Sunday, 19 February 2017

Too much to stomach.

It'll be a couple of months before the peas, recently planted in the polytunnel are this productive, but barring disasters there could be crops of this quality, ready to pick in May

Food is getting into the press far more; of late..

Not so much the doings of so called celebrity chefs; although they do have their occasional uses.

 But it would seem, that the world out there, is taking a closer interest in some of the issues around food production, and the true costs, and consequences of how food arrives on our tables.

 Especially now that our likely ‘brexitting’ brings these matters agricultural into sharper focus.
The current system of payments to farmers and landowners is based mainly upon the acreage that they own, This outlay couldn’t really be sustained, or justified in the long term, in or out of Europe.

Personally I find it odd that food, its quality, and production would ever be out of the news.
After all it’s a fundamental necessity, not to mention pleasure, of all human life.

Not only important nutritionally, but also vital socially, and culturally.

I've been engaged since last August in a project looking at the benefits of, and barriers to, agroecology.

Undertaken both in my capacity as a small scale organic vegetable producer,  and as a core group member of The Landworkers Alliance.

A group of twelve or so ‘organic’ farmers and growers have convened for three sessions of two days to examine the complicated issues, many and various that surround our food system.

How do we get more and better quality, produce into our domestic markets?

How do we support and encourage more environmentally benign farming methods?

What are the barriers to better food being available to all, at a price that is fair and affordable, both to the consumer and the producer?

How do we get new entrants into this craft, what with so little land being available at an affordable price to either rent or buy, on a modest farming income?

It’s a vast subject, full of difficult questions; and its very hard to keep in mind all the consequences, and outcomes, of any proposed action, when picking apart these issues.

So thankfully, we have had a lot of help to keep us on track with these discussions. 

In the form of three researchers from various universities, facilitating the discussions. and gently leading us back to the pertinent questions.
Very important, when we all have our own personal axes to grind, soap boxes from which to proclaim, and metaphors to thoroughly blend.

It is quite refreshing - not only to have people interested in what we have to say on these issues, but also to be paid some money to do it… A financial incentive to talk about stuff, that one often gets the impression, others would quite happily pay us to shut up about.

What is agroecology?

Hard to encapsulate; but could be summed up as 'A way of farming , and producing food, that takes into account more than just the current ‘bottom line’ driver of profitability in our food production systems.

Nutritious food, good for people, and sustainable planet wise, would seem like an obvious, or even glib aspiration.

Yes of course we all want that; don’t we?

But a very cursory glance behind the scenes, at the origin, and production of much of the food that we consume in this country tells an altogether different story.

For starters (sic) there’s the nutritional content of food itself.

In terms of health problems that can be attributed to diet; we have just about reached parity on a global scale.
 Obesity now being as much a problem as malnutrition, although both can occur in the same person.

Through its heavily reliance on oil consuming farming practices; Agribusiness tends to favour the overabundance of cheap calories.  

Whilst totally neglecting to consider the health costs of this nutrient depleted food.

 I wonder if the reason many people still feel hungry, even after they have consumed far more calories than they need for fuel, is because their bodies are shouting “Give me more food” rather loudly.

 But perhaps what our,  not so evolved digestive systems are trying to convey is “I am still hungry, but for proper nourishing food; not empty calories”

And large scale farming, the“Get big or get out” model encouraged by successive governments and EU policy has caused a massive loss in topsoil through water and wind erosion.

 Current figures predict only 60 years harvests if we proceed with our current production methods.

Food is ultimately produced by natural systems. And nature prefers diversity, manageable scale, mutability.

All things which are the direct opposite, of the one size fits all, transferable model, ever inflating business ideal to which we generally seem to have become wedded.

‘Cheap food’ seems to have been a common aspiration for successive governments. A real vote winner by all accounts. Leaving people with more money to spend on what? An overinflated housing market?

Doesn’t seem like much of a trade-off, rising house prices gives an illusion of ‘enrichment’ for a few; but goes nowhere in the end to improving quality of life for all overall.

There are so many problems caused by our present food production system; that at times it feels easier to look the other way, and just hope that it will sort itself out.

But there is no denying that the way we produce, transport, trade, and consume food at present is unsustainable both ecologically and socially.

The current agri-big- business (as usual) model, is contributing enormously to climate change.

Through the use of large machinery, not just the running costs of the machinery itself, but through the soil carbon, that is lost when soil is over cultivated.

Agroecological approaches encourage less soil movement overall, through minimal tillage systems, and certainly discourages deep ploughing.

Smaller scale also tends to favour more human employment. Many fields even hereabouts in relatively traditional Devon, might get visited four times a year by a person driving a tractor

If we want more and better jobs in the countryside, we might look to how the agricultural sector can be modified to encourage that?

 And maybe just for now let’s leave alone discussions over the ‘genie out of the bottle’ problems associated with G.M. or Gene edited crops.

A scant glance at who stands to benefit from these technologies, and who has already suffered as a result of them, doesn’t leave one in much doubt as to the main motivation for, and benefactors of their promotion.

A post encompassing all the issues we’ve covered would go on for weeks.

Plus, there are learned people detailed to write it all up properly.

In addition to coming up with some real concrete actions that could be implemented.

In order to' broadly speaking; encourage more of the good stuff; and discourage some of the worst stuff.

It has taken us some time to get our food system into the not fit for purpose state that its in.

And I'm not in the slightest bit interested in 'farmer bashing' there's been enough of that, and its mostly unfairly directed at well intentioned people who are following current guidelines, whilst trying to make a living.
The route back to something that looks like a sustainable, nutrition providing, planet benign way of farming isn’t going to be easy.

So I am going to write shorter pieces here and there, and drop their links into this main post as time goes on, with some pretty pictures of vegetables to lighten the load too.

Trying to do it all in one go, would be both impossible, and indigestible.