factory worker in mask

Faceless food predominates. Can you guess how many pairs of hands your food passes through before it reaches your plate? Probably a high number, given the number of links in industrial food chains and how many workers are hidden from view. At a time of rising input costs, distant trade deals and the cost of living squeeze, we mustn’t lose sight of the effort, and even love, that goes into producing our food. The people involved in growing, making, transporting, storing and retailing our food matter.

Knowing where our food comes from is important – hence the food miles concept developed nearly thirty years ago by Professor Tim Lang. Whilst useful, we know it’s not always a good proxy for environmental and social impact. Instead we could talk about fair foodprints – not just how far food has travelled, but whether people involved are treated fairly.

Recent moves by some retailers to raise minimum pay are welcome, but we need real living wages across the length and breadth of food value chains, like Unilever’s commitment that by 2030 all workers in its supply chain will receive a living wage or income for their country. Fair dealing and supporting people shouldn’t stop at UK borders. I’d also like to see maximum pay differentials, so food company executives can’t be paid 50 times more than the lowest paid. Only then are we heading towards a fair-pay food sector.

pexels harvest

And it’s not all about pay. Try Living Hours, unionisation and collective bargaining, or just asking farmers or small business owners when they last had a proper holiday. Thirty-six percent of UK farmers are depressed or potentially depressed, according to a RABI survey. It’s time to give the people behind our food a break – literally.

One of the challenges with long, nameless supply chains is that those out of sight are too often ignored and exploited, including agency workers and temporary labourers. We’ve recently seen examples of alleged abuse of staff damaging reputations of grocery brands. We ourselves heard first-hand how some farmers feel they are being bullied.

In a survey commissioned by Sustain last year of 500 farmers in England and Wales, 86% of respondents supplied a supermarket, processor or manufacturer. However, what’s damning is that only 5% of respondents said they’d prefer to sell to a supermarket, processor or manufacturer, with farmers preferring to sell to a food hub (55%), direct sales (36%) and/or foodservice (29%). Clearly farmers – and many others – aren’t being looked after well.

We need radically different food retail models, too – and I’m not talking about instant shopping apps to satisfy our supposedly instant needs. Better Food Traders is accrediting and supporting food businesses governed by strong principles. Open Food Network provides fairer e-commerce for food producers and community food hubs. Riverford Organics is trying to share rewards more fairly with farm workers. Fundamentally different ways of operating are possible.

Remember food production and food retail can have a human cost, with many human faces behind them. No one wants to eat invisible embedded sweat and tears. Consider food miles and food smiles. Let’s put the days of faceless food behind us.