Sophie Laggan takes a look at Bristol’s food system

The food system is perhaps the most unequal of all systems, more so than education. Just 3 companies control the majority of the world’s seed and chemicals and another 10 with a combined profit of more than $6 billion own processing. The food waste produced by these companies, if taken as a country, would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Industrial diets, high in meat, dairy and ultra-processed foods are a leading cause of the exponential rise in obesity and non-communicable disease, with meat and dairy responsible for at 18% of global emissions, higher than cars and planes combined. Business as usual in the food system is no longer an option.

Businesses, consumers and government can all work to change the food system and transition it towards a sustainable alternative. However for most of the UK there seems to be no alternative the monoculture, mass production line and supermarket conveyor belt for people to act upon. 3.9m people were employed in the agri-food sector in 2015 and according to Corporate Watch: “6,000 landowners (mainly aristocrats, but also large institutions like the National Trust, the Church of England, the Co-op and the Crown) own about 40 million acres of the UK total of 60 million acres. i.e. 70% of the land is owned by 1% of the population”.

PastedGraphic-2Left: cake from Soil Culture 2015

My thesis therefore looked at Bristol as an urban pioneer of transformative change in the food system, to show that sustainable alternatives exist but they are not without their power struggles. For decades businesses and consumers in the region have been finding ways to work within the confines of a finite planet and reconstruct rather than deconstruct the food system. From community farms, urban fish and goat projects and smallholdings, to buyers groups and ethical on- and offline retail, these innovations promote trust-based and cooperative governance models that move beyond pure hierarchy and competition. Meanwhile neighbouring councils, North Somerset and BANES respectively, have been establishing Food and Drink Innovation Hubs and securing sustainable procurement contracts to promote the scaling up of local and often organic food.

Bristol City Council has local food provision included in its Health and Well Being Strategy, Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and Development Framework and Local Plan, in addition to the Good Food Plan of the Food Policy Council. Long-term access to land for growing food in an agro-ecological way is not however included in the West of England Strategic Plan for land use planning, which prioritises housing and transport, nor is it included in DEFRA’s 25 year Food and Farming Strategy (FFS). FFS favours economic growth, farmland expansion and export markets over a holistic approach to development. Both strategies could act as key policy instruments for enabling a more rapid transition to fair and just food system if they were to include the perspectives and needs of currently marginalised actors.


Unsung heroes

In the food system the unsung heroes are the small-scale and peasant farmers – people who actively resist the commodification labour – that promote biodiversity and community inclusion on the land. In England and Wales there are a growing number of peasant farmers, grassroots and community-based practices and networks such as the Landworkers Alliance (LWA) to support them. The LWA is the regional contribution to La Via Campesina (LVC), the world’s largest social movement. Representing over 200 million peasant farmers LVC fight for food sovereignty, which is defined as “the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances” ( Locally the LWA is embodied by the Blue Finger Alliance, which last year lost part of its prime agricultural land due to transport development.

PastedGraphic-3Right: sheep at Elm Tree Farm, photographed in 2015.

The unsung heores are also the activists, educators, social enterprises and institutional rebels willing to shake up the status quo and put people and food at the heart of decision making.

This global to local social movement is fighting for small-scale agroecology, which works with people and nature rather than against them, and according to the UN is the only way to feed the world sustainably. 1.5 billion farmers working on small plots produce half the food in the world today. Where agroecology methods are used on degraded industrial fields yields increase 100-300 percent. Agroecology is most widespread in Latin America, and is also growing in Asia and Africa, where farms have been shown not only to increase yields of marginal land but also reduced losses and recovery time following disaster – they are more resilient.


Adaptive governance

In the UK just a few powerful groups in society used their land and labour resources to turn them into fictitious commodities. Food became a traded good and common land was enclosed because commoners were deemed unable of manage resources without overexploiting the environment. Allotments were born out of the rise of landless peasants seeking work in cities, and were used to subsidise the incomes and diets of the urban poor.

However the logic that common people could not manage resources did not account for the fact that they are able to develop their own norms and rules to ensure resources regenerate indefinitely. Research shows that community groups, from local conservation groups, through to indigenous Madagascans and even Balinese Subak farmers, are able to protect the environment and are much better at adapting and responding to change than top-down management systems alone. These aptly named ecosystem stewards are therefore increasingly being called upon for adaptive resource management and governance, however in many cases there is a need to train these groups as local ecological knowledge has been lost over time. I learnt this firsthand when I spent time with Subak farmers in 2011 when working on a permaculture project. The Green Revolution had eroded both the soil and their knowledge of natural farming methods and we were finding ways to regenerate both.


Tug at the universe

Who Feed’s Bristol and the Peak Oil report set the political ball in motion for a fundamental shift in how Bristol manages and governs food. Networks have formed, such as Bristol Food Producers, and grassroots innovations are now scaling up albeit with varying degree, depending in part on the number of volunteers, public investment and political support they can obtain. There remains a struggle to get enough money, provide local infrastructure and safeguard land for agroecology, as well as a current lack of national policy and market instruments for an alternative food system, which in turn creates ideological barriers between fringe ‘hippies’ and ‘hipsters’ and the mainstream.


Left: sampling food on an permaculture smallholding and training site in Glastonbury

Industrial agriculture grabs 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funds so Brexit could be an opportunity to reorganise Common Agricultural Policy and research and development so that sustainable food and its agents of change becomes central to national decision-making. Both the Landworkers Alliance and The All Parliamentary Group on Agroecology are campaigning for this so as to ensure that small-scale farmers are given more of voice in decision-making.


Integrating natural resources into development and addressing need

With a new mayor, who has social justice as his core value, there is real leverage to keep the movement progressing and make Bristol a pioneering food city that integrates ecosystem services like food, soil and water management into city and regional land use plans and adopts the Good Food Plan as policy to ensure future generations have the ability to grow, access and afford nutritious food. There could also be leverage in addressing the needs identified below through better sharing resources among the alternative trans-boundary food network (see table 1).

What I learnt from studying the food movement in Bristol-2



This article captures some of the things I learnt during my research. In addition to understanding how power is unfolding in the food system, I also learnt that in order to be an agent of change its okay to: 1) take care of your self as otherwise burnout; 2) be radical as it means ‘of or having roots’; and 3) be vulnerable as it is massively transformative. Read more here.

Hopefully some of this is useful to people struggling to create change and offers some potential political leverage. I am happy to share my thesis upon request so do get in touch if you would like to see it.


Sophie researches, writes about and is part of transformative change in the food system. She volunteers for Food Cycle Bristol and helps promote local initiatives improve their reach and resilience. Strategic thinking and community organizing make her happy, as does communicating the need to reconnect people to nature, the environment and their self for a more peaceful, balanced world.