Within Scotland, many of us are fortunate enough to eat three meals a day; breakfast lunch and dinner. However, during these meal times, very few of us would consider the political nature of our daily consumption. If we were to consider Wendell Berry’s quote that “eating is an agricultural act” this may indeed lead us to think a little more about how our food is produced and distributed, and by whom. For those without access to good food, as Jacques Diouf (former FAO Director-General) stated; “Hunger isn’t an issue of charity, it is an issue of justice.”
The image above was taken at a March 2018 field trip which included the Scottish Tesco distribution centre, one of the largest in Europe. The next day, Scotland was affected by the vulnerability of a ‘Just In Time’ distribution system as relied upon by supermarkets in Scotland as it was hit by the snow as a result from the ‘Beast from the East’. Over the next few days, distribution for supermarkets including the Tesco distribution centre ground to a halt, resulting in shortages of fresh milk and bread, and the beginnings of some consumer panic-buying in Scotland. However, many small-scale producers were able to distribute to their shops and suppliers, including many who supplied Leith Food Assembly – one such example being Mossgiel Milk.
Self-Reflection and Vulnerability.
I tried to be both open-minded and critical of my own personal thoughts and beliefs about my relationship to food during my studies, and believe me, studying Gastronomy certainly allowed for plenty of opportunities to do this – it could be very challenging at times! Deciding to critically examine the structure and values of The Food Assembly network (with which I worked) using the framework of food sovereignty as a lens, gave me the opportunity to address a few of the niggles and frustrations I had with this project.
The Vulnerability of the Food System.
Sadly, and somewhat ironically, after submitting the essay detailed below, it was announced that The Food Assembly had decided to close the entire online platform of the UK Assemblies in September 2018, leading to the closure of our weekly local food shop. It was at that point that myself and Mike, who ran the Assembly thought it was appropriate to end our venture. We’d like to thank all those who joined us on this collaborative journey: the producers; our wonderful venues; customers, friends and supporters of Leith Food Assembly for their support over the years.
Within Scotland, many of us are fortunate enough to eat three meals a day; breakfast lunch and dinner. However, during these meal times, very few of us would consider the political nature of our daily consumption. If we were to consider Wendell Berry’s quote that “eating is an agricultural act” this may indeed lead us to think a little more about how our food is produced and distributed, and by whom. For those without access to good food, as Jacques Diouf (former FAO Director-General) stated; “hunger isn’t an issue of charity, it is an issue of justice.” Creating a framework for an understanding of our basic human right to live without hunger, led to the concept of food security; defined as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 2001).
The global food crisis of 2007-2008 saw a sharp increase in food prices, displacement of the rural peasants, and urban food riots, indicating that the current, globalised neoliberal food system and models of agricultural production had not succeeded in eradicating hunger or poverty throughout the world (Patel 2007). This resulted in hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets around the world including in Bangladesh, Egypt, Haiti, West and Central Africa in protest to demand affordable food (Wittman et al. 2010). Nevertheless, institutions and key figures at the heart of this dominant, neoliberal regime (Friedman 2005), still insisted that these problems within the food supply chain were due to market failures and food shortages which could be countered by an increase in industrial production, and use of hi-tech scientific approaches (Wittman et al. 2010).
A need for an alternative to this predominant model led to a grass-roots movement which resulted in the creation of the term and the subsequent philosophy of ‘food sovereignty’, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Declaration of Nyéléni 2007). The founding principle that “food is not a commodity like any other because it is fundamentally necessary for life” (Food Sovereignty Organisation UK 2018) is the basis for a vision for a world of food sovereignty would allow for a re-connection of food, nature and community (Wittman et al. 2010).
These values of self-determination and holistic sustainability are particularly relevant in light of the recent Brexit plans, as Scotland and the rest of the UK consider plans for the future of food, farming, land and labour (Clutterbuck 2017).
This essay will examine this concept of food sovereignty, referencing some of the events and influences that have informed and shaped the principles of this global food movement. The relevance of food sovereignty within Scotland’s contemporary food system will then be discussed.
I will briefly look at how discussions of ‘Alternative Food Networks’ and ‘Digital Food Activism’, may feed into our contemporary discourse of food activism, and how these may relate to embedding principles of sovereignty within our food system. I will then critically apply these discourses to take a more detailed look at The Food Assembly (FA), an innovative digital network for local food provisioning, using Leith Food Assembly (LFA) as a case study. Critically evaluating this alternative food network through the lens of food sovereignty will allow for examination of whether food assemblies could potentially tackle, mitigate or solve food system-related problems within Scotland.
The Global Food Sovereignty Movement
The concept of food sovereignty evolved from farming peoples, who used their experiences of the effects of international agricultural policy throughout the 1980s and 1990s to critically analyse and vocalise how they were affected within the food system in its current state (Wittman et al 2010). This grassroots movement ‘La Via Campesina’ (translated as ‘the peasant’s way’) was initially formed from peasant movements from Europe, Latin America, Asia, North America and Africa in 1993 and now has 182 organisations in 81 countries representing over 200,000,000 peasants (La Via Campesina website 2018). At the core of their philosophy was to challenge the hegemonic principles of neoliberalism governing the global economic model in order to protect the rights of workers throughout the globe, thereby creating regime change (Friedmann 2005). In establishing their principles and vision for the food system, they considered the definition of ‘food security’ as inadequate to describe their objectives for a just food system, and hence the term ‘food sovereignty’ was coined. This term allows for an expanded, and often, now prolonged definition which covers political ideologies that stress the importance of the right to self-determine; the importance of ecologically sound practices within agriculture and the importance of culturally appropriate solutions to feeding the population – the latter playing a key factor in defending many of its indigenous communities/peoples and including the importance of the role of women within global food provision (Patel 2007; Wittman et al. 2010).
The principle of self-determination underpins the goal that the food system should be run on small, localised scales by ‘the many’ (the workers), rather than that of ‘the few’ – the dominating multinational corporations and political spectrums that affect how our food supply and market forces operate. The fundamental principle of the right to self-determine is a principal with an overtly political ambition, and this ontological resistance is explored by Foucault (1980) as ‘counter-power’ – an inevitable consequence to power (Casadevante et al. 2018) and often seen within regime change (Friedmann 2005).
Understanding this political objective, it could ostensibly be argued that the objective of food sovereignty cannot be separated from the aim to demolish capitalism. This is echoed by the current rhetoric expressed by young activists fighting for food sovereignty around the globe. Examples of such include farmer and self-declared ‘peasant’ Sizwe Nyuka, who publicly encourages his “comrades” to join the food sovereignty movement in his native South Africa via Facebook; “It’s open to everyone to join. We are part of the movement! You just have to write a proposal and present it to the movement. You must be in line with the movement(s) ideology of dismantling capitalism in all forms.” Closer to home, this sentiment is also echoed via social media by Evie Love, founder of Leith Community Croft Crops in Pots; “We are the frontline in this revolt… and just you wait till we reach critical mass.” However, this resistance does not necessarily have to take the form of radical action. The concept of ‘counter-power’ can be philosophically explored as being ‘power to’ rather than ‘power over’, creating a means of collective action by those who are oppressed to either quietly contest, latently, in everyday life, or to more publicly and openly declare these challenges (Casadevante et al. 2018).
Since its early incarnation, the food sovereignty movement has gained momentum and now has the support of many global organisations and NGO’s. In 2007 over 8 of these larger organisations collaborated to provide a forum for Food Sovereignty in Nyéléni, Mali. The collaborators included La Via Campesina, ROPPA, CNOP, World March of Women, World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fishworkers, World Forum of Fisher Peoples, IPC for Food Sovereignty, the Food Sovereignty Network and the Friends of the Earth. During this forum, a ‘Declaration’ was produced which aimed to define the pillars and key concepts of the principles of food sovereignty, an important manifesto politically, as it clarifies not only the principles it stands for but those which they actively oppose and ‘reject’. These six ‘interlinked and inseparable’ key pillars state that food sovereignty:
- focuses on food for people;
- values food providers;
- localises food systems;
- puts control locally;
- builds knowledge and skills and;
- works with nature
(Declaration of Nyéléni 2007).
The Scottish food and drink industry is a key component of Scotland’s economy; generating over £9.5 billion per year for Scotland and employing over 360,000 people within the industry including farmers, fishermen and those in hospitality and retail, often in rural or coastal areas. However, in Scotland we suffer from a widely acknowledged paradox: “despite producing fantastic food and drink we have one of the poorest diet-related health records in the developed world” (Lochhead 2009).
In relation to the principles of food security and food sovereignty, we, therefore, come across the philosophical question of what is our food in Scotland really for – is it for making money or is it for nourishing people? (Croakes 2018), as it is purported that the revenue we receive from exports does not match the amount we spend trying to sort out the problem (Nourish 2018).
This is especially relevant, in light of the current Brexit negotiations as the UK is currently in a position where it only produces 54% of the food it consumes, while importing twice the value of the food that we export; with a ‘food trade deficit’ of $33 billion (Clutterbuck 2017). This could be seen as either a threat to the food security of the UK or an opportunity for us to operate and reward practices which align with those of food sovereignty (Benson 2017).
Scotland is in a unique position within the UK with an active network of thriving food communities campaigning for a more sustainable food system and food future. Current members listed on the La Via Campesina website include the Scottish Crofting Federation and Landworkers Alliance UK, and in 2016, a Scottish organised by Nourish Scotland delegation representing a number of organisations and community groups, attended the European Food Sovereignty Forum in order to “share experiences, build a common understanding of food sovereignty within Europe, develop a strategy and action plan to strengthen and enlarge the food sovereignty movement and influence and advocate for policies to support food support in Europe” (Nourish 2018).
This thriving network is also supported by the Scottish Food Coalition – a civil society coalition working together to take a whole-system approach to securing food justice in Scotland, which is currently lobbying for effective cross-cutting food policies to be implemented into a forthcoming Good Food Nation bill, expected to come into consultation in the coming months. One of the key elements the SFC is trying to lobby for is to enshrine the United Nation’s Right to Food into Scots Law alongside the right to work, education and health. This, in relation to the notion of food sovereignty, attempts to realize a “democratic welfare state that is responsive and accountable to its poorest citizens” (Edelman et al. 2014 p.16). This guiding framework principle for policy and practice should encompass food insecurity, adequacy, availability and accessibility, as well as enabling access to land, resources, skills and knowledge. However, unless these rights are truly and easily enforceable by citizens once enshrined, we could still question who really is ‘sovereign’ of food sovereignty – the state or the people (Edelman et al. 2014).
Nourish stress the need for “really strong civic participation” in order to affect this change. They acknowledge that within Scotland there are many innovative projects and different ways of tackling the corporate power of food systems, however, these projects and initiatives aren’t necessarily joined up or aligned in the way they are campaigning for change (Croakes 2018). This notion corresponds with Edelman et al.’s (2014) critical discussion of the validities of the concept of food sovereignty, in which they stress that politically differing urban and rural groups working for food justice or food security should not be dismissed as irrelevant in helping to support the movement.
Alternative Food Networks
Key to the success of buoyancy of the food sovereignty movement is the need for small, localised groups or networks of food production and distribution (Wittman et al. 2010). These local food networks have been defined and critiqued both collectively and individually under the term ‘alternative food networks’ (AFN’s). As most operative AFN’s still trade and function within our dominant neoliberal food system (Bos and Owen 2016), much of the discussion as to what constitutes an AFN often focuses on ‘what they are not’, rather than ‘what they are’ (Goodman et al. 2012; Bos and Owen 2016). More recently, however, academic discourse on AFN’s is now addressing how communities and civil societies can govern food systems through initiatives which embrace community participation, social entrepreneurship and grassroots innovation (Grasseni, 2013; Kirwan et al., 2013 in Bos and Owen 2016). Using AFN’s as case studies can provide valuable insight to examining local notions of justice, control and food sovereignty (Lamine et al. 2012; Renting et al. 2012; Shawki 2012; Goodman and Sage, 2014; in Boswell and Owen 2016 p.16). This is affirmed by Lutz and Schachinger (2013), who expound that as local food networks become more clustered and widespread, they can play an important role in transitioning from the dominant food regimes, by creating socio-ecological changes on a local level.
Digital Food Activism
Schneider et al. (2017) examine the efforts by people to change the food system across the globe by using digital means and confirms in most cases these applications correlate with general principles of food activism, to adapt how food is produced, distributed and/or consumed (Counihan and Sinicalsci 2014). Digital food activism is enacted not only through the food, technologies and ‘things’ (ie products), but through the relationships between them which are both mediated and transformed by the infrastructures of digital networks (Schneider et al. 2017).
Although there is limited research into how people specifically use digital technology and digital platforms to “challenge, critique and change the conventional global agri-food system” (Schneider et al. 2017 p.3), work by Mann (2014), has revealed how access to alternative digital and new media platforms have been important tools which La Via Campesina and its members have employed to challenge dominant, neoliberal narratives around food security.
The Food Assembly
An example of an alternative food network within Scotland’s food system that looks to address problems utilizing a form of digital activism new digital platforms is The Food Assembly. The Food Assembly is a network of independent, local projects throughout Europe that use an innovative online platform to allow the general public to purchase “high-quality food while supporting small-scale producers, who create jobs and foster social well-being” (The Food Assembly website 2018).
The Food Assembly – named La Ruche Qui dit Oui! (The Hive Who Says Yes) in France, where it originated – was the brainchild of three partners; Guilhem Chéron, Marc-David Choukroun and Mounir Mahjoubi. The partners developed the idea at a French start-up incubator and formed the company Equanum to launch the digital online platform through which the local subsidiaries operate. The Food Assembly was launched in the UK in July 2014, with the first assembly in Scotland opening in November 2016. Currently, the Food Assembly has 11 assemblies operating in Scotland (with an additional 5 under construction), and over 85 active assemblies throughout the UK. The Food Assembly is now operative as a movement across Europe, with over 700 Assemblies in France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and Italy. Although the messaging of the Food Assembly does not align with Lutz and Schachinger’s (2013) assertions that many local food networks use the term ‘food sovereignty’ as a ‘leitmotiv’ to describe it’s operations or activities, much of its practices and rhetoric are aligned with the principles of food sovereignty and thus, this abundant, clustered network could show potential to “foster wider transformations of the dominant food regime” (Lutz and Schachinger 2013 p. 12 ). However, it also possible that the Food Assembly may find it difficult to entirely resist the dominant market forces which put it a risk of becoming another form of ‘green capitalism’ (Friedman 2005).
Politics, Power and Control: “puts control locally”
Edelman et al. (2014) reflect on the notions of who in fact, may be sovereign with the food sovereignty movement. In looking critically at the Food Assembly it is essential to consider who holds power and control within the network and is pertinent to consider that this particular AFN could be considered a neoliberal, capitalist solution to a local food problem; a paradox to the philosophy of the radicalism of the food sovereignty movement which seeks to reject “the privatisation of natural resources through laws, commercial contracts and intellectual property rights regimes” (Declaration of Nyéléni 2007). Attempting to solve problems at a local level using a European market within a dominant model and infrastructures of the free market may, in fact, lead to reinforcement of neoliberalism (Friedmann 2005; Guthman 2006; Lutz 2014), a system problem described by Meadows (2008) as a ‘systems trap’.
The organisational structure of food assemblies is similar to a franchise model in which anyone can operate a food assembly providing they meet the criteria of the UK Head office and observe the rules of the charter guidelines (or pledges) for producer, host and HQ. Despite the potential for the model to become corrupted by a need for profit at either a national or local level, most hosts seem to understand the ‘gastronomical’ and ethical considerations of the Food Assembly and operate in line with the Food Assembly principles. Some assemblies (such as Stirling and the forthcoming Linlithgow FA) operate as part of wider food access or local environmental projects. Often they are operated by food producers who were looking to increase their access to local markets; “I started out initially looking for an outlet for my honey and beeswax products. I work weekends so was not able to attend farmers’ markets or events. Talking with other new producers they couldn’t get into the local market so (I) thought this would be good for them too…” (Bryden McKinnie, producer and Haddington Food Assembly host, 2018).
Where the food assembly differs from many marketplace retail platforms or franchise models is that it does not require hosts or the producers to pay a sign-up to join (or operate) an assembly. This is line with the expectations from members who are not required to place a minimum order and may order as and when they please.
The service fee structure is currently as follows: 80% of the sale goes to the producer, with 10% to Food Assembly and 10% to the local hosts. As this is a European business, payments are processed internationally and the 10% fee is split between head office support both at the international and the UK level, with restructuring meaning that there will now be a regional coordinator at the Scottish level, to help foster more interaction and sharing of knowledge and resources between Scottish food assemblies.
Shorter Supply Chains: “works with nature, localises food systems”
A key principle to food sovereignty is to bring food producers and consumers closer together, not only geographically – promoting local and stable economic activity, but in order to centre the decision-making on food issues to ensure access to good, healthy food. In essence, this approach can be seen as a ‘value chain’, being that of more than just distance enabling the producer/consumer relations to be ‘thickened’ (Bos and Owen 2016). Many of Leith Food Assembly’s partners use agro-ecological or organic approaches to farming as advocated by the food sovereignty movement, however, the process of organic certification is a costly endeavour, but one which may ascribe understanding of value to consumers, arguably (and ironically), as a result of our dominant food regime. In examining the potential for success in creating systemic change through local food networks, it is also important to be mindful of the other tensions and pressures that already exist within the dominant system, those specific infrastructures that cannot be easily changed – especially if producers have a variety of routes to market including wholesale and selling via supermarkets (Lutz and Schachinger 2013). These pre-existing pressures – transport logistics, pricing and access to finance – could, therefore, mean those producers require a high sales turnover at assemblies in order to operate with local markets. To counter these issues, increased logistical collaboration between producers and food assemblies could help enable these local ‘value chains’ to flourish within the network.
Access and Availability: “focus on food for people”
A key paradox to the food system within Scotland is that despite the food and drink sector being a key sector of the Scottish economy, Scotland is known for having one of the poorest diet-related health records in the developed world (Lochhead 2009). Key to the principles of food sovereignty, access to and availability of good food is a predominant issue for many Scots. Leith Food Assembly also suffers from this strange paradoxical relationship as a business model; despite supporting small businesses and social enterprises which help to broaden access and availability for certain groups (such as Cyrenians Farm, Punjabi Junction and Scotland Bread), it’s core product range which should allow a fair price for producers, include a variety of branded organic and seasonal produce and is often expensive and therefore likely to be inaccessible to those of a lower socio-economic demographic within the Leith community. Indeed, it could also be argued that as the average commission earnings fall well below the food sovereignty ideal of a living wage for workers (Patel 2007), the Food Assembly may unintentionally be actually exacerbating these paradoxes, by relying on passionate volunteers to operate the collections; either those who can afford to or are willing, keeping the Food Assembly a niche operation (Lutz and Schachinger 2013).
It is pertinent to also consider whether the Food Assembly truly allows for democratic access to local markets for the small producers. Many food assemblies include Leith Food Assembly currently have a working culture of restricting suppliers of similar or competing products from trading concurrently, in order to ensure that the existing producers make sufficient sales, often resulting in a lack of variety for members and a lack of access to the market for smaller scale producers. This curation policy differentiates from working models in many farmers market that operate within Scotland. Alternatively, it could be suggested that liberating itself from this ‘free market of choice approach’ could align with the principles of food sovereignty (Lutz and Schachinger 2013).
Community: “builds knowledge and skills”
An important part of the philosophy of the Food Assembly model is the creation of community. This was enabled within the FA platform; creating a membership system based on the design of a forum – encouraging engagement and interaction between members and producers. Enabling such networks could be seen as an important part of creating citizen participation, a process deemed as essential in creating policy change by Good Food Nation campaigners (Croakes 2018). Although the platform is designed as a forum, it is rarely used by LFA members or producers this way, and it could be suggested that the challenge for Food Assembly networks is to try to repeal the dominant discourse of consumerism enshrined within the communications and infrastructures and communications of our everyday food systems (Lutz and Scachinger 2014). Once such a solution could be by promoting a practical understanding of food citizenship (Food Ethics Council 2018). Caldwell (in Schneider et al. 2017 p. 26), evaluates the potential use of digital food networks to that of the ‘’simultaneously democratic and anarchist’’ principles of hacking – that is rejecting hegemonic, exclusionary norms of the current food system in order to create more participatory ‘modes of engagement’ (Crossan et al. 2016 in Caldwell 2017 p.26), a philosophy which corresponds with that of citizenship.
In research into alternative food networks within England and Wales, Bos and Owen (2016) found that the material embodied, socio-material reconnection processes that occurs in-place also occur online, however, they do not replace real-life connections. This was also examined by Grasseni (2013), who found that many Italian members of the GAS movement were reluctant to order online from their local food network, preferring instead to deal in-person with the producers. This tension could possibly explain the low conversion rates from LFA members to regular customers.
Many food assemblies throughout the UK, including Leith Food Assembly, aim to reinforce opportunities for real-life engagement by creating opportunities for events, including food education, community meals and tasting sessions led by producers. This creates connections between food assembly members and producers, as well as being an opportunity for people to acquire knowledge and understanding of the complexities of the dominant food system and learn about the principles of agro-ecological production – principles which are in line with the objectives of the Declaration of Nyéléni.
Having examined the concept of food sovereignty, we can understand how the events and influences have informed and shaped the principles of this global food movement and led to a need for a more specific conceptual framework to enable peasants the rights to self-determine their own food production in a way which connects food, nature and community.
The need for such a holistic framework can be seen when examining the paradoxical nature of the Scottish food system and the need for more sustainable ways to meet the nutritional and cultural needs of our nation. This could be further articulated and encouraged by using the principles of food sovereignty. Having explored the discourses around ‘Alternative Food Networks’ and ‘Digital Food Activism’, we can better understand the context of the food assemblies and critique some of the potential tensions that may arise when using local food networks to create this systemic change.
In summary, applying the principles of food sovereignty to the working model of the Food Assembly demonstrates that although the platform was defined to enable solutions which may align with the principles of food sovereignty, in reality, there are many practical challenges which may negate these objectives being met. One of the principal challenges is how local networks can create systemic change, whilst still operating within an infrastructure and dominant (consumer-based) discourse of neoliberalism. However, we should not dismiss the potential for a network of Scottish Food Assemblies to offer an alternative model to the dominant food regime, and if managed appropriately, they could play an important role in encouraging civic participation to lobby for change within the food system, including the potential to help incorporate and uphold framework legislation within the Good Food Nation bill.
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