What Does a Sustainable Food System Look Like?

Mike Small
8 min readFeb 8, 2018


A sustainable food system will not emerge from a lab, or a meat factory or from a ‘vertical farm’ or be created by Monsanto. You won’t get it by Deliveroo or Walmart. It will be delivered by small farmers and producers who sustain rich soil and who sell within short supply chains. It will be highly seasonal and organic, though in the sense that all food used to be ‘organic’. It will contain less meat, but of higher quality, and it will look very different not just within each country but within each region. It will be enriched by a living food culture that knows something of its own traditions but isn’t captured by them.

With the revelation that the Trussell Trust’s 400 food banks in Britain distributed enough emergency food to feed almost 1.2 million people for three days in 2016- 17, the first thing to recognise is that a substantial amount of people are going hungry every week in Britain today. That’s morally unacceptable and any other considerations need to be based on — and stem from this reality.

So the first and most basic human right and essential element of the ‘food system’ must be an ability to feed people. In an advanced Western, post-scarcity society the fact that we are not able to do so is a direct result of government economic and social policy and this takes the issue beyond technical fixes or innovations and into the realm of social justice and social struggle.

We can look at sustainable food systems as having three essential elements to their structure, and three essential aspects to their delivery.

Any food system we intend to create must not be an attempt to restore a tradition from the past, it must be forward-facing and contain the following key ingredients. It must be low-carbon and engage in a major shift away from the high-intensity, polluting and displaced globalised food that has dominated our plates in the post-war era. It must be affordable beyond the metric of artificial food at artificially cheap prices. Affordable is not the same as cheap. And it must be ethical both at the point of production and consumption.

All of this is possible but not if we contain the discussion and the vision within the current extremely narrow terms of the debate, where corporate capture and business as usual are the norms, with only peripheral innovation allowed as window-dressing to the dysfunc- tional juggernaut that has brought us our now well- worn list of diet-related ill-health.

Let’s be very clear: at the moment there is no credible strategy for reducing carbon in food, or for dealing with the childhood obesity epidemic or the long list of other diet-related disease, or for tackling food poverty and in- security. While some of that failing can be put down to the lack of leverage in devolved powers for Scotland (over benefits for example) — some of it could be pushed much harder in terms of planning (to subvert supermarket expansion and dominance), and joined-up health and ed- ucation policy.

While some of this has great scope and potential, any food policy may well be undermined by the Brexit settlement and the potential withdrawal of European agricultural subsidy for our farmers.

The scale of carbon emissions from the way we produce, transport and consume our food are routinely ig-nored behind the ‘big ticket’ items of energy, with which in Scotland we have made ambitious strides. By compar- ison in the food industry we are barely out of the blocks. Small-scale tinkering with ‘local food initiatives’ are dwarfed by mainstream Scottish food policy which is aimed squarely at export-growth to the virtual exclusion of all other policies.

The affordability of decent food isn’t just about mak- ing that food dirt-cheap. It’s about increasing the number of jobs in local communities; increasing wages for those with the lowest incomes; making jobs more secure.

The race to the bottom of cheap food results in, for example, dairy farmers going out of business as they sell their product to vast retailers at a below cost price. The insanity of that model excludes the reality that milk is one of the most wasted food and drink products.

In this sense, the precarity and waste in the food system is mirrored in both production and consumption. The current system offers stability only for a handful in the nexus of relationships — for many it offers a combi- nation of economic instability and ill-health by being enthralled to a vast corporate machine or faced with the over-consumption of highly-processed, nutrition- ally-dubious foodstuffs.

This is not some sort of wishful nirvana. There is no need for the barbarism of industrial farming, the hell of battery egg production or the cruelty of transporting live animals cross continents for no good reason.

But if any coherent viable sustainable food system

has to have these three key elements, there is one grand unifying principle that is even more essential, and that is that there must be no grand unifying principle.

Any truly sustainable food system that produces a healthy diet for people and planet must look very different wherever it is. A relocalised diet must be regional and seasonal, adjusted to the carrying capacity and conditions of place, it must be the opposite of the globalized food industry that knows nothing of season or soil.

Such an approach will inevitably be based on the democratic principles of food sovereignty as developed by Via Campesina in the Nyéléni Declaration.

In February 2007 more than 500 representatives from more than 80 countries, of organizations of peas- ants and family farmers, artisanal fisher-folk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pas- toralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers, environmental and urban movements gathered together in the village of Nyéléni in Sélingué, Mali to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty. They defined food sovereignty as:

“…the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sus- tainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and cor- porations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and disman- tle the current corporate trade and food regime, and di- rections for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty priori- tises local and national economies and markets and em- powers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal-fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food pro- duction, distribution and consumption based on environ- mental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality be- tween men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.”

In Scotland this means a challenging process of breaking the land ownership model that lies at the heart of much of the power dynamics at play. This is particu- larly difficult for a nation that has much of its ‘food and farming’ culture and policy dominated by landed interests.

We are told that corporations are the creators of food, the providers of security and the harbingers of future abundance, but this is a toxic myth worth dispelling. As Vandana Shiva wrote in her recent book Who Really Feeds the World?:

“Women, who are the primary growers and providers of food, nutrition, and nourishment in societies across the world, have evolved agriculture. Most farmers in the world are women, and most girls are future farmers: they learn the skills and knowledge of farming in fields and in farms. Women-centered food systems are based on sharing and caring, and on conservation and well- being. What is grown on farms determines whose livelihoods are secured, what is eaten, how much is eaten, and by whom it is eaten. Women’s food is diverse and sustaining, and when women control the food system, everyone gets their fair share to eat. Women are the world’s biodiversity experts, nutritional experts, and the economists who know how to produce more using less. Women make the most significant contributions to food security by producing more than half the world’s food and by providing more than 80 percent of the food needs of food-insecure households and regions.”

So our emergent food system, fighting against gigantism and vested interests has three dynamics in interplay with each other: soil, democracy and creativity combining to produce new models and ways of working.

As Vandana Shiva writes: ‘While women manage and produce diversity, the dominant paradigm of agri- culture promotes monocultures under the false tenet that monocultures produce more.’

This urge for productivism, a force of top-down technocratic control of the commons is a nightmare worth resisting because beyond it is an end to sustain- ability. What does a sustainable food system look like? It looks like the opposite of that. Diversity versus mono- culture, small-scale and multi-varied rather than a one- dimensional food system.

We are all suffering from what Wendell Berry has called ‘cultural amnesia’:

“The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much. The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical — in short, a victim. When food, in the minds of eaters, is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.”

So the first act of creating this sustainable food sys-tem, what we can call a ‘restorative practice’, is to remember. This act of remembering is to cast off the dead hand of corporate food which serves up swill for profit.

There are hundreds of community projects, farm- ers, cooks and gardeners up and down the land who know this and are actively engaged in creating the system we need. But there is a long way to go and we need critical mass. 􏰀

  • This is from the First issue of Locavore magazine ‘Seed’, available here:




Mike Small

Venture Communism | Degrowth | Twilight Sci-fi | Generalism