Research Project: Best Before, the London food revolution

In this post, documentary filmmaker Ben Mann brings us his latest work on the current food revolution taking place in London.


By Ben Mann, 27 February, 2012

Best Before is about the current food revolution in London and the reasons why it is happening. Since it is a revolution that few people are aware of, we wanted to draw a picture of what it constitutes of, and how and why it is happening. The 2007/2008 Food Price Crisis pushed an extra 800 million people around the world into chronic hunger, as a result of the price for basic foods drastically increasing. This was so dramatic a shock since many developing countries are net importers of staple crops. Here in the UK we import about 40% of the food we consume[i]. With increasing oil volatility, the food system in London and the UK is vulnerable to increasing prices of basic foods. Food prices are expected to double across the world by 2030[ii], and food prices have already risen 6% in the UK in the last year[iii].

London is the perfect showcase for the food system in the UK. A handful of supermarkets dominate the food system, an incredible amount of food is wasted everyday, and fresh, healthy food has become the privilege of the wealthy. However London is also the city in which community organisations are shaping alternatives. Best Before tries to depict a picture of these realities, from urban growing spaces to farmers’ markets and consumer co-operatives, and the many creative ways in which communities around the city create synergies to produce, distribute and consume food in a sustainable, ecological, and socially just way.

1. The Fare Share depot, Bermondsey, London

Food is deeply political. Now is the time to look beyond facile beliefs that producing more food is what is required of the world’s agricultural systems. The question needs to be, how are we producing it (i.e. how much oil are we using to produce it, how much damage is it doing to the environment), who controls and benefits from the food chain, and who has access to food? The Fare Share depot at Bermondsey in south London is the opening scene of the film. Maria, who has worked there for 9 years, describes the work that this food poverty charity does. It uses waste food, from supermarkets, smaller retailers and individuals, to distribute to homeless shelters, schools and people who cannot afford to buy food. Some schools cannot afford food, and, as Maria points out, more and more families are ringing her up because they can’t afford food, a result of the current economic crisis and the hardship it causes.

This raises questions about how we feed ourselves in this country. However, we also need to ask- what kind of food are we eating? Food is deeply political because there is, as Molly Conisbee from the Soil Association points out, a growing divide between ‘those who make a fetish of food, such as using artisan markets, and those who are increasingly living in food deserts’. Food deserts are areas where healthy, affordable food is hard to obtain. Food poverty in the UK is defined as a lack of access to healthy food, and food poverty therefore is prevalent in food deserts. Processed, fatty foods are cheaper to buy than healthy, fresh food, which makes healthy living affordable only for the well off. Tim Lang, from City University, points out that 200 years ago it was only the richest in society that could afford to be obese, it is now the poorest in society that have the highest rates of obesity. Such chronic health problems as the fact that one in five children are obese before leaving primary school[iv], diet related cancer, and early-onset diabetes, are a political issue of gross inequality of access in the UK.

2. The dominance of the supermarkets

Best Before aims to illustrate how supermarkets came to occupy such a pivotal place in our country’s economy, and the power that they wield. Over 90% of food is bought through the major supermarkets[v], and they are now the biggest employers outside the NHS[vi]. We wanted to ask why people shop in supermarkets, what people buy, how they are affected by the crisis, and what alternatives they think exist. The film therefore draws heavily on interviews with large numbers of people outside Tesco and Morrisons in places like Hackney and Stratford, both in East London.

What seems clear is that people shop where they do out of convenience and for price reasons. Huge price increases, coupled with a dire financial crisis leading to higher unemployment, as well as severe benefit cuts, have led many of them to cut their consumption of fresh vegetables and fruit in place of cheaper processed foods. We started from the viewpoint that food is more than a commodity, it is vital to our wellbeing and our health, and it is something that links us to our environment and our communities. In the current food production system, food is mostly controlled by corporate power and centralised distribution. This means that we do not have command over the food we eat and often do not know where it comes from or who produces it.

3. Michael Duveen, Hophurst Farm, Sussex

Michael is the central character in Best Before. Once a land agent in the South of England, he has seen the changing nature of our food system in the UK, and the effect it has had on communities, farmers, nutrition and health. He converted his dairy farm to be biodynamic, which goes one step further that organic in that it incorporates holistic permaculture principles into the design of the farm. Michael sells his produce, grains, root crops, and meat, directly to the customer in Brockley Market, south London, as well as to other outlets where consumers can buy directly from farmers.

He describes the history of how we came to have a food system, where food is so cheap and comes from all across the world. With rural development after the war, land prices rose dramatically in the south of England. There was a rise in standards of living and of people buying second homes in the countryside. The rising cost of farmland meant that farmers had to increase the amount they produced in order to maintain a profit margin. The increased availability of farm machinery, fertilisers and pesticides meant that scale was seen as maximising output on the farm. Michael explains that this led to the consolidation of large farms, the removal of hedgerows and small farms to make way for machinery; and the replacement of people on the land.

Farmers are pushed by the imperative of competitiveness to produce on a large scale, implementing industrial techniques that result in environmental damage and depletion of the soil. As Tim Lang points out, food became oil- due to increased mechanisation, increased fertiliser use, more packaging and greater distances to be transported as food systems became more centralised. With the reduction of state spending under Margaret Thatcher, the marketing boards, which gave price supports for farmers and ceiling prices for consumers, were removed. Under the auspices of neoliberalism, the market was to fill this space, and was posited as the best means to maximise efficiency and reduce prices. Supermarkets grew significantly as a result and revolutionised the way food is produced and consumed in the UK. Under the banner of efficiency and price reductions, supermarkets and retailers sourced food from wherever it was cheapest. Agricultural land became worth more as an investment, and food was increasingly imported from abroad where it was cheaper. As Michael points out, ‘who really cares if there are a few less farms in Sussex?’

4. Kerry Rankine, Growing Communities

Kerry Rankine, from Growing Communities, a London-based community food organisation, is a central actor in re-shaping the UK’s food system along more sustainable lines. We visited the farmers’ market in Hackney to talk to her, and the farmers and customers who attend the weekly market. Kerry described her organisation’s vision for a more equitable and sustainable food system, which is conceptually devised by the notion of Food Zones. With a growing population, with more people living in cities than in the countryside in the UK, we need to start basing our food production on urban areas. This means starting with Zone 1, the inner urban zone, which can produce limited quantities of perishable goods, such as fresh salad items. Zone 2, the peri-urban zone, which rings the city, can produce much more dairy and vegetables. Zone 3, called the rural hinterland, is where the bulk of cereals and grain production should come from. Importing foods that we cannot produce from abroad will happen, but we will have to pay higher prices for speciality foods such as coffee and chocolate.

Kerry focuses on the need not only to change the distance and scales of production, but also how the food is traded. At the heart of the issue is the power of supermarkets to dictate prices; centralised distribution systems mean that we lack any control of our food supply. The farmers market exemplifies the direct producer-customer relationship, and how this is crucial for a more equitable food system. We interviewed people at the market, by way of vox pops, to find out why people shop there, whether it is more expensive, and asked the farmers how it benefits them. Best Before therefore took much of its inspiration from the work of Kerry at Growing Communities- what we saw at the market, though not perfect, was visionary.

5. Interviews with academics and policy advisors

Howard Lee, from Hadlow College in Kent, is an expert on Food Zones, and talked us through the history and theory of this geographical concept. Howard is also involved in a community-run growing project, and underlines the importance of community-based agriculture. This is where the focus on the link between developed and developing worlds’ food production is clear. As Jason Moore, a key interviewee in Best Before, points out, capitalism is a world-ecological regime- that is, capitalist world relations are underpinned by the relations of access to cheap energy, food and raw materials. The UK was able to industrialise so quickly, and subsequent leaps in economic growth up until the late 20th century were enabled by the UK’s access to cheap food, labour and raw materials from both their colonial outposts and from countries that they held power over to deliver those goods.

This theory of food regimes brings to light the political nature of food production and how it shapes the world economic system. Systematic overproduction of cereal grains in the US, coupled with a dynamic agribusiness sector to supply fertiliser, herbicide and hybrid seeds, led to the post-war US food regime hegemony. This of course cannot be separated from the US’s rise as an economic superpower. Agricultural systems underpin economic systems, and with the likely change in access to cheap energy and therefore cheap food, we need to look for alternatives. As Moore says, ‘the cheap food regime is now done for’.

6. The Castle growing space, Manor House, North London

Near Manor House, north London, there is a castle that is used for indoor climbing. In addition, Ida Fabrizio has turned the space around the castle into food growing spaces for Growing Communities and for the local community. For food, Ida argues, is more than a commodity, it should be at the heart of communities. Knowing how to produce food and where food comes from, she says, is crucial in order to understand our connection to the environment and for us to have better nutrition. Cultivate London, in south-west London, is another urban growing site. Ben Simkins and his team of apprentices grow fresh salad items on previously disused land that has been reclaimed.

Cultivate London and the Castle are among 2012 new growing sites in London in the last few years, and are at the heart of the food revolution that is taking off. Cultivate London also trains up and employs young people who are struggling to find work, and puts them through a City and Guilds qualification also. Cultivate London shows that food growing can provide jobs and training for young people, that goes beyond the supermarket employment model for the economy. As Jeanette Longfield from Sustain points out, stimulating food growing in the UK could provide better jobs for young people that could lead us to a virtuous spiral of growth. At the moment, she points out, we have a damaging degeneration of growth, in that wages are low, food prices are high, and unemployment is rising. Food, therefore, is a good place to start for a review of not just the food system, but the economic system as a whole.

7. Fare Shares co-operative, Elephant and Castle, London

In addition to farmers’ markets and vegetable box schemes, Best Before looks at food co-operatives. These are often volunteer-run, and pool resources. Most are run so that they source food locally, and only sell organic produce. As Tricia points out, the co-op is about ‘people, not profit’, and since it is run by volunteers it can source organic food, locally produced, and still provide cheap food and fair prices for the farmer. In short, the supermarket produces cheap food, but the model of sourcing means that only the large, intensive farms can survive.

The co-op model means that the farmer receives a higher price, customers pay a low price, and there is less damage to the environment. Further, it is not a middle-class endeavour, but one born on a council estate in inner city London. The co-op adjoins an estate, from which many people buy their food. In short, Fare Share is a way of delivering healthy, ecological food, such as produced in the Food Zone model, using less oil along its chain (less for fertilisers, less for transport, less for packaging), that is also affordable for customers, such as those in the local estate. As food prices continue to rise, these alternatives will surely become ever more crucial, both for food supply reasons, and for health and nutrition reasons.

8. Food as a commodity?

We started making Best Before in order to primarily raise the issue of a lack of control of food- something that is fundamental to our existence. Food is simply too important to be treated like any other commodity, and moreover it has always, and still does, structure our societies, our communities, and our economy. Though we may not still work on the land, food structures our whole political and economic systems. Under the logic of competitiveness, we acquire cheap food at the cost perhaps of labour rights, environmental degradation and justice world-wide.

The issues of food prices and the loss of control of our food production that we face in the UK are those facing countries around the world. These very issues are intimately connected to the ongoing crisis of hunger in the developing world, to devastated agricultural systems in poorer countries and food dependency. Best Before aims at showing how ensuring a fairer, more sustainable food system, where people throughout the world have access to healthy food, requires reforming the way we produce, distribute and consume food in the UK- a country at the heart of this unjust and unsustainable food system.

To learn more about this project or to get in touch with the author, please follow this link


[i] Barling, D, Sharpe, R & Lang, T. 2008. ‘Rethinking Britain’s Food Security’. A research report for the Soil Association

[ii] Lawrence, F. 2011. ‘Food prices to double by 2030, Oxfam warns’. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/31/oxfam-food-prices-double-2030

[iii] Flanders, S. 2011. ‘A food price puzzle for the UK’. 1 March 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/stephanieflanders/2011/03/a_food_price_puzzle_for_the_uk.html

[iv] Campbell, D. 2011.‘One in five children is obese by the end of primary school, NHS figures show’. December 15th 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/dec/14/children-obese-primary-school-nhs

[v] UK Parliament Report. 2011.‘Written evidence submitted by the British Retail Consortium (BRC)’. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmenvfru/952/952vw06.htm

[vi] Williams, Z. 2012.‘Who pays the Tesco CEO’s wages of £6.9m a year? We do’. 18th January 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/18/pays-tesco-ceo-wages-we-do

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2 thoughts on “Research Project: Best Before, the London food revolution

  1. Pingback: Best Before in InPEC article « BEST BEFORE

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