Community food in the context of the Historic shift from regional to centralised AgriFood in the UK

The establishment of community food growing – is a bit of a throwback if we consider our food history in the UK – something that was much more normal up until the 1960’s. So what happened to our community food system and how did our food system become so complex and centralised?

It seems that the first major changes to community-scale food (apart from the shorter term wartime centralised control of production) occurred in part due to pressures of post-war rationing continuing well into the 50’s and by the loss of control of the UK’s food-productive colonies (seems counter intuitive doesn’t it). Concurrently the UK faced an increasing population growth rate bolstered by mass production of new medicines (such as antibiotics) and extensive improvements to the health system. So out the end of WWII, the UK food system began its real shift towards the complex international and interconnected supply chain to which we’ve become accustomed today.

The rapid intensification of farming that occurred during the 60’s became known as the green revolution – a term coined by former USAID director William Gaud. This rapid intensification was made possible by the research (amongst others) of Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug during his time at the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program, a venture involving the Rockafeller Foundation and Mexican Ministry of Agriculture. There Borlaug seeking to breed disease resistant strains of wheat, trialled over 6000 crossings in 10 years.  His techniques involved introduction of new practices and varieties of crops along with intensive pesticide and fertiliser use  setting out the basic tenants of the green revolution. Though widely lauded as a success story; Borlaug himself understood that the root issues of the food system were not addressed by his green revolution which he saw rather as giving humanity “breathing space” to figure out how to tackle challenges of food and nutritional poverty (Borlaug’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech). In later year’s the green revolution was criticised for excluding the poorest of farmers who were unable to cope with the additional costs of fertilisers, pesticides and seeds and with water intensive practices. In particular the displacement of the rural poor and smaller agricultural holdings in order to accommodate larger farms was subject to much media Attention.

As the centralisation and rationalisation of the UK’s agrifood production regained sufficiency of production, the internationalisation of finance enabled the connecting of national economies and led to the emergence of the mass transport of foodstuffs (hobsbawm 1975, Cain and Hopkins, 1993) and the dawning of the now conventional global food system. This interconnection has been highly successful, reducing local and seasonal shortages and paving the way for levelling of food prices between industrialised nations (Winter, 2003), in particular across the EU via CAP. Advocacy for Free Trade has been of huge significance, and although concerns around the potential for monopoly capitalism (Hobsbawm, 1987) and for tariff reform have been aired, for the most part a laissez-faire approach has dominated (Winter, 2003).

This said this conventional system has become challenged by the concerns of decreased food security and food system resilience (the 2008 food crisis is of recent note) and since the 1980’s it has become clear that the gradual intensification of farming, increased farm size, mechanisation and pesticide and fertiliser use necessitated by the said green revolution is having numerous negative impacts. Pollution of surface and groundwater; degradation of soils including soil erosion, compaction, and loss of fertility; loss of habitats; air pollution – all lead to the concern that the conventional system may not be a sustainable means to feed our global population and its progeny indefinitely. We consider the current system to be insecure and unsustainable.


Ideational and institutional policy stretching – schematic example of British food policy (Feindt 2009)

The evolution of concerns is echoed in evolving UK food policy concerns. Food safety, productivity and efficiency policies – beginning in the nineteenth century were some of the first national regulatory frameworks (Ansell and Vogel, 2006). Subsequent policies were more focussed around food security in response to various crisis, until the 1970’s where these shifted to issues of quality, environment, nutrition, health, tradition, cuisine, and consumer choice. It is noteworthy that, as new policies are introduced, rather than remove older ones, these have tended to remain; creating a constant need to reinterpret these along with their associated power-relationships and actors. Peter Feindt at Cardiff University refers to this as policy layering and stretching (Feindt 2009). So these policies so far haven’t been particularly  community food oriented, building rather on a foundation of centralisation policies.

 More recent policy statements referring to the future of UK food take a sustainable systems view which perhaps makes more space for community food. In the 2002 report on the foot and mouth outbreak Gabriel Scally, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at the University of the West of England suggested the aim of “a farming and food sector that is profitable and sustainable, that can and does compete internationally, that is a good steward of the environment and provides healthy food to people in England and around the world.”  (Policy Commission – Future of Farming and Food- 2002)

The Labour government’s 2008 cabinet report recommends the UK work towards “a future of food that is far more sustainable—economically, environmentally and socially. It is a future where consumers are able to access healthy, low-impact food that fits their lifestyles and time pressures” (Cabinet Office Strategy Unit – Food Matters -Towards a strategy for the 21st Century 2008). However in practice, since the arrival of the coalition government in 2010, work on this transition has been ceded in favour of a return to a laissez faire approach and several promising projects have been abandoned including the healthier food mark for public catering and the healthy schools programme.

That seems roughly speaking to be where we are at with the centralised food system at the moment – although Brexit amongst other changes will no doubt impact on how top-down approaches treat our food system.


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