Are the food systems we have sustainable? The Centre for Food Policy at City University in London has been tackling this question for some years – the short answer, of course, is ‘no, they are not’. For 2020, as part of their work, the Centre is running a series of seminars under the banner ‘Women Redesigning Food Systems’.  Professor Corinna Hawkes, the Centre Director, invited me to give the first of these public seminars in January 2020 based on my work on accounting and performance measurement in the agri-food industry. The title of the talk is ‘Looking under the radar: why understanding supply chains is so vital for redesigning food systems’. You can find the whole talk, with the Q&A here.

Unless we understand that our food system is based on a fragile network of financial transactions, including a low wage economy, that just about holds together, then radical changes to diet, health and well-being, environmental protection and other public goods are going to be difficult to achieve. No one element of the food supply network can afford to step out of line without a very real risk of going under. I use the visual image of a bar code to get across the idea that food systems give rise to very narrow margins and some wider margins.

The narrow margins are items like profits, wages, error, shelf-life and surprisingly, the right to vote or obtain dividends from food corporations. For example, for one of the major supermarkets in the UK, 97% of the shareholders own less than 5% of the shares between themselves. Even collectively, they cannot achieve a sufficient share of the vote to challenge the majority shareholders, and their earnings per year can be counted in hundreds, not thousands, of pounds sterling. Shareholders owning more than 5% of the shares tend to be asset management companies, and there are usually only 2 or 3 of these in any firm. Their dividend earnings get diffused among their customers.

What is more, even if the ‘huge’ profits of most food companies were spread among their workers, this only amounts to somewhere between an additional hour or two at minimum wage per week per worker. Very welcome, but this is not going to solve issues of food poverty. Most food businesses earn net profits (after all overheads, tax, financing are taken into account) of between 1-2%, as shown by a report this week in The Grocer on food wholesaling.  Most of the food businesses in the UK, though, are small and medium sized entities – roughly 6,700 out of a total of 6,900 in 2017. The food industry is worth about £113bn to the UK economy yet many SMEs in particular are never far from insolvency.

Food at the University of Portsmouth

The wide margins represent waste and overheads. My argument in the talk is that we should look more at balancing out and tackling these wider margins, and redesigning food systems based on the concept of refusing waste and abuse of products, time, effort, cash and people. As Sir David Attenborough has said recently ‘Just don’t waste….’

I am not the only researcher interested in these issues at Portsmouth. On 28th May 2020, the Sustainability and the Environment theme is launching a new Research Cluster called ‘Food Cultures in Transition’. There are around 30 researchers across the University whose work includes food issues. Current projects include science and creative industries working together, and with European colleagues, to turn hard-to-recycle waste into growing media for fruit and vegetables. The Head of Catering Services, Nick Leach, is part of the cluster and in a recent presentation, we heard from the Tackling Poverty Co-ordinator at Portsmouth County Council and the Zero Waste Project in Portsmouth, with whom we hope to work further. We also have interests in AI and food traceability systems, food fraud, consumer behaviour, histories of food consumption and preparation, and the roles of women, ethical considerations of alternative diets such as veganism, and of fair trade, psychological studies of people and food, food inequalities, resilient food cities, and health and well-being.  We look forward to being a part of the University’s civic and sustainability agendas, and working with groups and businesses in the region as well as internationally, to make food systems more sustainable.

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