Food Policy Needs to Feed Society

In the run up to our Governing Food Policy Workshop on the 25th of September 2015, we are sharing a series of articles to provoke discussion. This post was written by Rachael Taylor and is the third post in this series. Rachael is a Doctoral student at SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit), University of Sussex and is researching small-holder farmers and agricultural development interventions in Northern Ghana.

Food Policy Needs to Feed Society

We cannot ignore the importance of food, we all need it to survive. Food is not only essential for life but also has cultural dynamics and provides a social function. The global food system cannot ignore that the primary objective of the food system is to feed society. This post questions whether existing food policies really reflect the needs and priorities of society.

A Complex Global Food Machine

The global food system is highly complex, with numerous sectors interacting at multiple scales and with different objectives and outcomes. It is complex because the huge number of people, processes, interactions, and influences can result in non-linear outcomes which means they are not possible to predict. It is easy for one cog in an Earth-sized machine to focus so intently on its own particular function that it forgets what the machine as a whole is trying to do. Food policy is the element of the food sector which is meant to manage this so that the food system as a whole obtain the necessary outcome of feed society.

Food policy sees the intersection of other major areas of the global food system. Food policy and governance refers to diverse sectors within the global food system and associated policies act at a range of scales in time and space. If there is any activity which is associated to food then somewhere there is a policy which relates to that.

But perhaps food policy has lost sight of the fact that, ultimately, its objective is to ensure the survival of society through sufficient and nutritious diets. Are food policies and the processes that lead to their development being controlled by the few in order to control the many?

A Food System Dominated by Few

In her recent book, Nora McKeon (2015) argues that even agricultural production is no longer primarily concerned with feeding society, instead being driven towards food as a commodity, food to produce biofuels, and food to feed livestock. Large agribusinesses, governmental policies and subsidies, international trade agreements, and intergovernmental priorities are diverting food production away from focusing on feeding society and towards achieving profit or political objectives. Mass-scale food production within the global system is no longer primarily concerned with ensuring that every individual always has sufficient culturally appropriate food to live a healthy and active life.

Agribusinesses prioritise food production, processing, and marketing in order to make financial profit. International trade agreements secure low prices for buyers and consumers, meaning producers at the other end of the food chain get paid little. Governmental targets to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases have driven demand for biofuels to replace fossil fuels, meaning crops are being used for fuel instead of food.

Changing diet patterns in response to increasing affluence globally has led to an increased demand for meat produce, meaning crops are being used to feed livestock instead of people. It is a widely-cited statistic that it takes ten kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of beef, meaning an overall loss of nine kilograms of food produce. Peasant farmer organisation La Via Campesina state that less than half of all grain produced worldwide are now eaten by humans, the rest being used for biofuels and as livestock feed.

Over recent decades there have been many voices rising concerns that the food system is not functioning sufficiently to feed society. The volume and number of these voices has rapidly increased in recent years, particularly since the food price crisis in 2007-8. Many organisations, civil society groups, and farmer representative have described the food system as ‘broken’.

Putting Society Back at the Centre of Food

This is where we see the rise in mobilisation and action taken by the food sovereignty movement. Food sovereignty prioritises providing food for people, seeing food as a right and campaigns for food justice and equality. Food sovereignty argues for locally appropriate production methods and focuses on producers and local systems. The food sovereignty movement has its own policies and has produced statements and guidance for policy-makers globally.

Some may see ‘food sovereignty’ as another term and additional elements of a complex global food system. But at the moment the food sovereignty movement is arguably the most dominant voice rallying against big agribusiness and international politics and economics. This movement which considers food as a human right still has negligible influence on high-level food policy and governance but it is the first step towards putting society back at the centre of food systems. Food production is for consumption and the primary concern should be ensuring that every individual can eat enough to live a healthy and active life.



McKeon, N. (2015) Food Security Governance: Empowering communities, regulating corporations, Routledge, Abingdon, pp246


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