Rebuilding the food system: who do we engage with for a just transition?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

― Buckminster Fuller

This alluring quote from the American inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller has sat uneasy with me in recent years. In 2017, I went from managing a progressive, community-owned food enterprise with impressive social, health and environmental principles, to put a good portion of my energies into work with large, corporate food companies. I made this move partly out of curiosity, eager to learn about the global food supply chains in which I still participated as a citizen. I suppose I also hoped I might have a bigger impact. Rather than complain from the edges, I’ve now had the opportunity to support a number of major food companies as they grapple with complex sustainability challenges, bringing to the table my knowledge and understanding of how they can be a force for good. 

Exciting as this may sound, in the short time I’ve been doing this work, I’ve often found myself feeling restless and frustrated. For decades, we’ve had many warm words and promising commitments from companies, yet overall, progress has been glacial and incremental, with companies regularly missing their targets, or having no targets at all. Even today, despite the widely acknowledged environmental crisis, many large corporates are operating with no commitments around critical issues such as deforestation that exist in their supply chains.

Figure 1. Data from the 2019 Forest 500 assessment, showing the proportion of companies in each region that have no commitments to protect forests in their production or sourcing: they found 140 (40%) of the most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains, including retailer Amazon, Dutch supermarket chain SPAR and luxury fashion group Capri Holdings, do not have any deforestation commitments.

From the fringes, I’ve watched as an industry of CSR has risen-up that self-congratulates itself in award ceremonies, while the world continues to frazzle and in many spheres, such as politics and the internet, can feel more fragmented. In the mainstream of businesses, success still very much centres around increasing sales, profits and market share; and employees often toil with little awareness of the trail of social and environmental damage that is neglected or deprioritised in pursuit of this misguided view of prosperity. 

Last year, at a sustainable agriculture conference in the USA, I listened to the Head of Sustainability from one of the world’s largest food companies comfort the audience by saying: “profit is not a dirty word”. It’s an uncomfortable maxim I hear often in these circles: that “we can’t invest in sustainability unless we’re profitable first”. She then went on to comfort attendees further, some of whom will have been suppliers, that despite their big climate pledge (which is one of those “by 2050” net-zero targets), change will be slow and steady, so that suppliers can move with the times and won’t have any major surprises. If only our Earth systems would also be so patient and obliging.

A post-Covid revolution by teatime?

Thinking about the sense of urgency versus the pace of change, let’s turn to Buckminster Fuller again. Writing about a utopian revolution, Russel Brand also quotes Buckminster Fuller, but suggests his positive vision is perhaps easier said than done:

Buckminster Fuller outlines what ought to be our collective objectives succinctly: “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone”. This maxim is the very essence of “easier said than done” as it implies the dismantling of our entire socio-economic machinery. By teatime.

Russell Brand (2013), On Revolution.

As we fret over the complexity and urgency of safeguarding our planetary health and living within a doughnut, perhaps we should also appreciate that for the most part, radical shifts often only happen when precipitated by economic and political crises. These crises may include civil unrest and it’s the subsequent interplay of new market rules, innovations in business models and practice that creates the new normal. This is the window of opportunity that COVID-19 offers us, not that we should be celebrating a pandemic. 

To help society rise-up and emerge out of this pandemic, much attention has been placed on the response of our governments. In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve seen 17 major economies invest approximately US$3.5 trillion in economic stimulus packages. Despite the many coordinated efforts from investors, business leaders, scientists and NGOs urging governments to seize this opportunity to #BuildBackBetter with a green stimulus, unfortunately, many of the packages do not seem that way inclined, as shown in this analysis from Vivid Economics, where in 14 of the 17 countries considered, potentially damaging flows outweigh those supporting nature:

Figure 2. Analysis from Vivid Economics on the “Greenness of Stimulus Index”.

Why trust in our governments and companies is so difficult

Perhaps governments could cough up a little more towards green measures if companies were more obliging in paying a fair share of taxes – and governments could prevent tax dodging for good. Some multinationals are now so rich and influential, their profits dwarf the entire tax revenues of small countries. As citizens, we must find ways to hold these companies to account, just as we try to do with our governments. 

How much trust can we have in large businesses to drive the change we need? I ask myself this everyday and I know I’m not alone. There’s many folks that think about this more than me. For example, a debate rumbles on about the authenticity and transformative power of the “purpose paradigm” that has captured many businesses, helping them embed a greater sense of moral fibre. Yet, even the purpose-driven companies still seem intent on operating within a conventional capitalist and at worst, a neoliberal mindset. Until we can find creative ways to move beyond these entrenched ideologies, I reckon we’re stuck with some variation of “business as usual”. (I wrote about this a little in a previous blog – see “conscious capitalism”).

I wonder if some of my peers will think I’m being rather negative? Large scale systems change does not happen overnight and trying to write with more positivity, it’s true that there are now so many “net positive” commitments from companies that it’s difficult to keep track of them. There’s also many examples of large organisations looking deep into the future and taking meaningful action to try and shape a more positive trajectory. All of this can be celebrated. But will it ever feel enough? 

For many years, some leaders in industry and government have been committed to a green growth mantra, the idea that we can decouple financial growth from resource consumption. Hard empirical data has recently shown that no meaningful decoupling has ever taken place and that the idea was an article of ‘faith’, devoid of any evidence. It reminds me that over 10 years ago, the UK Sustainable Development Commission (RIP) published Prosperity Without Growth (which was subsequently expanded into a book by Tim Jackson), making clear the need to re-define our definitions of prosperity. But I feel that the environmental movement has struggled to present any attractive, viable pathways towards new, alternative economic models. Or perhaps politicians and the public just aren’t ready to grapple with this yet. 

The spectrum of business models: some observations

In the corporate world, there are a spectrum of business models. They range from those that are highly extractive, with fairly rigid governance models due to shareholder primacy, towards more nimble and purpose-driven businesses, as you might find in the B-corp community

We often hear a hypothesis that it’s the purpose-driven, nimble businesses that will prevail, as they are more adept in responding to environmental and social risks, while more traditional corporates will lose significance and fade away. Does this scenario hold certain assumptions about how society and governments will reward or penalise companies in the future? There’s certainly more nuance to this, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time and place.

Another, perhaps cynical observation that I’m interested to test is that the companies with the most impressive sustainability commitments, seem more likely to sell products that are less essential for society, such as fast food, luxury fashion, cosmetics and sugary drinks. Perhaps this is because it helps them to keep their license to operate, but it also introduces some ideological, moral challenges. Many of us enjoy ice-cream, fizzy drinks, steak and booze, but in a civilisation edging closer to the brink of irreversible collapse, should there be more efforts to limit this consumption? How stringent and restrictive should our society be in this emergency?

One fear I have about giving too much energy to working with large incumbents is that they are too stuck in their ways and unable to re-orientate their business models. Is there a danger I am facilitating a slow, managed decline of the outdated business models Buckminster Fuller suggests just need replacing? What if I have been giving some companies a false sense of security, to feel okay about themselves and operate a while longer while they trash the last of our planetary resources? Suffice to say, who we work with (as individuals and as organisations) and on what terms, is a very important question. 

Engaging companies on a just transition towards a regenerative food system

Recently at my work, we’ve been testing an idea that would involve bringing together, in a workshop, people from larger food businesses with those that sit more within the UK’s grassroots food movement. By grassroots, I refer to a fairly broad spectrum of organisations focused on influencing a more sustainable food system, from campaigners and smallholders, to alternative food businesses. The hope is to explore some of the common ground that I believe exists around sustainability ambition and what needs to happen to accelerate us towards these shared goals.

As I’ve tested the idea with friends in the sector, it became apparent that for some in these communities, there would be two key issues to overcome. The first is around trust. For understandable reasons, many working in the grassroots food movement have little trust in “big food” players: around their authenticity and capacity for radical change. There might be a lot of suspicion. Careful facilitation would be required to ensure discussions are constructive, healthy and purposeful.

The other challenge relates to the working hypothesis that people hold about how a transition towards much greater societal sustainability will play out. From my experiences, I know some people working in the grassroots food movement believe we need to “tear down” the existing food system and allow a new community of sustainable food enterprises to rise up. In this scenario, our food system can become much more diverse and nutritious. In the enlightened agriculture vision that’s painted by thinkers such as Colin Tudge, agroecology, food sovereignty and economic democracy are core aims. Communities will have proper control over their food supply and Britain will have a million more farmers, many smallholders, selling direct to citizens and cutting out the “middle players”. Major retailers will presumably be pushed to the fringes and collapse, their businesses no longer viable. 

This scenario depends on some radical enabling policy from our government and while I am often an advocate this, I struggle with its realism, especially in the short term. The power and grip large companies yield over politics and our food system should not be under-estimated, and in any case, how many citizens are really on board with this vision?

At the other end of the scale, the more progressive corporates with grand sustainability commitments are struggling to wrap their heads around what the radical transition looks like within their rather inflexible structures. I expect they find it difficult to imagine a scene that’s too far removed from their existing business models, where citizens are offered a seemingly unlimited choice of cheap food.

Figure 3. “Tear it down” (reform) vs “Radical transformation” (rebuild)

For a rapid transition in our food system, what might the realistic version of events be? I suspect there’s a reality somewhere between the “tear it down” version of events, and the unrealistic “radical transformation” of mainstream incumbents. It seems helpful to think of this like some continuum, and for many working in sustainability, this reform vs revolution debate is of course, not new. 

Might it be valuable to bring some of the more grassroots organisations in our food system together with larger food companies to explore major transition pathways? This may – or may not – help us move forwards and depends a great deal on how it’s facilitated. It may rustle some new ideas, partnerships or innovations that are so desperately needed. It might also help us get a clearer view of what a just transition looks like for society. It seems an idea worth testing further.

Thinking regeneratively

I’ve written about regenerative agriculture a couple of times recently (here and here) as I explore how this way of thinking can influence our food systems. In this piece, I’m sharing some perspectives on what it means to think regeneratively more broadly. These are personal musings, but much of the inspiration draws from my work at Forum for the Future. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts and feedback.

The regenerative paradigm

Within sustainability circles, a regenerative paradigm has been gaining momentum. It speaks of vitality and replenishment, encouraging us towards the continual improvement of the health and sustainability of key systems on which we depend – covering natural capital, social capital, human capital, and all other forms of capital

As our planetary health has become increasingly stressed and fragile, we’ve reached a point where active regeneration is critical. It feels the language associated with sustainability is no longer enough, we also need a regenerative vocabulary. The illustration below shows some of the words often found in this vocabulary. 

For those readers interested in systems change theory – thinking regeneratively has a lot in common with the mindsets required for systems change.

Figure 1. Common words used to describe regenerative (own illustration, feel free to share and adapt under CC license)

Healthy interconnections and working with complexity

The regenerative mindset takes inspiration from nature, where it’s recognised that the most resilient and healthy ecosystems are highly diverse, complex and interconnected. 

Understanding how we can design to support healthy interconnections is a crucial part of any regenerative design. Let’s explore this by example. Consider the human body which is composed of several complex and interacting systems such as the digestive system, circulatory, immune etc. As we engage in unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking or unhealthy eating, the systems in our bodies can cope for a while but eventually, damage occurs, our overall health declines and we become more vulnerable. Although our bodies are composed of highly complex systems that we often don’t fully understand, staying healthy is generally not complicated. Simple principles around regular exercise and eating well (such as Michael Pollan’s Food Rules) will support healthy interconnections, giving us a much better chance of good health.

This analogy demonstrates that when we engage with highly complex systems, we don’t always need complicated solutions. This may be obvious to some readers, and it can be applied to our interactions with all sorts of systems, from soils that buzz with billions of microorganisms (many undiscovered and their interactions unknown), to ocean ecosystems and even in the way we interact within businesses and our communities – through the values and practices we bring.

As the pioneering systems change expert Donella Meadow’s said: “We can’t control systems or figure them out, but we can dance with them!”.

A journey, not a destination

Another interesting aspect about thinking regeneratively is that it’s not a destination, rather it’s more evolutionary; a dynamic journey where the context is shifting as we constantly strive towards greater health. 

Despite this, the word regenerative (and the word sustainable) can sometimes be referred to as a status or destination that we reach. This “mission accomplished” mindset is problematic when the nature of the challenge is complex and ever-changing. Complex challenges, such as climate change, don’t get “solved”, rather they evolve without a finish line. As Daniel Wahl writes:

we have to “understand that this will be a continuous learning journey that will need many adjustments of course and constant redesign to adjust answers and solutions to changing conditions.”

Daniel Wahl (2018)

Having a “mission accomplished” mindset can limit or mislead our regenerative ambitions. Rather, a continuum mindset might offer a better way to conceptualise and work with our regenerative ambitions, as articulated by Ethan Solinez in this article, which explores levels of regenerative and the boundaries of what we can achieve are not limited.

Interdependent and co-operative

Many of our prevailing business models are challenged by a regenerative paradigm, which favours cooperation over competition and a much greater fairness in the way that we share and distribute value through supply chains. For many of us, moving from competitive to co-operative is a giant leap. Competitiveness and tribalism is deep in the bones of our culture and education systems. This is a big transition. Especially for businesses who thrive on vying for increasing market shares, or those on a seemingly relentless mission for cross-market domination

But, it’s just a paradigm…

As one colleague I work with said, this regenerative paradigm offers a renewed hope, at a time when sustainability feels stuck. Regenerative concepts have galvanised our imaginations, towards new possibilities and ways of thinking. 

While many inspired leaders paint a beautiful picture of what this regenerative framing might offer us, we must remember, it’s just a paradigm. It can mean different things to different people. Paradigms can also shift with time, get hijacked, corrupted and diluted. So there’s questions about how we might uphold this regenerative framing to continually challenge us, so it can be transformative and not just the latest buzzword. This feels important because we know small incremental improvements are not enough in the drive to restore our ecosystems and protect future human civilizations. 

…and back to regenerative agriculture

The roots of much regenerative thinking can be found in agriculture, where the concept has existed, arguably, for millennia. Regenerative ideas can be found in many indigenous systems, as well as the work of many farming pioneers from Dr George Washington Carver to Robert Rodale and the founders of the permaculture movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgrem.  I recently had a chance to explore this in the USA-context, working on Forum’s Growing the Future project where we explored what a regenerative agriculture system looks like, the barriers to getting there and a 7-point plan for accelerating a just transition towards it.

Envisioning the goals of a regenerative agriculture system, co-developed with stakeholders from across the USA agriculture system, in the Growing Our Future project.

For many, regenerative agriculture offers new perspectives on how we practice farming and re-organise the rest of our food system. It’s within agriculture where thinking regeneratively is most tangible and accessible. It’s here where we can be reminded of it every day, through every meal, every garden and every landscape, that yearn for regeneration.

Eigg Time

It’s morning and gusts of wind beat against our off-grid, timber bothy. We can hear the wind bellowing down the chimney stack, causing puffs of smoke to burst out of the wood burner as we fire it up. It’s been raining on and off for days. I found a telescope and from our bothy I can see across the channel and watch the waves crashing against the rocky shoreline of the Isle of Rùm. The mountains of Rùm come in and out of view, shrouded by deep, moody rain clouds. Ferry services off the island are canceled again, but that’s alright. 

Looking out from Singing Sands to the Isle of Rùm

We’re on a two-week voyage of which we’re spending five days on the Isle of Eigg. Eigg is one of the Small Isles in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, famous for its community ownership and renewable energy scheme. It’s five miles long and 3 miles wide with a population just short of 50. This is a peaceful, quiet get-away for us, completely offline, with no schedules or distractions. 

Sweeney’s Bothy

Morning activities include lighting a fire, making tea, reading and for me, some experimentation with Win Hoff breathing routines – which apparently resets my central nervous system, whatever that means. For breakfast, we have porridge with grated apple, honey and yoghurt, cooked on the burner, with a pot of coffee. It’s a good start to the day. 

Morning porridge and coffee

The wood burner crackles. I’m catching up with National Geographics and losing myself in cryptic crosswords. We try to take a walk each day, between the rainfall. This evening, we’ve been invited to a board game night at the Island’s only cafe, which is also a post office, bar and shop.

The weather was kind to us on the day we arrived and we took that opportunity to hike along the ridge of Cleadale cliffs, past a rocky feature known as the “finger of God”, and then back down onto the Singing Sands beach as the sun was starting to set. From this side of the Island, there’s a beautiful view of the mountains on Rùm, dusted with snow. 

The finger of God on the Isle of Eigg
The finger of God
View of the Isle of Rum
Singing sands beach at sunset

Back in the bothy, there’s a wee library of books to browse, mostly covering Island life, crofting culture and highland history. It was a joy to pick-up (again) Alistair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul, a beautiful dive into human ecology, theology and land reform history. McIntosh was involved in the landmark campaign that led, in 1997, to the Isle of Eigg gaining independence from landlordism, and coming under community control. It’s a fascinating account. Today, he says over a third of a million acres of Scotland – 2% of the land mass – is in community ownership via some 200 community groups.

With such a small population, an islander writing about Eigg describes the delicate balance of inhabitants needed to maintain a healthy community and economy. For example, the primary school currently has five children attending; keeping this open is important for attracting or retaining young families. 

In what might have been one of the gloomiest weeks to take a holiday, with only a few other brave holidaymakers on the island, we were delighted to hear that on Valentines Day, the restaurant would be open for the evening. A short walk from our bothy, we enjoyed a delicious three-course meal from Sue, who also runs a guest house there. Afterwards, we were out into the damp pitch dark, head torches on, we walked back to Sweeney’s bothy. It’s so quiet and home feels so distant.

Scrabble game. I lost badly.

With sustainability often on my mind, I was curious about what is happening in the waters around the Small Isles. In Soil and Soul, Alistair McIntosh, who grew up on the Isle of Lewis, describes the small islander fishing that took place during his childhood. In the 1970s, this underwent an abrupt change when boats started coming into the bay at night and trawling the seabed, breaking all the taboos. As he realised what was occurring, it was a feeling of gentle horror. Shifts in European fishing policy, combined with new technologies and investment into fishing fleets caused devastation to fish stocks and brought disruption to local, small-scale fishing businesses and the economy.

Today, with wild fish stocks suffering, the old fishing industry has shrunk, but a new industry of farmed fish has expanded into Scottish waters. It’s controversial. Companies like Mowi and Scottish Sea Farms, producing farmed salmon, are major employers in the region. It’s a significant economic activity for Scotland, worth over £2 billion, and attracting significant European and government funding with grand ambitions to expand. 

We hear in passing, some of the controversy and divided opinion this industry creates. Some of the islands are rejecting the presence of these companies, some support it, others are torn. On one hand, there’s jobs and associated funding that supports valuable community facilities. On the other, there’s environmental degradation, pollution and further decimation of wild fish stocks beyond Scotland. In the last year, the impacts of this industry have been highlighted by two campaign groups, the Changing Markets Foundation and Feedback, focusing on the imported fish meal and oil for farmed salmon. 

Drawing on my recent exploration of regenerative agriculture, I wonder what a regenerative fishing industry might look like? One that supports a diversity of business, good jobs and working at a level that enables local fish stocks to return and multiply. It feels movement is currently in the wrong direction.

I’ve digressed somewhat from Eigg time. It seems I can’t help myself thinking about sustainability! Yet it’s interesting how we balance environmental stewardship, food provision, jobs, community wellbeing and so on. As we leave, we speak to our bothy host, Lucy, who tells us about their intentions this year to explore how a more resilient local food system can be established on the island, building on the progress and actions that many of the Islanders already take part in. 

Eigg has so much going for it. As we say our goodbyes, Lucy tells us about an upcoming film festival she’s organising. There’s also a music festival and even a record label on the Island. All the more reason to return.

On the ferry back to Mallaig, a rainbow

Climate breakdown, neoliberalism and wild futures for farming

Preamble: this piece contains some disparate threads of thinking going on this week for me, on climate breakdown, capitalism, ferming and farming. 


My recently-departed colleague Iain Watt, who amusingly, possibly accurately, describes himself as “eco-curmudgeon” on twitter, gave a presentation about climate change in our workplace before Christmas. Since then, I keep thinking about a slide (below) which shows a non-linear history of the Earth’s temperature through different climatic periods. It projects forward into what scientists recently announced as our new geological epoch: the anthropocene. It shows how we’re about to undergo the biggest shift in farming for 12,000 years. 

We’ve never farmed in a +3 or +4 degree world before. Runaway climate change, we know, will have severe implications on civilisation. Human migrations, access to water and future food production. Every day, more and more people are grappling with this. Resilience. Transition. Adaptation. Deep adaptation.

A few weeks back I watched George Monbiot take to the stage at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). His opening gambit is that nobody at the conference was really acknowledging the juggernauts that are about to hit us. Climate breakdown. Crashing biodiversity. Partly, I felt in agreement. And I thought about the slide deck for my presentation on animal feed sustainability that very morning. George happened to be in the room when I was presenting. Perhaps I should have included Iain’s slide and gave the audience a rousing provocation. Had I wrongly assumed that people already understand this and felt the urgency? More on George in a second.

Conscious capitalism?

It’s in response to this grave predicament around climate breakdown that we must seek radical solutions. New rules and structures for our economy and society. The hallmarks of capitalism: profit, growth and market competition, don’t sit comfortably in a future society that’s responding rapidly to climate breakdown.

Neoliberalism has been described as “capitalism with the gloves off”. It’s an ideology that seeks to maximise the freedom of the market by removing all barriers to the private accumulation of wealth. The problem is that many companies and governments have become wedded to neoliberal principles and are stuck designing their strategies and policies within this wrong-headed system. Every day, I feel like we’re rubbing-up against these limitations.

The other challenge is that because of the enormous power that large companies hold over society (the same companies that have benefited the most from neoliberalism), there seems to be an unspoken expectation that they must be engaged in designing tomorrow’s economic system. As happened in Davos last week, where the words “conscious capitalism” were thrown around. There was even a Tomorrow’s Capitalism conference a few weeks ago. These are fascinating discussions to be having and perhaps expose the cracks appearing in today’s system. But are we really reimagining the foundations of economics, or just rebranding capitalism to appear a little nicer?

These musings are a gentle reminder to myself to spend more time learning from the communities engaged in discussing steady-state and de-growth economics.

Ferming not farming?

Back to radical solutions and George Monbiot. Monbiot is a journalist I have enormous respect for and have learned so much from over the years. In his latest provocation, as set out in his documentary Apocalypse Cow and this article, he is advocating for a future food system in which farming barely features. In this future, technological wizardry will mean large quantities of our food will be synthesised in labs, combined with urban-based vertical hydroponic farms, this will enable us to rewild large swathes of our landscapes, helping avert the ecological collapse that we’re currently on track for. 

Monbiot is not the only one with this vision. A few months ago, I received an email from an excited colleague about RethinkX, who have written a provocation not too dissimilar about the future of food. 

While provocations like this can often stimulate a much-needed debate. I’m not enjoying this one. It feels too polarising, too far-reached and rather unhelpful. We need to find common ground on the future of agriculture. My old colleague, Mark Driscoll, wrote an excellent piece about this here, which I whole-heartedly agree with.

Perhaps some of us are not thinking “big” enough around the future role of synthesised foods? I don’t doubt the capacity of humans to make incredible leaps forward through technologies. However, what I’m hearing from these novel ingredient companies is different.

Putting subjects such as food culture, agroecology and the weak demand for synthesised foods to one side. Through my work, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with various novel ingredient manufacturers. While I haven’t spoken to Solar Foods (the start-up Monbiot is particularly excited about), I have spoken with various insect producers and fermentation-based technology companies using algae and single-cell proteins. These companies are starting to receive good investment and scaling-up beyond demonstrators.

Solar Foods: advert found on their Facebook page

However, with the exception of Impossible Foods, who claim they won’t stop until they eliminate the need for animals in the food chain, I’ve not heard claims from novel ingredient companies that they are capable of significantly displacing existing ingredients such as soy or palm.

Indeed, many are dependent on crop-based feedstocks. Algae, for example, typically uses sugar beet as a feedstock and as one professor explained to me, the sheer quantities of steel required to build manufacturing facilities to contend with palm oil, make it a difficult technology to provide a major substitution. Together, I’m not seeing a set of synthesised or novel ingredients that will make a serious dent in today’s agricultural system. I want to be proved wrong. Perhaps Solar Foods have a unique proposition that will overcome these sorts of barriers – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Not to say we shouldn’t invest in novel food ingredients. They will have an important role in the future of our food and be valuable in helping ease pressure on land. But they are one of a large suite of solutions that we need to invest heavily in. Helping us move towards healthier diets, food access, fairer incomes, increased biodiversity, reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Just on the emissions front, the variety of solutions we need to massively shift agricultural emissions is demonstrated well by WRI’s analysis:

Why can’t we embrace the “less” of “less and better”?

Taking a step away from production to consumption. I’m frustrated that I still find myself having to tip-toe over using the words “Less and better” which in the UK, is advocated by coalitions of NGOs such as through the Eating Better Alliance. In the Q&A of my animal feed session at ORFC, a farmer in the audience suggested that we shouldn’t say “less. His suggestion, which I’ve heard many times before, is that we should focus on “more of the good things we want. 

Partly, I can understand where he is coming from. The word “less” is unpopular, particularly with businesses. It anti-growth. It sounds negative. Yet we really could do with less. There is widespread agreement on this across academia and in large sections of the general public. 

Tara Garnett makes the point wonderfully in her article “Has Veganism Become a Dirty Word”, where she proposes that “there isn’t a single environmental problem that I can think of that wouldn’t be improved by there being fewer farmed animals”.

Modelling future world meat production scenarios, based on FAO data.

The plant-based protein movement is happening, but it’s a microcosm against of backdrop of rising meat production. Overall there are 70 billion farmed (terrestrial) animals on our planet. This figure continues to rise and these animals need feeding. While livestock are incredibly valuable in mixed farming systems, many farms are not mixed and are incredibly degenerative. The feed, which is the biggest component of the ecological and carbon footprint, is often treated separately. Intensive livestock producers (particularly in chicken and pork) are disconnected from the impacts of animal feed and it’s often purchased with little scrutiny of its origins.

Example of the greenhouse gas footprint of chicken meat

Governments, retailers, traders and feed companies need to start saying with confidence the word “less”. “Less of x, more of y”. We need to start talking about “peak” livestock and mechanisms to facilitate a de-growth of the most damaging production systems. We’ll literally eat our civilisation to destruction if we fail to do this. It’s a hard conversation but we shouldn’t shy away from it.

I recently asked the “sustainability manager” of a major UK fish-farming company if they (or the wider industry) had ever considered environmental limits to their growth. His response: “are you seriously asking me this question!!!!”. Yes, I was completely serious. Why should this be a bizarre question to be asking?

Eight questions for the regenerative agriculture movement

Following my recent blog exploring the opportunity that regenerative agriculture offers as a shared ambition for the food and farming sector, here, I share eight questions I’m currently holding about regenerative agriculture.

A little context. In addition to my work at sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, I’m excited to be doing a Nuffield Farming Scholarship to explore the regenerative agriculture movement. So it’s a particular focus at the moment and in this piece, I draw on some of the thinking we’ve already been doing at Forum for the Future.

1) Does it matter if regenerative agriculture means different things to different people?

One thing I’ve learned with my colleagues at Forum for the Future as we’ve explored regenerative agriculture is that it means different things to different people. This is hardly surprising. The term is not protected and it’s a relatively young movement, with advocates across different types of organisations and geographies. So how much does this matter?

Will the term “regenerative” be akin to generic and vague terms such as “sustainable” or “eco”? Or does it communicate a clear and transformative ambition for our farming systems? 

Over the next 18 months, I will aim to speak to various farmers and organisations using the term to understand what it means to them. In particular, I want to understand the levels of ambition and how much this differs between people and geographies. I’ll include organisations that have proposed definitions as well as those developing and testing the new Regenerative Organic Standard. As I do this, I’ll draw on the range of other sustainable agriculture movements and philosophies (see below) to find out how people see regenerative agriculture as being distinguished. What, for example, is attracting some people towards regenerative agriculture, but not to organic, which has a much more established history. Ethan Soloviev’s proposed lineages of regenerative agriculture is one useful insight to draw on here.

Figure 1. Different farming movements: where does regenerative agriculture fit in?

I would also like to test a set of common principles and practices (outlined below) related to regenerative agriculture, exploring the consensus around what it means, how this is shifting and whether people feel consensus even matters.

Figure 2. Example principles and practices associated with regenerative agriculture. These focus on environmental, rather than social regeneration. Many agree that regenerative agriculture is not about simply ticking some of the boxes above. Rather it’s a process of understanding the specific farming system or landscape and working to continuously improve it. Covering outcomes such as soil health and carbon, biodiversity, nitrogen and water impacts.

2) Can the regenerative agriculture movement uphold a high level of ambition and integrity?

The term regenerative agriculture is occurring with increasing frequency, with farms and companies starting to use the term fairly liberally to describe their approach or ambitions. 

Working with the assumption that the scaling-up of regenerative agriculture is ambitious and would be transformative for our food system, there is a danger of the term becoming diluted or losing its integrity as more people use it to describe their ambitions. The risk is higher especially if there is no consensus around measuring what is regenerative.

Is regenerative agriculture a useful frame in which to engage the mainstream of farmers and companies? And if so, what can the regenerative agriculture movement do to uphold a high level of ambition and integrity?

3) Measuring regenerative agriculture: how do we know it when we see it?

Without using a standard or certification, how do we know when we are seeing a “regenerative agricultural” system? This leads to the question: “how might we measure “how regenerative” a farming system is? Is measuring regenerative agriculture even viable?

This is an important question because organisations working to promote regenerative agriculture are often looking for a consistent means to measure it that works across farms and geographies. Why is this? Perhaps because of the interests to monetise changes in practices (e.g. to create market incentives or enable funding) but also because measurement typically underpins most certification approaches. 

To explore this, I intend to speak to some of the organisations involved in standards and monitoring, such as the Rodale Institute, NSF, the Savory Institute, the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit, Sustainable Food Trust, Cool Farm Alliance and Indigo Agriculture. I’m anticipating a spread of opinion. For example, for many people, regenerative agriculture is about continually improving soil health and soil organic carbon. But for others in this space, regenerative agriculture includes additional and broader positive outcomes, such as continually improving local water quality, biodiversity and even livelihoods.

Ethan Soloviev and writes about regenerative agriculture being more like a continuum and with his work at Terra Genesis, they have proposed levels of regenerative agriculture

Figure 3. To uphold the integrity and increase its potential benefits to the systems of the world, Terra Genesis have proposed a ‘Levels of Regenerative Agriculture’ framework.

Exploring how we measure or witness regenerative agriculture also raises questions related to timescales. For example, some farms are working from a baseline where past management has resulted in highly degraded soils, and now, continual restorative improvements to the soil health and other ecosystem services is very much needed. Other farms might have a long history of sustainable practices and are starting to use the “regenerative” moniker. How might markets and the general public distinguish between the two? How can we have confidence that the benefits from regenerative agriculture (such as carbon sequestration) stick long into the future?

4) Is regenerative agriculture challenging what we grow?

If we are to really embrace the principles and philosophies of regenerative agriculture, I believe it challenges what you produce, not just how you produce it. For example, moving towards more mixed farming systems, more perennial crops and much greater crop and livestock diversity.

However, will the companies upstream who are advocating regenerative agriculture really support their suppliers to increase crop diversity in their farming systems? So far, I haven’t seen much evidence of this happening in practice. It’s an area at Forum we are increasingly trying to focus on with the organisations we work with.

5) Do we understand the barriers to scale?

Through my work with the sustainable nutrition team at Forum for the Future, we have identified various barriers that are preventing regenerative agriculture from scaling-up. These are summarised below. During my Nuffield Scholarship, I would like to explore these further, particularly focusing on the farmer’s perspective and how barriers shift across geographies.

Figure 4. Barriers to regenerative agriculture

6) The murky world of carbon markets: challenges in measurement and who claims the carbon saved? 

The possibility of carbon sequestration is a notable feature for regenerative agriculture. Carbon markets provide a possible route to finance a major transition to more regenerative agriculture. To explore this, I will explore initiatives such as Indigo Agriculture (Project Terraton) and examples such as Mootral’s ruminant feed entering carbon markets. But it is also worth learning from more established carbon markets that already exist, such as the reforestation and peatland restoration (where in the UK, Carbon Codes exist to enable a route for carbon offsetting). One of the many differences with regenerative agriculture is that the benefits from carbon sequestration could be quickly undone in a few seasons of intensive agricultural practice – which is perhaps less of a risk in a reforestation project.

Carbon sequestration in agriculture is fraught with uncertainties and complexity. To briefly explain a few:

  • Carbon sequestration rates in soil can vary depending on the soil type as well as the practices. Arable soils, for example, tend to have a greater scope for increase than grasslands, while the scope for sequestration on sandy soils can be as low as 2-3%, versus 30-40% for peaty soil. 
  • In trees, carbon sequestration varies with tree species and rates of growth. If those trees are cropped, then the carbon sequestered will depend on the end-use of that timber. 
  • There’s also a plateau with soil carbon sequestration. What happens when that plateau is reached? And how can we be sure that carbon remains locked-in?
  • We need to be realistic with the maths. As Dr Jonathan Foley explains in this thread, are claims of the huge sequestration potential realistic? 

How can we uphold integrity in carbon markets, ensuring a net reduction in carbon and avoid double counting?

Figure 5. Examples of climate mitigation potential of 20 natural climate solutions. From Bronson W. Griscom et al. PNAS 2017;114:44:11645-11650.

7) Exploring strategies to scale-up regenerative agriculture

For many, regenerative agriculture is just another banner for a movement that seeks to transform our food and farming system to work better with nature and provide healthy nutritious food for all. And there are many farmers already practicing it, simply because it’s the right thing to do.

But how do we create the enabling conditions to transform the entire food and farming system? What levers need pulling to bring everyone onto the same path? What does the transition look like?

Deliberately introducing systems thinking lens might help us to explore these questions. Frameworks and theories of how systems change, such as Rogers Innovation Bell Curve, Donella Meadows levers for change, and Forum for the Future’s Scaling Up Impact framework, can help us explore how to support regenerative agriculture to go mainstream. 

At Forum, we’ve already started convening organisations across the food system to explore what is required to scale-up regenerative agriculture. In particular, I would like to explore the role of policy/regulation to accelerate change. How necessary is government regulation to scale regenerative agriculture? And in what specific areas is regulation most effective to unlock or promote scale?

Figure 6 a) Proposed in 1962, Rogers Innovation Bell Curve provides a useful framework to understand how new products/services become mainstream
b) Forum for the Future’s Scaling-Up Impact framework pulls out the common building blocks of how scale has happened in the past, to enable the tipping point for a new paradigm.
(c) At Forum for the Future, we combined the scaling-up framework with expert interview insights to identify a set of eight interventions necessary to scale-up regenerative agriculture, summarised above.

8) Based on what we’re learning about mainstreaming regenerative agriculture, what are the different priorities for different actors?

Many different types of organisations influence our food system (as shown in Figure 7) and each has a unique role in supporting or influencing change. But who holds power? Who influences who? Where is pressure exerted? How might responsibility and risk be better shared? What would these organisations look like if regenerative agriculture was mainstream? How can organisations better collaborate to move faster towards regenerative agriculture?

During my Nuffield Scholarship journey, I’m keen to move beyond the theory and return with some practical suggestions to what the priorities should be for different actors in the food value chain to support the mainstreaming of regenerative agriculture.

Figure 7. Map of actors in the food system that influence agricultural practice

The journey continues…

So many questions and what feels like messy complexity right now. Thankfully, there are many smart folks out there working on this which I hope to meet over the coming 18 months. With each step of the journey, I will aim to keep writing and hope to get closer to answering some of these questions.

Regenerative agriculture: a shared ambition for the supply chain?

This blog was first published on the Forum for the Future website. I’m reposting a slightly edited version here.

There’s excitement and hope stirring around regenerative agriculture with many organisations putting it into their strategies. So what is regenerative agriculture and could it offer a shared ambition for the food and farming sector?

This is the broad question I’m setting out to explore over the next 18 months in a Nuffield Farming Scholarship. I will visit farming systems and interview organisations across the supply chain that have regenerative agriculture ambitions. I’m interested in how regenerative agriculture is being understood, the types of ambitions and strategies considered for scaling it up – and if it’s scaled, what might our food system look like then? 

The Nuffield journey will complement work already taking place at Forum for the Future with various food and agricultural companies, which is exploring the potential around regenerative agriculture and the strategies necessary for it to scale and become mainstream.

Regenerative Agriculture: the latest buzzword or something bigger?

When I first heard the words “regenerative agriculture” many years ago, I didn’t give it much attention. Speaking with others, I know I wasn’t alone in brushing it off as another expression of sustainable farming that wasn’t particularly needed, given that we already have exciting (albeit small) movements in organic and biodynamic farming, natural farming and permaculture. Not to mention carbon-smart agriculture as well as growing recognition around agroecology

So what sets regenerative agriculture apart and why are several companies starting to take an interest in it?

Perhaps one attractive feature is within its language of regeneration. The enticing idea of putting more back into the environment than we take out. Certainly, the word “regenerative” appears to be becoming a sustainability buzzword within companies, however “regenerative agriculture” should perhaps be considered more specific than a vague aspiration.

Central to regenerative agriculture is the building of soil health and the many positive knock-on effects that this can bring to our farming systems and landscapes. This includes better water management and nutrient recycling, improved yields, business resilience and carbon sequestration. These are all appealing features. For some, it’s the latter benefit, the opportunity to increase soil organic carbon, that is causing a particular stir in some companies, given the increasing pace of climate change.

The IPCC special report, Climate Change and Land stressed the building of soil carbon as one of the most significant climate actions in the land use sector. The potential for drawing down carbon into our soils appears enormous although the exact potential is a matter of debate and further research. Today, international initiatives now exist, such as “4 per 1,000” that focus on accelerating action towards increasing soil carbon storage. 

Figure 1 shows some of the common principles and practices found in regenerative agriculture. When it comes to carbon sequestration rates, not all regenerative agriculture practices are equal. This is outlined well in Eric Toensmeier’s book, “The Carbon Farming Solution” which advocates the particularly impressive sequestration potential of trees (agroforestry) and other perennial crops in regenerative farming systems.

For many advocates of regenerative agriculture, it also speaks to the building of greater diversity in our farming systems and with this, the opportunity to help stop and start reversing the alarming crashing of biodiversity we witness today.

So far the regenerative farming movement has been fairly fragmented. A few companies have been advocating the approach and many of the practices have been pioneered by farmers, where a spectrum of practitioners exist that have embraced the “regenerative” moniker. In a recent article about the movement, Nathanial Short suggested that regenerative agriculture means many different things to different people but it appears to have the power to bring organic and conventional farmers together to work towards environmental outcomes. 

Figure 1. Some of the common principles and practices that can support regenerative agriculture

Shared definitions and company commitments

Having a shared understanding of regenerative agriculture helps. Over 150 businesses, NGOs and academics have supported this definition of regenerative agriculture proposed by The Carbon Underground:

farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.

Other definitions exist. For example, Terra Genesis propose a slightly different definition. Last year, my colleagues at Forum found that there were geographic differences in how regenerative agriculture was being understood. For example, in a workshop in India and discussions with people working in different parts of Africa, it was considered important to include positive social outcomes as a principle in regenerative agriculture, broadening the definition. Whereas, in US/UK/Europe, there was a greater focus on environmental outcomes, particularly carbon sequestration and soil health.

The definitions give a sense of the transformative potential that regenerative agriculture promises, and with that excitement, several companies are now grappling with what it means to put it into their strategies. Most notably, both Danone and General Mills have publicly announced it as a major focus. Patagonia and others are working with the Rodale Institute (who coined the term regenerative agriculture) and NSF to create a Regenerative Organic Certification. Ben and Jerry’s, Danone and others have also launched a Soil Carbon Initiative to develop verifiable standards for measuring soil carbon.

New disruptive start-ups are also entering the space, such as Indigo Agriculture and their Project Terraton Initiative, who are creating a marketplace for soil carbon, having recently announced they will start paying farmers up to $15/tonne to store carbon in their soil. On the ground, many farmers are showcasing what it looks like. Gabe Brown’s book From Dirt to Soil tells a particularly inspiring set of stories of how regenerative agriculture is transforming farms in the USA to be more profitable, higher-yielding and more resilient businesses, depending less on external inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer.

Gabe Brown from Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota

Systems change for regenerative agriculture

In the five minutes it takes you to read this article, around 100 football fields of tropical forests will have been destroyed (based on a rate of 8 million hectares a year), much of it to make way for monocultural agricultural landscapes. It’s clear that much of our land use today is far from regenerative. 

Regenerative agriculture offers a route through which we can make significant progress towards restoration, meeting the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. But while regenerative agriculture creates a positive stir we must remember that this is a young movement, sitting alongside various other sustainable farming movements. Without robust understandings of what regenerative agriculture looks like in our food system, there’s a danger that some companies will pull out the bits they like, call it “regenerative”, but continue largely with business as usual. 

The context-specific nature of regenerative agriculture, where no single measure or practice works across geographies or commodities, seems to be both one of the challenges and one of the primary reasons for taking a systemic approach. Now is a key moment for organisations across the food system to come together and explore the transformative potential of regenerative agriculture. To generate and scale up with urgency the solutions that can help bring regenerative agriculture into the mainstream, while maintaining its integrity and an ambition commensurate with the global challenges we face in our food system.

Farmers and land-owners may be on the front-line to implement regenerative agriculture, but they are part of a food system with complex and challenging power dynamics where responsibility and risk are often not shared fairly:

Understanding how systems change plays an important role in identifying the activities required to scale up regenerative agriculture. At Forum for the Future, taking a systems lens has helped us to identify some of the ‘building blocks’ that underpin a scaling-up strategy in regenerative agriculture. Interviewing organisations across the value chain has helped us identify some of the key barriers and interventions that we’re now exploring in projects. 

We often witness pockets of excellence where various regenerative practices are being applied, but to scale and go mainstream, there’s a big journey ahead for this movement. Many farms and organisations will need to come together to drive this, each playing their own unique roles that will help support and scale-up regenerative agriculture.

Read more: since publishing this piece, I have written another article: Eight questions for the regenerative agriculture movement.

Walking the coast to coast

We’ve finally finished the coast to coast walk from St Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay. The journey is based on the footsteps of Alfred Wainwright, who originally devised the route in 1973 and it crosses three National Parks: the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. A thoroughly enjoyable journey that we did in three parts. Here’s some brief notes on the route and photos. More notes on the final five days as I’m writing this fresh after finishing and didn’t keep notes on the first two legs of our journey.

Wainwright’s route plan

PART 1 (October 2016)

St Bees Head to the Fox and Hound pub in Ennerdale Bridge (14 miles)
We arrived late at night to our starting point and camped in a field close to St Bees lighthouse. The route on the first day was fairly unremarkable (from memory) and took us to the edge of the Lake District. We camped in a small field next to the Fox and Hound pub.

Ennerdale Bridge to Rosthwaite (14m):

Rosthwaite to Patterdale YHA (17m)

Patterdale YHA to Penrith train station (14m)
This was an extra section required for our logistics, which took us along the length of Ullswater, the second largest lake in the Lake District.

PART 2 (April 2017) – 3 days

Day 1: Patterdale to Shap (16m): this section includes the “high street” to Kidsty Pike, the highest point on the coast to coast journey. Then later on, along Haweswater Reservoir. A strenuous, but rewarding day. From what I remember, also quite wet.

Day 2: Shap to Kirkby Stephen (20m)

Day 3: Kirkby Stephen to Keld (13m): this section of the route includes the nine standing stones.

PART III (August 2019) – 5 days

Day 1: Keld to Richmond (24m):
The last section of the Yorkshire Dales and a long day. The distance was a shock to the feet and shoulders which were aching by the end. Short showers meant that raincoats were on-and-off all day. A few tricky river crossings too as we followed the River Swale. It was the day after heavy rainfall had caused flash floods that had devastated several villages. We were shocked as we walked through the village of Reeth. Cars scattered, walls collapsed, sheds overturned, gardens covered in silty-mud. Camera-crews dotted around. It’s on the national news. We camped just outside Richmond in Brompton-on-Swale caravan park.

Day 3: Richmond to Ingleby Amcliffe (23m)
The most challenging day for me, mainly because it was a hot, very flat and laborious section of the walk, involving pounding our achy feet along country lanes and across monotonous fields of wheat, barley and rape. Other folks we meet that day agreed. Wainwright himself described it as a tedious section of the route. We stayed in the village of Ingleby Amcliffe, in a camping field next to the Blue Bell Inn pub.

Day 4: Ingleby Amcliffe to The Lion Inn (22m)
This section of the route takes us into the North York Moors where the heather was just coming out in beautiful shades of purple. A much more interesting day of walking with expansive views looking off the moor. Traversing along the escarpment, the path rises and falls steadily and is easy to navigate. I’m struck by the vast expanse of the grouse shooting industry across these landscapes. It seems to be that or sheep farming.

We were all starting to feel pretty exhausted towards the end of the day as we followed an old railway track, leading us towards our destination, the Lion Inn pub, Blakey. A very remote but popular pub that dates back to the 16th century. We camped in the field opposite after enjoying a huge meal and some delicious ale.

Lion Inn to Grosmont (14m)
A relief to have a shorter day of walking. We started after treating ourselves to breakfast at the Lion Inn, then walked across the moor to Glaisdale. After Glaisdale, there was some variety, with some woodland along the River Esk.

Grosmont a very attractive village with a steam train running through the heart of it making it popular for tourists. I was also happy to notice it houses Britain’s oldest independent co-operative shop. We stayed just outside the village in a campsite by the river, where we had a dip in the evening before dinner – a delicious pizza in an art gallery!

Grosmont to Robin Hoods Bay (16m)
An enjoyable last leg of the journey. Starting with a forest trail that leads up to the Falling Foss waterfall. Coming out of the woodland, we went across some final sections of moorland and farmer fields before finally hitting the coastal path from the Northcliffe caravan site. In good spirits, we rounded Ness point and entered the town. Before long, we were descending down the picturesque, narrow lanes of Robin Hoods Bay to the water’s edge. We took off our boots and sat on a bench, feeling so happy to have finished our journey.

Beautiful shades of pinks and purples in the heather of the North York Moors
The end of the route.

While living through unprecedented losses of wildlife, Knepp offers us hope

This piece also appears on Ecohustler right here.

The announcement of newborn Royalty this week quickly displaced a stark headline that reminded us about the unprecedented destruction of wildlife happening today. The latest global assessment, the most comprehensive to date, found that one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction within decades.

Inextricably tied to this crashing of biodiversity is climate breakdown (one of several drivers of biodiversity loss) and in recent weeks, it’s provided some hope to see action on climate change having a spotlight in our media and politics. Thanks to the Extinction Rebellion and the #YouthStrike4Climate protest movements, increasing numbers of governments, cities and politicians are considering declaring a “climate emergency” and with that, there’s hope that these issues will be taken with the seriousness they deserve. It’s been energising to be a part of this.

Amongst all this excitement, I have been finding new hope in projects such as the wilding of Knepp Estate on 3,500 acres of degraded farmland in West Sussex. Since 2001, the land – once intensively farmed and highly degraded – has been devoted to a pioneering rewilding project that has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife, including extremely rare species like turtle doves, purple emperor butterflies and peregrine falcons.

The story of Knepp Estate is beautifully described by Isabella Tree in her book Wilding and the video below provides a good summary:

Visiting Knepp

A few weeks ago I enjoyed a peaceful, inspiring weekend at Knepp Estate to see the experiment with my own eyes. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and after pitching our tent in their rather luxurious campsite, we enjoyed a walk across the northern section of the estate, through various habitats including lakes, meadows, woodland and messy scrub. We spotted various free-roaming grazers including Exmoor Ponies, Tamworth Pigs, Longhorn Cattle and Fallow Deer. Each providing a different force of natural disturbance that stimulates a complex mosaic of habitats for other species, as well as highly nutritious food for humans.

Deer at Knepp Safaris

The pigs, for example, rootle the landscape with their powerful snouts, overturning clods of turf which kickstart the creation of anthills (a great food source for woodpeckers) and provides good spots for solitary bees to settle. The exposed soil also allows pioneer plants like sallow to colonise (the food source of the purple emperor butterfly) and other plant species, increasing the complexity of the landscape.

Upturned soil in the landscape, a sign of pigs rootling about

I found it exciting to see the dense, messy, thorny scrub that Isabella Tree describes in her book. A giant playground for many birds and insects that are so often pushed to the edges of our environment. So much so, that for some species, observations at Knepp have been challenging our understanding about preferred habitats:

“We assume we know what is good for a species but we forget that our landscape is so changed, so desperately impoverished, we may be recording species not in its preferred habitat at all, but at the very limits of its range.”

Isabella Tree, Wilding
Scrubland at Knepp

As we finished our walk, darkness fell and almost all the birdsong had settled. All but for the call of a tawny owl and the famous song of nightingales which we were overjoyed to hear – a first for me.

At dawn the following morning, we joined a walking safari which guided us through a riot of bird song. On the walk, we spotted a yellowhammer, whitethroats, white storks, as well as hearing nightingales, cuckoos, chiff-chaffs and jackdaws.

Dawn sunrise

The hope of rewilding

Despite growing up with keen bird-watching parents, the hobby never rubbed off on me. Only now am I starting to feel an interest, and with that, a greater curiosity in what we’ve lost and the efforts to conserve what remains. But with the startling facts about how much we have lost, “conserving what remains” is not enough. This is one of the attractions to Knepp and rewilding. It’s not a ‘conservation’ project in the traditional sense. It’s an open-ended experiment, using “process-led” rewilding principles such as grazing ecology to generate habitat complexity and biodiversity.

With no recollections of how the natural world used to be, it was striking to read Isabella Tree describing historical recollections of the abundance of wildlife in our landscapes – and the generational blindness to the environmental destruction that has been taking place. This tendency to normalise what surrounds us is known as ‘shifting baseline syndrome’:

…due to short life-spans and faulty memories, humans have a poor conception of how much of the natural world has been degraded by our actions, because our ‘baseline’ shifts with every generation, and sometimes even in an individual. In essence, what we see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded our children will view as ‘natural’. (Hance, 2009)

Rewilding presents a positive vision to help overcome a “shifting baseline syndrome”, by creating spaces that draw on an understanding of how our landscape once looked and how the ecology evolved. Now 20 years old, the Knepp experiment is deepening our understanding of ecology further and reminding of us of the severe negative consequences to wildlife from the intensification of agriculture and overgrazing of livestock in our national parks.

Hotly opposed by many farmers and conservationists, the gradual shift away from pasture-based farming systems towards intensive farming that accelerated after the Second World War, greatly increased yields but caused devastation to wildlife and is exhausting our soils. As we start to scramble desperately for solutions, Knepp shows one positive path forward for some of our most severely degraded landscapes. Not only for the sake of wildlife, but also for soil restoration, carbon sequestration, improving water quality and reducing flood risk.

With so many species hanging on for dear life at the fringes, we don’t have long to turn this around. Visiting Knepp gave me hope, inspiration and a heap of motivation to help rewild this planet. I highly recommend it for anyone else feeling a desire to take action.

Useful resources:

  • Rewilding Britain: a charity that is working to demonstrate a model for rewilding that works at a scale new to Britain
  • Isabella Tree’s book Wilding
  • George Monbiot’s book Feral

Traversing the Cuillin Ridge

The Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye is one of Britain’s greatest mountaineering challenges. It involves 4,000 meters of ascent and descent along 12km of continuous Alpine terrain, where weather conditions can turn quickly, scuppering the chances of a successful traverse. With this in mind, I approached this expedition with some trepidation, especially with my limited mountaineering experience. This was going to be a serious challenge!

…and it was. We undertook our traverse over two demanding days in a group of four, with two experienced guides, Mike and Malcolm, from Skye Guides. Having a guide is essential if you are unfamiliar with the ridge. Mike Lates has 26 years of experience on the Cuillins and has written one of the definitive guides, so I took much comfort in his ability to show us the way.

Mike Lates, Skye Guides

The day before our traverse we climbed onto the ridge from Glenbrittle Youth Hostel to stash sleeping gear, food and water into a cave for the second day. Not only did this lighten our packs, but it was also incredibly helpful since there are few points on the ridge for collecting water.

We started our traverse from the South side, taking a ferry from Elgol common to the foot of the ridge. The alternative option is a three-hour hike in. While there was some rainfall in the morning, the weather mostly shifted through phases of light sun and wind, with light hail and a little snow thrown in. While these conditions slowed us a little, we were thankful that the rain held off. Rain slows down the speed of scrambling considerably. Traversing the Cuillins demands constant concentration. It’s not the difficulty of the climbing that causes many people to fail, it’s the physical and mental toll posed by the ridge. It is the sustained scrambling, across grades 1-3, with some 3+ territory. We regularly used short-roping for safety. Only during short breaks did I really take in the spectacular, rugged views over mountains and sea.Much of the rock is gabbro – a coarse, grippy igneous rock – and this is interspersed with strips of basalt that is very slippery when wet. Sections such as the Inaccessible Pinnacle (or Inn Pinn) and Sgurr nan Gillean (the final summit, from the South side) involved some pretty exposed manoeuvres which tested my nerves! Especially in the spots with ice and wet rock. However, for the most part, I felt in my comfort zone.

Here’s a GPS track of Day 1 (unfortunately my watch battery didn’t last to track Day 2):

At the end of our first day, I wriggled into the bivvy bag, nestled between the tough gabbro rock. Wearing so many layers of clothing, breathing felt a little constricted but I was happy – especially after the rehydrated veggie curry and snifter of whiskey. During the night there was a little more hail/snow and a thick cloud that eventually cleared in the morning, giving way to a spectacular view from my bivvy spot:Morning View from Sleeping Bag

The second day was similar to the first in terms of terrain. A little windier perhaps, but kept in good spirits throughout and kept a rhythm.

There are 22 peaks across the ridge. Our aim was to get to the end and we didn’t summit every Munro. In total, we completed nine (out of eleven) Munros, which included:

  • Sgurr nan eag
  • Sgurr Alasdair
  • Sgurr mic coinnich
  • Sgurr dearg (the inn pinn)
  • Sgurr na banadich
  • Sgurr a greataidh
  • Sgurr a mhadaidh
  • Bruach na frithe
  • Sgurr nan Gillian

The two Munros we missed included Sgurr dubh mor (an outlier between eag and Alasdair that takes 1hr 15mins to include). We also missed Am Basteir (the tooth), an impressive, vertical slab of rock near the end of our traverse, which was not advisable to climb in our weather conditions. As Charlotte pointed out, it’s not going anywhere! And so I’m sure we’ll be back again. The Cuillin Traverse was an incredible experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Undoubtedly tough going and by the end, I felt beaten and exhausted. But it was totally worth it.

Mindsets for changing systems

Many of the global challenges we face are highly complex and intractable. They can often feel daunting, frustrating and require mountains of patience to work on. The practice of systems thinking offers a way to understand and start tackling these challenges. Some academics talk about the most difficult challenges as being “super wicked” problems because:

  • The challenge is urgent, putting large populations at risk;
  • Time is running out;
  • The central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent;
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • Policies discount future irrationally.

A few years ago, I wrote about this in relation to the future of food and farming. Other obvious “super wicked” challenges are responding to climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. In my work with Forum for the Future, systems change is a speciality. One of the important aspects I’ve learnt over the last couple of years is the “ways of a systems thinker”. These are the capabilities and mindsets we need to have when working to shift entire systems.

The table below shares some of these capabilities for people, organisations and society at large. This is taken from Forum’s Future of Sustainability 2018 report and draws on the work of my colleague Anna Birney, who is a fountain of knowledge on systems change and wrote this practitioner’s companion about it after her PhD:

Mindsets for systems change at different levels (individuals, organisations, society)

Perhaps it’s confirmation bias but it does feel that systems thinking is gaining more traction in sustainability. Another organisation putting systems thinking into practice is the Omidyar Network who have put together this helpful video on systems thinking mindsets:

Key notes from this video on systems change mindsets:

1) Seek health, not “mission accomplished”: More often than not, complex challenges don’t get solved. They are constantly evolving without a finish line, and we must constantly work to improve the health of the system. Leading a healthy lifestyle is a good example of this. Another example is climate change, which has often been talked about like it’s a problem we can solve. However, it’s now becoming clear how climate change will always be a problem, and that’s not to diminish its seriousness and profound consequences.

2) Seek patterns, not just problems: we have a natural inclination to tackle problems head-on. Rather than focusing on the problem itself, it’s important to find the patterns behind a problem. These patterns are what’s driving an unhealthy system.

3) Unlock change, don’t impose it: when looking at a complex challenge, we can easily get fixated on looking for the broken part of the system and parachuting in a fix. This doesn’t often work in complex challenges. Instead, we need to weaken the forces making the system unhealthy and strengthen the forces that make it healthier.

4) Plan to adapt, don’t stay the course: we often have a tendency to find a solution and stick to a fixed course until it’s solved. But dynamic systems are always shifting and our understanding changes as we learn more. We need to be flexible in our solutions as we work to improve the health of a system.

How It Ends: Another Incomplete Timeline Of Events

Okay, this piece might be a bit gloomy for some, but writing it was strangely therapeutic. It’s inspired and provoked by Debbie Urbanski’s An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried. A rough timeline of notable moments, told from the future, in reverse order. Here we go:

Small pockets of human settlements endure, connected via primitive telecommunication technologies

Earth enters a post-Anthropocene geological period, an era known as the Dead Earth Ages

Efforts continue to hold back the deserts rapidly expanding across Europe

Music continues to be a uniting force for all communities

The age of commercialism ends. Trust in digital currencies is dead. Humanity predominately runs on a gift economy.

The Internet fragments

90% of energy comes from renewable sources

Debates on whether the climate and ecological collapse could have been averted rumble on quietly, painfully

World population estimated at 2.5 billion

Participatory budgeting grows in popularity

All investments into fruitless space exploration are stopped, following the launch of four envoys on a one-way expedition to explore new frontiers, three of which are reporting serious difficulties

Stand-up comedy acts thrive. People agree that laughter is excellent medicine

Online trust and participation reaches an all-time low, with difficulties in verification, separating reality from fiction

In some regions, resilience is fought through an era of co-operation, marked by strong civil society movements, cooperative business models, food sovereignty and collective action

Global food shortages cause widespread, devastating hunger and human loss

Google’s parent company, Alphabet goes into administration

World population estimated at 3.5 billion

Those few who purchased apocalypse bolt-holes are disappointed

Sunken cities are remembered: including London, Miami, Shanghai, Mumbai, New Orleans, New York, Guangzhou

Money is no longer printed

Human’s role in inducing climate breakdown still debated

China leads an effort to inject sulphur dioxide particles into the atmosphere to induce a cooling effect, with mixed results

A coalition of countries begin marine cloud brightening and creating ocean mirrors

The world cup is cancelled

Another war breaks out: cyber warfare shuts down the internet, hospitals and food supply chains collapse

Advertising bans for high-impact consumer goods in the public sphere

Organisations say we need more evidence to understand what’s happening

A call on all golf courses to be regenerated into farmland

Incentives for having one or no children

Rapid decay in the efficacy of antibiotics, now the greatest threat to public-health

Another global pandemic hits, borders are shut down, some for good

Children have identification implants, igniting protests

Every school grows food

Permaculture design enters the school curriculum

Farmers work collaboratively with farm bots, achieving highly diverse, zero waste, cropping and harvesting systems

Water wars

Launch of the World Council for Deep Adaptation: focused on strategies that build resilience, relinquishment and restoration

Religious leaders urge compassion for all those that have been displaced

Class action lawsuits launched on Amazon and 6 other global retailers for systematic climate complacency and denial

Laws restricting seed saving and commons overturned, Bayer-Monsanto appeal

World shortages declared in lead, copper, zinc, antimony and indium

National food policies push for radical increases in crop diversity

One billion people displaced due to climate change

Food systems start to re-localise

Conscription for community and land regeneration work days, enforced for all adults

The three day work week

Food rationing begins

Plain packaging for confectionery food products

Nationalism a new political force in multiple countries, replacing globalism

Six hurricanes occur in one season, wreaking devastation on communities and supply chains

People debate regenerative capitalism vs socialism

Rapid increases of methane detected from melting Arctic permafrost and deep-sea methane hydrates

Facebook becomes a community-owned business

A ban on private car ownership comes into place

Redundant car parks turned into housing

Advertisements for flights are banned

The last orangutan passes away

Progressive taxation on frequent flying for leisure and business, helps subsidise low-impact travel solutions

Landfill mining is big business, driven by the search for rare earth metals

The last coral reef collapses

Incentives for businesses that promote the sharing economy

Sea turtles declared extinct

Efforts to manage human population debated

The first year of an ice-free Arctic

Insect farming for animal feed booms

Large-scale wilding and projects spread across national parks and marginal, unproductive farmlands, to repair soils and slow the rate of ecosystem collapse

Heavy incentives for net positive building retrofits

Water rationing begins

A meat tax is introduced, then withdrawn

Global climate crisis declared by government pacts concerning the unstoppable positive climate feedback loops detected

A ban is imposed on major food and agricultural company mergers and acquisitions

Fossil-fuel vehicle scrappage scheme introduced

Every new home must be carbon-positive

Chocolate and coffee prices rocket, now 40x more expensive, a rare luxury for the few that can afford it

Global financial markets crash

IPPC and UN agree to use the term climate breakdown

Bans on plastic straws, single-use cups and non-biodegradable glitter

A funeral service is held at Parliament Square, publically mourning humans having wiped out tens of thousands of animal species

The first new deep coal mine in 30 years is approved, but construction is never completed

The last male northern white rhino dies in Sudan

Part II: Current Action on Feed Sustainability

This blog is reposted – it was first published on Forum for the Future’s website.

This is the second of a three-part blog series on the Path to a Better Animal Feed System. In the last blog, I outlined why action on animal feed sustainability is urgent and gave a sense of the future direction for monogastric and ruminant feedstocks.

Improving existing feed sustainability, reducing demand and scaling novel ingredients are all solutions that promise to make feed more sustainable. This blog focuses on the action being taken by organisations on feed sustainability, providing examples of opportunities and barriers to change.

1. Where does current action focus?

While there is increasing interest in sustainable animal feed, action is limited and public pressure remains low. Our work is finding only a handful of major companies have feed-specific commitments. Buying policies and innovation are often patchy, inconsistent and lack the bold ambition that’s called for in responding to global sustainability challenges.

Most action from retailers and food service is centred around deforestation commitments and soy certification. Notable commitments include the Cerrado Manifesto and the Consumer Goods Forum commitment on zero net deforestation by 2020. The Cerrado Manifesto, launched in 2018 has had strong momentum, being signed by over 70 global companies. It puts the onus on soy and meat producers and traders, to prevent runaway destruction of the Cerrado savanna. However, without participation from major commodities firms such as Cargill, ADM and Bunge, there’s concern about how successful this initiative will be.

Figure 1. Many company commitments related to deforestation are centred around palm oil and timber. Graphic from Achieving 2020: Forest 500 Report 2017

Soy is one of the most significant feed crops. Approximately one quarter of the animal feed market is soy-based, and 70-75 percent of global soybean production goes towards animal feed (Chatham House, 2016). Next to beef, soy is one of the leading drivers of deforestation. To encourage more responsible soy production, the Round Table for Responsible Soy is one forum seeking to develop and promote a sustainability standard for the production, processing, trading and use of soy.

Yet traction is limited. Certified ‘sustainable’ soy is increasing but still only 1-2 percent of the 270 million annual tons grown is certified sustainable. This compares to 21 percent of the global supply of palm oil.

Why is this? One factor is that there is limited public demand for sustainable soy, which remains a largely hidden ingredient in the supply chain. Another factor is financial. In 2018, one industry insider suggested that sustainable soy is less than 1 percent more expensive, however, the feed industry (who buy most of it) work on very thin margins and can’t absorb all the costs.

2. Other feed sustainability wins

While frustratingly slow, the focus on deforestation-free soy commitments is critical and requires strong collaboration and supportive policy. Alongside this, what other opportunities are there on sustainable animal feed?

For existing feedstocks, improving feed sustainability can include incorporating feed production into more regenerative agricultural systems, making better use of waste-streams and choosing ingredients that optimise the feed-to-food conversion efficiency.

In smaller-scale livestock systems, various examples exist where agroecological practices enable more sustainable feeding practice. We covered some examples in the first blog. Other examples include Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, where pastured poultry are part of a rotation requiring less grain-inputs and Kipster Farm in the Netherlands, where chickens feed on residual flows from bakeries and agriculture.

In larger systems however, there are fewer examples to draw from. In the UK, Waitrose has several initiatives on animal feed including efforts to source European soy, a collaborative Sustainable Forage Protein project and the trialling of alternatives to soy, such as locally grown fava beans for chicken, pigs, ducks and salmon.

Another example is Arla, one of the largest dairy farming co-operatives in Europe. It has collectively reduced CO2 emissions per kilo of milk by 24 per cent in Northern Europe, and optimising feed was a key part of achieving this. They now have targets to work towards net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and to significantly reduce methane emissions.

Soya fields in the Danube Region of Europe (Image courtesy of Waitrose)

It’s clear further action and incentives are needed. One of the biggest barriers often cited is financial: that sustainable or local feed production is more expensive. So organisations need to ask, what are the financial and policy incentives we can help create to help drive action and support a more even playing field?

3. Reducing Demand for Feed

Another strategy to address animal feed sustainability is reducing the demand for feed. In the previous blog, I discussed how the overall demand for feed might shift if human diets become more plant-based. Feed demand is also shifting as animal nutrition becomes more optimised or ‘precise’. This helps reduce pressure on land and resources, and could be an important opportunity to improve costs.

Seizing the opportunity to optimise nutrition and reduce feed demand is one of the strategies China plans to take, driven by a desire to reduce its reliance on imported soy. By using synthesised feed-grade amino acids, it’s possible to calibrate diets much more precisely, reducing the quantity of feedstock required to meet an animal’s nutritional needs.

Studies at UC Davis led by Ermias Kebreab are showing how amino acid supplements can significantly reduce the imports of soybean, sometimes by over 50 percent in pig and poultry diets. The environmental impact is also considerably improved, with greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 56 percent and 54 percent in pigs and broilers. This demonstrates the potential for feed supplements to help improve the environmental footprint of feed.

4. Novel Feeds

Finally, there may be new opportunities to address sustainability with novel feeds. In our Feed Behind our Food report, we covered a number of novel feeds, including insects, algae and single cell proteins. These novel feeds continued to build in momentum in 2018.

In particular, we saw increased momentum for insects as feed, where the sustainability opportunity is their high efficiency in converting food waste or industry by-products into a high quality feed ingredient, with little land-use.

Several insect companies are currently scaling-up beyond demonstration plants, such as Ynsect(France) and Protix (Netherlands). In 2018, the Dutch retailer Albert Heijn launched a soy-free egg made from insect-fed layers (live insects are permitted). Protix also launched a ‘friendly salmon’ brand, in which the fishmeal content of the feed is replaced with their fly-larvae based feed.

As insect production starts to scale, will they reach cost-parity against mainstream feedstocks and offer nutritional advantages? Are there market incentives that will support this scale? These are outstanding questions. At present, the end-markets for insect-based feed are primarily pet food and aquaculture, because these are higher value markets but also because of regulation barriers. In Europe, the use of insects for feed has only been allowed since 2017 but is only limited to aquaculture.

Promising animal feedstocks: Insect mealworm, microalgae and single-cell proteins

In aquaculture we are witnessing the commercialisation of algae in feedstocks. In Norway, some salmon producers have been replacing fish oil with fatty acids from natural marine algae. We are watching this closely in our project, and intend to conduct an evaluation of the sustainability implications.

While novel feeds are receiving increased coverage and investments, concerted and collaborative action are required to help support and accelerate their scaling. Particularly as there is limited demand from the public or value-added marketing opportunities currently.

We also need to understand how much of a step-change they can help deliver. Some companies we talk to are also feeling overwhelmed by the mindfield of novel feed companies coming to the market with different claims about the potential of their products.

5. The Power of Collaboration

What’s clear in our learning is that organisations acting alone cannot drive change across the system. Crucial to success is the power of collaboration. By working together, we stand a better chance.

Covered in Part 3 of this blog, I’ll explain how the Feed Compass collaboration aims to drive this concerted, collaborative action and help companies navigate the complexity. Looking holistically at the sustainability of these novel feedstocks, in relation to nutritional and financial outcomes.

Part I: Why pay attention to Animal Feed

This is the first part of a three-part piece that was first published on Forum for the Future’s website.

For over a year I’ve been deep in the world of animal feed, working with companies in the food and feed industry and colleagues at Forum for the Future. In the Feed Compass project, we’ve been exploring the impacts of the animal feed system – and the strategies to make it more sustainable. It’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, surprise and complexity.

Now it’s time to take stock, share some of the learnings and potential pathways that can help shape a healthier, more sustainable animal feed system.

Part I: Why Pay Attention to Animal Feed?

How we feed and manage livestock matters. It matters because it relates to how we manage about half of the agricultural land on our planet, 80 percent of which is grasslands (Mottet, 2017). It matters because, in Europe alone, over 8 billion animals are raised annually – that’s more than there are humans on the planet.

Despite the media stories highlighting the growing interest in vegetarianism and veganism, meat production and consumption is set to continue increasing. Globally, we raise about 70 billion terrestrial animals per year, of which 50 billion are chickens. The phenomenal growth in chicken is notable, as is the increased appetite for pork in China and expansion of aquaculture across Asia. Figures 1-4 highlight some of these trends. Getting to grips with data such as this helps identify where the focus is needed, shining a light on the scale of the system and the shifting consumption patterns in different geographies.

Over recent decades, as farming systems have expanded and intensified, the world’s biodiversity has plunged. Global populations of fish, birds, mammals, and other vertebrates declined a staggering 58 percent between 1970 and 2012. The decline of insects is of particular grave concern. Recent research shows 40 percent of insect species are undergoing dramatic rates of decline. More than ever, land use needs to support biodiversity and increase carbon storage; livestock and feed production systems that support this goal must be prioritised.

Figure 1-4. Various charts highlighting the global growth of animal protein

a. Why feed requires special attention

As a farm, company or policymaker looking to increase the sustainability of the livestock sector, feed should be a top priority. It requires special attention for multiple reasons.

Feed nutrition has an important bearing on animal health and welfare, together with the quality of the end product. Feed is also a major cost in livestock production. For example, in pigs and poultry, feed typically represents about 50-60 percent of the total production costs. Finally, when examining the overall impacts of livestock production, feed is the component that contributes to the majority of land-use, freshwater consumption, chemical inputs and about half of the greenhouse gas emissions. This was highlighted in our Feed Behind our Food report in 2018 that helped build the case for retailers and foodservice to act.

Some have estimated that meeting future demands for animal protein with current feed sources could require 280 million hectares of additional land by 2030. To put that in perspective, that’s an area the combined size of Germany, Poland, UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

This land, if it were available, would also be in high competition for other uses, such as direct-food for humans, preserving or increasing wildlife, biomass production, carbon sequestration or water quality management.

In our seas, the future is also challenging. Today, nearly 85 percent of global fish stocks are either exploited or depleted – which itself contributes to climate change. Approximately 22 percent of wild fish capture goes towards animal feed, part of which is aquaculture, as well as poultry and pet food.

Figure 5. Various feed impacts taken from The Feed Behind our Food report

Despite the vast ecological footprint of animal feed, companies receive limited public pressure to take action on it. Most action that is relevant to feed, is around deforestation and the use of soy in the supply chain. This will be covered further in Part 2 of this blog.

b. Understanding future demands for feed

Over recent years, there’s been a surge of interest in eating less meat, particularly in Europe and the USA. The rationales for this trend differ but generally include animal welfare concerns, healthy eating and environmental concerns. Many food companies are responding by launching new plant-based product lines and menus.

Despite this trend, animal protein consumption is continuing to rise, albeit more slowly, and so the demand for feed continues to grow. Figure 6 shows that in 2018, an estimated 44 percent of global compound feed (non-foraged) went to poultry and 28 percent to pork. This highlights where some of the action to improve compound feed sustainability should focus.

Figure 6. Breakdown of end-markets for compound feed production (non-foraged feed).

While the future is difficult to predict, major disruption is inevitable. With climate change and soil erosion, biodiversity loss and resource pressures, there’s a fragility in the food system that demands urgent attention. Responding to these pressures and public health challenges, the recent Eat-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health made a case for substantial shifts in global eating habits towards diets rich in plant-based foods and fewer animal-sourced foods. This comes off the back of countless other reports pointing in the same direction.

Figure 4 shows how the world population interacts with meat production with some future scenarios. However, to understand the future demand scenarios for animal feed, it’s necessary to get species-specific. With some dedicated resources, this would be possible to model.

Figure 7: The interaction between world population and meat production, showing some future scenarios.

c. Future directions for feed sustainability

Our work has identified three broad areas of focus for feed sustainability. Summarised below and in Figure 8:

  1. Reduced demand for feed: by optimising animal feeding regimes and a shift in human diets towards “less and better” animal protein. Crucial to this shift is healthier human diets that include diverse plant-protein sources, grown in more regenerative or agroecological farming systems.
  2. Scale-up of novel feed ingredients: that deliver improvements in land-use and greenhouse gas emissions. Such ingredients may include single cell proteins, algaes, insects and amino acids.
  3. Improved sustainability of existing feedstocks: for example, deforestation-free ingredients, supply chains with improved transparency and traceability, feedstocks grown within more regenerative agricultural systems, feed ingredients that increase the feed-to-food conversion efficiency.

Figure 8. The key areas of action on animal feed sustainability.

When exploring interventions and the direction of travel for feed sustainability, the discussion is complicated because of the vast differences across species and production systems.

Monogastric animals – such as poultry, pigs and fish – are more reliant on grains and pulses that compete for land that could grow human food. Ruminant animals – such as sheep, cattle and goats – rely more on grasses and forages that are inedible by humans. This is a simplistic but important differentiation.

The feed conversion ratio (FCR) is helpful to understand how efficiently animal feed is converted into food. While I’ve noted that feed for monogastrics can directly compete for land for food, Figure 9 shows that how these species are much more efficient converters of feed. However while useful, FCR is also imperfect when comparing between species. It is highly variable across farming systems and doesn’t take into account the nutritional quality of the end product, therefore misleading conclusions can be derived.

Figure 9. Comparing feed conversion ratios, which vary significantly by farming system. Aquaculture species are excluded from this dataset, but typically have a high feed efficiency, typically above poultry.

Monogastric farming Systems

The feeds fueling the rapid growth of monogastric livestock systems has been the expansion of intensively grown commodity crops such as corn and soy. This period of cropland expansion is beginning to slow and the feed industry faces increasing price volatility, complex trade dynamics and significant risks to future yields due to climate breakdown.

Figure 10. Large, monocultural farming systems dominate many farming landscapes today

Much of the feed innovation today focuses on efficiency gains. For example, feed supplements such as amino acids can help optimise diets and reduce soy dependency. Integrating food-waste into feedstocks or scaling novel, less land-intensive ingredients such as insects, algae and single-cell proteins. Many opportunities exist, although it is not clear which (if any) are capable of providing a wholesale replacement for the mainstream feed crops used today.

Integrating more regenerative or agroecological practices into the cropland for monogastric feedstocks is another opportunity. These farming systems tend to be more diversified, so this shift will be more compatible with a future where humans have greater crop diversity in their diets, and “less and better” animal protein.

Figure 9. Contrasting two modern poultry systems: on the left, battery-cage layers. On the right, Kipster Farm (Netherlands), who aim to be most animal-friendly and environmentally-friendly poultry farm in the world.

Ruminant farming systems

Ruminants like beef get a bad stick. They have a poor feed conversion ratio, high water and land area requirements and have played a major role in driving deforestation (most newly-deforested land tends to be first put into beef production).

They also emit high rates of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but one that has a much shorter life in the atmosphere. This means their contribution to climate change over time is different from monogastric animals.

Ruminants have the advantage of being able to process protein inaccessible to humans. The impact of ruminant systems is highly variable depending on the practices adopted. Figure 11 contrasts two modern cattle systems. One is highly intensive, entirely reliant on external compound feeds that will include grains and pulses. The other is a low-intensity, grazing system, where feed is foraged from a managed landscape and the grazing is part of a system helping to restore degraded soil and increase biological diversity. Most farming systems sit somewhere in between, with varying feed management strategies.

In the more intensive ruminant systems, more reliant on compound feedstocks, there is some innovation on novel feed sources. Microbial proteins made from algae and yeast are showing promise in reducing cattle emissions. However, as with the novel feedstocks for monogastrics, these innovations do not appear to be wholesale feed replacements.

Figure 11. Contrasting cattle production systems: a) Calves live in hutches at Bengbu Farm in Anhui Province, China. With at least 36,000 cows, it’s the largest dairy operation in the country, helping meet the rapidly increasing dairy consumption. Image credit: National Geographic. b) grazing cattle at Knepp Estate, a free-range, low-intensity system that has radically increased soil carbon and biodiversity.

d. From diagnosis to action

What’s clear is that there’s huge scope for a feed system to support a healthier, more sustainable food system. The Feed Compass project is helping raise the importance of animal feed as a major sustainability challenge, where immediate action and investment is required. While we don’t have all the answers, there is a clear sense of direction emerging and scale of change that’s becoming clear. Through our work, we aim to help inform and shape pragmatic, intelligent responses to shape the feed system.

It’s also clear that delivering action on feed sustainability is impossible without a broader dialogue about how we provide nine billion people with enough protein in a way that is healthy, affordable and good for the planet. This is the central question of the broader Protein Challenge 2040 project.

This piece has covered the context on why this issue is pivotal to the future of agriculture. In Part 2, I cover the current action on feed sustainability.

The Alphabet of the Heart

I recently read “Into the Magic Shop” by James Doty MD, a neurosurgeon and professor at Stanford University. It was his story of growing up in the high desert of California, faced with the hardship of being from a poor family, with a depressed mother and alcoholic father.

One day he walked into a magic shop and met a woman called Ruth who changed the course of his life forever. Ruth taught him a series of exercises to ease his own suffering and manifest his greatest desires, giving him a sense of purpose and hope. Some of those exercises are known today as mindfulness.

James Doty is now a successful neurosurgeon and has founded the Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Their work explores the benefits and the methods that help cultivate compassion and altruism within individuals and society.

One of the most fascinating ideas in the book was about how our individual happiness and our collective wellbeing depend on the integration and collaboration of both our minds and hearts.

People often talk about sensations of the heart. The pains and aches of loss. That thump when you hear bad news. The feeling of lightness on a calm, beautiful summer day. The lifting sensation during moments of joy. These feelings can be powerful. And we know how strong emotions can often overpower and silence a thought. So what’s going on in our hearts?

What’s interesting is that research has shown that our hearts send far more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. This communication happens through the vegas nerve. Doty writes that “the neural networks around the heart are an essential part of our thinking and our reasoning”.

We often separate the mind as rational from the heart as relational, but ultimately the mind and heart are part of one unified intelligence.

Doty makes the case for how important it is to look after our heart and find ways to open it up. Because when our heart is open, it compels us to go outwards and connect with others. So many people today suffer from loneliness, anxiety and depression. It shouldn’t be that way. We are wired for social connection, to be cooperative and connected. So how can we cultivate this?

To help people on a journey towards compassion and mindfulness, James Doty created a mnemonic that he uses in his meditation practice. It’s called the Alphabet of the Heart. Here it is:

The Alphabet of the Heart

Compassion: Open your heart and be compassionate to yourself and others.

Dignity: Recognise the dignity of every human being.

Equanimity: While acknowledging the ups and downs, try to find an even keel.

Forgiveness: Give forgiveness to those who have failed you or made you angry.

Gratitude: Keep in the front of your mind gratitude for all that you have.

Humility: Remember that you are no better and no worse than others you encounter.

Integrity: Value honesty and integrity and use it guide your actions.

Justice: Acknowledge your obligations to those who are most vulnerable.

Kindness: Kindness does not require suffering, only the recognition of another’s humanity.

Love: And finally Love which contains and binds all. Let your heart be open to love yourself and give love freely to others.

If you want to discover more about James Doty’s story, aside from the book, you can also find him talking on Krista Tippitt’s On Being podcast here.

Christmas reflections, preparing for 2019

My new year resolutions often include an ambition to write more. This year, I’m keen to write shorter, more regular reflections on what I’m learning. Even if they are rough and perhaps unresolved thoughts. My current work and colleagues at Forum for the Future provide me with so much interesting sustainability fodder that I’ve been keen to capture and put into words, as a means to help make sense of what is important and true in creating a more sustainable future. Let’s see if I can keep this up.

The Christmas break provided space to evaluate my existing work and projects. Working at Forum has led me to focus on global-level sustainability challenges and developing strategies to catalyse system-level change. This inevitably requires collaboration between influential and prominent organisations. So we position ourselves as the go-to experts to deliver this, with the experience to design and lead a process that will identify the best strategies to accelerate systems change. The approach and ambitions are big and bold, grounded in pragmatism and deeply needed in today’s world.

I feel good about working with an organisation that has such a positive purpose. The work does require buckets of patience, perseverance and astute skill. Trying to get the right businesses who can influence a systemic challenge to raise their ambitions and play ball is no easy feat. Time is not on our side. We need to move forward at an impossible speed to avert the unraveling of a global ecological collapse. Yet the sense of urgency and scale of change we know is needed is often misaligned with the track-record of businesses, whose progress has traditionally involved small, incremental improvements. The trouble is, if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. Despite the warnings of an impending collapse of the planet’s ecosystems and human civilisation, many businesses are unable to move away from prioritising short-term profits over long-term viability. It’s a tragic situation.

But I’ll persevere for now. When I recently described one of our systems change collaborations to a friend, whose expertise and opinion I value, he responded with how draining such a project sounds to work on. I know what he means.

In 2018, we witnessed another year of extreme weather events. A new IPCC report and series of COP 24 climate talks helped remind us of the urgency to work together and step-up action. It’s hard to tell how much this sense of urgency is being felt. Certainly, the USA has taken many steps backward. Meanwhile, our diagnosis of planetary problems is becoming more sophisticated and systems thinking is being more recognised as a discipline to navigate solutions. The greatest challenge is moving influencers beyond a diagnosis of problems, to acting collectively and quickly, without getting paralysed through the process.

One of the interesting discourses for me in 2018 was the Deep Adaptation Agenda introduced by Jem Bendell. I wrote a little bit about it here. As I move into 2019, I feel drawn to thinking more about what resilience, relinquishment and restoration might look like for communities. It’s becoming increasingly likely that radical paradigm shifts will not come about in a managed process. We’ll see many chaotic disruptions. So how can we build resilience to cope with them? And what must we be prepared to relinquish in the world to come? In recent conversations with friends that work in sustainability, it feels like we are now mourning an imagined future we’ve held for so long, and searching for new dreams to fill the void left by the old ones.

Whether society collectively acts or not, the future is going to be highly disruptive. My hope in 2019 is to get a better grasp of this disruption and discover the pathways for responding to it.

Leaving BedZED

A version of this blog post appears here on Bioregional’s website.

On a crisp, early morning a few weeks ago, I took a final stroll around BedZED, my home for the last four years. I’m excited to be moving to the Dorset coast. Yet there are many things I’ll miss about living here and it’s been an important part of my life.

Built over 15 years ago, BedZED (short for Beddington Zero Energy (fossil) Development) is a pioneering 100-unit ecovillage of homes and workspaces initiated by sustainability charity Bioregional in partnership with the Peabody Trust and ZEDfactory architects. I learned about BedZED soon after it was built whilst on work experience at a chemical engineering company in Finland. With very little to do and plenty of time to browse the internet, I stumbled across WWF’s 2004 Living Planet Report which featured BedZED as a case study. Feeling alarmed by the state of our ecosystems, I was inspired to hear of practical actions being taken. I kept a mental note of Bioregional and went off to University to study engineering. Four years later and eager to pursue a career in sustainability, I was over-the-moon to land my first job at Bioregional.

So before living at BedZED, I worked there for several years, commuting in from various leaky homes across South London. One part of my job was being a tour guide for the development. Each week I would take groups around the site, discussing different aspects of the design. Some of our work at Bioregional involved taking the learnings into other built environment projects. We also used BedZED to help inform our understanding of One Planet Living. Being based at BedZED felt important for working in sustainability, providing some first-hand experience of the benefits and challenges of designing more sustainable communities.

Much has been written about BedZED over the years but less on what it’s like to live there. So as I move away, here are five things that I’ll miss the most.

1. BedZED looks different

BedZED looks noticeably different from other developments. Its unique character comes from the combination of its colourful tops, curved edges, green roofs, weathered oak cladding, cabin door-windows, walkways, bridges and roof gardens. I find there’s a lot to enjoy looking at.

Whenever I’ve explained where I live to other locals they will often say: “oh, that place with the colourful things on the roofs?“. Those distinctive things are wind cowls, helping to provide ventilation for the buildings. They spin around with the wind and you’ll often find a cute line-up of small birds perched along the ridge. They are the most iconic feature.

The way that BedZED looks does have something to do with its sustainability but not as much as you might imagine. Curved edges and bridges, for example, aren’t environmental features, rather they are attractive features that would have added costs. As a comparison, one of the developments Bioregional were involved with after BedZED was One Brighton, which was 172 apartments plus offices. Many of the same principles were applied, yet these flats appear much more conventional and the project turned a profit, which was impressive given that it was built during the depths of a recession.

2. The warmth

The all-year-round warmth and natural light is one of the most noticeable differences. For the last four years, I haven’t had to think about heating. There was no heating system to turn on! I have found it warm enough in the winter and certainly hot enough in the summer. This is thanks to the homes being south-facing with thick, insulated walls, good quality windows and sunspaces to help trap the heat. Every home should be built like this and it’s a great pity to now be moving to a home that requires heating.

3. The neighbours and the BedZED bar

Once a month, one of the ex-residents runs a community bar in the BedZED Pavillion. Children play in the field while the adults unwind with a refreshing beverage. Lately, there’s even been a chef cooking dinner too. What a great way to get to know the neighbours. I will miss the BedZED bar and the lovely neighbours I’ve been able to spend time with there.

4. Car-free streets

The road skirts around the outside of the estate with walkways between the units. Many have climbing plants that cut across from the ground level gardens up to the roof gardens, creating a little oasis of greenery. Children can play safely in these walkways and will run around the blocks without the worry of cars. As the sun sets in the evenings, there’s a feeling of intimacy around the estate as dinners are being prepared. The architecture is clever because despite the homes being close together, there’s enough privacy and it doesn’t feel like you’re living on top of each other.

The car-free streets are one of the reasons I believe it’s easy to meet and get to know neighbours. Roads divide us. In the city, more often than not, they are places of pollution, danger and fear. It’s better when they are quiet or simply removed away from the front door.

5. The BedZED field

I was lucky to live with a view of the BedZED field. For many years, this field was a blank canvas. There were many inspired ideas from residents to do something, but little action. However, in the last few years, the field has come alive and has turned into an ecologically diverse, permaculture garden. Residents Tony and Danielle have been instrumental in making this happen and there are weekly gardening sessions every Saturday for anyone that would like to join in. While I can claim no part in helping out with this, I have a huge appreciation for everyone that goes out to make this space what it is.

Final thoughts

Living at BedZED, like many places, isn’t always bliss. You’ll hear neighbours often complain about Peabody, who manage the estate. The wider area is not much to speak of, in my opinion. Yet the homes are warm and the immediate landscape is clean and green. The neighbours are friendly and well-connected online and in-person. There’s a fantastic community centre, that’s in daily use by local residents. A green gym and permaculture garden. As a result, it’s an attractive place to live, particularly for families, many of whom don’t leave. One neighbour, I’m aware, has moved house three times within the development as their family has grown in size.

For a few years, I managed a nearby farm called Sutton Community Farm that was also initiated by Bioregional and is now a thriving community-owned business. I often said to visitors at the farm, that if it wasn’t for BedZED, this farm would probably not exist. The ecological footprint studies of residents at BedZED, which showed food being the largest impact category, provided an important rationale for my colleagues to want to improve the local food system through a farm. I think having the experience of BedZED (not to mention Carshalton Lavender and other Bioregional enterprises) gave us more confidence to start a farm. In designing for sustainable communities, we found that it’s not enough to just build homes that perform well on energy and materials. To achieve One Planet Living, it’s necessary to design our communities with much more in mind.

I sometimes found pessimist folk remind me of the inconvenient truth that BedZED was an expensive project with many failures. Well, I’m an optimist and my take is that BedZED was a pioneering and important development that’s gone on to inspire many. Indeed, it turns out the 99 electric car-charge points were excessive for the time (only now are electric cars starting to gain some popularity). The solar array system is not working (it was installed before the incentives of feed-in tariffs and has suffered from poor management). The Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant was far too experimental and sized wrong (it’s now been placed by a biomass boiler). The Living Machine, a biological system for wastewater treatment that mimics the water purifying functions of wetlands, was also rather ambitious. It’s important to experiment though; that’s often how we learn the best lessons. Thankfully, many of the important aspects do work and BedZED provided a comfortable, warm and friendly place to live.

Today, for various reasons, sustainability is still not at the forefront of the building industry. Sustainable builds are not happening with the ambition or at the pace they should be. My hope is that we continue to learn from BedZED but also remember it’s over 15 years old now. It’s old news. There should are hundreds of other developments we can look to for inspiration – unfortunately, I am struggling to name many of them.

Useful information

To find out more about BedZED, Bioregional’s website has lots of information including the history, key stats and performance data:

Agroforestry: where trees, farming and biodiversity get together

This summer I’ve taken the opportunity to learn more about agroforestry. In August I spent a day at Wakelyns Agroforestry Farm in Suffolk with the UK Agroforestry Network, hearing from a variety of UK projects. Then in September, an agroforestry weekend course with Professor Martin Wolfe, hosted by Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington.

Over the years I’ve become increasingly convinced of the important role agroforestry can play in helping our farming systems become more resilient to environmental pressures such as climate change. Therefore it’s been a pleasure to visit these sites, hearing first-hand the experiences from agroforestry experts. In this piece, I’m sharing some of the insights and learnings that stuck with me, as well as some resources.

First off, what is agroforestry? It’s the deliberate integration of trees and shrubs into crop or pastureland. This may be done for a variety of reasons. For example, providing shelterbelts for crops, valuable shade for animals, habitats to increase biodiversity, improvements to soil structure and health, and crop diversification. As such, agroforestry is not new. Humans have always been dependent on, or closely associated, with trees. Agroforestry practices stretch back thousands of years. You could even say that we evolved as agroforesters.

While many farmers are conscious of the value trees bring to their landscapes, industrial farming systems have created ever-increasing field-sizes, devoid of trees and shrubs, and dominated by single-variety mono-cultures. To provide reliable, predictable and cheap outputs, these systems are co-dependent on chemical inputs and large, expensive machinery. The result is cheap food. But at what cost?

Vast monocultures dominate many farming landscapes

The UK Environment Secretary, Michael Gove recently said that our soils have 30-40 harvests left. A fundamental destruction of soil fertility is underway. Alongside this, we’re witnessing other escalating environmental pressures such as climate change and an unprecedented loss of biodiversity, while being tasked with a quest for sustainable intensification as available land declines. So naturally, there’s increasing attention towards regenerative agricultural practices (methods of farming that increase ecosystem services, rather than deplete them) and in particular, agroforestry.

Professor Martin Wolfe and Wakelyns

It’s fitting to begin by introducing Professor Martin Wolfe, a pioneer of agroforestry in the UK. A plant pathologist by trade, Martin spent his early career as a scientist, particularly interested in the co-evolution of pests and wheat diseases. In 1984, while working at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, Martin was introduced to the term “agroforestry”. This was a key moment that started to shape his ideas and research. The idea of integrating the diversity of annual and perennial crops into a farm system led Martin and his wife Anne, to establish Wakelyns, a 22.5 hectare organic agroforestry system in 1994. The aim was to understand and compare different types of agroforestry systems. In particular, Martin has been fascinated with the diversity at every level of farming, from the soil microbia, to crop varieties and populations and the species of flora and fauna across the farm.

Professor Martin Wolfe
Professor Martin Wolfe, with Marina O’Connell at Huxhams Cross Farm

In agroforestry, there are some broad categories of systems:

  • riparian buffers: trees lining the edges of a watercourse: offering shade protection, as well as slowing down and filtering the water entering into the watercourse.
  • shelterbelts: usually wind protection. One of the largest examples of a shelterbelt is the Great Green Wall in China – still being planted, it is designed to protect from the dust storms of the Gobi Desert. It’s estimated to be completed in 2050, at which point it will be 2,800 miles long!
  • wood pasture: a mosaic habitat of trees, such as can be found in national parks.
  • silvopasture: combining trees and the grazing of animals in a mutually beneficial way.
  • parkland: such as you might find on estates.
  • forest gardens: designed to emulate natural woodland, very intensive, multi-layered planting of crops, typically small-scale.
  • alley cropping: described below:

At Wakelyns, the dominant approach is alley cropping whereby rows of trees are planted and a crop is grown in the alleyways between these rows. There is quite a different feel to a farm landscape that uses alley-cropping. It’s not possible to gaze across an expansive landscape. Instead, the feel is of intimacy. Secluded, quiet lanes that buzz with wildlife. The alley cropping system at Wakelyns, I understand, is the most mature in the UK.

The alleys at Wakelyns are orientated North-South, this is typical for minimizing shading in the crop lanes. Martin’s alleys are 12m width, which he selected to support a range of farm machinery (divisible by 3 or 4m). The tree rows are 3m wide. The site features three sets of tree system: a) hardwoods (e.g. ash, hornbeam, oak, hornbean), b) a hazel and willow coppiced system c) fruit and nut system.

  • The hazel is planted as a double hedge and coppiced alternately every five years, previously for weaving and thatch roofs and currently for on-site heating fuel. This rate of growth is considered fast – a standard coppice cycle is typically every seven years.
  • The willow is a five-component mixture of species, also planted as pairs, with 75cm between rows and 90cm spacing.


Land Equivalent Value (LER)

Some farmers may fear that trees compete for valuable space and water on a farm – thereby decreasing the yield of the primary crop. This is where the Land Equivalent Ratio (LER) becomes an important concept to help compare the yields of an agroforestry system that have multiple outputs (e.g. the yield from the tree crops such as fruit or timber) against a monoculture system.

The LER indicates the area of monocultures needed to produce as much as one intercropped hectare. Anything above one is a gain. So for example, if the LER is 1.4, the agroforestry system yields 40% more than if the crops are grown separately on two plots. How might this happen? There can be multiple reasons that support a positive interaction between trees and crops. For example, increased crop shelter (the trees help reduce wind speeds), improved soil and water quality protection, and reduced evaporation and water loss from crops. At Wakelyns, Martin has calculated an LER of 1.4 but he is mindful to note that there is nothing to accurately compare this against, as he doesn’t have a nearby monoculture of the same crop varieties grown under the same conditions. Martin believes that LER is helpful but we also need to develop Biodiversity, Carbon and Water Equivalent Ratios, helping understand better the other benefits happening in an agroforestry system. To this end, there is huge potential for further research.

Graphic from from Briggs, S. (2015). A farmers perspective on Agroforestry (presentation).

Population Wheat

One aspect of the visit that was particularly interesting was Martin’s work on Composite Cross Populations of wheat. Starting in 2001/02 and in partnership with the Organic Research Centre, an evolutionary breeding programme has produced a hugely diverse population of wheat suitable for organic and low-input farming systems. Known as “Population Wheat”, it was bred by making 190 crosses among 20 different parent varieties (some high yielding, and some highly resilient) and mixing all the resulting seed. This has now been through eleven generations of natural field selection, including at Wakelyns.

The diversity in the “populations” approach, both genetic and physical, means the crop has a better capacity to cope with a more variable climate, pests and diseases. This means that it’s also better suited for organic, low-input approaches. In a conventional monocultural system, identical varieties of the same crop are typically planted across a field. While this approach has convenience for marketing and manufacturers, the crop is less adaptable to environmental stresses. The Population Wheat demonstrates Martin’s pursuit for species diversity, not just at a macro-scale through alley-cropping, but within arable crop species.

A local food system

While many arable farmers have little control or knowledge of where their crop ends up, Martin has been able to link his farm products into a traceable local food system. This includes supplying into the award-winning Hodmedod’s – that specialise in beans and pulses from British farms (particularly focusing on less well-known and neglected crops) and Kimberley Bell’s Small Food Bakery in Nottingham. Both these enterprises have won BBC’s Food and Farming Awards in recent years. Establishing such a local food system is something Martin is passionate about and it demonstrates a replicable model for others.

Truly Traceable are also known to visit Martin’s farm – a rather unique enterprise that produces venison and game pies. Customers receive a certificate with their order, providing the location and a photo of the animal shortly after it’s been shot!

Huxham’s Cross Farm

The agroforestry course with Martin Wolfe took place at The Apricot Centre, Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington. This is a 34 acre biodynamic, mixed farm that provides therapeutic support for families and children, as well as food production that includes the Population Wheat mentioned above, and mixed fruits, vegetables, and eggs, available through a local box scheme and markets.

This was my second visit to Huxham’s Cross this year and I’m incredibly impressed with how quickly this enterprise is transforming the land into a thriving, diverse and productive farm. It was only acquired in 2015 by the Biodynamic Land Trust and previously had been conventional barley for the last 40 years. An inspiring sign of how quickly landscapes and soils can start to be transformed. Not to mention, how farms can be designed as valuable places for people.

In terms of their application of agroforestry, vegetables are growing in an alley cropping system, with rows of hazel planted at 28m spacings. The hazel provides wind shelter, functional biodiversity and slows down the movement of water (and topsoil) down the field which slopes towards a brook. There’s a little more about the design process for the farm here, which was inspired by permaculture principles.

Broadlear’s Agroforestry Project

Just down the road is another new agroforestry project which Huxham’s Cross Farm is also involved with. What’s unique about this 48-acre field is the collaboration between multiple people and organisations: considered a “UK first” and therefore a valuable model to learn from. The different Parties include:

There are some excellent, detailed blogs written by Harriet Bell that cover the design of this project, so I won’t even attempt to go into any detail here.

Agroforestry design at Broadlears

Broadlears Agroforestry site
Broadlears Agroforestry site

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Martin Crawford’s two-acre Forest Garden several times over the years and went on a course with him in 2014 (some notes of which are here). Martin Crawford is one of the most recognised practitioners of forest gardening and has written some excellent reference guides to support others.

In terms of agroforestry approaches, forest gardening is the most intensive and diverse, often showcasing an enormous diversity of species. Because of this, forest gardens are typically more suited to smaller scale systems and are unlikely to be commercial operations. Martin’s two-acre forest garden was planted in 1994, interestingly, the same time Martin Wolfe was planting his trees at Wakelyns. As such, it’s a fantastic example of a mature forest garden. Each time I visit it’s like being in a wonderland of edible curiosities. Inspiring, peaceful and a place from which there is a lot to learn.

Martin also has two other sites where agroforestry is demonstrated at a different scale. An 11-acre site nearby in Littlehempston and a Fruit and Nut forest. On this occasion, we were also able to visit his Fruit and Nut forest, which is more of a commercial enterprise. Compared to his 2-acre site, the trees here are given wider spacings, allowing them to spread out and enabling much better access for harvesting. The way trees are planted is more like a parkland, but very well sheltered by strips of willow and hazel.

Martin Crawfords Fruit and Nut Forest

How might we scale agroforestry?

Agroforestry is becoming more recognised and growing in popularity. As the urgency of climate change intensifies and increasing calls for carbon drawdown unfold, there will be an increasing number of voices that call us to plant more trees, transform our landscapes and our agriculture systems. This is right. However, as it stands, integrating agroforestry into food production systems, as seen in alley cropping, remains a niche, counter-cultural idea. For many farmers, I suspect it feels a risky, uncertain and long-term investment. It’s easy to understand why. In the UK there aren’t enough examples of mature, productive farms thriving from their investment into agroforestry. For many conventional farmers, exploring agroforestry will require a shift in thinking about their approach to food production; moving from mono-cropping systems to a more complex, diverse system, besides an investment into new or different machinery.

When thinking about how agroforestry can scale, we need to take a hard look at the existing lock-ins of our industrial agricultural systems. IPES-FOOD’s Uniformity to Diversity report did a fantastic job at identifying these. For example, conventional farmers who have invested in large-scale, expensive machinery that lock them into industrial-scale cropping systems. Other lock-in examples might include farm business tenancies that don’t lend themselves to a patient, long-term investment into alley-cropping systems; or a policy environment that doesn’t support or understand farming agroforestry systems.

I like to think that all these challenges are surmountable. We urgently need many more agroforestry demonstration sites, knowledge sharing and support for farmers to test it. We should look globally at examples of best practice of where agroforestry is working in other countries. Examining the policies that will support it and the innovative ways in which farmers might integrate it – such as the multi-tiered tenancy approach at Broadlears. Right now in the UK, there’s a big opportunity with the new Agricultural Bill, to put in place measures to support agroforestry.

Agroforestry won’t happen automatically in response to environmental pressures. It needs advocating. Fortunately, we have some fantastic organisations promoting it (see the resources below) that need more support. Furthermore, we need to support the farming pioneers who are already practicing agroforestry. They have so much to teach us.

Useful resources

How to prepare for life in a hothouse

In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes. Tommy Lynch (2017).

The week started with a bit of a downer. While we were sweating through the peaks of this summer’s heatwave, several articles about climate change were doing the rounds. Nathaniel Rich’s captivating novella “The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” took over the New York Times Magazine. It reads like a movie script, covering the period of 1979-1989 when we started coming to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. The article centres around the efforts of two individuals, Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen, who worked tirelessly to bring climate change to the forefront of the public and government’s attention. As the piece sweeps through their efforts over a decade, it then questions who is to blame for the inaction on climate change. Rich argues that it was not the fossil fuel industry, nor the politicians, but rather something that’s in our human nature.

Soon after this was published, Naomi Klein delivered a well-articulated critique of its central assertion and a number of scientists disputed some details in the narrative. Human nature, Klein argues, is not what killed our climate momentum, it’s the reigning ideology of deregulated capitalism, a topic she so elegantly writes about in “This Changes Everything”.

Then, the Stockholm Resilience Centre released a paper saying that even if the carbon emission reductions called for in the Paris Agreement are met, there is a risk of entering a state they dubbed “Hothouse Earth”, where several positive feedback mechanisms come into play, driving temperatures to an average of 4-5°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures with sea level 10-60m higher than today. As I read this, I recalled the moment, many years ago, when I felt a quiet surge of panic reading James Lovelock’s stark warnings about positive feedback loops causing non-linear shifts in our climate. While our climate modeling has presumably become more sophisticated since then, it feels the less optimistic forecasts have remained roughly the same and are in line with what we’re experiencing.

While taking this in, a colleague at my work shared a new paper from Professor Jem Bendell on the subject of Deep Adaptation, which invited readers the opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. A heavy subject matter but a much-needed discourse for our times with some useful framings.

As we witness the impacts of extreme weather across the world this season, some people’s fears of climate change have been heightened. A friend of mine was feeling particularly despondent with this pending sense of calamity. She felt a powerlessness and judgment that many people around her, people that she loves, seem not to care about impending ecological collapse. She can’t understand why they are carrying on as normal. She asked me to provide some words of comfort, to which I could only say:

  1. You’re definitely not alone in feeling the despair, sadness and panic. I’m right here with you. We’re in this one together.
  2. One positive thing we can do, which is important no matter what, is to love each other and party hard. This suggestion came from my wife’s colleague, who is having a similar discussion about life and purpose in the face of climate change. Another friend of mine once said we should “dance while we got the chance”. I like that.
  3. Third, for all our predicaments, there’s some light. It may only be a small glow, but as Steven Pinker says in his TED talkwe are doing way better on homicide, war, poverty, pollution and various other measures, than 30 years ago. While we will never have a perfect world, he says, when we apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing, there’s no limit to what we can attain. While this feels disputable in the face of climate change, it’s still important to recognise some of the positive progress. When interviewed after his presidency, Obama also had a similar sentiment: “the world is healthier, wealthier, better educated, more tolerant, more sophisticated and less violent than just about any time in human history…If I had to choose any time in history to be born, I’d choose now”. There is so much to be thankful for.

I’m not sure that we can simply “solve” climate change. We’ve designed systems (food, energy, waste, economic, ideological and so on) that are extremely difficult to maneuver through a radical transformation. Yet, we must respond to climate change with bold action, shift what we can shift, with compassion and cooperation – leaving as positive of a trail as we can in our lives. This is no small task at all. How can we have compassion when we see others wilfully or unwittingly killing the planet?

There’s something about compassion or love being at the centre of this change that I’m now thinking about. How can we build and maintain a deep love both for our environment and of each other? There’s something about trying to be compassionate in the company of taking positive, radical actions that feels right to me. Both in our work and personal lives. It feels much better when we are able to participate in building a better world and not just talk about it from afar. That’s why the simple act of growing food or planting a tree is so powerful. It provides a positive narrative and some sense of hope in the chaos around us.

Jem Bendell, in his Deep Adaptation paper which I recommend reading, writes further about how we might guide discussions once we recognise climate change as an unfolding tragedy. It’s also a conversation I know the Dark Mountain project has long explored. While difficult, we shouldn’t shy away from this conversation, it’s too important.

Here come the robots: precision and regenerative farming

On the horizon, a revolution in farming technologies promises to transform the ways in which we produce our food. This shift can dramatically reduce the volume of chemical inputs used and if we get it right, supports a transition towards a more regenerative approach to farming: one that builds healthier soils and increases biodiversity. The opportunity is enormous. With our food and farming systems facing unprecedented challenges ahead, what role do robots and precision farming play in the future?

There are many factors driving technological shifts in food and farming, from water and land availability to climate change and a collapse in biodiversity. I’ve written about some of these deep and complex challenges before. There are also many inefficiencies within existing farming practice to be addressed, such as the over-application of chemicals and soil erosion. These challenges are inspiring a wave of new technology start-ups, aiming to offer solutions to some of these deeply complex problems.

This piece covers some of the themes in emerging agricultural technologies. My motivation is to make better sense of what these might mean for farmers, citizens and our ecosystems.

Autonomous, ultra-light machines for crop care

A few months ago, I spoke with Professor Simon Blackmore who heads up the Robotic Agriculture department at Harper Adams University. Here they focus on precision farming and robotics and no doubt have a lot of fun building them! In 2017, they famously achieved a “hands-free hectare” where everything from ground preparation and drilling, to plant care and harvesting was completed without a human stepping onto the land.

Professor Blackmore’s view is that while the past trend in farm machinery has been based on economies of scale with tractors getting bigger and bigger, the future will be about smaller, more nimble machines. These machines will operate autonomously, moving intelligently around the crops. They will be ultra-light to avoid soil damage and enable a major reduction in the application of chemicals.

Robots for scouting, weeding and harvesting. Images designed by Blackmore. Robots for scouting, weeding and harvesting. Images designed by Blackmore.

What struck me in his work is the amount of reduction that can be achieved. The video below demonstrates a sensor that can intelligently recognise different species of plants and either zap them with a laser for weed control or apply a micro-droplet of chemical to a leaf, achieving a 99.99% reduction in the volume of herbicides. Currently, the majority of chemicals coming out of a boom sprayer are missing their target altogether (with around <5% efficiency).

This is impressive and the technology isn’t just conceptual. Already, several companies are offering solutions in this space: Blue River Technology (USA) is developing robots that use computer vision to “see and spray” at weeds. Deepfield Robotics (Germany) have a robot which stamps weeds into the ground as an alternative to using herbicides. Ecorobotix (Switzerland) have an ultra-light, solar-powered autonomous weeder. Naio Technologies (France) have various bots for weeding, as do the Small Robot Company (UK). Rootwave (UK) are pioneering electrical weeding robots. The technology is already available for those willing to pay.

What does this mean for farmers? A few things. Farmers purchasing far fewer chemicals and spending less time going up and down their fields. Tractors able to work around-the-clock, autonomously and meticulously over the crops. I don’t believe this technology designs farmers out of a job, it will just shift how they spend their time.

This is an example of robotics performing crop care. For managing land, there are generally three other categories of agricultural robotics: scouting (e.g. collecting data on soil, plant and other environmental conditions), drilling (planting out) and harvesting. Let’s explore some of the others.

Scouting, monitoring and analytics

Farming is becoming increasingly digitised, enabling practices to be more reactive to local conditions such as weather, soil characteristics and micro-climates. Satellite monitoring, drone-captured imagery and remote sensing are enabling collection of pinpoint field-based ‘nearly-live’ data. The software then provides farmers with bespoke prescriptions to help work each field, down to a fraction of an acre.

While it’s still early days in their development, many farmers are already adopting precision technologies. Many companies, such as Soyl provide field mapping services enabling farmers to apply variable rate application of fertiliser.

Soil Mapping

There’s a huge wave of startups in this space and a frenzy of acquisitions are taking place, mostly for the services aimed at the larger, industrial farms. This is creating market consolidation rather like that seen in silicon valley with the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon. Farm data is expected to be a $20$25 billion revenue opportunity and so every agribusiness is adding data services into their offerings. Here are some examples:

  • Teralytic builds wireless sensors that detect 26 different parameters of soil health, giving farmers a detailed map of soil conditions across their farm.
  • Farmer’s Edge is a hardware and software product that uses satellite imagery and precision technology to help growers identify, map and manage farmland variability. To date, the start-up has raised $94.3 million in funding.
  • For integrated pest management, examples include Semios and AgroPestAlert who offer networks of camera-traps, providing farmers with automated pest counts and notifications.
  • McCain Foods recently invested in Resson, which uses near real-time predictive analysis for crop management.
  • Farmobile enables farmers to collect and then sell their field data to third party’s.
  • Sector Mentor for Soils is a well-rated app, particularly suited for hands-on soil analysis.

What does this mean for farms? Ultimately, it’s about optimising resources, building better soil health and achieving better yields. Some of the current challenges include data interpretation, dealing with multiple, disconnected data sources and an inability to connect data to agricultural machinery. There are also issues around data ownership, transparency and trust in the large companies that use the data, leading to responses such as the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator in the USA.

Harvesting robots

For many crops, harvesting has long been a mechanised process and this trend continues across the world. However, for the more delicate crops, hand-picking is still dominant.

It’s taken Boston Dynamics 26 years to build a robot that can open a door. As I write, even the most advanced robots are still bulky and struggling with delicate movements, but we know this will change. In some countries, this is being driven by labour shortages, where local people are unwilling to take on the intensive, poorly-paid harvesting jobs.

Last year the startup, Abundant Robotics raised $10M from investors including Google Ventures and Yamaha Motor Ventures to develop apple-picking robots. Octinion is developing a strawberry-picking robot. While not a harvesting robot, Augean Robotics have developed a neat autonomous, rugged cart robot that can follow a person around and haul things for them. Other companies include Harvest Automation, Kespry, Lely and the Autonomous Tractor company.

One of the possible benefits of harvesting robots is selective harvesting to reduce food waste: with robots programmed to assess the quality and quantity of harvestable produce, only harvesting what is sellable. Other than that, these advances are about saving costs, with questionable benefits for labour. Pessimists see these advances as bad for jobs. While advocates believe robots can eliminate the worst jobs, while increasing food production, maintaining food costs and reducing the environmental impacts of farming.

Scale-up and commercialisation

There’s an interesting question about how quickly these different technologies will come to market as affordable propositions – and when they do, for whom will they be available?

Taking a general look at technology, we can see that it has been distributing itself more and more rapidly. For example, it took 46 years for electricity to mainstream and only 7 for the world wide web to do so. What’s supporting the pace of agricultural tech development is the rapid advances being made in artificial intelligence, data analytics, robotics and sensors: all of which are converging to provide a suite of new tools.

However, the rate of technology adoption is not just governed by its availability. When it comes to big pieces of equipment, traditionally, farmers make large investments that take many years to pay off. As such, they can be locked into equipment and their associated practices. This lock-in can mean farmers are slow to change and wary of investing in new systems, especially ones that dramatically shift their practice.

These new technologies may not follow this trend though. Water constraints and a push towards sustainable intensification will drive uptake of new technologies and incentives for their uptake. We are also talking about smaller pieces of kit, many of which are suitable for smaller farms, not just large, industrial farmers. There’s also changing business models for products too, with some companies offering products on a per-hectare subscription rather than one-off investment.

Designing for regenerative farming

How these new technologies support regenerative farming should be a central question for designers. Regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity – with the aims of carbon sequestration and improving the water cycle. These technologies can support regenerative farming in a number of ways, for example:

  • Ultra-light tractors can help eliminate soil compaction problems;
  • The precision application of chemicals can help reduce soil damage and pollution of watercourses;
  • Many of the robots can work to a 2cm accuracy (using RTK navigation) meaning that every seed can be placed precisely and mapped. This can support multi-cropping practices that can aid natural pest control and improve biodiversity and yields.
  • Scouting and crop care technologies can help optimise irrigation, increasing water efficiency.

Designers should also consider that the majority of farms worldwide are small-scale and the importance this has for food security, local economies, livelihoods and biodiversity. So how can these technologies be made affordable and accessible for small-scale producers as well as the large ones? And finally, how can these technologies assist farmers to make better, more informed decisions?

It’s an exciting time for farm technologies. Let’s hope they scale to reach their full potential, as technologies guiding us towards healthier, more resilient food systems.

Ethiopia Travel Notes Part II: The Simeon Mountains

The town of Debark rests at the foot of the Simien Mountain range, a Unesco World Heritage Site in northern Ethiopia that’s marked by steep cliffs and breathtaking canyon-style gorges. We’re going trekking for four days and this is where we meet our guide and our rather elaborate support team.

Hiring a guide feels luxurious enough but we also have two chefs, an armed scout, a mule and mule man. It seems extravagant to say the least. However this is the normal provisions with the trekking companies here. As part of our 15 day trip in Ethiopia, this is the part we’ve been the most excited about. Here’s our rough route:

Taking it easy at the start, we walked along the escarpment from Simien Lodge to Sankaber Lodge. The walking is gentle although at an altitude above 3,600m, you can feel the difference.

Peering off the ridge of the escarpment, thin strips of trees line the base, and valleys lead down to remote villages that occupy every plateau into the distance. Marking the landscape is dramatic, brown jagged pinnacles of rock, soaring like high-rise buildings. The views are beautiful and expansive, blurring into a film of haze on the horizon; a haze that lingers after each rainy season.


Our guide Ashoo is leading us. He’s gentle and courteous and has answers to almost all of our questions about the wildlife and fauna. Working as a guide is a good job in Ethiopia and takes several years of training. It’s a job Ashoo seems to enjoy, being able to share his passion for these mountains. He points into the distance, giving a nod towards his home village. This range is his home and he cares passionately about protecting it.

Usually trailing at the back is our scout, Misha. Misha carries a rifle, speaks very little English and has the warmest smile. I had some binoculars with me for the trek and he was absolutely delighted to borrow them. 

Trekking Team

In the pastures, we often see children herding goats or shepherding flocks of sheep. Older people gather hay. Wild mountain thyme is in abundance, its piney fragrance is uplifting. It’s very peaceful and I try to imagine what it might be like to live in these mountains – so very remote and cut-off. The lifestyle appears simple but I suspect there is a complexity and richness that we, as tourists, do not see in these communities. And without a doubt, much hardship and poverty.

As we pass children and families along the way, I do wonder how welcome our tourism is. Designating this mountain range as a National Park in the late 1970s will have had its consequences. I hope many positive impacts such as income, jobs and greater environmental protection. However, the influx of tourists and development of the park will have meant a forced displacement for some communities, that wouldn’t have been so welcome.

soil erosion ethiopia

There are many moments when I worry about soil erosion. In some parts of the park, I have never seen it so clear. Exposed, bare soil baking under the sun, slowly turning to dust and washing away with the rains. It’s said that annually, Ethiopia losses over 1.5 billion tons of topsoil from the highlands to erosion; a huge threat to food security.My worries don’t just stop here.

The rare wildlife is one of the big attractions of the Simeon Mountains. While I have limited botanical and natural history knowledge, I was struck by the limited diversity of wildlife and fauna on our hike. Over the four days, we persistently saw a recurring handful of species. The ever-present eucalyptus (two different varieties), red hot pokers (Kniphofia), giant lobelias and erica trees. The erica trees have a bit of a haunted look as if they are covered in cobwebs. I only saw one lone acacia tree. Maybe I’m being overly harsh here. I feel the same about our national parks here in the UK. They are beautiful landscapes but barren ecologically, against the biodiversity that can be found in ancient woodlands or mixed forests.

Camping in the Simeon Mountains is only allowed in designated campsites. Given the high tourist footfall, at least in the section we trekked, this is certainly for the best. Each evening we arrived at a campsite with our tents already up and a thermos of coffee and bowl of popcorn laid out for us. What luxury! The campsites have drop toilets and basic community lodges for the guides to stay in. The chefs join forces to cook delicious meals for us walkers. It really is quite an impressive operation.

Just before sunset, on our second night, we were fortunate to see an Ethiopian Wolf. Striding slowly, majestically, across the hillside into the distance. That same evening we headed to the nearest peak and watched the gelada baboons scramble over the precipice edges of the cliffs, down to ledges where they huddle together for the night. The younger ones play fighting, the older ones tenderly grooming each other.

Geladas in the evening

I could happily spend the day watching geladas. They are sometimes known as the bleeding-heart monkeys, as they possess a bright red patch on their chest – a bit of a grotesque feature. They spend their days foraging, grazing the grasses, plants and digging for roots and other plants.

As soon as the sunset, the cold swept in while we ate our evening meals outside. I was not prepared for how cold the nights would be. I was silly enough not to bring a proper coat, so I layered up my all my shirts and one jumper. Afterwards, we spent a short time by the fire and we must have chosen the right tour company, as they provided us with hot water bottles for the night. I hugged mine tight and then spent the time worrying about the poor scouts, who sleep outside of the tents, keeping guard for the night. They must have been freezing cold. I think some of them must have snuggled together to keep warm. The sunrise was always a welcome relief, bringing its warm glow.


In terms of other wildlife, we saw Klipspringer bushbacks and the endemic Walia Ibex on our final day. We regularly had lammergeier swooping over our heads – an impressive bird with a two-meter wingspan that hunts mole rats and other small mammals. Swallows were always to be seen around the cliffs, darting and diving with speed, presumably feasting on insects. Thick-bill ravens were a common sight too, often in pairs, dancing in the sky and diving down the escarpment.

The highest peak on our trek was Kmet Gogo, 5km northeast of Geech camp, standing at 3,962m. We finished our trek at Chenek. At sunset, we strolled by the edge of the escarpment, watching the ibex and baboons settle down for the night. Our wonderful chefs prepared a delicious meal of chicken, rice, fried aubergine and vegetables – washed down with some red wine. It was the perfect end to a spectacular hike.

Ethiopia Travel Notes Part I: Addis to Bahir Dar

We touched down into Addis Ababa late in the night. On the flight, we were fortunate to meet a couple, David and Joan, who had been coming to Ethiopia for the last 14 years. Recently, they had been sponsoring a student through university and subsequently helping him to start an internet cafe. Such businesses were rather short-lived in the UK but still have a place in East Africa, where few people own computers.

David was particularly excited to hear it was our first time. Taking the vacant seat next to us, he wanted to know every detail about our itinerary and share his top travel tips. Helpful though this was, after 10 minutes we were rather overwhelmed by his enthusiasm. Our itinerary was rough and deliberately vague to leave space for flexibility and spontaneity. After all, the best adventures often contain an element of surprise.

After exchanging money and receiving our $50 visas, we shared a taxi with our new friends. Our hotels happened to be close to each other. C and I were rather taken aback when David and Joan told us they were staying in a brothel. “It’s very cheap!” David boasted. I’m sure it is, but I was quietly glad we were heading to the delightfully named hotel, Mr Martin’s Cosy Place.

Mr Martin’s Cosy Place is a standard, no-frills hotel in the Bole District, which we are told is a slightly hipper end of Addis. We spent one day in Addis initially. It’s hardly a relaxing city. Our first job involved buying a bus ticket out. Many tourists in Ethiopia jet around the country by plane, from one tourist destination to the next. Providing you have the money, this makes sense. It’s a vast country over four times larger than the UK. However, we were keen to stay grounded and travel by bus. This way we can properly absorb the landscapes, breath in the air, smell the aromas, enjoy the music and feel the bumps in the roads. It’s also vastly cheaper.

As is often the case at bus stations, there was a fair amount of chaos. Hustlers keen to assist – new “friends” curious to learn where we were from, to practice their English and hear of our destinations with the kind offer of guide services. It’s been awhile since I’ve had to deal with all this and we had to exercise many polite but firm “no thank yous”.

With bus tickets in hand, we jumped into a taxi and headed for a recommended lunch spot around the Piazza area: Taitu Hotel. Unfortunately, the taxi broke down en route, chugging and sputtering to a stop in the middle of a busy junction causing mayhem and fury from other road users. Some passers-by rescued us, pushing us to the edge of the road. The clutch sounded knackered. We thanked our driver for trying his best and walked the rest of the way using the map in the Lonely Planet guide. These maps really are terrible and I would never recommend trying to rely on them. But it was all we had and miraculously we muddled our way there.

Taitu Hotel is a welcome break from the hot, sweaty, dusty energy of the streets. An old rustic hideaway, where the air is heavy with frankincense and the aromas of coffee roasting. An old lady played the piano, running her fingers gently up and down the keys, playing those distinctive Ethiopian scales. Their vegan buffet, while expensive by local standards, was delicious and over the coffee afterwards, we made our afternoon plans.

We decided to visit the museum that houses the famous Lucy, locally known as Dinkinesh in Amharic, meaning “you are marvellous”. Lucy is a notable skeleton, some 3.2 million years old, whose discovery in 1974 changed our understanding of human evolution. I marvelled at these old bones, trying to imagine life in those feral, primitive times. Living in the rainforests, climbing trees and hunting wild animals. A month later, I was to learn that the real Lucy is hidden out the back under tight security. We were just looking at the replica.

Lucy skeleton

The rest of the museum painted a picture of the past, through its display of traditional clothes, paintings, ornamentals, instruments and furniture.

Later that evening, we went to a restaurant named Habesha 2000. It was a touristy-choice and on the more expensive side too, however, we picked it for the show, which was a lot of fun, involving some excellent dancing and a house-band, playing a range of Ethiopian hits. For the first time, I saw the famous shoulder dancing. Several embarrassed tourists were led to the stage to join in with the dancing too, fortunately not us.

Habesha 2000 restaurant in Addis

Bahir Dar

Early next morning, before the sun had risen, we boarded a bus to Bahir Dar. We were glad to be moving on from Addis and excited to see the countryside along the way. It was an epic ten-hour journey. This in itself wasn’t too bad, except for the fear of needing a wee on a bus with no toilet, we drank very little so by the time we arrived in Bahir Dar, we were feeling dehydrated and also quite hungry.



That afternoon, we sorted out tickets for a boat ride the following day on Lake Tana, followed by a delicious fish dinner at Dasai Lodge. However, the earlier dehydration must have taken its toll, because that night I had a nasty migraine.

Bahar Dar
View from our hotel, showing the eucalyptus scaffolding

Lake Tana’s monastic churches

I was a little shaken from the night. Migraines are horrible. It’s such a relief when they finally subside. I felt fresh and rejuvenated in the warmth of a new day with a clear head. After breakfast, we went down to the lakeside where we joined a boat with other tourist folk, heading out to visit the monasteries.

Along the edges of the lake grew papyrus grass, reminding me of my time living in Kisumu around Lake Victoria. Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and our skipper took us past this point where we were delighted to see the hippos bobbing about.

Hippo on Lake Tana
Hippo in Lake Tana

Lake Tana has 20 monasteries dating back to the 14th Century on its islands and peninsulas. We visited a small handful, each one beautifully decorated and sited within peaceful sanctuaries rich in nature, preserved thanks to the conservationist characteristics found in Orthodox Christianity. Speaking with my botanist Uncle later, he explained that it’s almost only around orthodox churches in Ethiopia where small pockets of conservation can be found. At large, much of the land has been stripped of its forests and the biodiversity has consequently shrivelled. The diversity of trees that once existed are only replaced by small patches of fast-growing eucalyptus trees, that may provide firewood to communities, but soak up their water reserves and erode the soil.

I digress. The monasteries were beautiful buildings with artwork rich in colour, depicting the biblical stories prominent in their oriental orthodox churches, which is considered one of the oldest strains of the Christian church. In the artwork, one story often found is of St. George, Ethiopia’s patron saint, slaying the dragon.

The outer building of the church is round with an arched structure supporting a thatched roof. On the inside of this lies the church building itself which is square. Heavy rugs line the floors with little by way of furniture. It’s common to see an ancient chest and African drums lying around. Inside each church, there is also an inner sanctuary that tourists cannot enter. Inside of these, there will be an ancient bible and legend has it that one of these monasteries housed the Ark of the Covenant for 800 years.

Back on dry land, we headed to a lakeside restaurant for the afternoon with a couple of chaps we met on the boat who were over from Uganda. The evening was a quiet one, sitting in a cafe playing cards.Monasteries of Lake Tana

Lake Tana’s monastic churchesMonasteries of Lake Tana

Meall a’ Bhuachaille

It was our last day in the Cairngorms. The mountain weather report looked bleak: frequent showers and the chances of a cloud free Munro below 20%. We woke in our wild camping spot by Loch Morlich, had breakfast then went for a swim, following the 1.5km route suggested by some swimmers we met the evening before. We entered from the beach by the cafe. At over 300m, this is the highest beach in the UK. The water was refreshing but cooler than the previous evening.Loch MorlichIn the afternoon we walked locally, following a suggested trail that took us from the loch up  Meall a’ Bhuachaille where we were promised one of the best views of the Cairngorms. But in keeping with the day’s weather, we were instead greeted with a deep mist, wind and rain. Somewhere near the summit, we passed a family of four, crouched on the wet, stony path having their picnic in the rain. Steadfast and red-cheeked children, possibly disappointed and confused by their parents choice of a family holiday.

On the descent towards Ryvoan Bothy, we practised pacing distances, partly for fun but also as part of Charlotte’s mountain leader training. Emerging out of the mist we found Ryvoan Bothy, a cosy, well-kept bothy with a fireplace and a troop of Sea Cadets having their lunch. We marched on, taking the Ryvoan Pass that led us past the tropical beaches of An Lochan Uaine. On a warmer day with time to spare, we would have hopped down to its shores. We would have hesitated to swim though, as Charlotte had read somewhere that the loch is full of leeches.An Lochan Uaine

We followed the Allt na Feithe Duibhe further through the woodland with its rain-soaked pines, taking a narrow path that led us on a high pass down the ravine to Glenmore Lodge. This was our last walk in the Cairngorms for now. I took some deep breaths, absorbed all the rich greens and shades of purple heather and thought how I’d love to come back here one day.

Along the narrow path to Glenmore Lodge Pines Map of route

Why I Bought Shares On A Community Farm

For many people, the experience of volunteering at a community farm fulfils a deeply held desire to get closer to the land. It stirs a comforting sense of feeling rooted and valuing the simple, nourishing fruits from the earth. In the patchwork of greenbelt that surrounds London, there’s a huge potential for projects that fulfil this desire, while helping to increase food production. An excellent example is Sutton Community Farm, a bustling enterprise on the greenbelt that’s owned and shaped by a community of 141 people.

Sutton Community Farm sits on a beautiful seven-acre smallholding overlooking the city skyline. Each week, an enthusiastic troupe of volunteers, young and old, come together and grow 15 tonnes of vegetables through the year. The majority of the food goes into a VegBox scheme that serves south London with the rest sold to restaurants and given away to volunteers. The farm employs four growers and three administrative members of staff who manage the box scheme and other farm activities; an impressive number of good jobs for such a small patch of land.

London skyline from Sutton Community Farm

What makes this project also stand-out from others is that it’s entirely community-owned. The farm has just launched their second share offer and is inviting people to invest. The investment will help the farm build a much-needed barn so that it can expand it’s Veg Box scheme and better accommodate groups. For as little as £30, it’s possible to buy shares, own a piece of the farm and help support a new approach to farming; one that’s sustainable, resilient and benefits people as well as the planet.

I have been deeply involved with the farm since 2012 and have seen thousands of people from all walks of life come to enjoy, learn and experience growing food. I’ve witnessed how it gently lifts people’s moods, helps them make new friends and feel re-energised from the fresh air and meaningful exercise. For some, particularly those that are retired, live alone or are unable to work, a weekly trip to the farm has helped them to step outside of their house and boosted their confidence. I’ve even seen people dramatically change their careers direction to pursue work in community food and the voluntary sector as a result of their experience on the farm.

On a typical Wednesday, there are 30 volunteers that come to help grow, harvest and pack vegetables. It’s a friendly place with many volunteers that have been coming for several years. At the heart of the farm is the VegShed where the packing operation, office and lunch is served. It’s a tight space that has to be transformed throughout the day depending on the activity – it’s this that the farm’s hoping to transform into a new barn through the capital raised in the share offer.

Veg Shed packing

Community shares are a growing movement as people look beyond traditional charitable structures to social enterprises, that are democratically owned by the community they serve. This model empowers people to take a stake in local assets, opening the door to participation and feeling more connected. It means you can run a business where the community truly takes centre stage.

So what does it meant to be a shareholder? As seen in the creation of community-owned shops, pubs and community energy projects, Sutton Community Farm offers an ownership stake through purchasable shares.  The minimum investment is £30 and each member has one vote, no matter how much they invest. The share capital is withdrawable after five years.

Even if you don’t live close to the farm, you are invited to buy shares and be part of this project. Every investor is hugely appreciated and for this share offer, every pound invested is matched by the Community Shares Booster Programme. As a member, you have the option to be involved in shaping the business and assisting with decision-making. This largely takes place through the management committee which is elected each year from the membership at the Annual Members’ Meeting.

People often ask whether community shares offer dividends or interest. The answer is yes they can,  however like with all investments there is risk. While Sutton Community Farm’s financial forecasts include future interest payments, investors should generally expect a social dividend rather than a financial reward. As one of the first shareholders at Sutton Community Farm, it has been the best social dividend I’ve ever had.

If you’re interested in investing in shares, you have until the 26th May 2017 to support the farm and help them reach their target of £68,575.

Here’s the link: pic aug16

Sustainable Nutrition: A New Focus for 2017

Last week I left behind the world of freelance life to start a new job. While the going was good (and smooth like this excellent William Onyeabor tune), it’s really exciting to be part of a team again and getting involved with some bigger projects. I’m at Forum for the Future and working in their food team. The big theme in my role is responding to the challenge of sustainable nutrition. This is about people eating healthy, nutritious diets of sustainably produced food.

It’s a smart concept to focus on because it brings together two major areas of concern: sustainable food production and nutrition. More often than not these concerns are considered separately and this can be problematic. For example, a business may deliver more sustainable production yet create food or a service that contributes to unhealthy lifestyles. On the flipside, advocating nutritious foods but neglecting to act on the sustainability of resources e.g. a highly wasteful system, endangered fish stocks, or foods requiring high amounts of processing and packaging. In short, sustainable food is not just about how we produce food but the types of food we produce.

Sustainable Nutrition

With the scale of challenges facing our global food system, helping businesses to view food through a sustainable nutrition lens is a smart approach. Using this approach, businesses must consider their direction of travel, the future they are shaping and the role they have. This is the other main angle to my new role at Forum; helping diagnose challenges in the food system, understanding the risks ahead and use these as a mantle for driving change. To this end, Forum have a variety of futures tools to help people draw out scenarios for the future and design for scaling up impact. After all, many of the solutions we need exist today and the challenge is identifying the levers that will help them to develop and scale.

Many of the deep and complex challenges in the food system can only be solved through collaboration; between organisations and across their supply chains. This is a critical characteristic of a healthier, more resilient future and described beautifully in John Grant’s book Co-opportunity. An example of one of Forum’s food collaborations is The Protein Challenge 2040 which is a global coalition exploring how we feed nine billion people enough protein in a way which is affordable, healthy and good for the environment.

For effective systems change, another aspect is trying to answer the question: what does it all add up to? While many organisations and governments are now creating and promoting sustainability strategies, few are able to demonstrate coherence against global challenges such as staying within 1.5°C, or helping meeting Sustainable Development Goals. Articulating what everything adds up to and embedding it deeply within a business or across a supply chain is a transformative process, and exactly the direction we should be heading.

Sustainable Intensification

This is an essay about sustainable intensification, a goal in farming whereby yields are increased without causing harm to the environment or cultivating more land. It’s one of many approaches that will help secure food for our future generations.

The essay explores its potential role and is divided into three parts. Part 1 provides some context, examining the complex, deeply interconnected and mutually reinforcing problems in our food system. Part 2 introduces the underlying concepts of sustainable intensification and its contribution to help address challenges in the food system. Part 3 critiques different approaches to food production, comparing the potential roles of industrial agriculture against diversified agroecological approaches.

This is an adapted version of an essay I wrote for a Food Security course I’ve been doing with Bangor University. Therefore it’s a little more formal and academic in style than my usual posts.

Part 1: Historical Context and Food System Challenges

In 1943 during the midst of World War II, a seminal event for the future of food and agriculture took place in Hot Springs, Virginia. Representatives of the United Nations gathered together for a conference comprising of 44 governments, representing 75 per cent of the world population. Their ambitious task was to reach agreement on certain plans for the production, distribution, transport and consumption of food across the world after the war (Lyon 1943). The delegates included diplomats, politicians, as well as experts in nutrition, economics and agriculture. The conclusion was that freedom from want of food, suitable and adequate for the health and strength of all peoples, can be achieved (FAO 1981).

During this period, substantial changes in agricultural practice were starting to spread across the world. Beginning in the 1940s and expanding significantly in the late 1960s, the ‘green revolution’ included new farm management practices, higher-yielding varieties of plants, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, all of which contributed to increased yields. Worldwide, gross crop production grew from 1.84 billion tonnes in 1961 to 4.38 billion tonnes in 2007, an increase of 138% (Royal Society 2009). During this same period, global land for agriculture increased only 10%, from 4.46 billion ha to 4.92 billion ha (FAOSTAT 2016). While a huge achievement for increased yields, this intensification has been responsible for significant ecological degradation including water, air and soil pollution, causing sharp declines in biodiversity, increased greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, and depletion of non-renewable resources (Foresight 2011; WWF 2016).

The increases in yield supported another substantial trend during the 20th century. Aided by advances in healthcare, the human population grew from 1.7 billion in 1900 to 7.3 billion in 2015 (UN 1999; UN 2015). It’s expected that population will level out at 8-10 billion by 2050 with the highest rate of growth expected in Africa (UN 2015).

Increased food demand is one of many pressures facing humanity today. While there’s been positive developments in the last 50 years such as a decline in the proportion of people suffering from hunger (FAO 2015), many major problems exist in the food supply chain:

  • Many systems of food production are unsustainable, degrading the environment and compromising our future capacity to produce food (Foresight 2011): modern agriculture is causing problems such as overfishing, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, salination, eutrophication and rates of water extraction exceeding replenishment. These practices are also contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Widespread hunger: an estimated 795 million people remain undernourished (FAO 2015).
  • Over-consumption: over one billion people are substantially over-consuming, resulting in a public health epidemic of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes (Haslam 2005).

One significance of the 1943 Hot Springs Conference was that it laid foundations for the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), an organisation dedicated to overcoming food and agricultural challenges through multilateral collaboration of governments and organisations. To respond to challenges in the food system, FAO developed the concept of food security, as defined below, which lies at the heart of its efforts today:

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
— 1996 World Food Summit (FAO 1996)

The evidence that substantial changes are required throughout the food system to meet food security and sustainability goals is overwhelming (Foresight 2011; IPES-Food 2016). These changes must be achieved from within a deeply complex food system comprised of a mostly self-organised set of interacting parts. Figure 1 provides a representation of the food system showing relationships between key drivers, activities and outcomes.

Representation of a food system
Figure 1. Representation of a food system, diagram adapted from Ericksen (2007).

Figure 1 shows that food system activities determine various outcomes, including levels of food security and social and environmental welfare. The environmental challenge includes respecting and operating safely within planetary thresholds1 that safeguard our future by protecting ecosystem services. The social welfare challenge includes a variety of issues such as income, jobs, health, energy and food.

One approach developed by Oxfam to frame humanity’s challenge is the ‘doughnut of social and planetary boundaries’, shown in Figure 2 (Oxfam 2012). This communicates a vision of prosperity that involves living within the ecological means of the planet while ensuring everyone has the resources required to meet their human rights. We need to design our food system to operate in this space and just space.

Figure 2: The food system is tasked with operating in a safe and just space for humanity (Oxfam 2012)
Figure 2: The food system is tasked with operating in a safe and just space for humanity (Oxfam 2012)

At an international policy level, there is a shared aspiration between UN Member States for achieving food security. Adopted in 2015, the goal to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” is one of 17 goals with associated targets, across a broad range of sustainable development issues (UN 2016a).

Part 2: Key Concepts in Sustainable Intensification

2.1. Definition and context

Sustainable intensification is a relatively new term that has been interpreted differently by different people (Garnett and Godfray 2012). The Royal Society (2009) defined sustainable intensification as a goal for agricultural production wherein “yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land”. This definition frames sustainable intensification as an aspiration for raising productivity, not privileging or articulating any particular type of production (Garnett and Godfray 2012).

Sustainable intensification has been considered one component of action on a variety of fronts to achieve food security and sustainability goals, as shown in Figure 3 (Garnett and Godfray 2012). While this essay focuses on sustainable intensification, it’s recognised that action is required across multiple fronts to meet these goals.

Sustainable Food System Goals
Figure 3. Sustainable intensification in relation to other activities to help achieve a sustainable food system (adapted from Garnett and Godfray 2012).

2.2. An increasing demand for food?

As described in Part 1, a wave of agricultural intensification occurred during the 1960s. However in recent decades there has been increasing yield stagnation in the world’s major cereal crops (FAO 2002; Ray 2012). Studies project an increase in global food demand until 2050 and an increasing share of animal-based products in people’s diets, especially in rapidly industrialising countries such as China (Bodirsky 2015). These changing dietary preferences are influenced by multiple factors including income, climate, urbanisation, food prices and markets (Drewnowski 1997; Bodirsky 2015).

Studies forecasting future crop production demands fluctuate significantly. For example, the FAO has projected a need for a 60% increase by 2050 (FAO 2013) while a study by Tilman et al. (2011) suggested a 110% increase was required. While increased demand is probable, it is worthwhile recognising the influence of dietary preferences and inefficiencies. Figure 4 estimates the total food calories potentially available for human consumption if waste and the inefficiencies of animal production were removed. This highlights opportunities in demand management and food waste reduction. Lundqvist et al (2008) estimate that global food production is already theoretically sufficient to feed the planet twice.

Figure 4. Summary of the amount of food produced globally with estimates of losses, conversions and wastage in the food chain (Lundqvist 2008; Smil 2000).
Figure 4. Summary of the amount of food produced globally with estimates of losses, conversions and wastage in the food chain (Lundqvist 2008; Smil 2000).

2.3. Ecosystem services

Humans derive a range of benefits from ecosystems, without which we would not survive. One approach that helps recognise these benefits is known as “ecosystem services”. Figure 5 gives examples of these across a range of habitats, taken from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UNEP-WCMC, 2011). Ecosystem service assessments show how provisioning services such as food are just one of many benefits we derive from farmlands, making it a useful concept to draw from when we talk about sustainable intensification.

Figure 5: Eight broad habitats and examples of the goods and services derived (UNEP-WCMC, 2011).
Figure 5: Eight broad habitats and examples of the goods and services derived (UNEP-WCMC, 2011).

2.4. Land sparing and land sharing

Future food demands can be met by expanding the area of agricultural land available or increasing yields through intensification on existing farmland. Throughout history, increasing tracts of land have become managed by humans (Figure 6). Approximately 40% of land cover is now given to crops and pasture (Foley 2005) and there are recognised limits governing continued expansion of agricultural land:

  • Remaining land usable for agriculture consists mainly of forests, wetlands or grasslands (Garnett 2013). Most of the highest quality land is already used for agriculture and much of the remaining areas are less suitable (Tilman 2002).
  • Land conversion reduces rates of carbon sequestration, impacting climate regulation and other ecosystem services; rainforest clearance is a prominent example of this. Climate change is already affecting yields (Lobell 2007) and further climate change will particularly impact lower-income countries (IPCC 2014).
  • Unsustainable biodiversity loss reduces our future capability to produce food (Scherr 2012). 35% of crops depend on pollination and the global decline in pollinators is driven by the use of pesticides and habitat loss from intensive agriculture (IPES-Food 2016).
  • Competition for other land use such as built environment, culture and recreation.
  • Freshwater availability and competition for water limits agricultural production. 70% of freshwater withdrawals are used in agriculture, mostly for irrigation (WRI 2005). Unsustainable water consumption has led to draining of aquifers and reductions in river flows. Currently, water stress affects more than 2 billion people around the world and this figure is set to rise (UN 2016b).

Figure 6 Land-use transitions through history (Foley 2005)
Figure 6 Land-use transitions through history (Foley 2005)

The choice between intensification or expansion of agricultural land is sometimes framed as a discourse in comparing two land management approaches, known as land sparing and land sharing:.

  • The idea behind a land sparing approach is to focus highly intensive agriculture on one piece of land, while ensuring there is associated land set aside for conservation.
  • In a land sharing strategy, less land is set aside specifically for conservation, but less intensive production techniques are used to maintain biodiversity throughout agricultural land.

While this dichotomy offers a heuristic for thinking about trade-offs, it’s important to recognise that these strategies are not mutually exclusive and in reality, there are options in between. For example, farms can combine elements of land sparing and wildlife-friendly farming. Three challenges for land sparing are: 1) ensuring long-term food production is viable on the intensively managed land, 2) managing spillover, off-site negative effects such as

Three challenges for land sparing are: 1) ensuring long-term food production is viable on the intensively managed land, 2) managing spillover, off-site negative effects such as such as impacts from the production of agro-chemicals or water pollution and 3) land spared not being adequately tended to maximise ecosystem functions or have long-term protection assured (Fischer 2014). Fischer et al. (2014) identified how the discourse of land sharing vs sparing lends itself to polarisation and various frictions in the scientific community, recommending that an alternative, more holistic analytical framework may support better analysis.

2.5 Measuring what matters

In securing a long-term food supply, a common question when evaluating sustainable intensification concerns productivity. As an example, the question “can an organic farm be as productive as a non-organic farm?” is fraught with difficulties in measurement, such as:

  • Which units of measurement? It is common for farm productivity to be measured as the production output against the land area (e.g. tonnes/hectare), production output against labour input, or the financial value of the output. Although useful, each measure offers a narrow view of productivity, not accounting for aspects such as the efficiency of inputs used in the production such as water, chemicals and energy. Measuring the “sustainability” with regard to productivity might also call for units such as “output per unit of water” or the carbon footprint (output per kg CO2e).
  • Some inputs may be produced off-site, for example, the animal feed. Therefore measuring or comparing the efficiency of production becomes difficult without conducting detailed life-cycle assessments.
  • Measuring multi-crop productivity: for example, some farms might practice intercropping with the aim of increasing total productivity. This is common in agroecological approaches to farming and makes comparisons against monoculture productivity difficult.
  • Measuring ecosystem services beyond food provision: farms often provide a range of ecosystem services (see section 2.3) that are not explicitly valued financially.
  • Other conditions affecting productivity: every farm will have its own climatic conditions (e.g. soil, weather, slope, water) that will greatly influence productivity. Therefore the question of productivity between two farms must take into account  their site conditions. Only carefully conducted trials or aggregating data across a sector makes it possible to compare productivity across different types of agriculture.

These complexities in measurement explain why there is a limited evidence base and lively debate regarding the potential for different modes of agriculture to “feed the world”. The next section explores this in more detail.

Part 3: Approaches to food production

Adapted from IPES-Food (2016), Table 1 contrasts two ends of a spectrum for approaches to agriculture. While both share a goal of food provision, specialised intensive agriculture tends to focus on achieving a maximum volume of product, whereas diversified agroecological approaches tend to aim for multiple yields with less external inputs. There are of course, many farmers that operate in the middle, adopting practices from both approaches.

Table 1: Diversified agroecological farming contrasted with specialised, intensive industrial agriculture.

Figure 8 lists agricultural system outcomes that can be evaluated when comparing trade-offs between different modes of agriculture. While each outcome is important, it is not possible in this essay to provide a comprehensive critique of all outcomes. To explore the form of sustainable intensification, the following section focuses mostly on productivity and environmental outcomes.

Evaluating Agricultural System Outcomes
Figure 8: List of agricultural system outcomes

3.1 Industrial agriculture

3.1.1 Productivity: Yields

Despite recent decades of yield growth stagnation (described in section 3.2), agri-tech firms suggest significant increases are still possible from a combination of biotechnology, advanced plant breeding and improved farm-management practices. Advances include genetic modification, resource efficiency through precision farming and improved herbicides and pesticides. One multinational company, Monsanto, has a goal to double yields of corn, soybeans and cotton between 2000 and 2030 using these techniques (Monsanto 2016).

Elsewhere, there is concern that focusing on maximising yields comes at the expense of future productivity as ecosystem services become degraded even further (Deguines 2014; Tilman 2002). Similar doubts are shared for the livestock sector which will be increasingly affected by competition for land, water, food and feed, as well as a low-carbon economy (Thornton 2010).

3.1.2 Environmental

While firms focusing on the industrial model of farming publicise impressive yield targets, maintaining its character presents some serious environmental risks such as:

  • Loss of ecosystem services: farms provide a diverse set of ecosystem services, some of which are degraded by industrial practices. For example, removal of trees increase the risk of flooding, soil erosion and reduce biodiversity. The worldwide loss of pollinators is another example, closely linked with industrial farming practices and threatens future food production (Clermont 2015).
  • Resilience and vulnerability: monocultures of genetically uniform species creates erosion of the gene pool, posing greater vulnerability in crop disease outbreaks. For example, of the 7,616 livestock breeds that exist, about 86% are local breeds present in one country and 20% of these are at risk of extinction (IPES-FOOD 2016). With the unpredictability of future stresses, the implications of genetic erosion could be huge. The reliance on pesticides also binds farmers financially to agri-tech companies, and weed resistance to pesticides fails to address underlying problems of pest resistance (IPES-FOOD 2016).
  • Land degradation and soil erosion: intensive industrial agriculture has been considered the largest contributor to land degradation at a current rate of 12 million hectares per year (ELD Initiative 2015).
  • Water contamination: chemical inputs result in particularly high risks of runoff leading to contamination of water courses (Boardman 2003). Furthermore, current trends estimate that 50% of irrigated arable land will be salinised by 2050 (Jamil 2011).

3.2 Diversified agroecological farming

3.2.1 Productivity: Yields

Long-term studies comparing yields between agroecological systems and industrial agriculture are limited (IPES-FOOD 2016) due to complexities such as comparing monocultural yields against polyculture yields, and comparing different farm types and sizes (see section 2.5). Studies that exist mostly focus on organic farming (described below) and tend to record lower yields when compared to industrial monocultures in developed countries, but higher yields in developing countries and on smaller farms (Kirchmann 2008):

  • Badgley et al. (2007) analysed 293 yield comparisons between organic (or semi-organic) and industrial production and found that organic systems produced 8% lower yields than conventional in developed countries, while in developing countries, organic systems outperformed conventional approaches by far.
  • De Ponti et al. (2012) analysed 362 paired sets of yield data across 43 countries, reporting organic yields as 80% of those obtained under industrial.
  • Pettey et al. (2006) examined 286 interventions in developing countries and found that farmers adopting agroecological practices had an average of a 79% increase in yields (Pretty 2006). This was against a variety of baseline agricultural approaches.
  • When comparing the productivity of polycultures, several studies demonstrate that “less land is required to produce in polycultures than to produce the same amount in monocultures, making yield per area higher in polycultures” (IPES-FOOD 2016).

Organic farming

Organic farming operates without pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics or inorganic fertilizers. It’s the most well known form of agroecological farming and various certification schemes exist for accreditation of organic practice. Organic practice involves elements such as crop rotations and diversification to maintain yields and manage pests. Factors limiting yields can include lower nutrient availability and weed control.

While the share of agricultural land being managed organically is increasing, globally it accounts for just 1% (FiBL 2016). The potential scope for organic farming is disputed. Some assessments have concluded that global food provision could be met by upscaling organic agriculture globally (Bagdley 2007) while critics believe that the amount of nitrogen fixation required to achieve necessary yields cannot be met sufficiently by animal and green manures (Halberg 2015; Kirchmann 2008).

3.2.2 Environmental

Exploring the same environmental outcomes used in section 3.1.2, diversified agroecological approaches offer the potential to help achieve sustainability goals and longer term resilience:

  • Ecosystem function and services: organic farms host greater biodiversity than industrial systems and this contributes to the delivery of ecosystem services. A meta-analysis found organic farms to have an average of 30% higher species richness than industrial systems, and 50% more species abundance (Bengtsson 2005).
  • Resilience and vulnerability: agroecological farms tend to operate at smaller-scale with greater crop and livestock diversity. Practising year-round production and greater crop diversity can create a more resilient food supply during seasonal shortages (Powell 2015), environmental stresses and extreme weather events (IPCC 2014).
  • Land degradation and soil erosion: the focus on building soil organic matter so that crops have the nutrients required supports better water-holding capacity and carbon sequestration.
  • Water contamination: instances of water contamination are reduced as a result of less chemical inputs.

3.3 Discussion

To secure a long-term sustainable food supply, sustainable intensification must occur within safe operating boundaries to preserve and enhance ecosystems (Figure 2). The required ‘intensity’ of production hinges on success across several fronts such as demand management, reducing waste, lower-impact diets and improved farming practice (Figure 3).

Even while promising improved yields with approaches such as biotechnology and GM, the analysis in section 4.1.2. suggests that by maintaining its character, the industrial model will continue to degrade numerous ecosystem services. This is a dangerous tract, threatening long-term human survival.

Agroecological approaches offer significant potential for addressing sustainability goals including resilience. Yield comparisons can be comparable but vary significantly and evidence on capacity for increased yields is limited and disputed. For approaches such as organic farming, studies suggest there are significant productivity gains possible in developing countries. Yield improvements may occur through better knowledge-sharing, precision technologies and increased intercropping (Halberg 2015).

The natural question is whether there is scope for convergence. As shown in Figure 8, can industrial agriculture integrate agroecological practices while continuing to intensify? Some form of convergence seems imperative to meet sustainability goals. In its form, the convergence needs to be transformational. Several reports suggest that just “tweaking practices” in industrial agriculture is not enough and won’t deliver the change required to respond properly to sustainability challenges (Foresight, 2011; IPES-FOOD 2016).

Figure 8: Convergence of industrial agriculture with subsistence agriculture (IPES-FOOD 2016)
Figure 8: Convergence of industrial agriculture with subsistence agriculture (IPES-FOOD 2016)

Transforming the industrial agricultural sector is challenged by “lock-ins” that act as barriers to change. For example, industrial agriculture often requires significant financial investment (e.g. machinery for monoculture production) and once that investment has been made, it is difficult for a farmer to change course. IPES-FOOD (2016) have identified eight “lock-ins” and solutions that could help unlock industrial agriculture to become more agroecological, as shown in Figure 9. This shows the important role of governance, food policy and further research to help realise sustainable intensification.

Figure 9: Overcoming “lock-ins” by identifying entry points for change (IPES-FOOD 2016)
Figure 9: Overcoming “lock-ins” by identifying entry points for change (IPES-FOOD 2016)

4. Conclusion

Sustainable intensification is one of several paths that will improve resilience and efficiency in the food system. The degraded state of ecosystems and the sense that “time is running out” to effectively mitigate climate change impacts demand urgency in response. Industrial agriculture is challenged with maintaining yields while diversifying and significantly reducing its inputs and widespread environmental impacts; “tweaking” practices is not enough. While diversified agroecological modes of production must be scaled-up with further innovation to improve yields. A convergence of thinking is needed however several “lock-ins” for industrial agriculture extending beyond food production make this transition difficult, highlighting the role of further research, improved governance and policy.

This essay provides an overview of key issues for sustainable intensification and is not a comprehensive assessment. Many important agricultural outcomes such as livelihood, income, and employment conditions were not discussed. Further reading is encouraged by exploring the references used in this essay.


1. The notion of ‘planetary thresholds’ relates to estimates of how close to a threshold the global human community can act, without seriously challenging the continuation of the current state of the planet. It includes nine Earth system processes that include biodiversity, nitrogen cycle, climate impacts, land system change and atmospheric aerosol loading. (Galaz et al. 2012).


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Behind the Scenes: Creating an Efficient VegBox Scheme

The two most well-known national VegBox schemes in the UK are Riverford and Abel & Cole. Like freckles dotted in between, there are many smaller box schemes1. These are usually associated with small-scale farms and provide the ideal way for local people to access good quality, super local and seasonal produce from farms on their doorstep. Sited on the edges of south London, Sutton Community Farm is one of these schemes and serves around 250 weekly customers. I’ve been involved with developing their box scheme over the last four years and this blog is about some of the technical systems that lie beneath the surface.

Box schemes are one of the most promising ways we can re-localise our food system and support productive, more sustainable mixed-use farming systems. In terms of managing them, they are notoriously bureaucratic to administer considering the value of product sold. Each week, a new box is designed in conjunction with what crops are ready. After this, there’s the customer support, order administration, packing and managing deliveries to households or pickup points. To be financially viable, it’s vital that the systems behind the box scheme are designed to be as efficient as possible.

While scaling-up can create efficiencies for an enterprise, there are challenges involved in pulling this off. It involves co-developing each element of the system from the food production to delivery logistics, the packing operation, customer service support. All alongside constant sales and marketing and remaining rooted in local food and community. Riverford is an example that shows it can be done. Despite these challenges, box schemes are enormously rewarding and honest enterprises, giving farmers a fairer price for their produce and enabling consumers access to high quality, seasonal produce.

Some of the team that pack the Veg Boxes
Some of the team at Sutton Community Farm that pack the Veg Boxes

Off-the-shelf solution or bespoke?

I’ve had a lot of headaches over the years running a box scheme and most of it comes down to technology. In recent years, more off-the-shelf software has been emerging to help local food distribution such as BuckyBox and the Open Food Network. This is welcome news especially in the case of Open Food Network, which is UK based and started as a collaboration between box schemes that had shared challenges. If I were starting afresh with designing a box scheme, I would opt for one of these platforms. They take a small percentage cut of the sale but to avoid the headaches of administration and system design from scratch, it’s worth it.

It’s also worth mentioning new sales and distribution platforms set up to support small producers such as The Food Assembly and Farm Drop. These are aiming to disrupt the market, making it easier for small-scale producers to find their customer base. The Food Assembly is essentially a smart, modern day farmers market where customers buy in advance and this gives producers assured sales. Of course, this comes at a price and for The Food Assembly, their cut is about 16% of the sale (8% to the market manager giving them the incentive to market your business, and 8% to the central organisation).

Designing the Box

Designing a VegBox is a bit like going grocery shopping for several hundred people and working to a strict budget. Over the years, we’ve constructed a spreadsheet tool that makes this process as simple as possible. Not only does the spreadsheet help design Boxes to budget, it also summarises the supplier order, generates posters for the packing day and enables easy upload of the box contents to an email or website for sharing. Here are some screenshots from the spreadsheet:

VegBox designing
Spreadsheet for box design (containing dummy data)

Customer Insights

For marketing purposes, it’s important to understand where customers come from, how long they typically stay and why they leave. We’ve embedded these questions into the customer journey so they are easily captured. On signing up for a VegBox, it’s compulsory for customers to answer how they heard about the box scheme and if they cancel, we seek to understand this through email or phone, capturing this information in the database. By standardising data fields (while also allowing space for custom text too), insights data can be generated in seconds and summarised on a dynamic dashboard as shown below. Previously it would take hours to compile this data.

Insights dashboard for the VegBox scheme (with dummy data)

By geocoding customer data, we are also able to generate an interactive map of our customers which can be filtered by average spend or type of delivery, as shown below:

Map of customers and mode of delivery (containing dummy data)

Order Management and Logistics

SCF’s ordering system is custom built using Ruby on Rails. One of the reasons we haven’t used off-the-shelf software is because of the flexibility we want to offer our customers, which include features absent from off-the-shelf systems. One of the greatest challenges when building the online shop was providing a flexible Direct Debit solution so customers can have a regular order which can easily be amended, by the customers as well as an administrator. For payment providors, the cheapest and most suitable one I’ve found is GoCardless which has a good API.

The routine for SCF box scheme is outlined below. Over the years we’ve aimed to minimise the time taken to process the order data and to plan the delivery logistics. When I started working on the Box scheme, this job was taking the best part of a day with many headaches and unreliable data coming out of the ordering system. Today, this job can be done in around 10 minutes if all goes to plan.


The order data that is downloaded from the backend of the website is a CSV file which is uploaded into a specially designed spreadsheet that presents the data in various useful formats. The first requirement is a summary of the total orders which enables the box designing to begin straight away on Monday morning.

Following this, the delivery route is established. I’ve had mixed success with route planning software in the past, mainly because it’s not just about finding the most efficient driving route. Some deliveries require time prioritisation; for example, pick-up points in pubs require delivery in the afternoon, while shops usually require delivery in the morning. Route planning software has often struggled to deal effectively with these demands. We have used software on and off and established reasonable manual systems for editing the routes each week.

Recently, I have been trialing a logistics software called OptimoRoute and this is looking a promising solution, so the farm will trial this in the new year. The order spreadsheet has been designed so that data can be quickly exported into this route planning software and back into the spreadsheet, so driver sheets and bag labels can be printed off with ease. The route planning currently takes 1-2 hours per week and the aim is to reduce this to around 15 minutes.

OptimoRoute software for route planning

And when you’ve got it cracked…

By making full use of available technologies and designing smarter spreadsheets, staff can be less bogged down in confusing spreadsheets and can focus on delivering a better product. Furthermore, the farm can comfortably increase it’s customer base with very little additional administration in order management.

Box schemes are a fantastic route to market for small, mixed farms and my hope is that they have a vibrant future. While they can be a tricky product for the customer, they are also extremely rewarding to receive and help us become resourceful chefs, in tune with the seasons and better-connected with the trials and delights of local food production.

One of the vans for delivering the Boxes
One of the vans for delivering Boxes


1. Some box schemes are referred to as a “Community supported agriculture” (CSA) scheme. This is a partnership between farmers and consumers in which the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming are shared. Find out more here:

Hackbridge Ecology Park

Over the last few years I’ve been working with my neighbours in Hackbridge to try and establish a 25 hectare ecology park on some disused fields, opposite to where I live at BedZED. The park will help connect people to Beddington Farmlands (a 400 acre nature reserve) and the wider green corridor of the Wandle Valley Regional Park, a new park that winds along the River Wandle, stretching from Croydon and Sutton through Merton and Wandsworth to the Thames.

The land we are considering is unused and neglected, without official public access. We would like to see this land become a productive, sustainable, engaging space that demonstrates how we can benefit from and improve our natural environment. It will be an outdoor hub for recreation, education and most importantly, habitat restoration. Some of the ideas include:

  • Outdoor activities: such as nature tours, cycle paths, bird watching, photography, walking and running.
  • Renewable energy generation: solar panels that generate renewable energy for the community and income to cover the ongoing running costs for the park.
  • Habitat restoration: increasing the ecological value of the land whilst also creating places for people to engage with and learn about the wildlife.
  • Sustainable food growing: providing healthy, sustainable produce to the local area.
  • Natural swimming pool: a low impact pool providing a unique, local place for people to swim and exercise.
  • Social support services: providing volunteering, mentoring and construction opportunities to help people integrate with the community, gain skills and confidence.

About the land

The land is divided into two sections by existing woodland habitat, as shown in the map below. It has a range of planning designations, including Metropolitan Open Land, Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation and Safeguarded for Mineral Extraction.

The bottom section of land is owned by Sutton Council and was previously used for gravel extraction and sewage works. The upper section of land is owned by Day Group and was also used for gravel extraction – once this was halted, it was utilised as a non-hazardous landfill by SITA. On the upper section of land we have been exploring the feasability of integrating a solar park into the ecology park.

Hackbridge Ecology Park Map

A place for wildlife

The 2016 State of Nature report, compiled by over 50 wildlife organisations reveals the severe loss of nature that’s occurring in the UK. More than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether. The biodiversity index also suggests that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Biodiversity is the backbone of our ecosystems which we depend on for survival and there’s no time like the present to act on conserving and enhancing natural habitats, which is why projects like this are vital.

One of my heroes in Hackbridge is Peter Alfrey, a zealous ecologist who works tirelessly on bird and wildlife projects across Hackbridge and Beddington Farmlands. Peter is a key person that helps document the wildlife on the nearby Beddington Farmlands; this includes 258 species of bird, 476 species of moth, 9 species of bat and over 300 species of plants. One of the central parts of Hackbridge Ecology Park will be enhancing the neighbouring landscape which connects to Beddington Farmlands, helping make better spaces for wildlife to thrive, such as wetlands, grasslands, scrub, additional trees and hedgerow.

Work to date

The project is voluntary-led and has been slow to develop while we all have day jobs and other commitments. Despite this, we’ve done a fair amount of work so far, with particular thanks to the drive of Sue Riddlestone, co-founder of Bioregional and an instigator of BedZED, the famous ecovillage in Hackbridge. Sue’s team at Bioregional have helped raised some initial funds for our group to complete a pre-feasibility study, facilitate community workshops and undertake a solar feasibility study.

The pre-feasibility study examined the current status and issues surrounding the site, identifying key stakeholders and delivering some initial consultation to determine a vision for the land. This included:

  • Briefing presentation to local Councillors (Jan 2015)
  • Visioning event (Mar 2015)
  • Briefing presentation for Area Committee (Mar 2015)
  • Briefing provided to quarterly Board Meeting of Mitcham Common Conservators (Mar 2015)
  • Engagement with Hackbridge School community and design team (Mar 2015)
  • Community engagement for solar feasibility study (Summer 2015)
  • Engagement with Day Group on land use

Little Owl in Beddington Farmlands, taken by Peter Alfrey
Little Owl in Beddington Farmlands, taken by Peter Alfrey

Resulting from the visioning workshops, the following objectives were established for the ecology park:

  1. Enable the proposed site to become a safe, publicly accessible piece of open land;
  2. Facilitate and enable the community to engage with nature in a sympathetic and positive way;
  3. Carry out grassland, scrub and wetland habitat restoration and preservation to maintain the natural and wild feel of the land;
  4. Provide amenities for the local residential and school community, such as formal and informal play areas;
  5. Provide the opportunity for food growing and associated training opportunities;
  6. Engage with the community and encourage volunteering;
  7. Educate and train the local community on the importance of nature conservation;
  8. Incorporate renewable energy generation where feasible;
  9. Position the site to visitors as a gateway to the wider Wandle Valley Regional Park.

The solar park

In 2015, our group won funding from DECC’s Urban Community Energy Fund to progress a solar feasibility study. The area of interest is the northern section of the land, which may be contaminated and has four large electricity pylons cutting across the field. Potential public uses for this section of land are limited, so ground mounted solar panels could be an ideal solution. This could allow the land to remediate for a further 25 years or more, while providing green electricity to the local area and generate an income for the Ecology Park to be used for maintenance and visitor facilities.

Image of a solar park

Climate change policy advocates for more renewable energy and this also fits with The Mayor of London’s target to supply 25% of London’s energy from local sources by 2025. A study of decentralised energy capacity by the GLA concluded that Sutton has the potential to generate 230GWh of electricity and save just under 100,000 tonnes of CO2 by 2031. Installations like this are an important part of this decentralisation. Furthermore, Sutton Council’s One Planet Living Policy BP6 seeks to maximise the potential role of renewable energy sources and de-centralised energy infrastructure in Hackbridge. Policy-wise, everything points in the right direction. 

The study examined various site issues such as land designations, connection points to the grid, key stakeholders, market demand and drivers, biodiversity impacts, business models and generation capacity. Layout configerations were also considered, for 1.5MW and 2MW installations:

Solar power configurations on Hackbridge Ecology Park
Solar power configurations on Hackbridge Ecology Park

In early 2016 the government made an 87% cut to feed-in tariff income that has made the financial feasability of solar less attractive. Our study still shows promise and one of the routes that remains financially viable is to sell the energy generated to a customer through a power-purchase agreement.

In terms of investment, we are interested in raising finance through a community share offer. To support this, Repowering London have stepped forward with an interest in working with us. However before we can continue on this, further work needs to be done to secure the land.

What next?

The pre-feasibility work helped us have a solid understanding of the routes forward. This year, Viridor were granted permission to build an incinerator to burn South London’s waste, very close to the proposed ecology park. While bad news for air quality and wildlife, it ironically could provide a route for funding the beginnings of an ecology park. Viridor are in the process of launching a grant programme to support community projects with funding up to £30k, with preference for projects within 2km of the incinerator. However from what I’ve seen of the grant criteria, it does not cover staff or running costs of a project – a frustrating spanner in the works, but perhaps not insurmountable.

What’s certain is that the project will have to be implemented in phases. In the next phase, we need to work with the landowners to open up the land for limited public access to deliver some practical, educational activities for the community, helping them learn about the wildlife already on site. We’ve began these dicussions with the landowners.

We also want to make some simple improvements to make the site safe such as installing paths and fencing, creating routes for the public to use. We then need to deal with longer-term land governance issues and establish a more comprehensive development plan, working with stakeholders such as the Wandle Valley Regional Park. Ultimately, this is a multi-million pound project with grand ambitions and it’s exciting to be here at the beginning.

Further resources

Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker

Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker

Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker

On Trying to Open a Community Farm Shop & Cafe

I recently wrote about my involvement in trying to establish a community-owned ecology park and a community-owned microbrewery. In these projects, I’m working collaboratively with others, aiming to get each project into a position where we can raise investment and employ an experienced manager to drive the project forward. I see my involvement as helping move the project to this point and thereafter, my aim is to continue as an engaged member, hopefully enjoying some locally brewed beer, looking out over a beautiful ecology park abundant in wildlife, and picking up ingredients for my dinner from a shop that cares deeply about the provenance of its food.

From personal experience and meeting many community-owned businesses through my involvement with the Plunkett Foundation, perhaps I’m being too optimistic on the amount of work this will take. The process of starting-up a community enterprise takes a huge amount of energy, possibly more so than a conventional business as there are more people involved in the journey.

Nurturing the idea

Both the microbrewery and the farm shop are ideas that have spun out from my work at Sutton Community Farm – London’s first community-owned farm which bustles with many wonderful people. We started seriously considering a Community Farm Shop & Cafe in 2015 after we conducted a survey asking our friends, supporters and customers whether they would like us to open a Farm Shop. We had a fantastic response from 200+ people, displaying a huge amount of enthusiasm and pledges of time and money to help make it happen.

With some promising survey results, we sat down and debated whether to pursue the idea. It was an attractive idea for our farm that felt complimentary to our work, giving us a new outlet to extend our social impact. On the other hand, we didn’t feel we had the energy or resources to work on it. The truth was that we were incredibly busy, working long hours to keep the farm going on shoe-string budgets. How could we start thinking about a new enterprise?

The role we felt we could best play was to facilitate a public meeting, bringing everyone together that expressed interests in a farm shop, making it clear that the community or someone else with the time, skills and enthusiasm, would have to take it on.

I facilitated two community meetings at St Nicolas Church in the centre of Sutton because this was where the survey responders expressed their greatest desire to see the farm shop. The Plunkett Foundation kindly helped cover the venue hire costs and gave a presentation about community-owned businesses. I shared some of my hopes for a farm shop from the perspective of the farm, presented the results of our survey (shown in the presentation below) and then invited people to discuss their hopes and ideas. We had a healthy turn-out of around 25 people to each meeting and from this, a small team of people came forward who were willing to meet regularly, forming a working committee to drive the project forward.An early meeting in St Nicolas Church, Sutton

Putting together the business plan

Our group of about 4-6 people met every 3 weeks. I was keen not to act as leader and encouraged others to take responsibilities of Chair and Secretary. This was partly because I didn’t want this to be considered a “farm project”. Knowing the limited resources of the farm, this project needs to stand on its own legs as a community business, even if it shares fraternity with the farm and its ethos.

In the first few months, it felt there was sometimes a danger of our meetings becoming more of a “talking shop” than an action group. It’s enjoyable to imagine together what our ideal shop or cafe would look like. What values it would have and how we would try to make it warm and welcoming for all. This was valuable and important discussion however I was worried about our momentum and keen to ensure there were well-facilitated meetings, agendas and action points. This happened with varying success but we did make progress and grew more confident as we visited other community shops, met a community business advisor and got to grips with who we were and what we wanted.

Summer evening shop meeting on the farm
Summer evening shop meeting on the farm

Around this time, the Plunkett Foundation launched a new programme called Our Urban Shop, which aimed to help communities come together to open an urban shop. Plunkett’s work usually supports rural communities so this was a very promising development for us. The opportunity was up to £30k grant funding matched by £30k loan finance, providing we also raised a similar level in community shares. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in our application for various reasons – one being that our business proposal included a cafe which the lenders were reluctant invest in. However the promise of funding spurred us on to write a fairly comprehensive business plan which I’ve shared below.

Not long after, we had a second knock-back on a smaller fund application which was aimed at helping us launch a scaled-back pop-up version of the farm shop. While I was disappointed, this may have been for the best. As a trading enterprise, the project feels more suitable for investment rather than grants. We also still didn’t have anyone in mind to manage the project if we were successful with funding. We wanted to find someone passionate about opening a shop and cafe, who understands and knows the business.

One of the challenges in the community business sector is attracting such entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs usually want to set up their own business, where they can reap the rewards of their own success and hard work. Community businesses on the other hand, are selfless enterprises, rewarding for many even if they are led by a few.

Public engagement on Sutton High Street
Gathering interest on Sutton High Street: further market research

The business plan and next steps

Over the seasons our group has dwindled somewhat; one member is having a maternity break, another moved to Indonesia, another to volunteer with Raleigh International. A couple other members felt they didn’t have much to offer anymore, perhaps because we had become so focused on writing a business plan. I also had a busy summer working on a project that left me too tired in the evening to think about this project. I was also feeling a little deflated, unsure whether this was right project to be investing my energies into despite my desire to see it happen.

We haven’t given up though. We are keeping in touch and keeping an eye out for opportunities. A huge number of hours have been spent on this project and it would be a shame to see it go to nothing. Even if it does, we’ve had a lot of fun along the way and learnt a lot about shop and cafe planning.

So besides the therapy of writing about it, I’m making the business plan public, in the spirit of the creative commons and with the hope that someone may come out of the woodwork with the right expertise who wants to help make this happen. Perhaps someone with similar ideas, money or a shop location in mind.

Our business plan does a good job of expressing our vision for the shop and cafe, the products and services we intend to provide, detailed market research, with governance plans and financial projections. The plan and financial spreadsheet are adaptable, ready to be adjusted to suit the given location, expected footfalls and staffing levels.

If we are to open this business, we need to unlock at least one of the triple challenges we have: 1) finding a suitable location, 2) getting someone on board who wants to run it, and 3) raising the finance. So if you know of anywhere, anyone or have a stack of cash you want to put towards a good cause, do drop us a line. And finally, without further ado…

Click here to download our draft business plan (PDF)

Further resources and examples:

Local Brews: Resources and Opportunities for Community Beer

One of the joys of working in a community food project is the wonderful people you meet along the way. Ben Fleet is a volunteer at our community farm, a friendly chap who always brings good cheer and enthusiasm to the day. When I met Ben a few years back he was starting out as a brewer, working for Brixton Brewery (he now works at Redchurch Brewery). He would come regularly to our Wednesday volunteer days, willing to get stuck right in with the vegetable growing operation.

At that time I was managing the farm and working hard to find a financial model that made us independent from grants – a tricky challenge for any small-scale farm. I was exploring how we could diversify our income and with a booming craft beer movement happening in London, I was curious to explore this opportunity. Working with Ben and his gallons of enthusiasm, we’ve done lots of thinking and research about community beer. We even launched a community hop-growing project called Grow Beer Sutton which just celebrated its first brew – more on that in a moment.

In this post, I’m sharing some of the thinking we’ve done. There are many opportunities for community-led beer projects and while we would love to embrace these opportunities, we can only do bits at a time. Therefore following the co-operative spirit of Sutton Community Farm and the principles of creative commons, we are sharing our work with the aim of inviting collaborators to join us, while also hoping to inspire and support others in the community food/beer sector.

The Projects

In order of ambition, we considered the following community beer projects at Sutton Community Farm:

  1. Grow Beer Sutton: a community hop growing and brewing project.
  2. “Learn to brew beer” courses: encouraging people to take up the joys of brewing.
  3. Contract or “cuckoo” brewing: brewing our own-brand beer at someone else’s brewery.
  4. Starting our own microbrewery! 
  5. Microbrewery + Hop Farm: combining a microbrewery with a few acres of hops, using a field leased close to the farm. We believe there’s a gap in the market for local, heritage hops and growing them together may be a great project to complement our community farm. 

I met with Ben a few times to think through these projects and over the year, we’ve completed some detailed feasibility work on the ideas we think could work well at Sutton Community Farm. The following sections introduce this work, sharing resources that we think will be useful for other projects.

1. Grow Beer: a simple, replicable project

In late 2013, I met Helen Steer who founded Brixton Beer, a community hop-growing project. The concept is simple: people grow hops in their gardens or local community spaces and every year the harvest is brought together on the same day and weighed in. A brewer then makes beer with the fresh green cones (normally brewers use dried hops) and the community come together a few weeks later to drink it. The project promises to be self-funding using money raised from selling the hop plants and can be repeated year-on-year as hops are perennial.

Helen open-sourced the project concept, creating some great resources (available here) to help others start their own community-hop growing project. There are now many projects across London and the UK, including The Palace Pint in Crystal Palace, East Bristol Hops and Cardiff Hops.

I met Helen over some beers with Ben and she encouraged us to give it a go. We didn’t need much persuading. Helen claimed the project takes about four days per year to administer, would help raise useful funds for our farm and be heaps of fun. So we went ahead and launched Grow Beer SuttonIn terms of time, I reckon we spent more than four days on the project and in terms of funds, it didn’t pay for itself once you take into account the time invested by farm staff. However it was definitely lots of fun.

In our first year, 31 growers bought hop plants which were dotted around our local community as shown in the map below. The hop packs we sold consisted of the rhizome, compost, manure, gravel, twine and some basic instructions on growing the hops. These were picked up in March, either from the farm or our local farmers market in Wallington.

Grow Beer Sutton Hop Packs

Before long we had reports coming in from growers on our Facebook group where we shared tips on growing hops. Some folks were having great success while others struggled to get their rhizomes established – problems with growing techniques, location, the weather, or all three!  Below is a photo from the most successful hop grower Rachael, whose hops went crazy! Followed by a photo of our pooled harvest in September which weighed a respectable 2.5kg. Contributions came from many, however the majority were from our star hop grower, Rachael. This wasn’t bad for Year 1 and plenty to make a brew.

Hop plant
Our star hop grower, Rachael

Grow Beer Sutton Hop Harvest 2016
Our Hop Harvest for 2016

The great thing about this project is how it has introduced many new people to the farm, including those who might not normally come across us. It also gave us the opportunity to promote a crop that was historically grown in our area. As we started talking about beer, we also found many home brewers in our local community. One of them was a fellow called Rod Edbrooke who has been home brewing for 30 years. Rod offered to take the hops home and make the brew. Ben Fleet also took a batch, so we had two brews in total.

Just a few weeks ago our first brew was complete and we gathered together at the farm to celebrate. Rod gave a talk about the brewing process and one of our generous volunteers made a delicious squash curry to accompany the beer. There were about 100 pints brewed in total; plenty to go around and anything leftover was bottled for taking home. I must say, this was some really great tasting beer and one of the most satisfying pints I’ve ever had!

Our first Grow Beer Sutton party

Some of the beer taken home and ready to drink!

We’re now planning how we’ll continue the project in 2017, reviewing what’s worked well and how we will administer it. The farm staff are enthusiastic but extremely busy so we are trying to find volunteers to help take this on. As part of this, we’re thinking about the key tasks and how they could be allocated out. So if you’re local to Sutton and wish to help, please do get in touch ([email protected]). We would love to hear from you.

Here’s resources from this project, that will be useful to other community hop-growing projects:

2. Brewing courses

Following a successful Grow Beer Sutton party, we are now talking to Rod about putting on a beer-brewing course at Sutton Community Farm in 2017. From talking with our Grow Beer participants it sounds like there will be good interest. Personally, it’s something I’m keen to attend as it’s much more enjoyable to learn a skill with others than to sit alone with a guidebook, or worse, in front of the glare of a computer screen on YouTube. This is something that should be fairly straight-forward to organise, however we need to do further work to ensure the space is suitable (health and safety) and appropriately insured.

Useful resources for putting on a brewing course:

  • Having put on courses over the years, here’s a useful Excel tool you can download to understand the financial feasibility of running a course. Other projects may find this handy.

3. Contract or “cuckoo” brewing

Contract or “cuckoo” brewing is about making our beer in someone else’s brewery. ‘Cuckoo’ brewing involves a customer borrowing and using the equipment of another brewery to brew. Contract brewing is when the brewery is contracted to make the brew on behalf of the customer. This is either based on a specific recipe provided by the customer, or a customer may commissions a brew without having brewing knowledge or skill. Our proposal would be either “cuckoo” brew or contract brew, working closely with the brewery on a recipe we have formulated. 

This is attractive for a few reasons. First, it involves far less start-up costs than setting up a brewery for the obvious reasons of not having to pay rent, buy equipment, etc. It’s also a great way to learn more about the industry, while testing a product; the recipes and market reaction. In London, there are breweries set up to support this, such as Ubrew. With control over the inputs, we can source local hops (or grow our own) and organic ingredients. The project could be crowdfunded with the community investing to support the project costs in advance.

Resources: we’ve written a detailed project feasibility details for this project, which is downloadable here as a PDF.

4. Creating a Community Microbrewery

If you’ve had the stamina to read this far, this is where things get exciting. Working with Ben, we have invested a lot of time into researching the feasibility of starting a community-owned microbrewery in Sutton.This isn’t a new idea. There are a handful of other community-owned breweries in the UK, such as the PumpHouse Community Brewery in Essex and Topsham Ales in Devon – but nothing local to us.

We’re now opening up the project feasibility work we’ve done so far, providing valuable resources for others to use. We’re sharing our work for a few reasons. Firstly, the spirit of the creative commons, where sharing knowledge can help build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world. Secondly, because we’re not in competition with anyone and rather, we would love for others to come on board and help make this project happen. Finally and most importantly, we love local beer and think there should be more of it.

In our feasibility analysis, we have considered the following scales:

  • Nano: brewing batches of 2.5BBL (409L)
  • Micro! brewing batches of 6BBL (980L)

To build a nano-brewery we will need additional space at the farm, which in time we expect to have available. When this happens, a nano-brewery could slot into a grander plan we have to establish a FoodLab, which would be a flexible space for other secondary production too.

Sharing our Community Beer Feasibility Work…

We’re planning to continue developing these plans and working with the farm. Over the coming years, the facilities at the Farm are likely to improve which will enable projects such as a microbrewery.

Our analysis so far is comprehensive, almost to the level of a business plan, covering a detailed description of the product, the market in south London, operational plans, financial modelling and shares lots of resources we’ve found along the way.

By sharing the work we’ve done so far, we hope that others may be interested in coming on board to help or at very least, other community projects in the UK will stumble across this and benefit from our hard graft. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Click here to download our community microbrewery feasibility analysis (PDF).

Is it right to put a price on nature?

I’ve just spent a week trekking along Wainwright’s coast-to-coast route, walking the first section from St Bees to Penrith. The walk took us across the vast and stunning landscape of the Lake District, as described in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Daffodils’:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Extract from ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth (1804)

Along the walk, I was pondering a question posed on the discussion forum of a course I’m studying on Agro-Ecosystem Services at Bangor University. The question was whether it is relevant to put a monetary value on ecosystem services? Can it improve policy and management decisions? Is it too reductionist? Is uncertainty too high to produce credible values?

The motivation behind monetary valuation is that it provides decision makers, such as policy-makers and planners, a means to translate a complex subject into the more familiar language of money, which then helps guide an appraisal of its importance and can support decisions. Monetary valuation may also be a helpful way to engage certain audiences such as economists and investors, who can yield significant influence.

My initial reaction to introducing a monetary value on ecosystems is heavy caution. It’s against all common sense to put a price on nature. The Lake District offers a variety of what we call “ecosystem services”, a term that means the benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems. The ecosystem services concept helps us understand the value of ecosystems, which can help us make better land management decisions. From an ecosystem service perspective, my experience of the walk was social, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual, benefiting my health and wellbeing. I also accessed fresh water along the way, as well as oxygen and food, all vital to my survival. Was that experience worth £50 or £100,000? If forced, I could put a personal, entirely subjective financial value on it but it would be a flawed calculation and I would never want to do it. Likewise, how could I put a financial value on Wordsworth’s poem? It would be an insult to the Lake District and Wordsworth to reduce what they provide into a monetary figure.

The flaws of monetary valuation

Some people rightly argue that in many cases, valuation is a meaningless idea as ecosystem services are vital for human survival; therefore they have infinite value (Chaisson 2002, McCauley 2006). Technology is unable to deliver planet-scale services such as climate regulation, soil formation and air quality maintenance, so there are no comparable means to value it in financial terms. Even if we do put a monetary value on it, the figure is so high that it becomes meaningless. Furthermore, if ecosystems are dynamic and inextricably linked to one another, how is it possible to segregate one ecosystem service or geographic area and put a value on it?

There’s another reason to be highly cautious of ecosystem valuation. When we start associating a financial value to nature, we are walking on a path that exposes ecosystems to commodification or privatisation (Monbiot 2002, McCauley 2006). The concept behind valuation is that it can reduce market distortions and align economic incentives with social and environmental incentives. This can sound attractive, however by aligning everything in monetary terms, we are trusting that market-based mechanisms will deliver the right decisions to protect nature. It’s perverse, as George Monbiot argues, to use the same processes (commodification, economic growth and financial abstractions) that are driving the world’s environmental crisis to try and solve them.

Another challenge with monetary valuation is that it’s often flawed due to poor data availability and quality: this includes both coverage and resolution, where data can often be inconsistent and incomplete, requiring proxies which can have a high potential for error (Eigenbrod 2010).

Despite its troubles, there is a lot of interest in monetary valuation and it’s a growing science. In the UK, we have projects that refer to monetary valuation, such as the mega interdisciplinary National Ecosystem Services Assessment. There’s also a number of smaller studies across the UK, as presented in the BESS database. Robert Costanza, a prominent ecological economist has even had a stab at estimating the global value of ecosystem services – about $46 trillion/yr if you’re interested!

Making the case for monetary valuation

With all these criticisms and flaws, what is the case for monetary valuation? Robert Costanza is a prominent voice in academia that advocates for monetary valuation and has some compelling arguments.

Firstly, Constanza argues that valuation is unavoidable since it is already done implicitly when we make decisions involving trade-offs; therefore improved transparency through monetary valuation can help us make better decisions (Costanza et al. 2014). Constanza also emphasises that it’s a misconception to assume that valuing ecosystems in monetary terms is the same as commodifying or privatising them for trade. Rather, most ecosystem services are public goods or common-pool resources, which makes conventional markets work poorly, if at all. In addition, the values do not relate to exchange values, rather use or non-use values.

“If nature contributes significantly to human well-being, then it is a major contributor to the real economy, and the choice becomes how to manage all our assets, including natural and human-made capital, more effectively and sustainably” (Costanza et al., 2014).

There are case studies that demonstrate how ecosystem valuation has led to market-based mechanisms have helped make the right decisions. A commonly cited example is the Catskill Delaware Watershed, where New York City invested in conserving a watershed that filters its water as effectively as a filtration plant, and more cheaply. Yet these examples of success are far and few between so far.

Using valuation in the right circumstances?

There are many interesting uses for monetary valuation that convince me it can sometimes have a place, but it shouldn’t be a go-to tool in the first instance. Monetary valuation may convince decision-makers to realise the irreplaceable services of nature, to treasure them deeply as sacred, delicate systems that we must protect and help thrive. However we should be very cautious about when it’s used. My pragmatic view is that monetary valuation can have an appropriate place in the discussion but in proportion with other tools and communications. Its purpose must be well communicated, together with its accuracy, as it’s no use bringing shoddy evidence to the table.

I also believe that we should also not allow monetary valuation to dominate the debate when the moral arguments are clear. Douglas McCauley, a professor at Stanford University argues against the central role of monetary values in decision making, suggesting that protecting ecosystem services should be framed predominantly as a moral issue; as the right thing to do, rather than reduced to the financial bottom line. McCauley suggests that policy-makers can be driven by more than the financial bottom line and believing otherwise is “akin to saying that civil-rights advocates would have been more effective if they provided economic justifications for racial integration” (McCauley 2006). 

Many social and environmental justice campaigners have experienced how decision making in the real world often does not follow evidence-based, rational processes. The reality is that decisions are made rashly and that the those in power can be manipulated or will act selfishly to win favour with one group over another. While monetary valuation clearly has some flaws, both practically and philosophically, it is another tool we can add to the toolbox. You never know when it might come in handy, but we just need to be very careful how and when to use it.


Chaisson, E.J., 2002. Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Costanza, R., 2006. Nature: ecosystems without commodifying them [Correspondence]. Nature 443, 749.

Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., van der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S.J., Kubiszewski, I., 2014. Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environ. Change, 26, 152–158.

Eigenbrod, F., Armsworth, P.R., Anderson, B.J., Heinemeyer, A., Gillings, S., Roy, D.B., Thomas, C.D. and Gaston, K.J., 2010. The impact of proxy-based methods on mapping the distribution of ecosystem services. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47(2), pp. 377-385.

McCauley, D. 2006. Selling out on nature [Commentary]. Nature 443, 7107: 27-8.

Monbiot, G., 2012. Putting a price on the rivers and rain diminishes us all. The Guardian.

Getting to grips with a “super wicked” problem: the future of food and farming

“Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”.
Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming, 2011

The abundance of food lining our supermarket shelves and providing millions of people with an affordable and reliable food source is a small modern-day miracle. However beyond the glistening aisles of the supermarket, our food system causes an often untold destruction of the ecosystems we depend on. This is compromising our ability to achieve a secure food supply in the future1 – both in the near future and long-term. As we witness this destruction with heavy hearts, we are being called by leaders, scientists and other experts to rethink and reshape an entire industry, to help repair damaged ecosystems and avoid major societal collapse. What a mountain we have to climb! It’s tempting, as with climate change, to either look the other way and pretend everything’s okay, or adopt a philosophy which basically concludes that ultimately, we’re all doomed, collapse is inevitable and so let’s sit back and enjoy the ride while we can. To put it bluntly, both of these positions are nonsense and we must face up to the facts, get a grip and try to be part of a movement of change that’s collaborative, bold, honest and positive.

Representing the food system

Getting a strong grasp of the challenges is critical because implementing effective policy is a delicate affair. We don’t have the luxury of designing a new food system to replace the old one. We are stuck in the thick of a deeply complex system, made from a mostly self-organised set of interacting parts. Academics are constantly exploring different approaches to representing the food system, to support those trying to get to grips with it. Here’s one example of a representation:

Representation of a food system (Arnall and Pope, 2015)
Representation of a food system (Arnall and Pope, 2015)

One common problem is that almost everyone is a “specialist”. Yet the complexity of the challenge calls for us to take a broad view, stepping outside our narrow specialty to take stock of the bigger picture. We are fortunate to have a wealth of collaborative projects, publications and resources that help us make sense of the challenges in our food system and suggest approaches to improve its sustainability. The most relevant example in recent years is the comprehensive Foresight Future of Food and Farming Report (Foresight 2011) that involved around 400 leading experts and stakeholders, drawing on a breadth of scientific and other evidence. Here’s some very brief notes taken from this report that give a brief flavour of its overall messages:

Notes from the Foresight project: the Future of Food and Farming.
Notes from the Foresight project report on the Future of Food and Farming. Click here for a PDF version of this graphic.

This is a ‘super wicked’ problem

When thinking about the actions required to transform the food system, it’s useful to appreciate the type of problem we’re dealing with. Last year, I attended an IFSTAL lecture on food systems thinking by Dr. Alex Arnall at Reading University which introduced different categorisations of problems, drawing on a social science theory developed by Rittel and Webber (Rittel 1973). In brief, there are ‘tame‘ problems which are complicated but solvable (e.g. increasing drought resistance of a certain crop) and ‘wicked‘ problems which are complex and intractable, often transcending boundaries such as organisations, disciplines or geopolitical  (e.g. the problem of food waste). A relatively new category was suggested in 2012 called ‘super wicked‘ problems, defined as having the additional characteristics (Leven 2012):

  • “Time is running out;
  • The central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent;
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • Policies discount the future irrationally.”

In Dr Arnall’s presentation, he describes overfishing, obesity and climate change as having the characteristics of ‘super wicked’ problems. Based on their definition, it feels reasonable to suggest the challenges facing future food production is also a ‘super wicked’ problem. When these features listed above combine, Leven et al. describe the result a policy-making “tragedy” where “traditional analytical techniques are ill-equipped to identify solutions, even when it is well recognised that actions must take place soon to avoid catastrophic future impacts” (Levin 2012).

Why a different approach to policy making is required

A conventional approach to policy often involves identifying single goals, such as efficiency, and applying a variation of cost-benefit policy analysis3. However this approach is unable to deal with the open, non-linear characteristics of the food system, where humans and organisations often interact in unpredictable ways. Levin et al. therefore suggest applying a “forward reasoning” approach that “identifies possible policy interventions and reasons forward to how the problem and interventions might unfold over time“. In short, the use of scenarios and futures tool. Their paper does not advocate discounting historical forces that shape politics and outcomes; rather they should be embraced and used to open up creative solutions to address “super wicked” problems. Progressive incremental trajectories are suggested as the best resolution for “super wicked” problems, rather than one-shot logical solutions, which often get trapped and fail in their ambition.

Levin et al. identified three helpful questions for policymakers that are designed to address the tragedy of super wicked problems:

  1. What can be done to create stickiness? This is the idea that makes reversibility of the policy immediately difficult. In this, it’s important that interventions do not legitimise low standards or worse, lock in lower standards (e.g. aiming to low in our targets).
  2. How might protocol be designed to foster deliberations to entrench policy interventions?
  3. How might protocol be designed to foster deliberations to expand policy interventions?

In exploring the above questions, Leven et al. go into much further detail, suggesting that analysts designing policy also pay greater attention to:

  • The role of coalitions;
  • Values and deeply held views about right and wrong by segments of society;
  • Fostering norms that define and regulate appropriate behaviour – this can trigger positive feedbacks.

Involving this type of approach in policy making feels appropriate for addressing “super wicked” problems, which demand a different type of analysis.

While much more could be said in this post, my intention is just a brief personal exploration. The challenge is enormous, frustratingly complex and as such, it’s clear that food cannot be treated like any other commodity, By finding ways to broadly understand food security and appreciate it as a “super wicked” problem, we have a much better chance to head on a positive trajectory, for the sake of future generations.


1. For in depth further (acedemic) reading on this, refer to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014).

2. An example of conventional analysis being applied to a “super wicked” problem is mentioned in the European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA)  which describes how existing environmental policies related to reactive nitrogen have been established in a fragmented way, separated by media (air, land, water, etc), by issue (climate, biodiversity, waste etc) and by form (Sutton 2011). While this specialisation has advanced understanding and helped achieve some progress, the ENA calls for a more comprehensive understanding of the nitrogen cycle to establish policy that ensures nitrogen management is addressed holistically.


Arnall, A.; Pope, H. (2015). What is systems thinking and how can we use it to confront the ‘wicked problem(s)’ of food? IFSTAL Lecture 2 Systems Thinking. Available at:

Foresight (2011). The Future of Food and Farming. Final Project Report: Executive Summary. The Government Office for Science, London.

IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, p. 13.

Levin, Kelly; Cashore, Benjamin; Bernstein, Steven; Auld, Graeme. (2012). Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sciences. 45 (2): 123–152. doi:10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0. Available at:

Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169. doi:10.1007/bf01405730. Available at:

Sutton, Mark A., et al., 2011. The European Nitrogen Assessment: Summary for Policy Makers. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

It’s worth it.

We are making incredible discoveries from observing nature every day. Just recently, scientists recorded two dolphins having a conversation for the first time. That’s mindblowing.

For all the inspiration and love we feel for our fellow inhabitants, the 2016 ‘State of Nature’ report published today tells us the tragedy that 1 in 10 UK wildlife species faces extinction. There are birds, insects and animals we have seen in our lifetimes that we will never be able to show our children.

The way we grow and consume food is one of the major contributors to this damage. What we put on our plates shapes the landscapes and habitats we leave for wildlife. The governments we elect can have a powerful role in shaping this, yet they are failing to articulate the urgency, put in place the right mechanisms and stand up to the powerful forces of big food companies.

I’m discovering Wendell Berry’s writings where he was describing with great clarity over 40 years ago the contradictions we live with; the gap between what we think or say and what we do. Living undestructively in an economy that is overwhelmingly destructive often feels impossible and we are by no means divided into saints and sinners. But with every step taken towards a lighter footprint, a deeper understanding of our ecological interactions and turning our backs on highly consumptive and individualistic lifestyles, we can feel more liberated, more resourceful and more connected. I’m definitely far from there but working on it and I reckon it’s worth it.

Photo credit: “The Encounter” by Rene Mensen

Hiking Sgurr nan Gillean

I’m hoping for a light breeze to clear away the midges. That’s all it takes yet the air remains still and they hover in their millions outside our camper van at the Glen Brittle Campsite. There’s a sadistic type of pleasure in satisfying the itches but I try not to indulge. I feel sorry for the campers in their tents. Many people are wearing novelty head-nets. They look silly but I’m secretly envious of their midge-free faces. We’re keeping the van door closed as much as possible to shut them out. Before bed, we spend 15 minutes bashing the spotlights with dish towels. It seems to do the job.

After a breakfast of muesli and croissants, with a hot chocolate on the side, we are set for our hike up Sgurr nan Gillean. I run back just after we set off to grab some ibuprofen. I pulled something at the back of my neck a few days ago, possibly when attempting a handstand. It hurts when I move my head in certain directions. I must be getting old.

The hike has a steady start along a well-defined path. Two hours pass easily and we are now rising slowly. It’s fairly quiet on this mountain and over the six or so hours of this hike, we only come across three other couples and two solo walkers. All but one couple seem to be serious hikers. We pass a few small waterfalls along the path with crystal clear pools lined with large, smooth round pebbles tinted blue. They are very inviting.Sgurr nan GilleanThe mountain looms overhead and it’s tricky to pick out the route but it starts to become clearer. It appears there are several lines up. As the way becomes steeper we pass from grassy slopes to crag and rock. The guidebook recommends following the cairns but they are hard to spot from a distance. Charlotte spotted a dip in the South East ridge and we aimed for that. The weather is in our favour today. The tip of the mountain is clear and the way is sheltered from heavy winds. We’ve been told how quickly the weather can change along the Cuillin Ridge. One of Charlotte’s friends from the mountaineering club says he’s attempted the pass four times and failed due to bad weather conditions.Sgurr nan Gillean

The views from the South East ridge are spectacular. The landscape is barren with the Cullen Ridge casting a jagged dark line against the sky. Walking along the rocky ridge engages our hands as well our feet. I like this kind of hike. Reaching the summit requires small scrambles. The tough gabbro rock is grippy and is easy to ascend. We are treated to a clear view from the summit and we’re incredibly lucky to have good weather. Sensing that rain was not far away, we didn’t spend long on the top and started scrambling down. As predicted the rain did come, picking up for the last hour of the walk but our spirits were high, especially as we could see the finest whisky bar in Scotland in the distance.Sgurr nan GilleanIndeed, the pub offered an outstanding selection of whiskies however after such a walk, a beer was the more refreshing proposition. The Olympics were on in the background and at the bar, we noticed a poster advertising a storyteller for 9pm. So after a refreshing shower, we went back to the pub for fish & chips and gathered around George MacPherson, a softly spoken elder man with a decent beard, walking stick and kilt. He told us a selection of folklore from the Isle, that had been passed down orally through his family for many generations. Many stories featured fairies, or “little people” as he called them, as well as giants and terrifying-sounding water horses that emerged from the pools and kidnapped children. It was the perfect end to the day.

Glencoe Open Water Swim

Beautiful hillsides and mountains towered over the lightly misted loch as we pulled on our neoprene wetsuits. We were here for the five kilometre Glencoe swim. Due to patchy weather conditions on the days leading up to the event, the swim route had been simplified. Rather than looping around an island on Loch Leven, we did three legs of a circuit marked out by buoys, all just about visible from the shore. It was a little disappointing to have to swim circuits but we were so glad to be in such stunning surroundings.Glencoe Open Water SwimI was nervous as we jumped into the water. It was bracing, surprisingly salty and even a little choppy in one section. Swimmers were setting off at different times depending on their distance. We were the second of two groups that day swimming 5km and there was about 40 of us in the group; few enough to spread out so there were many quiet times in the waters. The sections were also long enough to feel a bit disorientated as I scanned the horizon for the next buoy to swim towards. Before long I fell into my rhythm and kept a constant pace up, breathing every three or four strokes. It took 1 hour 26 minutes to complete – a pleasant surprise as this was probably the furthest I had swam in one go. My training only took me to around 3km.Glencoe Open Water SwimOnce we had our flapjack and after-swim soup, we sat down in the hotel and looked up at the mountains. One was particularly distinct, marked by a big hump and called the Pap of Glencoe. Charlotte, always ready for the next challenge said “we should climb it”, settling our plans for the next day.

That evening we stopped into a recommended pub called the Craige for a beer and portion of chips, before heading back to our cosy AirBnB in Kinlochleven with its wood burning stove.

Thinking beyond the EU referendum: reasons to Remain

Next week, I’m going to participate in the most momentous political decision of my lifetime. The polls say it’s close and I’m on the edge of my seat, anxious and worried. I’m worried that we might be about to make a huge mistake if we turn our backs to what I believe is the most democratic, successful and peaceful political union ever created.

I hold great respect for anyone that takes time to grapple with this, listening respectfully to both sides and forming their opinion. Complex questions have no right or wrong answer and we sometimes have to take gut decisions. However on this issue, I believe the arguments to remain are decisive: for peace and prosperity, for business and economics, and critically, for our environment.

Over the past few months, I have become increasingly convinced that remaining is both a smart and a morally right decision. This post explains some of the reasons why. There are few original thoughts here. It’s more a re-telling of insights from various articles with relevant facts that have helped me form my position.

“I want my country back!”

I’ve heard this statement a few times from those intending to vote for Brexit. It’s the call for a sense of control, the desire to claim back our full sovereignty. When thinking about this, it’s important to try and imagine what type of country we may get back if we leave the EU and who’d be in charge. Firstly, a Brexit will be the beginning of the end of David Cameron’s premiership. It is likely there will be calls for his resignation. Although he intends to stay, the blow to his passionate remain campaign will likely be enough to force a resignation as the job becomes untenable. Someone else will be considered better placed to spend the next few years embroiled in the inevitably quarrelsome EU exit talks.

Boris Johnson is the likely front-runner to become Tory leader and therefore could become our Prime Minister until 2020. Our new government will consist largely of more right-wing Eurosceptic Tories, with the softer pro-EU Conservatives disbanded because they lost the referendum.

Once we untangle ourselves from the EU, our government will no longer be subject to some of the broad, progressive rules and safeguards of the EU, such as on workers’ rights, free movement and protections of the environment. The extra sovereignty we gain from a Brexit provides us with more control and this is a good thing if you trust and agree with the Government’s positions on issues. But what about the next government? And the one after that? What we lose with a Brexit is the steady weight of important EU legislation that protects our status as a democracy, upholds human rights and respect for, and protection of minorities (all conditions for membership).

As remain campaigners often remind us, the EU is not perfect. One of my favourite Professors, Tim Lang who specialises in food policy said he has spent most of his career critiquing EU policy but makes a passionate case for remaining if we are ever to fix our broken, highly unsustainable food system.  Similarly does George Monbiot in his article “A lesser evil”, in which he outlines how he is starting to hate the European Union, but will vote to stay in.

Although the EU is not always perfect, it has been developed peacefully and democratically (more democratically than the UK, despite what Brexit campaigners say), enabling important progress such as democracy, peace and collaboration across Europe.

Turning away from this peaceful link with our European neighbours is stepping into a risky unknown. The country we get back may not be the one we hoped for. Let’s dig a little deeper into this…

What actually happens legally?

In order to start the process of leaving the EU, our government must invoke Article 50 and pass legislation. Article 50 triggers a (minimum) two year negotiation between the 27 Member States and the EU Commission which is then passed to EU Parliament to ratify. According to Neil Warwick, an EU and competition lawyer from Square One Law, there are four possible “out” outcomes as described in this graphic:

SQ1 Law EU Referendum

Warick explains that “It is important to recognise in three of the four scenarios, the UK would still be subject to EU law and free movement of people, but crucially would no longer have any input into the formation of new EU laws”.

Leaving the EU means that our voice has less weight on issues such as monetary, trading and environmental policies of the 26 countries on our doorstep. Our voice and influence will be weaker, not just in Europe, but globally. Obama argued this case recently, framing our current status in the EU as one that magnifies our influence in the world.

By staying in, we can help shape crucial environmental laws that depend on international co-operation. Without this platform, we are a lone voice, unable to participate as forcefully in some of the most important challenges that humanity faces.

How will other countries react?

A Brexit is a blow to core EU members and divorcing ourselves from the various EU treaties will be a complicated process. However EU diplomats have suggested there would be a push to get the Brexit process done quickly to avoid it dominating the agenda.

I believe it’s wishful thinking that we will get a favourable deal. After submitting Article 50, the EU is in charge of the timetable during two years of negotiations and the UK is excluded from key decisions as well as the final vote. During this period, the UK could be presented with a ‘take it or leave it’ deal.

EU members are likely to impose tough terms for the UK in some areas, sending a message that you can’t keep the advantages of the EU while being outside it. “Core EU members like France and Germany may also look to assert their influence in a reconfigured bloc to sway other countries against adopting an easy-going attitude toward the Britain”. The tough areas for us will likely be trade and economy, where it could be more difficult for UK businesses to trade with the EU. With about 44% of our exported goods and services going to Europe, this is where the risk lies. Brexit campaigners usually shrug this off, arguing that we can look beyond the sluggish economies of the EU to more dynamic parts of the world.

I have two main objections with this. Firstly an environmental objection. We need to be moving in a direction towards more local, bioregional production and consumption. This is a recognised aspiration in the EU and working within it as a member, makes this more likely. Secondly, this argument is a claim about the future, predicated on trading relationships that do not yet exist. Negotiating international trade agreements may not be easier alone. Take the USA, perhaps it’s just scare-mongering, but when Obama said that UK will be “at the back of the queue” on trade agreements, he was probably being realistic. Organising and maintaining a strong trading relationship with a large bloc will be their first priority.

There’s also a train of thought that the disruption from our Brexit may trigger a slow break up of the Union. This would be a tragedy for democracy, especially if the break up occurred through feelings of resentment. After everything the EU has provided over 70 years of peacetime, I’m not convinced a break up would happen and have faith in our neighbours that they would continue to work together through the EU. I believe our Brexit could shake a lot of things up, however the forum the EU provides is strong enough to withstand it.

“There’s no more space!”

Over recent years, there’s been a growing sentiment that immigrants are to blame for many societal problems. The hope of strictly controlling our borders is a primary motivator for many voting for a Brexit. This is the big issue. It’s complex and needs to be approached carefully and sensitively, as it can feel a confrontation to the freedoms of many people in our lives, from neighbours and colleagues, to friends and family.

Firstly. Let’s not hide from the fact that immigration does put additional pressure on housing and public services, in particular schools and our health service which are already struggling. I can therefore completely understand the rationale behind wanting better controls on immigration to ease these pressures and safeguard the quality of our services. “There’s no more space!” is the statement that neatly sums it up for many in the Leave camp. For many who back Brexit, their arguments always returns to this logic. However let’s unpack immigration a little more, as it deserves deeper examination.

As explained earlier, in most scenarios, leaving the EU will not enable us to prevent the free movement of people in Europe. If we do manage to implement strict border controls after our withdrawal, it will likely come as part of a tough compromise on EU trading relationships. That’s one risk but probably not a deal-breaker for a Brexit campaigner.

Actually, what has convinced me more about remaining in Europe was understanding our current immigration system more and holding a belief that by working together with other EU members, we are much better placed to peacefully resolve the challenges of migration over time.

1. Useful numbers

Last year, net immigration from EU countries was 184,000 and from non-EU countries, it was 188,000. The majority of immigrants have nothing to do with Europe. The UK isn’t bound to accept non-EU immigrants by any international treaties, so we could have controlled the flow of people from outside Europe, but we didn’t. This was for three main reasons:

  1. We have a growing economy and we need the skills: unemployment rates have been falling more or less constantly for the past five years. Our social services depend on immigrants, particularly health where a quarter of NHS doctors are foreign nationals. The BMA advises that “without the support of these doctors many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients”.
  2. Many come for a limited time: three quarters of immigrants move to the UK for work or study and only a proportion of these will remain for longer periods.
  3. Immigration has an economic benefit: the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration found that between 1995-2011, EU immigrants contributed £8.8 billion more than they gained.

Long-term international migration estimates of immigration to the UK, by main reason for migration, 2005 to 2014 (year ending December 2014)

Some other points worth considering are that:

2. Accessing benefits and public services

At the heart of the immigration debate for many people is an unwillingness to share public services, despite the irony that without immigrants, they would fall apart. The rights to free movement are in treaties that form the primary law of the European Union. However they are not absolute or unconditional. We can interfere with free movement rights for reasons such as public policy, public security and public health however we rarely do this, probably for some of the reasons outlined in the previous section.

Contrary to suggestions otherwise, no-one can turn up and instantly have access to “public funds” such as jobseekers’ allowance, child benefit or tax credits, although people can access public services like the NHS and education. This puts additional pressure on those services but given every other benefit that immigration brings, this is clearly worth it.

3. Why a Little England attitude is dangerous

As immigration dominates the heart of this referendum, a vote to leave sends a signal on how we feel about immigrants and will fuel the growing resentment in our society towards outsiders.

The climate change we are on track to experience this century, together with population increases, mean that mass migration and those needing asylum will increase. What we have seen in recent years is probably just a small flavour of the challenges we have to come.

If we vote Remain, we have a better chance of working together to coordinate and support these mass movements. It’s critical to have a forum to talk about it and frameworks to peacefully manage it. If anything is clear from this referendum, it’s that change is necessary. This is recognised across all nations in Europe. By sticking together, peaceful progress is more likely, working under social democratic values than going it alone. As history repeatedly teaches us, civilised democracies can easily be inflamed by racism and xenophobia. We are starting to see this nasty atmosphere build, not only at home but even with one of our biggest allies, the USA, represented by the rise of Donald Trump. For the sake of peace, we must fight it, and the EU gives us the best platform to do so.

On the environment

This is an area of huge importance but I will spend the least time on it. Simply put, the EU enables us to take a bold and coordinated action on responding to climate change as it unravels. What’s critical here are how our challenges are shared across nations, so the benefits of a coordinated response are in all our interests. Specifically, concerns such as the collapse in biodiversity, how we transition beyond oil, food security, land use, natural disasters and how we de-couple economic growth from unsustainable consumption. Thanks to the EU, progress has been made in many of these areas and it’s vital that we step up our efforts and work harder on this together.

More on economics

Eurosceptics rage against the cost of EU membership and will make misleading claims about it. The net cost of membership to about £7 billion per year, less than half a per cent of national income — about £260 a year for each British household. Given that the EU provides us with easy access to a $16.6 trillion a year Single Market of 500m people, the membership cost feels like good value to me.

With about 44% of our trade going to Europe, it would be reckless to prejudice our ability to pay for our health service, to pensions and public services after a Brexit, particularly when we do not have a very clear strategy beyond.

The Leave campaign has famously quoted a £350m saving on money sent to Brussels. This is mythical and has been discredited time and time again. The truth is nobody knows the true financial saving because it’s not possible to calculate it accurately. One of the most comprehensive Brexit reports by Open Europe believes a realistic range is between a 0.8% permanent loss to GDP in 2030 and a 0.6% permanent gain in GDP in 2030. Maybe this isn’t an area we can draw many conclusions from.

However there are authoritative voices that should be considered. Every substantial representative group of British business believes we should remain, and every significant economic forecaster and agency is warning against the economic damage that will be cause by a Brexit. “Even economists backing Brexit rarely argue that the EU has had an overall negative effect”.

The referendum does not completely guarantee our EU exit

It’s useful to remember why this referendum came about. It was called because of arguments in the right-wing of British politics; promised by the Conservative party to quell a split that was forming during a period when support for UKIP was rising and posing a threat to a Conservative win in the 2015 elections.

UKIP, a party with just one MP and a small number of Eurosceptic MPs have therefore been incredibly successful in putting this referendum on the table. The vast majority of our 650 MPs are Europhiles and do not back Brexit. Watching this wave of negativity towards the EU grow out of a campaign filled with scare-mongering and lies, will MPs really be willing to see through a full Brexit? For the sake of democracy, probably. But one interesting detail about this referendum is that it’s not legally binding, it’s only advisory. This means that it can be ignored by the UK government, even if the public votes for Brexit.

At the time of writing, polls are suggesting a swing towards Brexit. If this happens, parliamentary sovereignty might be the last glimmer of hope for remain campaigners, although it may send the public up in arms.

EU referendum opinion polls

Here’s how it could pan out: I expect most MPs will accept the mandate of the people, however everything regarding the terms of leaving is negotiable and the job of parliament to navigate. A Brexit vote may trigger turmoil in the finance sector and negative reactions from major businesses and countries. While navigating this, presuming Cameron holds his position for a period, he could delay issuing Article 50, arguing that this matter be put to parliament first to try and better establish what our new relationship with the EU should look like. In parliament, MPs may support a motion to protect Britain’s place in the EU with a major renegotiation of terms. It’s rather messy and very speculative. But anything could happen right now.

Voting for hope

Voting to divorce ourselves from Europe will likely do little to solve immigration and as discussed in this post, may well do more harm than good. Certainly, for the first few years we will see no change and the news will be dominated by messy negotiations with our neighbours as we withdraw. All the while, those that voted to leave will feel the same sense of powerlessness and the old problems will still be unresolved: more cuts, property bubbles, low skills, low productivity and continued migration.

Instead, by remaining, we send a message of hope. If we put as much energy into reforming the EU than trying to forge a success of Brexit, the UK and the EU could both be happier and better off. A vote to remain is a vote that says, “we’re willing to work together”. It sends a message that “we stand for peace and stability” with our neighbours. A vote to remain, is therefore, the obvious choice for me.

Late Night Radio Hour #11: Open The Windows, Let The Breeze In

My friend Sarah has put together a rather wonderful Late Night Radio Hour. This is Issue #11 in our late night series of midnight slumber tunes.

Instructions for use: At the end of a warm summer’s evening, come home, kick off your shoes, open the windows and let the breeze in. Pour yourself a drink (maybe a whisky, but the choice is yours), get comfortable, and press play.

The playlist goes like this…

1. Kyu Sakamoto – Sukiyaki
2. Chad & Jeremy – A Summer Song
3. Django Reinhardt – Manoir de Mes Rêves
4. Duke Ellington – Take The “A” Train
5. René Touzet – Pachanga Differente6. Max Cilla – Crépuscule Tropical
7. Mulatu Astatke – Tezeta (Nostalgia)
8. Aziza Brahim – Calles de Dajla
9. Nina Simone – Suzanne
10. Etta James – Sunday Kind of Love
11. Cosmic Rays, Sun Ra, Sun Ra Arkestra – Dreaming
12. Allen Touissant – Southern Nights
13. Amy Winehouse – (There Is) No Greater Love
14. Jon Brion – Theme
15. John Lennon – Jealous Guy
16. Yves Montand – Rue St Vincent
17. Claude Debussy – The Girl With The Flaxen Hair

When the Arctic melts

Will there be no ice at the north pole by the end of this summer? I have a friend who believes this is the year it will happen. Looking at the data and taking into account positive feedback loops, it’s certainly possible. Whether or not it happens this year, when it does happen, the moment will mark another major wake up call. A call to adapt, to redesign, to invest, to rethink and reassess. How can we transition peacefully to new models of enlightened agriculture and food distribution, water conservation, circular economies, low-carbon travel, magnificent reforestation and working cooperatively rather than competitively?

Fortunately, many of the solutions and ideas are already here for us to engage with. The even better news is that they don’t always mean giving things up. Our freedoms, our characters, our relationships can stay intact. We just need to be open to changing how we go about our lives, radically reframing what is valued as important. Luckily, many solutions that create a more sustainable society also happen to create a healthier society, with cleaner air, more empowering jobs and communities with a greater sense of belonging and connectedness. Living with a lighter footprint may just be a convenient bonus.

Transition will unlikely be smooth or easy. It will be rather messy with lots of people and companies pushing against the grain, fighting for outdated paradigms. That’s no excuse for us to remain in our old ways. Which story we are part of is a daily choice. With every meal and every move and every purchase.

Arctic Sea Ice Graph
Arctic Sea Ice Graph

Food as a relationship: a reflection on running a community farm

For over three years I’ve had the pleasure of managing a beautiful community farm on the edges of south London. It’s been one of the most interesting jobs I’ve had, combining my love of community work with social enterprise. With a heavy heart, I’ve recently decided to leave my job for new pursuits, but before doing so, I wanted to write some reflections about my time at the farm.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Sutton Community Farm means a huge amount to me and has taught me so much. Through the farm I’ve developed a deep interest in the role food plays in our culture, the impact it has our wellbeing, and how our food choices influence the wider ecosystem on which we deeply depend. These interests have led me to view food as more of a relationship that we’re in. We know how relationships are not always an easy ride; they require nurturing, understanding, listening and compromises – and they can go through periods of being healthy or unhealthy. Over time, relationships usually mature and grow in new directions. In the kitchen, we develop a more complex repertoire, build our confidence and develop a deeper sense of the positive roles food can have on our lives. Some relationships however can hit dead ends and turn stale. We become lazy, get into bad habits and stop looking after ourselves properly.

Many of our staff, volunteers and customers have a positive, healthy relationship with food. It’s inspiring to meet so many people that love to cook from scratch and work with the seasons to make nutritious, healthy meals from the food we’ve grown. We also meet many people who don’t have such confidence or adventurous attitudes. We meet children who are more familiar with tomato ketchup than tomatoes, parents who shield their children from leafy greens and teenagers who proclaim that they just don’t like any vegetables.


It takes time to loosen bad habits, develop tastes and nurture a healthier attitude towards food. I’d say people should come and join in with growing, cooking and eating good meals on our farm for at least 8 weekly sessions. Over this time, one is immersed in a positive culture of physical exertion and eating seasonal meals together. Time at the farm can make cracks in stubborn attitudes and motivate people towards a healthier lifestyle. This experience may only be a starter and while we don’t transform lives immediately, we provide a space that helps people take steps in the right direction.

We recently started a project called Sutton People’s Kitchen and it’s my hope that we can reach out and create more positive food experiences for people in the wider community, who perhaps won’t come to the farm. During 2016, we are running a series of community cook clubs and banquets, cooking demonstrations and food documentary film screenings. Behind the concept is the idea that giving advice, no matter how well-meaning, rarely inspires positive change. Rather, an integrated, variety of services and experiences will help motivate people to have healthier relationships with food.


Local health and wellbeing data reminds us what we’re up against. In the UK, obesity affects about a quarter of adults and a fifth of primary school children. When it comes to eating the recommended 5 A DAY, just 16% of children and around a quarter of adults achieve this. A diet low in saturated fat, salt and sugar and high in fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of a range of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke. The evidence is on the table which is why it’s so heart-braking to see completely avoidable diet-related illnesses take hold in young children; their chances of living a full and active life being stripped away before they’ve even finished school.

This is a major public health challenge and it’s an incredibly complex area, having behavioral, genetic, environmental and social components. Our farm cannot offer a solution to such a public health issue as obesity. In fact, I don’t believe anyone can – there are no silver bullets. However, we can offer value as part of a comprehensive ‘whole systems’ approach to improving health.

Looking at the type of food available in our local communities, our bad state of health is not surprising. It’s not just the obvious fast food outlets like Chicken Cottage and Subway that are guilty, the big chain supermarkets are equally dangerous places to visit. When visiting such shops, I find it’s best to skirt around the edges, only taking the fresh food and any other essentials, then quickly getting out before any special offers grab my attention. The majority of supermarket stock, I’d suggest about 85%, is not doing us much good. It’s cheap, processed food-like stuff. This is one of the good things about our Veg Box scheme. It provides a regular source of good, wholesome and affordable food. After running a VegBox scheme for the last few years, I recognise how challenging this product can be for people who are picky about their vegetables or have chaotic lifestyles. In response, we’ve made our scheme as flexible as possible and we help people out with storage tips and cooking ideas.

Cooking demo at the farm

Community farms not only deliver good food; they invite people to join in with another part of the food journey – production. After years of involvement in the voluntary sector, I know how hard it can be for projects to attract committed volunteers. Yet on our farm, we are rarely short of people willing to join in. I believe one reason is because food growing is an incredibly inclusive activity, appropriate for people of all ages and abilities. One of our volunteers, a retired head teacher recently said that as soon as she steps onto the farm, all her worries and problems go away and she feels a great sense of peace.

Weeding the salad

Sowing seeds and working with the soil is an intimate experience and one that requires patience and dedication through the seasons. When we sit down to eat our produce at the farm, we treasure the food on our plates, appreciating every delicate flavour. There’s nothing like eating produce that you’ve grown and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had that pleasure almost daily over these last few years. And I hope this will continue for the rest of my life.

I believe more than ever before that community food projects like ours can have a powerful role in healing broken relationships. As I step away from the daily involvement at Sutton Community Farm, I hope it will continue to thrive and act as a role model to other communities, helping create more resilient, healthier food systems that we so desperately need.

Finding hope and optimism in a stressed world

We live on a planet under great stresses. Collectively, we are struggling to look after each other and the natural world we depend upon. Many of the environmental and social trends suggest we’re in for a tough time ahead. For many of us, we live with an uncomfortable gap between our everyday actions, and the actions required of us to lighten our footprint, easing the destruction we leave for our children to inherit.

I’m an optimist and a realist. Against my greatest wishes, I live in expectation of further anthropogenic climate change. The confluence of other trends too, both environmental and social, lead me to expect that many will suffer great difficulties in accessing the most basic resources. With great sadness, I live with doubts on whether equality and the eradication of poverty will ever be achieved.

Yet while holding all of this fear and despair in one hand, with the other hand, I simultaneously hold tightly onto an optimism and hope for a better world to rise.

I believe we can build our communities to have more resilience: to more resourceful, productive, fairer, safer and more inclusive. I believe that the neoliberal, capitalist values that currently dominate our economy, which struggle to acknowledge limits to growth, can undergo a great transformation to become fairer, serving both people and the planet. I believe that compassion can be infectious. That people have huge capacities for empathy, peace-making and sacrifice. I believe in our long track record of creativity and ingenuity. If focused in the right way, we can accelerate the social, cultural, technical innovation required for a better future.

We must not wallow in apathy and despair. It is possible to simultaneously live with our doubts, our fears and disappointments, yet hold onto optimism and hope. What else can we do but try and construct a better society? To be part of a struggle for something better.

It is often imagined that there is a destination in all of this. Yet this is a rough journey with no definitive end. Generations will rise and fall, each facing new, unexpected challenges that we cannot predict. They, like us, will be tasked to be brave, forgiving, to seek truth and develop intelligent, caring responses that helps us to move forward.

While we can’t predict the future, we can look to the horizon, anticipate future challenges and construct responses that support a more harmonious, sustainable society. It’s a difficult truth to accept that we cannot fix all the world’s problems. Perhaps it helps to imagine an arc-shaped trajectory. The best we can do is bend this arc a little more, towards something better.


A year on the farm 2015

What a year it’s been! So much happens on our farm and these are just a few snippets fro mthe year. This was originally posted on the Sutton Community Farm blog:

In the final few days of the 2015 we’ve been having a recap of the wonderful year that’s gone and looking forward to the exciting year ahead. We want to take this time to say a huge thank you to everyone that has helped make Sutton Community Farm such a vibrant, productive and special place. We feel so grateful to have this farm and such an incredible community around us. Here’s some highlights from the year:

January to March

In January we launched FarmStart – our food growing business incubator. We also went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference to join a panel discussion about local authorities and access to land.

On the farm, we were busy spreading compost, ordering seeds, sowing shallots and building a new polytunnel ready for the coming season.


In February we had a spot of snow and once that had gone, we had the pleasure of hosting legendary no-dig food growing guru, Charles Dowding on the farm. Charles spent the day with our growing team exploring strategies to improve our food production.


In March, we went deep into business planning on a bid to take on another 6 acres which we didn’t get, but that’s okay! We also had visits from local schools, Finton House and Bandon Hill.

April – May

April is when things really kick-in on the production front. We sowed thousands of seeds and prepared the beds for the season. We also launched Sutton People’s Kitchen, our outreach education project that brings people together to celebrate food, encourage healthy eating and promote local food growing. The project involves cook clubs, banquets, film screenings and a pop-up stall on the high-street running cooking demonstrations.


Following a popular community survey about opening a shop and cafe, we had public meetings to explore the idea further. From this, a shop steering committee was established who have been driving forward plans to open a cafe and shop on Sutton High Street. They have been meeting regularly, working hard and now the business plan is now complete and they are raising investment!

In May, we welcomed our new food growing apprentice, Harley. She’s has been a joy to work with and has made fantastic progress building her horticultural expertise.



In June we said farewell to Carlota who was bound for Brazil and welcomed our new Food Distribution Coordinator, Pavlina. One of her first tasks was a cooking demonstration at the Streatham Food Festival, which she embraced with heaps of enthusiasm.


We had an extra pair of hands from Matthieu, a work experience student from Normandy who came to help for 6 weeks. We also had two wonderful work experience students from the Link Secondary School and visits from the primary schools where we had been running after-school cook clubs.

Matthiew and team


July – August

In July we had a new compost toilet installed, which we are grateful to the Sutton Community Fund for supporting. The excitement about this loo should not be underestimated!


We also had a groups from Carshalton Ladies, as well as Google and Lloyds come to the farm for their away days and we had a appreciation volunteer party!

dsc00473sutton vol party


September was a big month! Not only were we starting to fill our VegBags with 100% produce from our farm, we also launched our Community Share Offer – making us London’s first community-owned farm. You can buy a share today!

We also had a wonderful Harvest Festival with a fantastic turn out. It’s always a joy to share the farm with so many people and celebrate harvest. On the day there were lots of games, cooking demos, pizza and music.

james harvesting tomatoesdsc00358dsc00318dsc00384

Later in the month, we ran a food business training day for staff and volunteers. We had lots of group visits including volunteers from the Sutton & Carshalton Women’s Register, the Greater London Authority, Reed Business, The Challenge and Wallington Brownies.

October – November

In October we finally launched ditched plastic bags for our new returnable bags, that were kindly sponsored by Luckies of London who also came to the farm for their away day. People are returning their bags at a good rate, which is great news.

Jute bags

We were also bowled over by two beautiful videos that were made about our farm. Student volunteers from The Challenge came to the farm as well as our volunteer Annie O:


In December we started sending a weekly big boxes of vegetables and fruit to Sutton Food Bank, to help people in crisis. We’ll do this throughout 2016 and this has been kindly supported by employee donations from Reed Business Information.

December also saw the launch of Grow Beer Sutton, our community hop growing and brewing project. Grow Beer is all about delicious, local beer: grown, brewed and enjoyed by the community.

We were excited to hear that Sutton Food Forum – a network we helped establish, formally joined the Sustainable Food Cities network. Sutton Food Forum is a network for organisations that have an interest in creating a better local food system in Sutton. It provides a forum where we can work with other local partners. One of the successes this year was helping the London Borough of Sutton sign up to the Sustainable Fish Cities Pledge, which commits them to use more sustainable fish in 1.5 million lunches served each year. 


Finally we did our last big harvest and had our Christmas parties! We packed the final VegBags of the year and now we’re ready for a well earned rest. Phew!

dsc00409 dsc00552team photo

Late Night Radio Hour #4: Alone in the Wilderness

A musical odyssey into the wilderness. Best for late night journeys across open plains, desert regions and mountain ranges.

1 Gold Panda – Bad Day Bad Loop
2 Kraftwerk – Morgenspaziergang
3 Rokia Traoré – N’Téri
4 Jef Gilson – Unknown
5 Peter Ivers – Miraculous Weekend
6 Robert Parker – Caught You In A Lie (Original Mix)
7 Gurdjieff / de Hartmann – The Struggle of the Magicians Part Three
8 Dick Proenneke – Alone in the Wilderness (film extract)
9 Fleetwood Mac & Christine Perfect – Albatross
10 Donnie & Joe Emerson – Baby
11 Sam Amidon – Fall On My Knees
12 Todd Terje – Johnny and Mary (feat. Bryan Ferry)
13 Daft Punk – Night vision
14 M. Ward – Well Tempered Clavier
15 Elliott Smith – Thirteen
16 The Beach Boys – God Only Knows (Live – Rehearsal)
17 Harry Kalahiki – Claire de Lune
18 Johnny Coles – So Sweet My Little Girl

We didn’t get the land, but that’s okay

Over the last year at Sutton Community Farm, we’ve had our eyes on 6 acres of unused land and buildings that sit adjacent. We were recently excited to have the opportunity to tender to lease this from the owners, Surrey County Council, who we rent our current land from.

With the additional land and buildings, our hope was to increase our horticultural production and take steps to start value-added production activities that increase the value of our products. As well as greater production capacity, the additional land and buildings would give us some much needed storage and help us be better equipped to support the local community through our educational activities. It also provided the opportunity for us to expand our Farm Start Food Business Growing Incubator and even have farm animals such as chickens and pigs. In short, it was a rare opportunity for our farm to secure space that opens up all sorts of possibilities that would make our farm more exciting and help move towards financial viability.


I’ve put a huge amount of work into the proposal which took the form of a Supplementary Business Plan. We decided to make this publicly available (click here to view, or here to download as a PDF), because we’re proud of it and think it may be useful for other community farms. One of our advisors, Rebecca Marshall from the Community Land Advisory Service said it was one of the most comprehensive land proposals she’d seen – and we know she’s seen a lot!

You know that wrenching feeling you get when you hand in an brilliant piece of homework and it comes back with red pen all over it and the words FAIL? That’s how I felt when I heard the news we were unsuccessful. Despite all our hard work, competition was stiff and someone else was chosen.

We’re obviously disappointed. However the purpose of this blog post is not to lament or moan, that’s not going to help anybody. There is perhaps some comfort in the news. The first comfort is that our farm stays relatively simple and our workload is not about to shoot through the roof as we get to grips with a new area. We can stay focused on what we have, which may be enough given our youth as an enterprise. After all, we’re still making adjustments to improve our cropping calendar and the site can be better organised and tidier.

The second comfort rests in the numbers. In preparing the Supplementary Business Plan we did a lot of number crunching. When it came to the expected income from growing, we found out that doubling our growing area offered only a small financial incentive. The profit margins on production are that low. However this was a conservative analysis and excluded opportunities such as increasing polytunnel area, where we can get a much higher income. The major income potential rested in opportunities from the buildings and the increased social and environmental activities that we can do with the community.

With the above reasoning, there is fair argument that perhaps things turned out for the best. In truth, there is no right or wrong answer. We are opportunistic as an enterprise. In this case, we saw an opportunity and took a well-considered punt. If successful, it could have transformed our farm and helped us take a step towards being more viable. But it could have also been a big ball-ache that left us exhausted. All we can do now is go back to the drawing board and keep plugging away, shaping our farm into the best enterprise we can.

The road will be tough but we are determined. We are not aware of any community farm in the UK that has a comfortable set of accounts. Food production is like that. We exist within a food system that is vulnerable and broken from many angles. We believe resilient local food systems are critical for a sustainable future and we will keep trying to make our farm an exemplary model. As we go, we need your help. So friends, family and supporters, please keep buying our produce, visit our farm and when we release them, buy a share.


We have since received feedback from Surry County Council on our application. It was explained that although our tender was very comprehensive, they chose an applicant who put in for all the lots, which included a house that we couldn’t afford or risk taking on. The idea being that it’s easier for them to manage one tenant rather than two. In addition, they said that the other applicant offered a “very impressive level of rent” as well as a plan that offered economic and social benefits to the area. During this process, we were pleased to learn that Surrey County Council considered social and environmental factors in their tender decision making process. This was stated in the original tender pack and according to our land advisor, Rebecca Marshall, this is extremely rare. 

While the legal documentation is still not completed, Surrey County Council can’t comment on the proposed usage of the land but mentioned it wouldn’t be in competition with us. This signals livery but we’ll have to wait and see. Our hope is to see more horticulture next door and we know several of the applicants were proposing this. We wouldn’t see this as competition. We would see this as a good thing for a variety of reasons, most of all, it would mean more local food production – which is what’s central to our mission.

Vote with your fork – a new years resolution

This post was originally written as a blog for the Sutton Community Farm website and has been slightly adapted for here:

I hope you are feeling rested and beginning the year filled with hope and good intentions. When it comes to new year resolutions I believe it’s best not setting too many. In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman suggested a few resolutions worth making. One of these was to select something to stop doing; to use the power of “no”. We live such busy lives with an infinite number of potential things to do but by spreading ourselves thinly, we can experience less depth, meaning and satisfaction. Rather it’s best to focus our energies on doing a few things well.

For most of us, cooking is a daily ritual that can easily become a chore with our busy lives. We understand that life with a VegBox is not always easy. Riverford’s vegbox customer survey in 2014 showed that 22% found it really easy; 25% struggled to identify all the contents and 39% didn’t know how to cook some of them. We can only assume that our VegBox customers are in a similar boat. We hope that we help make things as easy as possible for our customers and we encourage them to pick up the phone if ever they need some cooking ideas or tips.

While it can sometimes be tricky, the lifestyle a VegBox provides is highly nutritious and fun. It’s honest, local food, grown in your community from farmers you know and can trust. Eating food is also a political act. Michael Pollan once said that the wonderful thing about food is that you get three votes a day. It’s an amazing power we have. Every day we can help support a more sustainable agriculture, a cleaner environment and less reliance on fossil fuels.

Pollan Three votes per day quote

Three votes per day may feel daunting. We all have our junk foods that we can’t resist, and that’s fine. Which is why Oliver Burkeman’s final suggestion for New Year’s resolution is good: to ease up and cut ourselves some slack. Life can be tough, we aren’t perfect and are often prone to making bad choices, especially when we’re stressed or busy. So as you ease your way into the new year with a VegBox, we hope you find joy with the produce, learn new skills, and eat some sensational meals.

Late Night Radio Hour #3 Hurrah! It’s Christmas

A late night radio hour for Christmas. May you have a wonderful Christmas…

1. Unknown – Christmas With a Toddler, The Sound of Pure Joy, Circa 1953
2. Au – I’ll Be Home For Christmas
3. The Bird and the Bee – Carol of the Bells
4. Jim Croce – It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way
5. Belshazzar’s Feast – Gerald Road Mazurkas / Sans Day Carol
6. Half-Handed Cloud – A Favorite Christmas Gag Gift
7. James Brown – Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year
8. Nat King Cole – The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
9. Joni Mitchell – River
10. Sufjan Stevens – Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
11. Blitzen Trapper – Christmas Is Coming Soon
12. Glockenbass – While by the Sheep (How Great Our Joy)
13. Arthur Lyman – Mele Kalikimaka / Jingle Bells
14. Ella Fitzgerald – What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?
15. Fred McDowell – Woke Up This Morning With My Mind On Jesus
16. The Seeger Sisters – Shine Like a Star in the Morning
17. Nina Simone – Little girl blue
18. Joshua Stamper – Maker of Stars, Be Born
19. Mantovani and His Orchestra – Nazareth

Late Night Radio Hour #2: November At My Door

A Late Night Radio Hour for November. Inspired by dark winter nights, cobbled London streets and city lights, winter blues, socks and slippers, hats and gloves…

1. Tèshomè Meteku – Gara Ser Nèw Bétesh
2. Vashti Bunyan – Coldest Night of the Year
3. Emma Tricca – November At My Door
4. The Michael Garrick Trio – Sketches Of Israel
5. Joe Pass – Giant Steps
6. Robert Welch – What Shall I Do
7. Jackson C. Frank – Blues Run the Game
8. Beck – Sing It Again
9. Sun Ra – Dreaming
10. Mississippi John Hurt – Got The Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied
11. Barry Shultz – Bibb County Hoedown
12. Leah Siegel – A Little Love, A Little Kiss
13. Aaron Neville – She’s On My Mind (Original Mix)
14. Willie Mitchell – Groovin
15. Yamasuki – Aisere I Love You
16. Jerry Garcia, David Grisman & Tony Rice – Amazing Grace
17. Gonzales – Overnight
18. Jon Hopkins – Abandon Window

Sowing Seeds in the Desert, reflections on Fukuoka

My mind is often bubbling with enterprising project ideas and I’m grateful to feel so stimulated in life. Ideas spark the most when reading a visionary non-fiction book. I recently read Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka. It’s one of those books where you feel compelled to write notes as you go along, afraid some of the profound and insightful passages will get lost or forgotten.

Masanobu Fukuoka on his farm
Masanobu Fukuoka on his farm

I try to feel content that the words will not be lost; they can always be savoured again and that somehow they’ve made an imprint. What strikes me as I read books by writers such as Fukuoka, Charles Einenstein and Bill Mollison, is how far detached so many people are from the colourful dynamics and depth of ecological connections in the natural world. It’s a subtle, impalpable detachment which I feel in myself to varying degrees. This detachment is arguably a form of human suffering and contributes to an underlying anxiety in us. Charles Einenstein paints this discourse persuasively in his writing, calling it the Age of Separation.

Fukuoka argued that never has there been a generation like the present where people’s hearts are so badly wounded. Penetrating every area of society, from education and culture, to politics and economics,

“…the material path humanity has chosen is reflected in the degradation of the environment. Now, we have the ugly sight of industry, government, and the military joining forces in the struggle for ultimate power“.

All the time, nature quietly stumbles on, transcending beauty and ugly edges, good and evil. Nature simply exists and evolves, yet through our activities we have heightened the rate of extinctions way beyond the natural background rate. Our mismanagement of planet Earth can sometimes make us look like a disease nibbling away down the spine of Gaia, sending ripples of pain to every corner of the Earth. Stark language reflects the pain and the loss that I feel. We could do so much better.

Upside Down by Kelly Holohan. Let's turn it around.
Upside Down by Kelly Holohan. Let’s turn it around.

Writing from his tradition, Fukuoka proposes that the Asian tendency to live quietly and view the world as transitory is disappearing: “The new trend is toward glorifying modern civilisation and the idea that the material is almighty“. This is where we have arrived in the face of millions of years of evolution. If we really respected the natural world and sought to embody ourselves into living in closer harmony with it, we need to understand that our “progress” and achievements is not only rather weak, but an illusion.

How did Fukuoka come to these understandings of our place and position in the natural order? How did he go from a scientist working in plant pathology to a philosopher and farmer? In his book, he recounted going through a crisis of meaning in his younger years and an experience that caused him to click into a way of understanding the world. He started viewing the world through a lens that grasps nature in its entirety, a single interconnected reality with no intrinsic characteristics. From this new perspective he developed his philosophy which he expressed through the act of farming, pioneering the philosophy of “natural farming”.

An Indian farmer cultivating a paddy using natural farming techniques
An Indian farmer cultivating a paddy with natural farming techniques

In Sowing Seeds in the Desert, Fukuoka also wrote about how scientists all to often view the parts but not the whole. As I read Fukuoka, I am reminded of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that also stresses an understanding of the Earth as a giant, breathing, living ecosystem. Lovelock and Fukuoka both warn of the dangers of reductionism which gives way to narrow thinking, with scientists only viewing the planet through their discipline, whether they be geologists, biologists, chemists or geophysicists. We need these fields of studies to keep connecting with each other, constructing a grand picture of our relationship with the Earth as a living, dynamic system.

Fukuoka was a gentleman with a deep sense of connection with the natural world. People would travel from all over the world to visit his farm in Shikoku to learn from his natural farming techniques. His farm had impressive yields, beyond that of conventional farms in his region. From this he earned the respect and curiosity from the conventional farming establishment, that has generally moved the other way, deeper into industrialisation.

I hold hope in an awakening. A day when the steady march of progress and endless consumption shifts in direction and we turn towards the pursuit of a more harmonious relationship with the planet and a philosophies that rewild and connect us closely with the land. Some people think this hope is a naive pursuit and our ship has gone too far from its course. I prefer to hold optimism. The path is messy, difficult and frustrating – and it’s long. The awakening will be slow, one heart at a time, stifled and wounded by catastrophes along the way.

What Fukuoka taught his students was not only natural farming, he taught a philosophy – one that inspired and sent thousands of hearts in a positive direction.

“at the core there must be a sound, realistic way of seeing the world. Once the philosophy is understood, the appropriate techniques will become clear as day.”

I’ll finish with one final excerpt from Fukuoka that captures his spirit in observation and sense of wonder:

The poet Basho composed the haiku, “Ah how sacred / the light of the sun / on young green leaves”. Indeed – I can clasp my hands in reverence and kneel before the daikon flower. Even if I cannot make a poem as beautiful as Basho’s, my heart is singing, “Oh, the whiteness of the daikon flower / the radiance, the splendor!”

Stepping up and looking forward: what next for Sutton Community Farm?

I was recently in an interview pitching for some scale-up funding, when the interviewer asked me “what’s the big vision for the farm?”. She understood perfectly what we do and why we do it, but she was after a sense of our next steps and the scale of our ambitions. So I want to paint a few pictures that hopefully help describe our vision and the projects we are exploring that might lead us in that direction. This is described in five chunks: 1) doing what we do, but even better 2) increasing and diversifying production 3) creating new income streams 4) strengthening partnerships and 5) maintaining a spirit of openness. 

1. Doing what we do, but better

Since our beginnings 4 years ago, the growth of Sutton Community Farm has been consciously organic in its tempo and activities, as we have learnt about our land, our capacity and the needs of our community. As we look forwards with a vision and strategy, it’s important to reflect on what we have. I believe that our greatest asset is the sense of community. It’s a pleasure to share this with visitors that we welcome to the farm for tours and shared lunches. Our farm should be a place where people feel a sense of belonging, trust and can build friendships and enjoy that feeling of togetherness.

Balancing a commercial enterprise with an eagerness to welcome volunteers to our farm can sometimes create tension. Take the community out of Sutton Community Farm and it’s likely we would grow a different variety of vegetables using a different approach. Welcoming people to participate influences what we grow and how we grow. It enables us to achieve a high yield per acre and also recognise that food is not our only yield. Our farm is a place for sharing stories, nurturing friendships, renewing hope, increasing confidence and learning new skills to pass on to others. These yields are immeasurable.

While we yield such great things, we still must balance the books. So while we exist for we benefit of the community, we put on our business hats and think hard about how we can support land-based employment with a business model that is financially robust and replicable for other farms on the urban fringe.

Doing what we do, but better includes:

  • Improving the volunteer experience: keep improving the physical space to make the farm more welcoming and accessible. By training up Buddy Volunteers, we can also increase our capacity to support more volunteers, particularly those that need extra support.
  • Improving our VegBox scheme: as a project this barely breaks even let alone helps support the educational work on the farm. So we need to make it more profitable. This predominately comes through having more customers, but can also be supported by the existing customers spending more and improving our efficiency. We will continue to work hard at marketing, developing a sense of community around the box scheme and making the product more attractive and desirable. 
  • Find corporate volunteer groups: organisations coming to the farm for their team away day  help enormously with the workload, while providing a good income.

2. Increasing production: Farm Start and additional land

One of our core objectives as a farm is to increase local food production. We are working on two approaches to achieving this: the first involves us growing more, the other involves us supporting others to grow more:

Increasing our production: together with better crop management and soil-building activity, there is a small patch of additional land on our site that is becoming available in September. We are hoping to install an additional polytunnel on this plot. Polytunnels are valuable  as they enable us to grow higher value crops through the winter. We are planning to focus on increasing our wholesale income in this additional space, in particular the higher value crops such as salad. 

There is also 7 acres of vacant land adjacent to the farm.  We are exploring the opportunity to apply to Surrey County Council to take on this tenancy. This would be step change in our production and can open up the possibility for keeping chickens and increasing the Farm Start project…

Supporting others: we are really excited to have just launched a new project called Farm Start. This is a Food Growing Business Incubator that seeks to support new entrants into farming by helping them test out their commercial food growing enterprise ideas at a minimal risk. This is based on similar models that have been working in Canada and the edges of Manchester. With a close proximity to central London, we want to support some of the unique opportunities for food growing on the urban fringe.

3. Establish new income streams

There was a time when we hoped that the VegBox scheme would provide enough income to support most of our activities as a farm. We have put huge amounts of energy into achieving this however it’s clear that it will always have very tight margins and that other income streams are needed.

Secondary production is one avenue to explore. This is about turning our produce into higher value products. Another avenue is to have a shop front. We have experimented with a shop before. Our mobile VegVan operated in the early days of the farm (2010-11), selling affordable organic produce in different parts of the community. Financial viability meant it was not possible to continue this project and in 2012, we decided to invest our energy and time into the VegBox scheme.

However we believe there’s a strong case for a farm shop of sorts. So we are exploring the potential for opening a food hub that serves as an outlet for our produce, a cafe, and a hub for teaching people cooking skills. We would look to place the Food Hub on the high street, operating as a trading arm of Sutton Community Farm. This is currently being researched.

4. Strengthen partnerships

When I talk with people at our farm, it’s clear how passionate people are about our relationships between food and community. Food is central to our relationships, our health and our natural environment. We would like to be part of a bigger conversation about food in our community. So we have been leading on conversations with local partners and the Council to advocate for a local food partnership, enabling us to have a dedicated forum to help drive forward various sustainable food projects.

Over the last year we have also collaborated with a number of local organisations such as Sutton Housing Partnership, Carshalton College and Brassarie Vacherin. We would like to continue strengthening partnerships like this and finding new ways to collaborate.

5. Maintaining a spirit of openness

The experience of buying food in supermarkets and the abundance of processed food in our lives can make us feel quite disconnected from the source of our food. 

The process of nurturing seeds to plants, then harvesting, preparing and eating the food is beautiful and we want everyone to experience this joy. It helps us feel rooted and connected to the earth, which provides us with all our physical needs. The process is a pleasure, but it can also be back-breaking. We want to share these pains and these joys with the community. 

There’s an African proverb that goes “ubuntu ngumuntu nhabantu”. It translates as “I am because you are”. The concept is that we share a common humanity, a oneness; and when one person’s circumstances improve, everyone gains, and if one person is oppressed, everyone is diminished. We would like our community farm to be a positive building block in the community that helps other people and organisations to thrive, creating a positive ripple effect. 

Sharing our story is an important part of that process. Enabling people to have access to local food, to connect with how it’s grown and be part of growing it.

Are community enterprises easier in the city?

I was recently invited to sit on a panel at an event organised by the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that promotes and supports co-operatives and social enterprises in rural communities.

The session explored the similarities and differences of setting up a community enterprise in urban and rural settings and it sparked some interesting dialogue. Presented below are a scattering of notes from the session. My angle is mostly focused on the perspective of community food enterprises.

Bridging the gap: example of a peri-urban farm

I’ll start with a case study. I was invited into the discussion because of my work at Sutton Community Farm,  an enterprise on the edges of South London. We hover between the urban and the rural, a space we call peri-urban. Our land is designated as Metropolitan Green Belt, which means it has strong planning policy protections against future developments and restrictions on the use of land. The fundamental aim of Green Belt is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open.

The peri-urban zone: Metropolitan Green Belt land can be clearly seen in this photo of the southern edges of London where the urban sprawl stops. The estate in the photo is called Little Woodcote Estate and is owned by Surrey County Council.

Although small by rural standards, our seven acre holding feels luxurious in size, given our proximity to London. I often look across our field at the glimmering skyline at sunset as it bubbles with life, brimming with opportunities and full of promise. On grey days when I’m less optimistic, I see it weighed down under stress and congestion. The beautiful part about working on a farm, is that it offers you space to reflect, but I digress..

A farm positioned on the urban fringes has both unique opportunities and challenges.  In theory, the proximity to the city should provide us with an endless number of customers who seek super local, fresh produce. However at our small scale, there are various economies of scale that we cannot realise.  A VegBox scheme is the easiest way for us to distribute the variety of vegetables that we grow with minimal waste, however the margins are low and finding customers is still challenging under the shadow of supermarkets that offer cheap food at a convenience. 

We also sell our produce wholesale to restaurants. Our main challenge here is around matching demand and supply. While we have restaurants that are keen to source local, their ordering is often at short notice and very specific in the produce and quantity desired. Some of these challenges are being overcome as we nurture our relationships with the chefs. Scale is still a challenge though. It’s worth keeping in mind that London is a big and we aren’t that close to the centre. It’s a 25 mile round trip and the delivery costs and congestion charges rack up when we are supplying into the centre.

Farm map 8th May - Version 2
Sutton Community Farm’s seven acre holding

While urban and peri-urban farms may not have scale on their side, they do have the proximity of a large population that are a potential marketplace for services such as education, ecotherapy and business away days. The key in community farming is to identify your USPs and the understand the potential for each income stream, building your enterprise around this. It’s easier said than done. The primary motivator for most food enterprises is, understandably, to produce food. However this is the one income stream that pays such a measly amount; this can demotivate and undermine a project’s rationale. It’s a common tension for community farms and many are struggling to diversify to fill the revenue gaps so that everyone gets paid.

So in summary, my experience is on the fringes of the city where I’d argue that a community food project can harness a greater and more diverse income stream. The best of both worlds! But I’m not saying it’s been an easy ride.

How do the needs of urban and rural communities differ?

Behind every enterprise is a collection of people driving it. To help us understand the unique challenges of setting up a community enterprise in urban and rural areas, it’s important to understand as best we can, the challenges faced by the people in each of these communities.

The needs and desires of urban and rural people are broadly the same, but the ability to fulfil these needs differs significantly. Those shared needs include a sense of community, safety and security; there’s also access to basic products and services, such as education and health. When these needs are not adequately fulfilled, those that are able to move away will leave and enterprises will struggle to make ends meet.

A common trend is people moving out of rural communities to find better jobs in towns and cities, and then people moving into rural areas because the housing is cheaper. The dynamics of these movements vary significantly around the country, depending on issues such as transport access, tourism and employment opportunities. 

Fragility of the rural

Rural communities have sparse populations, with jobs and homes scattered across a wide area. This gives rise to many complex inter-related problems spanning employment, transport, housing and childcare.

A few years ago, I almost took a leap and moved into the rural countryside for a new life, but it was some of these fears that held me back. I was researching the opportunity to invest and move onto a 7 acre holding of land in rural Devon. It was part of a scheme where the land had gained temporary planning permission for the intention of supporting a new small-scale farm enterprise. This made the opportunity particularly attractive; I could build the most beautiful homestead and run a commercially viable farm that would one day also serve the community through education and horticultural therapy. That was the vision.


As I plunged deeper into the details of business planning, it became  clear how difficult it would be. Because of the location, I could see that the marketing and distribution of produce as an independent retailer was going to require a huge amount of energy and costs. As an outsider, not familiar with local markets and production, competition was unknown. In rural communities, the networks are also smaller and your success relies more on word-of-mouth, relationship building and trust. My educational and therapeutic horticulture ideas were scuppered as I learnt about strict Council restrictions on business activities that increased traffic on the narrow, country roads – a concern apparently shared by the neighbours. At the end of the day, these were risks I was not prepared to take on at the time.

Two of the major challenges for people living in rural areas is proximity of work and finding suitable jobs. The city benefits from the density of people and businesses, while the rural is  challenged by the sparsity. These challenges make rural communities more fragile, meaning enterprises can be more vulnerable to collapse. This locks many people into cities, their scale giving a feeling of boundless promise and potential. The countryside offers a slower, simpler pace.

So community food enterprises in urban areas must be easier?

While rural community enterprises may feel more fragile, urban community enterprises have their own set of challenges:

  • Higher land prices: the competition for space in cities pushes up land prices. As an example, Sutton Community Farm pays around 6 times more in rent than the UK average for horticultural land (£703/acre compared to UK average of £115/acre – data from Savills).
  • Greater land insecurity: as urban populations grow, pressure mounts on any available land. Planning policies can be vulnerable to change and so land-owners don’t want to tie up their land in long-term lease arrangements. This stifles investment into enterprises.
  • Higher rents and living costs: mean that the enterprise will have higher staffing costs. For example, the Living Wage is calculated as £8.25 in the UK, and £9.40 in London. The average home in London is now worth more than twice the average home outside the capital – a difference approaching £200,000 (granted that London’s housing market is unique to the UK).
  • But the cost of food remains similar in urban and rural areas: in supermarkets, the cost of food is mostly immune from the location. Therefore if the primary source of income for the project is from food, then your margins are tighter, or even negative!

Another insight from experience: Londoners who come from deep in the city centre to our farm on the edges will say how much they yearn for the open space and connection with nature. These moments of access to nature are important. Yet it’s all to easy to go without connecting with the land for long periods.

Supporting community enterprise

This has been a fairly loose collection of thoughts and I’ll try to wrap up with some final thoughts that look ahead to solutions. These thoughts are rather rushed, but I’m keen to consider some practical steps forward.

I want to understand if there are some solutions that can simultaneously help the separate sets of challenges faced by urban and rural communities. And consider if we foster a stronger sense of connection between the two communities?

Some brief thoughts. Firstly, investment into food and horticultural education in schools is desperately needed to encourage a new generation of farmers. This will support urban food projects, create better links to rural communities and create more draws to the countryside. Second, agricultural policies are not working to support a wider range of thriving family farms, rather they incentivise industrialised farms (the Landworker’s Alliance have a range of policy suggestions on this).  Third, supermarkets, have too much power over the food chain and government policy to regulate their practices is too weak – this is a whole can of worms for another discussion. Open source technology or co-operative platforms can assist people in both communities to access local food affordably. And finally, in urban environments, planning policies should support increased food growing spaces and encourage garden cities, following in the vain of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas.

Wine Rides: a cycle tour of English vineyards

An account of my Wine Rides holiday. Most photos courtesy of Tom Chance, to whom I’m grateful.

Wine Rides Day I

I start the morning with a cycle from Sutton to Orpington which involves pedalling along A-roads and navigating around Croydon. This isn’t a relaxing start to a holiday but I am glad to be out and feel anticipation running through my calves as I embark on a weekend of cycling through beautiful countryside. From Orpington I take the train out to Wadhurst, a small market town in East Sussex where I meet the rest of my weekend troupe.

Wine Rides is a cycle touring holiday around English vineyards. It’s a novel idea, started by friends Hayley and her husband Alex. As someone who can easily get bored on beach holidays and city breaks, the idea of a cycle holiday with a purpose is perfect. My friends Tom and Rachel are here too and I’m happy to be able to enjoy some quality time with them.

There’s 11 of us on the tour. Three couples, four ladies and then me. At Wadhurst Station we offloaded our bags into a van that would go ahead to our first campsite. It’s great not to be weighed down with heavy loads. On Wine Rides, tents and food are all provided.

After a brief introduction to the trip, we were on the road, heading towards Carr Taylor vineyard, just north of Hastings. It’s a 23 mile ride and although it was fairly hilly, I loved the freedom of being out in the country, and felt surprise at how fit and energetic I felt. I could feel the endorphins whizzing around my body while the sun soaked into my arms and the back on my neck. We stopped at a pub for a picnic lunch, and later on, we passed by the town of Battle for an ice cream, before making it to our destination vineyard at 5pm.

Carr Taylor Vineyard

The Carr Taylor vineyard is 37 acres in size, and like many English vineyards, they grow a German grape variety which is suitable for our cool climate. They are one of the first commercial vineyards in England and their vines are 40 years old. We had a tour of the vines and equipment before heading in for a wine tasting.

It seems so simple but I didn’t make the connection that Cava, Champagne, Prosecco and Sparkling wine are really all the same thing; we’re just talking about place. Champagne has a protected georgraphical status under EU law. So Cava refers to “champagne” made in Spain (mostly Catalonia), prosecco is that made in Italy. For “champagne” made in England, we simply call it sparkling wine.

Carr Taylor does both sparkling and still wines. In recent years, they have been planting grape varieties suited to sparkling: Bacchus, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It seems to be the current trend for English vineyards.

David, tour guide, Carr Taylor Vineyard