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).
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 charge.
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 standards (4); 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.
Demonstrably (5), 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 pogrom will yield 144 ribs (initially joined in twelves), 60 odd pound of best fillet, etc etc etc. Consumer members can then order on line, 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 agrarianism (6).
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.