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Flour Power: The Miller’s Tale

As the first COVID-19 lockdown hit the UK in early 2020, our nation suddenly looked very different. Supermarket shelves were empty and, for the first time in most people’s lives, we started to question how we were going to feed ourselves and our families. Almost overnight, localised food systems went from being niche fantasies to a vital source of sustenance for many people around the country.

One thing this pandemic has made clear is that food doesn’t come from supermarket shelves. It never did. Food comes from the soil, the sea – and the hands of people.

In the series, we hear from those people – people who stepped up back in March to feed the nation, who are still feeding us today – and who we’re all relying on to feed us in the future. This is a celebration of these key workers, a thank you and a call to action – so we don’t forget just how ‘key’ they are.

One of those key workers is Abigail Holsborough, lead miller at Brixton Windmill. Abigail’s story – and that of Brixton Windmill – encapsulates for me a lot of the key themes of ‘Who Feeds Us?’: the call for dignity in our food system, the power of community and localised production models, and the need for wholesome food that nourishes the soul as well as the body.

Abby Rose


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Farming as the Climate Changes: Molino de la Isla, East Pecos, New Mexico

The world is facing a climate crisis and the changes this brings are dramatically impacting farmers across the world. As temperatures rise and rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable, production is dropping and businesses are struggling. However, in the United States, climate change still divides opinion. Many still question its scientific validity, including the President who said climate change was ‘an expensive hoax’ and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement.

However, in opposition to those climate-deniers, there are passionate and engaged people across America who are desperately working to keep us within the two-degree Celsius limit. In light of that division, we wanted to talk to farmers across the US to understand how they view climate change and what steps (if any) they were taking to address it.

The SFT will run this series over the coming months, featuring a diverse range of American farmers. This week we interviewed Ralph Vigil who runs Molino de la Isla in northern New Mexico. Molino de la Isla Organics is an organic farm created to promote and to protect the acequias of Nuevo Mexico through organic agriculture, regional marketing and consumer education for the socio-economic benefit of local communities. The acequias are an organised system of waterways for agriculture and there are over 100 throughout the state. Molino de la Isla runs a CSA veg share scheme and works with young people to preserve traditional agricultural practices.

What are your biggest concerns about climate change and its effect on your farm in particular?

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Nature’s store of wisdom: The value of open-pollinated seeds

Over the decades, seed saving gardeners have maintained many of these heritage varieties but very few are commercially available. One reason is that selling such seeds isn’t very profitable – you can’t make much money with something that is widely available for free: most heritage and some modern varieties are ‘open pollinated’ so anyone is free to save the seeds for the next growing season. Contrast that with most of the varieties that you buy in a supermarket or on a farmers’ market. You could save the seeds, but even if they were to germinate, don’t expect the crop to look anything like the produce you initially bought. Most modern varieties are hybrids, which means their seeds are either sterile or the offspring are not ‘true to seed’.

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The return of home-grown cereals

Our daily bread was for centuries the product of a community-oriented and collaborative food system.

The Book of Exodus recounts the tale of the Hebrew slaves, who in their haste, fleeing for their lives from Pharoah’s Egypt, had no time for their bread to rise and so carried it upon their backs. Now, Jewish communities around the world remember that story, recalling their time in bondage, by eating unleavened bread during the Passover festival.

Bread is intrinsic to cultural knowledge for people the world over. In Britain, even relatively recently, bringing in the harvest would have been a community enterprise, different members of the village taking on roles from cutting or reaping to putting the sheaves into stooks to dry.

Sustainable grain

Bread can be so much more than a pillowy, processed loaf of sliced white, a vehicle for sandwich fillings. Fresh bread can be a revelation: richly satisfying, full of nutrition and bursting with flavour, inviting you to slather a slice with something at least as tasty. As part of a regenerative food network, it can speak volumes on cultural sharing, economic fairness and the joy of breaking bread together.

I’ve been involved in the Welsh Grain Forum with miller Anne Parry at Felin Ganol watermill for some years. We’re working with farmers, millers and bakers to help get good home-grown food into more Welsh kitchens. We’re seeing a move back to collaborative food systems with modern ecological approaches and on a more regional, and we believe, a more resilient, reliable and relatable scale.

Right up until World War II, Wales was covered in cereals. Grains were grown right across the country. Old reference maps show Wales pockmarked with many small arable fields (detailed in brown).

Anne says that in her village of Llanrhystud there would, at one time, have been four grain mills. Now, hers is the only one.

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The vital role local authorities could have in shaping food systems

The vital role local authorities could have in shaping food systems

In a world where most of us buy our food from big food retailers with global supply chains, and governments set the policy framework, it might not seem that local authorities have much of a role to play in our food system. However, they still have control of the ‘old infrastructure’ of markets, food safety inspections and roads, and they have much responsibility for food and food production, including school meals, meals on wheels and the provision of allotments. They are also the voice of local food, reporting back to national government, and they have a role in maintaining public trust.

Local government is therefore well placed to take a lead on local food security. That was the argument put forward by Tim Lang and others in a paper on why local authorities should prepare food plans for Brexit, recommending the creation of Food Resilience Teams that would conduct audits and make risk assessments, consulting with appropriate food-related professional bodies as well as local interests. Written in 2018, when concern was growing about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on food supply chains, it now reads as a dress rehearsal for the actual calamity that is COVID-19.

The rush on seeds, compost and local veg box delivery schemes that followed lockdown was a sign of public anxiety about the reliability of their food supply. For some, the threat was more psychological than real, as supermarket supplies are now returning to normal, but it does raise real questions about our dependency on imports. Meanwhile, for others, the loss of paid work and the requirement for some to self-isolate, has meant problems with shopping or paying for food.

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A light at the end of the Covid tunnel?

A light at the end of the Covid tunnel?

In farming and food systems, as in every other avenue of public life, context is everything, as I said during a discussion on Al Jazeera’s ‘Inside Story’, this past Thursday.

On the programme, which asked how coronavirus is threatening food security, I pointed out that all the stories making international headlines in relation to the impact of the pandemic on food – milk being poured down the drain, plane loads of eastern European vegetable pickers licensed to travel to the UK to harvest salad crops, the hoarding, the scarcities –are reflective of the food system that exists, namely intensive, industrialised, globalised, damaging to the environment and public health and, above all, insecure and lacking resilience.

So, although the current food system seems so apparently successful, even to the extent that we have ‘coped magnificently’ with maintaining supplies of key staple foods to the consuming public during the COVID-19 emergency, we need to realise that this is actually a dangerous delusion.

In truth, this model of a highly intensive centralised production, packing and distribution system, for most of the foods that are sold in supermarkets, will continue to have devastating negative consequences on the planet and its people.

It is a system that has been progressively developed over the last few decades, driven mainly by its simplicity and accompanying economies of scale. However, this isn’t the full picture, since the process results in the loss of thousands of jobs, a huge negative impact on local economies, damage to climate change, biodiversity, public health and, as we can now see, food insecurity in the event of any sudden external shocks.

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What does a global pandemic mean for a global food system?

What does a global pandemic mean for a global food system?

In the last few weeks, we have all experienced the impact that COVID-19 has had on food supplies. With supermarkets picked clean, many are wondering whether this is a short-term reaction to the crisis or a prelude to more significant shortages as global trade grinds to a halt. Uncertainty about food availability could spark a wave of export restrictions, resulting in shortages on the global market and price spikes.

Already, there is increased price volatility due to the perceived likelihood of trade restrictions, with wheat prices climbing 8% and rice prices by 25%. Of even greater concern is Nigeria, where rice prices increased by more than 30% at the beginning of the outbreak in March in response to panic purchasing. This volatility, coupled with the domestic restrictions that many nations have placed on their citizens to control the spread of the disease, has led to worrying developments around the world, particularly in the Global South. In Zimbabwe, police confiscated and burned three tons of fruits and vegetables from farmers who had broken movement restrictions, while a stampede broke out at a food distribution centre in Nairobi, resulting in numerous injuries.

In order to head it off at the pass, the WTOWHO and FAO put out a joint statement encouraging countries not to limit their exports of food. The joint statement by their respective Directors-General highlighted the fact that ‘millions of people around the world depend on international trade for their food security and livelihoods,’ and continued to say that, ‘now is the time to show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to our common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition and improving the general welfare of people around the world’.

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The Self Sufficiency Surge

The Self Sufficiency Surge

Gardening journalist, Kim Stoddart examines the grow your own phenomenon that has emerged as a result of fears around food security since the pandemic lockdown.

In the days leading up to the restrictions (and ever since), there has been a sheer frenzy of interest in fruit and vegetable growing as people seek to turn over their back gardens, patios, windowsills (and indeed any available space) to home food production. The seed companies have been so inundated that there have been many reports of websites freezing, as they struggle to cope with the sheer demand for orders. 

The panic buying has moved from spaghetti and tinned tomatoes into seed and compost it would seem…

As someone who has been diligently writing away, trying to encourage organic home fruit and vegetable growing for years, even I have been taken back by the tsunami-level wave of interest we’ve seen. If you’ll pardon the pun, it’s a seed of hope that in such challenging times, so many are seeking down-to-earth, nourishing respite where they can. The move into growing your own food is a hugely positive step on a multitude of levels right now and I believe, offers the potential for a more sustainable food system and society post-pandemic. 

I know I’m speaking to the converted here but concerns around food security have long been valid. As renowned food policy expert, Tim Lang writes in his book, Feeding Britain, released pre-coronavirus: ‘The UK is, de facto, facing a wartime scale of food challenge.’ He details a delicate, massively ‘just-in-time’, supply chain which leaves us open to the will of international markets and which is unsustainable in every sense. As the pandemic continues to unfold in real time, the threats become enhanced manifold.

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Building resilience into our food systems

Building resilience into our food systems

Over the next few months and years, significant thought will be given to the lessons we need to learn from the coronavirus pandemic, its impact on the global economy, the rapid way in which it spread across the global population and the impact it is having on our daily lives. One aspect to consider will surely be how to build greater resilience into our food systems, so they have the ability to better endure a crisis in the future.

Many countries, the UK amongst them, have come to depend heavily on imported food and therefore on the resilience of food systems in other countries as well as our own. Food chains have become extremely long, with consumers and producers kept far apart. This creates an inherent vulnerability in the system. One break in the chain and the whole thing falls apart. SFT chief executive, Patrick Holden, wrote about this in his recent blog on the coronavirus outbreak.

Resilience is the cornerstone of a sustainable food system. The FAO defines resilience as: ‘The ability to prevent disasters and crises as well as to anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recover from them in a timely, efficient and sustainable manner. This includes protecting, restoring and improving livelihood systems in the face of threats that impact agriculture, nutrition, food security and food safety.’

Concern about the food system has been growing for a number of years now, as the impact of climate change has become unavoidably apparent. As instances of extreme weather events and global temperatures have risen, farmers have been increasingly focused on how to adapt food systems to improve resilience and help address those challenges. For many, agroecology has proven itself to be the answer. Agroecological systems are more resilient since they have a greater capacity to recover from drought, floods or hurricanes.

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Finding our common ground and common purpose

Finding our common ground and common purpose


We are living in extraordinary, stormy times. In the political sphere, a sixteen-year-old girl speaks truth to powerful global leaders in New York; in the UK, the Supreme Court finds our Government has acted unlawfully in the proroguing of Parliament. In spite of all the promises and declarations, the planet is still set for 3 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels, sending us more rapidly towards the tipping point for our climate and all life on earth. We are travelling through unchartered territories. Tribal and polarised politics shape the public discourse. It can feel profoundly unsettling. Where on earth is the solid ground from which we can find common purpose and make the urgent progress we need on the really critical issues facing us?

In July 2019, The RSA Food Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) published a series of important reports. Funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, this two-year independent inquiry helped to shape a new vision for safe, secure and sustainable food and farming systems and a flourishing countryside. Initially focussed on matters raised by the Brexit vote, the inquiry quickly turned its attention to the urgent issues that transcend Brexit: the crises in climate and nature, health and wellbeing and rural communities. For eighteen months, we worked with business leaders and academics across different sectors, and with citizens in their communities around the UK, to arrive at the recommendations in our report, Our Future in the LandThe report garnered widespread – and cross-party – backing, both for our recommendations and for the process by which we arrived at them. We were determined that the many and diverse perspectives we’d heard through our inquiry were respected, and that everyone who’d given their time, experience and expertise to us so generously would see their voices in our reports. And make no mistake: this is contested territory.

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Food and water: Plugging the drain before resources dry up

Food and water: Plugging the drain before resources dry up

What if you could see how much water it takes to fill the supermarket shelves with food? About 4.2 litres (1.1 gallons) for every almond; over 52 litres for a single orange; more than 18.5 litres for a walnut — the numbers get even more mind-boggling if you think about how much water it must take to make products like almond milk and orange juice. All told, the Ohio University Russ College of Engineering and Technology reports that 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawalsgo to agriculture. In countries where the economy is growing quickly, that number jumps to 90%.

The impact of this is shocking, especially when food waste is factored in. Clean water isn’t exactly plentiful. According to the UN, water scarcity affects four out of ten people worldwide. There’s an invisible tug-of-war at play. On one hand, the Russ College of Engineering and Technology notes that agriculture will need 19% more water for an increasing global population that will supposedly need 60% more food by 2050. On the other, the UN estimates each person needs up to 49 litres of water per day for hydration, sanitation and cooking. If agriculture continues consuming this much freshwater, there may not be enough to go around.

This tug-of-war, in its most elementary terms, is one in which agricultural water use competes with each person’s daily water requirements.

The broken water system

We’re dealing with a situation where, in some parts of the world, farmers are using too much water to grow too much food for a select number of people; while in other parts of the world people go hungry because of a lack of water and, consequently, food. The situation is illogical, to say the least.

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‘Dirt to Soil’ – How to make money in farming and save the planet

Gabe Brown, the author of Dirt to Soil, farms near Bismarck in the US state of North Dakota, not far from the Canadian border. Unusual weather events often spell bad news for farmers, but anyone hit by hailstorms and a severe blizzard in four consecutive years might be excused for being done with farming, once and for all. Brown didn’t give up, despite the “disaster years” as he calls the period from 1995 to 1998. “Today, I tell people that those four years of crop failure were hell to go through, but they turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us, because they forced us to think outside the box, to not be afraid of failure and to work with nature instead of against it.”

There is little that Brown’s Ranch doesn’t produce: grains, beef, pork, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts – and the list is not comprehensive. To Brown, it’s not about increasing the yield, it is about maximising the profit per acre. One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, is the subtitle to his book which summarises his insight that everything on the farm hinges on the health of its soils.

His farming success has turned Gabe Brown into something of a celebrity in regenerative farming circles, and by now he spends several months a year, off the farm giving talks and running seminars and workshops. Dirt to Soil, his first book, is in part a handbook that teaches farmers and gardeners how to heal the soil; but it also explains a lot of the soil science and explains why good soil is an integral part of a healthy ecosystem.

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Improving air quality with clover

In August, the Sustainable Food Trust submitted a response to the Government’s new Clean Air Strategy consultation. Air pollution is a huge issue in the UK with more than 40 towns and cities at, or exceeding, air pollution limits set by the World Health Organization. This has significant public health impacts, since an estimated 40,000 premature deaths in the UK are attributed to air pollution.

It has long been known that poor air quality damages public health, but recent research would suggest that the impact has been vastly underestimated. A recent study from Queen Mary University of London reported that air pollution can actually change the structure of the heart, increasing the left and right ventricles.

Attention has focused on urban areas and vehicle emissions. As a result of government action on car exhausts and industry, UK emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by approximately 70% in the last two decades. However, the impact of farming on air quality has been largely overlooked. In the UK, farming accounts for approximately 80% of all ammonia emissions, primarily from artificial nitrogen-based fertilisers. When ammonia drifts over industrial regions, it combines with other pollutants to form solid microscopic particles that can stick in fine lung tissue, contributing to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

While overdue, we welcomed the Government’s new Clean Air Strategy. It is a positive first step, but more will need to be done if we want to reverse the environmental and public health damage caused by decades of bad practice. Greater action to address the root causes of air pollution from the agricultural sector is needed. To face the growing environmental crisis caused by nitrogen pollution, that is already exceeding Planetary Boundaries, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way that we produce food.

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Ten ways to avoid shopping for food in supermarkets

The problem with monopolies is their power to abuse much of what is under their dominion. The results are: unfair contracts for suppliers, poor work practices in countries with substandard regulations (one distressing example are slave ships), inhumane conditions for animals in factory farms, and a system geared to producing cheap, high-fat, high-sugar foods, generating an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Another casualty is biodiversity: modern food systems are dominated by five animal species and twelve crops according to Biodiversity International. “The supermarket chains play the role of gatekeeper, deciding how food is produced and what fills the shelves,” says Oxfam’s Marita Wiggerthale.

Everything is scaled up – including waste. Eight of Britain’s leading supermarkets create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year, according to an investigation by The Guardian in January, this year. To add insult to injury, supermarkets spend millions on marketing to misinform the public about where and how their food is produced. Fake farm names make imported food appear British, while ‘country of origin’ labelling claims British status for products which originated from abroad but were processed and packed in the UK.

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Population growth and food: A systems perspective


In this age of the Anthropocene, it is necessary to look inward as well as outwards to find systemic solutions. People may or may not be “a plague on earth” as David Attenborough has stated, but we are without doubt the dominant force on this planet. Some introspection is needed if we are to use our power ethically.

As Organisational Outreach Officer for Population Matters, my task is to contact ethically-oriented organisations (from faith organisations to environmental NGOs) and suggest ways in which the issue of population growth could be covered on their website and integrated into their ethos. Many organisations I approach agree that population size contributes to climate change, conflict and malnutrition, but they frequently respond by saying that the issue lies outside of their remit. Population Matters’ patron Jonathon Porritt talks about the reasons why organisations avoid referencing population growth in this 14-minute video, debunking a few myths along the way.

To be truly systemic, one has to include all aspects of the problem. So what is ‘systemic’ or ‘systems thinking’? In simple terms, it is an approach for analysing complex issues by viewing them holistically, as purposeful systems containing interdependent variables, stakeholders and perspectives. This allows an awareness of one’s own bias and limitations. Systems practitioners use simplified diagrams to uncover key issues and when this is done comprehensively they are able to see the interwoven social, economic, political and environmental dimensions.

The issue under investigation here is the global food system, the purpose of which is to feed humans (and to a certain extent livestock) over a sustained period of time. It is embedded in and dependent on ‘macro’ systems as shown in the diagram below.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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