soil depletion, desertification, pollinator die-off, biodiversity loss, nutrient loss and erosion. Food is farmed for ‘yield, shelf life and consumer acceptability of a standardised commodity’ (Patel and Moore, 2020, p.157). 

The emphasis on production and profit favours scale, leading to monopolies being held by agribusinesses and supermarkets. Sebastian Delamothe highlights that ‘a farmer who sells vegetables to British supermarkets can receive as little as 9p per £1 of the retail price’ (Delamothe, 2022). This small return pushes farmers to cut corners and fall into unsustainable practices. The health of the planet and human diets are the hidden costs of this system. Researcher Peter Brooks describes how the monopolies of agribusinesses in chicken farming leads to damaging health outcomes for the land, health of the chickens and by extension the health of our diets. The chicken excrement seeps into river flows, causing harmful algae blooms while the ‘force-feeding’ of chickens leads to increased fat, ripping apart the muscles of the chicken whilst adding to the fat in human diets (Peter Brooks, 2024). In a system driven by profit, the health of diets and the health of the planet become collateral damage. 

Inequality in land access

Land ownership in the UK, which is concentrated in the hands of a small minority of people, leads to many people being separated from the places that grow our food and the skills to do so. Due to the history and legal framework of land inheritance in the UK, this remains a small minority who have most often inherited the land as part of intergenerational wealth and historical dispossession (Sam Siva, 2020).This means that BPOC people often have little access to spaces to grow food, and when they do work within the agricultural system are faced with discrimination.

Food Justice and Food Sovereignty

There is a world wide push against this inequitable and industrial food system. La Via Campesina (LVC) represents the global voice for peasant farmers (referring to small scale farmers, landworkers and indigenous peoples) and mobilises the concept of food sovereignty to fight for food justice. LVC defines food sovereignty as ‘the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their food and agriculture systems.’ LVC advocates for a food system where local communities are at the forefront of combatting food insecurity, respecting the knowledge of these peasant farmers (La Via Campesina, 2021: Esteva, Babones and Babcicky, 2013, p. 103). Within the UK, LVC is represented by the Landworkers Alliance, a union of farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers, who lobby and campaign for a just and sustainable food system within the UK.

The Landworkers Alliance campaigns for food to be produced in a way where the food system is localised, providing food for people rather than for the global commodity market, safeguarding people’s right to food regardless of their background. They believe that growers should be adequately respected and rewarded with proper living wages and job security. They consider that the control of the food system should be in the hands of the people who produce food, not the monopolies of agribusiness. They seek to build and share knowledge and skills whilst cultivating a food system which works with the natural world rather than exploiting it.

Food justice is vital in mitigating climate change and fighting for social justice. Food is something that is central to life, and therefore provides a fertile site for change. In changing our relationships to food and land, we can re-imagine society, and reorient from extraction to care and communality. There are simple actions you can take to become part of the community fighting for food justice. If you are interested in the more global, policy led side of the food system, take a look at the amazing work of LWA and LVC. If you are looking for local actions, get involved with a community project in Bristol. You can find out more about these via our case studies on our website. Lastly, consider donating to Bristol Local Food Fund, with your support we can continue to support community projects across Bristol.

June 23rd until July 6th is Food Justice fortnight in Bristol, hosted by our wonderful partners Feeding Bristol. Head over to their website (link for the Food Justice Fortnight webpage) to discover all the events and activities taking place to celebrate the incredible communities and organisations that are working to make Bristol a city of food justice.

Further reading

La Via Campesina website link:

The Landworkers Alliance website link:

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