The UK’s big retailers and agricultural conglomerates control more than just our supply chain and policy frameworks. They also shape the rules of the market – from production right through the food chain to what and how we eat. This control means that they set the terms of the market. All the power in our food system lies in their hands.
Arguably, this power is not being used for good – neither for public health, animal welfare nor the environment. In fact, many believe that the current imbalance of power only encourages all that is unethical in our current system, from food waste to worker exploitation to abuse of animals and the depletion of our natural resources.
One clear and obvious symbol of power being in the wrong hands is the huge amount of food that’s wasted in the UK. Supermarkets drive desire for ‘perfect’ fruit and veg, leading so much good food to be ploughed back into the earth, and leaving so many farmers on the knife edge of bankruptcy. And at the other end of the chain, they exhort us to buy more food than we need – it’s so cheap! It’s on offer! – that it goes off before we can eat it. In each instance, waste drives profit.
In the supermarket aisles, we might believe that we can choose what food to buy. In fact, there is very little choice at all – we may think we’re choosing between this or that breakfast cereal, whereas in reality, breakfast cereals are owned by a tiny handful of multinational companies hiding behind sub-brands.
The answer to resolving the problem of power in the food system lies in collaboration and sharing ideas at a local, national and global level. There is much debate around whether and how technology could be used to redistribute power in the food system. Could it help encourage small-scale sustainable farming, or might it instead entrench the current power structures? Whichever it may be, the food revolution will be neither agricultural or industrial at its root – it will be all about how we share knowledge, power and resources.