No Time for Justice?! – Food Policy and Emergency Thinking in the Brexit Moment

Imagine a process in which food and farming policies were designed with social justice as the central tenet. What would such a process look like? Whose voices would be heard, and whose interests would be represented? What questions would need to be asked and how would we know that social justice had been addressed?

Our recently published article speaks to these questions by looking at debates around UK food and farming policy in the post-Brexit context. We examined how and to what extent social justice was represented in the policy discourse on food and farming in the 18 months following the Brexit referendum.

So, before we get into more detail, what are the headlines?

  • We found a lack of direct attention to many of the issues that have been central to a food justice approach.
  • Despite the potential for change prompted by crises such as Brexit, lead organizations appeared to default to policy and ‘solutions’ that largely benefit the dominant and privileged interests and actors in society.
  • Despite this, there were important and inspiring examples that we found in our study that signalled to us five questions that can help policy actors and advocates reflexively “read for justice” in their work.
  • Further resources can be found on our accompanying webspace at:

Brexit, Crises and Centering Food Justice

Brexit opened what has been referred to as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to transform British society, prompting a frantic rush to influence what that change would entail and who it would benefit.

This is a feature common to crises: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is surfacing similar responses from across society, including how food systems should be (re)organized to mitigate future shocks. There have been hundreds of opinion pieces, special journal issues  (e.g. here and here) and soon surely many policy-position papers arguing for different visions of food systems in a post-COVID world.

At such moments of crisis and opportunity, it is crucial to remain attentive to the place of social justice and equity in our proposals and justifications for change. What rises to the surface in debates at such moments? What is pushed to the back-burner? What is erased? And what remains unsaid and unseen?

In our study, we looked at how social justice – or “food justice” – was reflected in a sample of policy proposals being presented by a range of stakeholders in the British food and farming sector, including NGOs, industry associations and government bodies.

To do this, we analysed 20 documents published in the 18 months immediately after the referendum decision. We engaged in a process of ‘reading for social justice’ using the twin lenses of ‘distributive justice’ (i.e. who gets access to what resources?) and ‘procedural justice’ (i.e. who makes decisions about resources, and how?).

Let’s dig into a few examples in our twinned analysis…

Distributive Justice

We identified four main categories of ‘distributive justice’ issues in our sample of policy documents: land, labour, public goods, and food. While many of the documents referred to these issues, it was clear that distributional justice was a low priority in the majority of documents, with a few notable exceptions.  

Land: The primary focus across the documents was land use, including suggestions for changing the way land is managed, what is produced on it, and how environmentally beneficial farming practices could be identified. Only a quarter of documents addressed the issue of land ownership, control and access and just three contained substantial proposals for land reform – despite being regarded as one of the most entrenched social injustices in the UK.

Labour: Issues such workers’ rights, low pay in the food and farming industry, and the gender pay gap were raised in only a handful of documents. On the other hand, ‘access’ to labour was widely discussed, with the majority of documents urging the government to ensure the availability of labour for the industry. In this sense, the dominant narrative reflected the idea of labour as a commodity, rather than considering the human impacts of casualization, low pay, poor working conditions and the plight of migrant workers in the food system.

Public Goods: Public goods were most often framed in terms of providing access to nature or delivering ecosystem services, such as nature conservation. There was a broad distinction between ‘market’ oriented and ‘rights-based’ conceptualisations, indicating a deep – though unspoken – division. The House of Lords report, for example, claimed that the provisioning of public goods “were crucial to the British brand”, downplaying the broader social or environmental benefits foregrounded in other documents. There was very little acknowledgement of the inequity around who benefits from so called public goods, while it is clear that white, middle-upper class and land-owning citizens benefit overwhelmingly disproportionally from for example the aesthetic, amenity and property-related (e.g. value) benefits that arise from public-goods.

Food Access: Access to food was mentioned in fewer than half of the documents, but even then, was rarely discussed in detail and with very little consideration of the root causes of food security or “food poverty”. Again, there was almost no distinction between the inequity within the ‘consuming public’ where it is clear that structural racism, gendered inequality, the asylum system (e.g. no recourse to public funds) and other structural issues place many inhabitants of Britain at substantially greater risk of food insecurity that a general approach will not address, and may exacerbate. Most documents focused primarily on agriculture, maintaining the conceptual distinction between ‘farming’ and ‘food’ policies which has often been observed and problematised by those seeking a more holistic approach to solving food injustice. There was a gulf between those advocating a ‘right to food’ approach and those looking to market measures such as increased competitiveness, resource efficiency, quality and traceability.

Procedural Justice

As food justice advocates often point out, how people are engaged in decision-making has an important bearing on what changes are actually made, and their capacity to benefit those most in need. As the now-famous campaign slogan goes: “Nothing About Us Without Us!

With this in mind, we were again surprised that less than half of the documents discussed issues of governance and decision-making, and even those that did rarely offered any substantial details. A notable exception to this was A People’s Food Policy, which outlined a series of policies ranging from statutory “food partnerships” in each regional, metropolitan, and local authority that would feed into a national people’s food policy council. Throughout the documents there again was no recognition of multitudinous dimensions of inequity that exclude, disenfranchise and/or marginalize from decision making processes including for example women, BME, people on low incomes and those in marginalized regions of the country.

There was also little evidence of democratic procedures being built into the drafting of the documents themselves. Conversely, there was a preponderance of single-author, or elite group-authored documents, which we felt represented a missed opportunity to use the “Brexit moment” to redress shortfalls both in broadening the debate to include a better representation of society and to democratize food governance. This is in tension with calls for more substantial civic participation in food system governance advocated by the food sovereignty and food justice movements (note: some work that fell outside of the scope of our study from Sustain and Nourish Scotland amongst others in the UK is also advancing the Right to Food as a framework to re-assert the rights and agency of people in the UK).

The lack of detail on democratic governance or participatory policy-making is perhaps one of the biggest ironies of the Brexit process, a process ostensibly intended to reclaim and strengthen political sovereignty. Shortcomings such as this illustrate the extent to which the Brexit discourse was shaped by fears of economic shock and political division.

A Five-Point Framework

In the spirit of learning from these experiences and insights, we proposed a five-part framework for ‘reading for social justice’ in policy documents and processes.  This framework is intended as a practical tool to help activists and academics to scrutinize future policy materials in terms of ‘distributive’ and ‘procedural’ justice issues. It can be applied and used to help evaluate the extent to which social justice issues are addressed in any policy document, charter or vision statement. This framework is presented in the final section of the article and summarized in the video below. 

Picking up the pieces

As the Brexit process unfolded, any hopes for transformative change gradually faded, replaced by an awareness of the retrenchment of vested interests keen to preserve the status quo in food and farming policy. Little did we know, an even greater calamity loomed on the horizon. COVID-19 and Brexit together have gone a long way to expose the deep vulnerabilities of our food system – from food bank dependency, exploited ‘frontline’ food workers, to a ‘just-in-time’ distribution system stretched to breaking point. And while such moments undoubtedly present opportunities, they do so equally for those with the resources to consolidate positions of power.

The need to view all social and political issues through the lenses of inequality is not new, and our work only draws further attention to issues that social movements have been raising in struggles around the world. In light of the inequities and racisms laid bare by George Floyd’s killing by the police and the resulting mobilization of Black Lives Matters in the USA and beyond, it is clear that policy advocates and makers must redouble their commitment to centering anti-racism and food justice in their work.

The ‘double-punch’ of Brexit and COVID-19 is an important reminder that such ‘shocks’ do not stand in isolation in the development of food and agricultural systems. Like the famines and oil crises of the 1970s, they can combine to undermine more expansive, politically diverse visions of what agriculture is for. And more shocks are certainly on the horizon – not least the cascading crises brought by climate change, biodiversity loss and widening inequality.

Instead of being drawn into the vortex of this rather grim historical moment, we take this opportunity to underline the importance of being alive to the transformation that occurs beyond the narrow confines of elite ‘policy processes’. It is in social movements, community organizing, and grassroots struggles that we view the most powerful potential for change, and from where the most creativity and hope is emanating in these difficult times.

by: Chris Maughan, Colin Anderson and Moya Kneafsey

Maughan, C., Anderson, C., & Kneafsey, M. (2020). A Five-Point Framework for Reading for Social Justice: A Case Study of Food Policy Discourse in the Context of Brexit Britain. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development9(3), 1-20.