Plastic, Oppression, and the Global Food System

11th January 2021

“The global food system is broken. Although there is enough fertile land in the world to grow food for everyone, industrial agriculture feeds corporate profits instead of people.”

- War on Want’s Food Sovereignty report

'Handcuffed' image representing oppression
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Every little helps?

Tesco recently announced a trial reusable packaging return scheme for 88 products. Let's put that in context. Using figures for 2016, that's 88 products out of around 40,000 product lines, around 25,000 of which are food and drink. How many of those use plastic packaging?

Plastic use in UK supermarkets has risen since 2017 despite increasing awareness of the extent of plastic pollution and its correlation to ecological collapse. Plastic is relatively cheap to produce and light, which makes it cheap to transport. This is one reason why it’s commonly chosen as packaging for food and other goods.

In 2007, Britain and Australia exchanged 20 tons of bottled water just with each other

- Local Futures' Insane Trade Factsheet

Why does food travel so far? How do supermarkets feed environmental and social crises, including plastic pollution? Can they help us solve these crises? The answers lie in understanding the global food system.

A brief history of the global food system

Agriculture and inequality

Agriculture developed during the Neolithic Revolution, moving us away from hunter gathering. This enabled settlements, stable communities to grow, work to diversify, other interests to develop, and possessions. Hunter-gatherers, once able to roam freely, had to compete with farmers for land and generally lost. This enabled some people to control the system without doing their fair share, creating divisions / classes. This concentration of power led to unequal distribution of wealth (land and food). Herein lies the basis of inequality, which includes hunger, in the world.

In 2021, a third of food is wasted globally, estimated to be 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021

Colonialism and land grabs

Initially, colonialists controlled the people and resources of other countries by forcing peasant farmers to work the land for them. Here is the basic process employed:

  • Colonialists arrived in foreign countries and demanded tax.
  • Unable to pay, the colonised people were told that they could grow and sell crops to pay the tax. These cash crops were sold by the colonialists in their home countries.
  • The colonised people now had no food so bought it from the colonialists. Their tax often left them with little money to do so. This led to famine and hunger.
Irish famine depiction
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The starvation of around 2 million Irish people in the famine of 1646-1650 was not down to a lack of food. Food exports of cash crops continued, which could have instead fed the 8 million population twice over.

- Food For Beginners

System of oppression

The history of the global food system is a huge subject so we are going to fast forward. Over time various means have been used to control people, the land and its resources: Slavery, taxes, laws, debt, war, subsidies, the IMF’s Structural Adjustment, supposed "green revolutions", police forces, trade deals, control of information, mass surveillance...

"World Bank and IMF guilty of promoting land grabs, increasing inequality"

- Via Campesina

Such oppression continues to this day, altering land use from sustainable small-scale to unsustainable large-scale industries. Large-scale farming is intensive, reliant on machinery and chemicals that pollute the environment, creates monocultures that discourage diversity, destroys soils, produces less nutritional crops, impoverishes people... Large-scale farming is one of the key drivers of poverty, disease, and environmental collapse. The cheap food it provides comes at terrible cost. Cheap and nasty!!


To further profit and control, big business including Big Agriculture have pushed for the deregulation of trade and finance. Such political choices have enabled the emergence of a single-world market dominated by transnational corporations and puppet governments. This is called globalisation, enabled by neo-liberalism. It impoverishes people by forcing them from the countryside into towns and cities. It is the continuance of colonialism, core to the social and environmental crises that we are experiencing.

Monopoly board
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"The crisis in the world food system has its origin, like so many of the world’s ills, in the expansion of corporate capitalism."

- War on Want's Food Sovereignty report

Global domination

Ten major food and drink corporations and their subisidiaries, illustrates the illusion of choice
Oxfam's Behind The Brands campaign: The illusion of choice

The global food system has enabled vast power and profits for transnational corporations, resulting in obscene levels of inequality. Here are examples of how such corporations seek to consolidate and further that control:

"Today, four corporations — Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina and Limagrain — control more than 50% of the world's seeds. These staggering monopolies dominate the global food supply."

Disinformation / non-solutions

Concentrated media ownership enables powerful interests to disinform in order to further their profits and control.

Bill Gates TED talk
Bill Gates: Helping the world or helping himself?
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Examples of disinformation / misinformation:

The oppression of supermarkets

Major supermarkets front the oppressive global food system. Examples:

""Businesses paying employees poverty wages are costing taxpayers eleven times the amount benefit fraud cost last year""

- The Guardian

Empowering choice

In this video by Via Campesina, the world's largest union, they explain the current state of the global food system, and the vital importance of supporting small-scale farming. Understanding these issues, it becomes apparent how to:

  • Reduce plastic pollution.
  • Reduce air pollution.
  • Reduce land pollution.
  • Reduce food waste.
  • Reduce the suffering of animals.
  • Reduce chemical pollution.
  • Reduce noise pollution.
  • Reduce waste.
  • Reduce energy usage.
  • Reduce resource requirements.
  • Reduce water usage.
  • Diminish the ecological crisis
  • Reduce hunger
  • Reduce poverty.
  • Improve working conditions and pay.
  • Liberate ourselves from oppression.
  • Help meet climate targets.
  • Further equality (and all that entails).
  • Increase health for all.
  • and more...

Support local, independent and organic!

Hand holding Earth globe
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“Unlike a globalised food system, local food won't destroy the environment”

Local Futures

Dive deeper

Hopefully you now have an understanding of the oppression and environmental destruction core to the industrialised global food system. It's a huge subject!! Here are links from the article and organisations who are working to positively change the global food system:

  • The Economics of Happiness documentary "spells out the social, spiritual, and ecological costs of today’s global economy while highlighting the multiple benefits of economic localization". It's hosted on the Local Futures website.
  • Greenpeace's Checking Out On Plastics Report III details plastic use in UK supermarkets.
  • War on Want's Food Sovereignty report "contrasts the UK government’s preferred approach of ‘food security’, based on free markets supplemented by aid, with the positive alternative of food sovereignty".
  • Food For Beginners by Susan George "looks at the facts and myths of food production, and provides answers."
  • Living With GMOs, A Letter From America warns the people of the UK and EU about the dire consequences of their use.
  • Grain is a “non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems”.
  • Via Campesina is the largest union in the world with some 200 million members. It represents small-scale farmers in their struggles with such oppressive, unsustainable corporations. The UK arm of Via Campesina is the Landworkers Alliance.
  • The Soil Association is a "charity that digs deeper to transform the way we eat, farm and care for our natural world".
  • Organisations such as Compassion in World Farming work to end the suffering of animals, which occurs especially within the industrialised food system.