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The World Food Club
[block_title title=”The World Food Club: A People’s Co-operative to Create a New Food Supply Chain from the Farm to the Table”][/block_title]
The world’s food supply chain and hence the world at large are being seriously screwed up by the powers-that-be: governments, corporates, and the experts and intellectuals who advise and serve them (scientists, economists, lawyers, and professional bureaucrats known as MBAs).
If we—humanity—truly care about our future, and that of our children and children’s children, and of the world at large, then we have to take matters into our hands.
The WORLD FOOD CLUB is to be a co-operative of farmers, traders, and preparers who crave the opportunity to grow and supply food to the highest possible standards; and of consumers, who want the opportunity to buy such food1.
Its task is not simply to challenge the present-day powers-that-be.
The aim of the WORLD FOOD CLUB is to replace the present food supply chain with something far better, controlled and answerable to people at large. The new food chain will be designed expressly to promote human wellbeing and cultural diversity, hugely to improve animal welfare, and to sustain and create landscapes that remain rich, diverse, and beautiful.
The route to change is not via reform, which is too slow, or revolution, which is too uncertain, but by Renaissance: simply doing things differently, and allowing the status quo to wither on the vine.
The Rationale and a Possible Way Forward
I: Why we need the WORLD FOOD CLUB
1: The world’s food supply chain is the most important of all human creations—the thing we have to get right. But the food chain and hence the world at large are being seriously screwed up by the powers-that-be: governments, corporates, and the experts and intellectuals who advise and serve them (scientists, economists, lawyers, and professional bureaucrats known as MBAs) 2.
So if we, humanity, truly care about our future, and that of our children and children’s children, and of the world at large, then we have to take matters into our hands.
This paper suggests a non-violent way of achieving this—via what I am proposing to call THE WORLD FOOD CLUB: a co-operative of producers (farmers and growers); traditional preparers and suppliers (brewers, bakers, butchers, grocers etc); and astute consumers—consumers who truly care about food, and are prepared to pay proper prices for food properly produced.
2: To put the matter more abstractly, the world as a whole needs a sea-change: different ways of running our affairs; different attitudes; a different scale of values. In principle there are three ways of bringing such change about. The first is by reform—trying to change the minds of the powers-that-be. But although reform is probably worth attempting (every little helps) it cannot succeed by itself. The most powerful people are just not listening and even if they did, they are too committed to their present course. Besides, when the change comes, we do not want the same people in charge3.
The second possible way of effecting change is by revolution. But the time is not ripe for this, and it is not going to happen. Even more to the point, revolutions are inevitably violent and messy, and the outcome is unpredictable. Neither is revolution as commonly understood actually necessary: notably, it is not necessary or even desirable to seek to ‘overthrow capitalism,’ as protestors often suggest. In truth, capitalism can do what the world needs: but we need new models of it, geared directly to human wellbeing.
So we come to the third of the possible routes to change: via Renaissance. People at large just need to start doing things differently, on a wider and wider scale, allowing and causing the status quo, the present-day powers-that-be, to wither on the vine. But the change needs to start somewhere. ‘People at large’ will not start re-organising the world spontaneously. It needs a focused group to start things moving. This group is the World Food Club.
II: What the WORLD FOOD CLUB is
The WORLD FOOD CLUB is a co-operative of farmers, traders, and preparers who crave the opportunity to grow and supply food to the highest possible standards4; and of consumers, who want the opportunity to buy such food. Its task is not simply to challenge the present-day powers-that-be.Its aim is to replace the present food supply chain with something far better, controlled and answerable to people at large, and designed expressly to improve human wellbeing, and to sustain and create landscapes that remain rich and beautiful.
Demonstrably5, there are millions of farmers out there who crave the opportunity simply to farm well: producing excellent food; respecting the landscape and the local wildlife; operating without cruelty to livestock; and helping to create agreeable and stable rural communities. Their ranks are swelled by many millions of ex-farmers, driven from their land by the present craze for economic competitiveness, which above all entails the shedding of labour. There are many millions more who have been city-bred yet would love to be farmers. Although some of these would-be farmers are just dreamers, it is also the case that many of the world’s most accomplished and keenest farmers were and are city-born.
Thousands more are pleased to earn their living by, for example, sourcing cocoa or spices from small farms in the tropics, delivering them to western high-streets, and ensuring that the farmers themselves and their communities get a good and secure return.
Millions more would like to earn their living in the traditional crafts of food preparation: as butchers, charcutiers, bakers, brewers, chefs, restaurateurs, caterers, and all the rest.
Farmers, traders, and preparers collectively are the suppliers of food; and all that they need in order to do their various jobs in the way they can and should be done, is a market. They need to know before they invest their capital, time, and labour, that they can sell the fruits of their endeavours.
All human beings are consumers; and most consumers in traditional societies worldwide care deeply about food—many countries from France and Italy through Turkey and Iran to China and India have wondrous ‘food cultures.’ In modern societies millions have serious misgivings about all aspects of modern food: its safety; its flavour; and the cruelty, injustice, and pollution entailed in its production.
The WORLD FOOD CLUB will bring the four groups together: the farmers, traders, and traditional preparers who want to supply the best possible food in the best possible ways; and the consumers who want to buy food that they know has been produced to the highest standards of husbandry and justice.
III: How the WORLD FOOD CLUB will work
All the details of rationale and strategy must be thought through if THE WORLD FOOD CLUB is to become reality. But the essential elements as I see it are as follows:
1: It is not the role or intention of the WFC to replace existing, good initiatives with specifically WFC initiatives.
Absolutely not. WFC is not an exercise in empire building. Rather, its role and intention is to identify all the suppliers and consumers who already agree with the general WFC principles, and to enable them to coordinate: truly to create a network.
However, we may well identify areas where mere coordination is not enough. Some vital links in the network may sometimes be missing, and then the WFC can fill the gaps. For example, it may sometimes be advantageous to all concerned for WFC to acquire farms or retail outlets of its own, to be let out on franchise. (See below).
2: Members of the WFC will be of two kinds: WFC suppliers, and WFC consumers.
(i): WFC suppliers. These will include farmers, traders, and all manner of preparers (from butchers to restaurateurs and caterers).
Not everyone can become a WFC Supplier. Suppliers have to demonstrate that they are doing the job properly. This could be achieved by one of two mechanisms. One would be to appoint a panel of monitors, to examine and certify each candidate. But such an arrangement would be far too expensive and implies a degree of bureaucracy that is very much against the spirit of the WFC.
The second possible mechanism illustrates the value and the point of conceiving the WFC as a ‘club.’ For how do other clubs maintain their integrity and purpose? Answer: through the members themselves. That is: new candidates have to be proposed by existing members; then seconded; and are admitted only if no other member of the club black-balls them—although this cannot be done without good reason. The club has to begin somewhere, and in fact can begin with farmers who already have Soil Association accreditation, and/or are supported by the Food Animal Initiative. With that core in place, the expanding membership will be self-monitoring. If any bad hats do creep in, they can be identified and booted out.
WFC suppliers will carry the WFC logo (to run alongside their brand labels, Soil Association certificates, or whatever).
I envisage that WFC suppliers should pay a subscription. Subscriptions collectively should cover administrative costs; and (in the fullness of time) could be used to provide extra services as outlined below.
(ii): The second category of membership is or are the WFC Consumers. Consumers do not pay a subscription. Their role is basically to provide the market: they agree to buy what the WFC Suppliers are offering. WFC Consumers should enter some kind of contract. Some might agree simply to take a certain amount of produce per month from WFC suppliers, as in present-day box schemes. Others, more sophisticated—and preferably!—might buy futures: for example, contracting to buy an entire Berkshire pig (or half of one) when the animal is still small, or is yet unborn (and preferably though not necessarily paying up front).
I envisage, however, that the price to consumers should include some premium that will go into the central fund of the WFC, again for the purposes outlined below.
3: WFC services, and the order in which they might come into being.
(i): WFC might reasonably begin as a (conceptually) simple website. This will provide a list of all WFC suppliers: producers, traders, preparers: people, that is, who are working to WFC principles. Most of these suppliers will have their own websites, into which the WFC website will provide the link. ‘Traders’ in this context of course includes markets, WFC shops, farmers’ markets, box schemes, etc: all the means by which good food can get to people by the most direct route.
This will (a) enable consumers to get in touch with anyone who they feel in tune with; and (a), enable different suppliers to identify others with whom they feel they can form useful alliances.
(ii): The website can and should become more and more sophisticated as time passes and funds allow. Thus ordinary consumers (who in this case include restaurateurs and caterers) will discover from day one that if they want, say, to acquire particularly fine beef, they can get it by post from, say, the Real Meat Company. But as the website improves, consumers who have extra special desires and bulging wallets will be able to see, quickly, that, say, on November 1, Farmer Bloggs of Wiltshire intends to send six British White steers for slaughter. The offals will be available immediately but the meat will be hung for three weeks, after which this particular programme will yield 144 ribs (initially joined in twelves), 60 odd pound of best fillet, etc etc etc. Consumer members can then order online, typing in their membership number, with guaranteed delivery on a given date; or can arrange for pick-up at a particular WFC butcher if they prefer that route; or of course can get in touch with Farmer Bloggs directly to talk about it. There are many possibilities. The point is merely that people with particular needs can be put in touch with the most appropriate suppliers; and it isn’t difficult in principle to arrange such liaison between any consumers and suppliers anywhere in the world.
(iii) Farmers are not generally good at marketing: branding, packaging, etc. In fact, some traders identify this deficiency as the greatest single reason why farmers have allowed themselves to be swamped by the industrial food industry and by the supermarkets. The WFC will provide the necessary advice—or, much more to the point, enable farmers to get in touch with people who are good at this kind of thing; and they will supply the necessary back-up. Some to whom I have spoken rank this as among the most important contributions the WFC could make.
It is easy to envisage more ways in which WFC could help. The point is to provide the clearing house between those who need and those who can do.
4: General attitudes to trade.
All the principles on which WFC is founded need to be worked through and coordinated. This is not the place to attempt this grand synthesis. But preliminary remarks on trade seem in order. The generalisations are that local sourcing is ideal, and that national self-reliance is highly desirable. Self-reliance means that a country can supply all that it needs to feed its people. It does not mean self-sufficiency; which means supplying everything that people could conceivably want. In general, then, food exports should be confined to those crops that a country can grow after it has achieved self-reliance; and food imports should be confined to those crops that are not vital for survival, which other countries can grow easily and benefit from selling.
The general principle is ancient and obvious—but in these days of the neoliberal global free market, this commonsense principle is routinely flouted. Every crop is deemed to be a commodity, and according to the free market philosophy every country should be prepared to sell anything to anybody if the price is high enough, or buy anything from anybody if it is cheap enough. Treasury officials in countries like Britain are currently asking why we should grow food at all, since we could in theory, in the short term, buy almost all of what we need more cheaply from overseas.
However, what is traded on the global market must be decided by moral and practical principles (and the two overlap). These include: ensuring that the ecological footprint is as small as possible; ensuring that the money paid for imported food is returned primarily to the farmers who produce it, or at least to their communities; ensuring that the trade is humane, not least in its treatment of farm livestock; and so on. In general, then, we would expect to see a thriving world trade in commodities that are of very high value but of low volume (so that shipping is cheap and cost effective in energy), such as spices and (some) tropical fruits. We would not expect to see world trade eg in soya intended for cattle feed (which currently is Brazil’s chief agricultural export, primarily intended for Europe). We should certainly cease international trade in live animals.
So the WFC website will list food that is produced locally (to the required standards); and will also list traders and/or farmers or cooperatives of farmers in foreign countries, so as to provide direct trade routes from producers to consumers. Such initiatives have already been shown to reduce the price of tea enormously—while also considerably increasing the return to the producers. (Ie, at present it’s the middle-men who are taking the profits; both consumers and producers are missing out).
5: Further developments and services.
WFC’s central fund must of course be strictly ring-fenced, overseen by a board of trustees, and with no profits (beyond reasonable expenses and salaries) to be paid to WFC staff, as in, say, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
The uses to which this fund should be put must of course be discussed, and ultimately agreed by the trustees. The possibilities can be taken ad hoc, one by one, as and when they become possible. But they might include:
(i): Support buying. The WFC itself could in some instances agree to buy produce even in advance of the customers. Thus it would provide a (limited) banking-underwriting service (in the way that governments used to do before they became so committed to neoliberalism). But this would have to be done so that assets ultimately accrued to the club, for further good works.
(ii): Information. That is, the WFC itself will provide proper information on what good food really is and how it is produced, as well as on the particular deliberations of the WFC. Information should ideally be presented across the entire spectrum from learned journals to popular TV.
(iii): Research. Eventually funds might be used to encourage, commission or even to carry out research, for example into the appropriate technologies and economics of modern agrarianism6.
Desiderata ii and iii might be achieved by helping to establish the College of Enlightened Agriculture, envisaged in So Shall We Reap.
(iv): Acquisition of farms. Eventually (or even quite soon) WFC might acquire its own farms. WFC farms would offer security of tenure to tenants who agreed to abide by the general principles of the WFC. The idea is not to tell good farmers how to farm. It is, however, to encourage best practice and to prevent the re-establishment of malpractice, from the hyper-intensive piggery to ‘farming by numbers’—the slavish application of agro-chemicals according to the calendar.
(v): Acquisition of retail outlets. Perhaps even more important—the WFC might acquire retail outlets. These could take the form of market halls, as have long been traditional all over the world, with stalls of individual traders. Or they could be supermarkets, using modern bar-coding to ensure that the profits were returned to the individual suppliers (so that the WFC supermarket operates simply as a clearing house). Or there could be small WFC high-street shops, let out on franchise.
However: the WFC will not acquire farms and retail outlets of its own unless this is strictly necessary. Nine times out of ten (or 99 times out of 100) it should be possible simply to enter arrangements with existing businesses, which will carry the WFC label.
The virtual clearing house (via the web) will continue, but the more dedicated WFC retail outlets there are, the less it will be necessary.
In truth, the WFC concept contains very little (indeed virtually nothing) that does not exist already.
But I regard this as a strength. It means that the desired global network can and should be built up primarily or indeed almost entirely by forming links between enterprises and initiatives that already exist. These very obviously include The Soil Association: the Food Animal Initiative, Oxford; the UK Food Group; the Slow Food Movement; Compassion in World Farming; Fair Trade; Forum for the Future; Friends of the Earth; the Pari Centre, Italy; the Winged Horse Trust; the Oxford Community Land Trust; the various box schemes, run at the local or regional level; farmers’ markets; food fairs; and many more, plus a host of private individual suppliers that any of us might nominate.
If all these movements were coordinated, and if the funds that could be made available through the creation of the WFC were astutely deployed then this would of itself create a new food supply chain, worldwide, that would by-pass the powers-that-be. Since the world’s food supply chain is of such significance, this in turn would produce a quite new power structure that was truly dedicated to the wellbeing of humankind as a whole, and of the world in which we all live.
So where do we go from here? Let’s get writing to people, and inviting them on board!
Colin Tudge, Binsey, Oxfordshire, 2005.
1 Primary supply includes fisheries, too, of course. But although the fishing industry is hugely important socially and economically, and although it is currently doing huge damage to the world’s ecology and is itself hideously threatened by pollution, dams, and so on, it supplies only a very small amount of the world’s total food. Farming is the major player, and the priority.
2 Out of a world population of six billions, a billion are undernourished, a billion overnourished. At the time time, present-day agriculture perpetrates hideous cruelty to livestock, squanders energy, degrades the land and pollutes fresh water and the seas. Perhaps worst of all, it is no longer seen as the world’s greatest employer. Many millions have been forced into poverty and misery—dead-end or degrading jobs or no jobs at all—as farming becomes increasingly industrialised in the names of ‘efficiency,’ ‘development,’ and ‘progress.’
3 Traditionally, governments in capitalist countries, as in the US of the early 19 th century, saw it as their role to ensure that private industries operated only in the interests of the citizenry at large. Today, the world’s most powerful governments, notably the US and with the enthusiastic support of the UK, evidently believe either that the interests of humanity at large are secondary, or that humanity can best be served by encouraging private industries to create as much wealth as possible in the shortest time (sometimes, it seems, by whatever means). Thus the US and UK governments in particular increasingly see themselves as wings of the corporates: the giant companies that through economies of scale (and sheer brute strength) create and consolidate wealth most effectively. Tragically, the world’s agriculture has become swept up in this overall drive. Farming is no longer perceived primarily as the means by which people are fed, and communities maintained, and landscape kept in good heart, but simply, like everything else, as a means for creating maximum wealth in the shortest time. It is, as the mantra has it in Britain, just ‘a business like any other’; and the concept of ‘business’ in general has been degraded—from a socially desirable exercise in craft and employment to a machine for making money.
On the global scale, this re-conception of agriculture simply as another generator of cash manifests in the ‘neoliberal’ economics of the US. Neoliberalism ostensibly is committed to the principles of free trade but in practice the US overrides those principles by giving massive subsidies to its own farmers. Thus the global free market that is supposed to emerge from neoliberal economics, and is officially supported by the World Trade Organisation, is a fiction. However, the global free market would not work to the advantage of small farmers in poor countries even if it could be made to work, since small farmers could keep their costs down only by working for slave wages. Either that, or the farmers must be thrown out of work and replaced by machines, which in poor countries are liable to be owned by foreign investors. Neither can the global free market ever lead to stability, since all enterprises, including farm enterprises, are always liable to be undercut by others elsewhere who are even more desperate, and are prepared to work for even smaller returns.
In general, agricultural policies worldwide are not focused on what one might imagine should be their primary aim, which is to feed people. It is because they are not so focused, that they fail so spectacularly to deliver. Instead they are intended to maximise wealth, which in reality and inevitably falls into the hands of a minority. Some of that minority apparently do not care that their own wealth is achieved at the hands of others’ misery. Others do seem to care, but apparently believe that they can help the poor by becoming rich themselves—for example through hand-outs to the poor in the form of ‘aid.’ Thus celebs of various kinds grow enormously rich—there is no upper limit on personal wealth—and then stage pop concerts to raise funds, through which they believe they are doing good. Yet this belief and the philosophy that lies behind it is profoundly mistaken. As things are the rich are creating poverty by undermining the economies and ways of life of poor countries: which, in particular, means undermining the world’s traditional agriculture.
4 ‘Highest possible standards’ means:
- Food that is safe (from disease organisms and toxins); is nutritious (according to the findings of the best nutritional science); and which also rises to the heights of gastronomy.
- That the food is produced with kindness to livestock.
- That the food is produced in ways that are wildlife-friendly, conserving landscapes and other species.
- That the supply is sustainable: meaning that our descendants should have the same or more options open to them as we have now.
- That the methods of production, trade, and preparation support sound, autonomous and sustainable communities, whose individual members are personally fulfilled.
Farming that meets these standards might be called ‘Enlightened Agriculture.’ In practice, enlightened agriculture is best achieved through farms of traditional structure—family-sized, mixed and labour-intensive—though helped by modern technology to take the heartbreak out of the work.
Small, mixed, labour-intensive farms that are sustainable produce a high proportion of crops of great variety, and a corresponding variety though relatively small numbers of livestock that are raised on their natural diets. A high ratio of plants to animals, and the greatest possible variety of both, are precisely what is recommended by modern nutritional science; and is the basis of traditional cooking which is the source of all the finest gastronomy,
In other words, good farming, sound nutrition, and the greatest possible cooking go hand in hand.
Note that modern industrialised farming, geared to the maximisation of profit, leads inevitably to monocultural farming on the greatest possible scale and with minimum labour: the absolute antithesis of enlightened agriculture, and hence of good nutrition and cooking.
Note, too, that the present-day powers that be do not emphasise the natural link between good farming, sound nutrition, and great gastronomy. They emphasise the precise opposite: for example promulgating the idea that healthy eating is necessarily austere; and that great cooking is necessarily steeped in sugar, salt, and fat (‘naughty but nice’). This advice seems to be rooted mainly in ignorance rather than in malice—but ignorance among people who have power is itself reprehensible.
5 Of course, these statements are presented here as top of the head assertions. But they can all be substantiated. The references are out there.
6 In my book, So Shall We Reap, I envisage creating a ‘College of Enlightened Agriculture.’ By combining ambitions (a) and (b) as envisioned in III.3, the WFC could supply the seed money for such a college; one that would provide the intellectual base for enlightened agriculture and for the WFC forever more.
To operate securely and sustainably—to become the norm, indeed—enlightened agriculture needs to operate in a milieu of what might be called ‘modern agrarianism’: agriculture that in general is labour intensive, but is aided by technologies (including the highest of high technologies, such as the internet) that are intended to take the heartbreak out of the labour. But although it is (relatively) easy to envisage the technologies appropriate to the modern agrarianism (most of the necessary technologies already exist, though all are capable of improvement) it is far harder to envisage a convincing and stable economic system. A key issue is the proportion of people in any one society who should be working on the land. In the present world this ranges from about one per cent of the total labour force (the US and UK) to around 90 per cent (Rwanda). In the Third World as a whole (as in India) the proportion is 60 per cent. The ideal number will surely vary from country to country, depending on history, geography, climate, and so on and so on. But we may reasonably suggest that 90 per cent is too high (the remaining 10 per cent is not enough for all the other tasks that societies require)—but also that 1 per cent is far too low, since a labour-free agriculture is highly precarious and obviously unsustainable. We might reasonably suggest that somewhere between 20 per cent (for countries that are already industrialised, such as Britain and the US) and 50 per cent (for countries whose industrial future is still uncertain) would be realistic. But the world as a whole should be trying to put figures on these ‘reasonable estimates’ which as far as I know, it is not. Instead, the powers that be, driven by the belief that farming is simply about the creation of disposable wealth, clearly assume that fewer is better—even though industrial agriculture as now practiced in the UK and US has obvious, severe disadvantages, and if practiced worldwide would put two billion people out of work, with no alternative employment even feasible.
Since the powers that be and their various think tanks and research units are not exploring the economics of modern agrarianism—have not even considered that such an inquiry might be necessary—it might fall to the College for Enlightened Agriculture to carry it out.
Much more can and probably should be added but these seem to me the main points.