Given its importance, food labour attracts surprisingly little attention from academics analysing the developed world’s food system dynamics. In developing countries, the land is full of people, and farming is still one of the world’s biggest employers. But discussion is sometimes framed as though ‘progress’ is about getting rid of food work. Yet how food work is addressed surely remains a key theme for food policy. While technology speeds up labour productivity, food still requires workers; and workers need food.
Society’s challenge is how to decide what good food work is, and to monitor where and how that work occurs. One trend is for food work to be disguised, not just displaced, by technology. The software engineer behind a delivery ‘app’ is a hidden food worker as much as the broccoli picker in Lincolnshire or the sandwich factory worker. All are invisible to the consumer.
We need to think more strategically about the role of science in food work. Arguably, modern nutrition science, for example, took off in the late 19th century with food-work studies such as W.O. Atwater’s seminal estimates of how much food (energy) is needed for different types of work. This was built into calculations for US social and welfare policies of how much money different categories of people needed to exist. Nominally, it feeds into UK estimates for the Living Wage today, but when did you last see discussion of any such costs?
The pace and scale of change in food labour have been remarkable since the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to those based on settled agriculture, ten or so millennia ago. When I was a PhD student, Marshall Sahlins’ 1972 Stone Age Economics upended my naïve view that progress was a straight line, by showing hunter-gatherers spent less time on food than settled farmers, and recent studies confirm this. Technology, of course, alters society’s calls on our time. Back in 1982, Alain Testart argued that food progress reflects storage skills and capacities, not just technology. Consider how so-called ‘labour-saving’ devices are often simply objects of consumerist display: unused kitchen clutter.
Big changes are happening in food work. In rich societies, farm labour forces can be tiny. In 2020, there were only 302,000 people employed in English commercial agriculture. But the UK Government stopped collecting information in 2010 on how many worked on ‘non-commercial’ food. How many allotmenteers or veg gardeners of the 9 million Brits who say they ‘garden’ should the food labour figures include? Meanwhile, there are ten times more food workers off the land than on it, with hospitality much the biggest employer in the UK food system. Or it was, prior to its decimation in the time of Covid.
Surprisingly quickly, food work in rich economies, as I argued in Feeding Britain, spreads rather than disappears. Tracking where the food work sits in the food system also exposes the money flows. Fieldworkers and growers get little of what consumers pay out. They could receive more in shorter chains.
Unpaid food work is everywhere, not restricted to the subsistence farmer. The rise of the prosumer – the self-servicing consumer – seems an unstoppable feature of service economies. The consumer becomes a worker by self-checking out at the supermarket till. We become Artificial Intelligence and Big Data labourers when we order online.
Survey after survey suggests the British want ‘British’ food. They actually eat the world’s. They like a Union Jack to be stamped on a food packet but what does this mean if the labour process is unclear? Who before or since the 2016 Brexit referendum raised the issue of food labour? The FRC did, as it happens. So did and do some parliamentary committees, only to be drowned out in a mix of anti-foreigner rhetoric, at times hovering on racism. The horticulture industries, reliant on 80,000 EU migrant pickers, find themselves now constrained in searching for workers. Reluctantly and quietly, the UK government has raised its permission from the initial 3,000 to 10,000 and now 30,000 migrants to come to pick food. But what about the migrant food workers for catering or factories? The anti-foreigner argument gets codified as food work being ‘low skilled’ and therefore shut out.
This politics hasn’t gone away. It might well intensify as the UK tries to do new trade deals outside the EU (barely replicating so far what it already had as an EU member state). If not Eastern Europeans, who is to pick ‘British’ food? The Indian government has made clear that it expects ‘flexibility’ on skilled labour access to be part of any serious trade deal. There is much manoeuvring. Since President Biden’s victory, a mooted US-UK trade deal has been pushed back. But the US agri-food industry also has its hidden and migrant food labour, a topic exploited by Mr Trump.
Unless rich countries are honest about the centrality of food labour, it will remain an opportunity for racism, injustice and low wages to fester. It should be about dignity and good wages. Knowing what food labour does is surely central to any food policy pursuing a decent food system. It is time we helped make food work more visible, not just its outputs.