I’m starting my new blog by writing about 5 passions in my life. Each one capturing some thoughts on the subject, which will inevitably be shaped as time goes by. This one is all about Local Food:
Sitting down with family, friends and neighbours to share a meal cooked with fresh, local ingredients is a wonderful pleasure. To enjoy food cultivated from our surroundings under the care of people we are connected with, gives vitality to our relationships and community. It helps us to root ourselves into our surroundings, restoring our obligation and responsibilities for each other and the land that sustains us.
Modern lifestyles, especially those in the city, don’t give much time to enjoy food like this. We often grab food on the move, eat at our desks or in front of the TV. Many of us also suffer from a troubled relationship with food. It may be the cost of food that puts a strain on life, or an unhealthy diet that’s making us sick, unable to live life to the full. It’s also difficult to navigate our relationship with food with so many conflicting messages about what to eat. The mountains of nutritional advice and health claims in the media and on the packaging of food adds complications to our relationship. Likewise, the abundance of processed food in the aisles of our shops, supplied by a heavily industrialised agricultural system makes us suspicious and uncomfortable of the food we are eating.
Can we liberate ourselves and find food that we can trust, and give ourselves the time to cook delicious meals with seasonal produce that improves our countryside and the rich biodiversity that we cherish? I believe we can and that a thriving local food system is absolutely necessary for this – for a healthy future for our planet and our communities.
We shape the food system, and the system shapes us
In 1941, after the House of Commons suffered bomb damage from a raid, Winston Churchill was making a speech on the rebuilding work and said the words: “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”. That symbiosis between our behaviours and environment are reflected in our food system too.
When we choose produce grown organically, biodiversity improves. When we support fair trade, we help people lead better lives. If we buy local, we support local skills, jobs and the circulation of money which helps other enterprises.
The reality of choice is not always so simple and we have to balance different motivations and desires. I have often found myself paralysed in the aisles of a shop, trying to make a choice that has no obvious answer: organic vs fairtrade vs local vs excess packaging vs expensive. I stand there shaking my head, muttering to myself and will often leave empty handed.
In every purchase of food, not only do we receive, but we give back to the world, for better or for worse. We shape the system.
From the other end, the food system we build shapes us. A food system driven only by shareholders interested in profit, produces an industry that is driven to manipulate consumers, desiring our money rather than our health and wellbeing.
A food system that is concentrated in its ownership creates a food supply that is easily manipulated – as well one which is vulnerable and anti-competitive. A food system that is distributed, local and organic, enables people to eat more unprocessed, fresh food. A farm that works with nature, rather than against it, will grow a diverse range of products – just as we benefit from a diverse and balanced diet.
We need a better food system and a healthier food culture. Fortunately, there is so much we can do to make that happen: at home, at work, in our gardens, in the shop and in the company of friends and family.
As we undergo rapid rates of urbanisation, population growth and changing consumption patterns, our food system plays a critical role in sustaining human life, while being challenged to respect and operate safely within planetary thresholds that safeguard our future.
Substantial changes are required throughout different elements of the food system if food security and sustainability are to be provided globally. These elements include the balancing demand with supply, having stable and affordable food prices, healthy lifestyles, access to natural resources and a stable environment. It’s no small feat but I believe we have the ingenuity to make some leaps in the right direction. I believe that establishing strong, resilient local food systems plays an essential role in the change we need. I also believe global policies are important to encourage and underpin this. We have a global challenge solved through millions of small actions.
Local food systems and community farms
I have the privilege of working at Sutton Community Farm, a 7 acre farm on the edges of London. The Farm gives people an intimate experience of food, where participation in the joys and challenges of growing food is encouraged. We try to be an exemplarily example of a deeply sustainable farm, led by the community and supporting the local economy.
Our farm sits in a borough that suffers from many food-related challenges that are shared across the UK: a lack of access to fresh, sustainable food, increasing rates of obesity and diet-related illness. Even simple life skills such as growing, preparing and preserving fresh food, that have been part of humanity for so long are disappearing as we become more disconnected.
Although our farm alone can’t solve these issues, we are well placed to start conversations about these issues and hopefully spur others on in the right direction. Through our farm, we can work with partners to help build a stronger local food system. It‘s not all about always food: community farming can improve community cohesion, improve biodiversity and reduce pollution. As Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture movement said, so many of the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.