Queue at supermarket in Spon End. Source: Flickr - Gwydion M. Williams Queue at supermarket in Spon End. Source: Flickr - Gwydion M. Williams

Corona crisis has exposed how market forces cannot be trusted with our food production, says Kevin Potter

The Corona crisis has exposed the failings of our political and economic system in many spheres, most significantly in the funding and organisation of public health care. But it has also shone a light onto the functioning of another fundamental necessity, food.

Food, it goes without saying, is essential. In the UK the Corona crisis has exposed just how precarious its distribution is, with fruit harvests under threat leading to the government flying in eastern European fruit pickers, as without them there will be shortages. This makes a complete mockery of the international effort to control the spread of COVID, opening transmission vectors here and back into mainland Europe. Johnson also tried the patriotism card with his ‘land army’ but it isn’t going well.

The right-wing has long portrayed the British as too lazy and feckless to do this work. This is, frankly, complete nonsense. We live in an already low wage economy where house prices are sky-high, but with a system of food distribution that relies on even lower wages. It is simply not possible to live in Britain on the income from fruit picking. Thus British workers cannot fill that role.

Why is it this way? The dominant players in our food market are supermarket chains. They exert huge pressure on producers to drive down their wholesale prices, those producers must then drive down their production costs. Added to this land ownership is hugely concentrated in Britain, with much production undertaken by tenant farmers with high rental overheads. The result, after profit extraction, is no money in the production chain to pay liveable UK wages to crop gatherers.

We are then reliant on low paid foreign labour to put food on our shelves, a perfect storm for a crisis that hits the movement of people.

Whilst the public cannot afford food prices to rise, this is clearly not a secure way to handle such a vital necessity as food production. But what could be done?

As ever there are different possible responses. The pallete of solutions looked to by the establishment and Tory government will be short term (bridge the crisis) and designed to keep things as they are, which is to say, leave all the precarities in place. The ‘land army’, in which retirees and others are appealed to, to work in the ‘national interest’ (and accept below minimum wage for it) is one unrealistic solution they have tried. Another, they have pursued, is to facilitate the continued exploitation of European workers by bringing them in with special measures. Another possible right-wing solution might be to further subsidise producers so that they can pay British workers, which would in effect be a subsidy to underpin the supermarkets’ racket (although even this defies neoliberal logic and would go against their instincts). There are even rumours that they are considering ordering those claiming out of work benefits to crop pick in order to receive their paltry universal credit ‘entitlement’, virtual slave labour. In all of the above scenarios, the monopoly power of supermarkets and wealthy landowners is maintained at the expense of the taxpayer and workers.

For working people, short of a revolution, there are better solutions and ones that would provide far greater food security. We could imagine state-owned supermarkets, subsidised with public money to keep food prices affordable, but also to pay proper rates to producers. Although that perhaps would require the revolution to be imaginable. The state could, instead of subsidising employers, subsidise wages directly, to make fruit picking a viable option for British workers. Although this alone would do nothing to challenge the corporate power that dominates and dictates the market. Better maybe for the state to operate farms directly without rent-seeking or a profit motive, all the better if this involved the forced purchase of land from private profiteers.

Beyond the market, initiatives are already emerging such as the National Food Service, which seeks to develop community solidarity, facilities, and networks for food production and supply based on voluntary collective activity. Local food cooperatives also exist across the country, for example, there are over 200 in Wales alone. There are also strong arguments, extending to mental health and climate change that far more land needs to be held as commons for public use. In the latter case, numerous collective initiatives and solutions to food provision become imaginable. All of the above would also help with the issue of food waste, which is a huge issue. However the focus of this piece is the production and it is hard to imagine that such schemes and initiatives could provide food security alone, and inevitably some level state intervention would seem to be necessary.

Ultimately markets cannot service need without contradictions, insecurity, and exploitation and we must look beyond them if we are to have a sustainable and secure provision of the food we need to survive.

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