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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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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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Down-to-earth policy: Improving soil health

The foundation of life

Countless cycles of birth, death, fertility and decay have transformed soil into the matrix of life on Earth: just a handful of terrestrial soil contains more organisms than there are people on the planet. These microorganisms work endlessly to provide a range of ecosystem services that are vital for the functioning and resilience of the environment. The Earth’s soils function as its largest water filter and storage tank, filtering and cleaning tens of thousands of cubic kilometres of water that pass through them each year. Soils store more carbon than is contained in all above ground vegetation, while regulating emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Soils also consume, digest, cycle and store nutrients that serve as the molecular building blocks for plants, animals and all forms of life.

Recognising the fundamental value of soil, a handful of forward-looking countries, such as Switzerland and Germany, established national legislation decades ago, to protect this natural resource. However, according to senior soil expert Dr. Luca Montanarella, the world’s soils have largely been considered a second-tier priority. As a result, the state of global soils has rapidly deteriorated, with human pressures on soil resources reaching critical limits.

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Relocalising the food chain: Why it matters and how to do it

It’s hard to escape the growing interest in local food over the past few decades. Whether it’s restaurants boasting fresh, local produce on their menus, the rise in farmers’ markets and farm shops or the growth of box schemes such as Riverford, it’s clear that people value food that comes with a story. Even supermarkets have noticed, as Morrisons credits soaring demand for regional produce for its healthy profits last year. In order to understand the movement better, and to see where it might be headed, it is worth exploring the motivations behind it.

For there is more to ‘local’ than meets the eye. After all, nobody gets excited about eating bacon from the local intensive pig unit or white sliced bread from the in-store bakery at the supermarket. Instead the term is shorthand for a vision of food characterized by small-scale farming and growing, heritage breeds, artisan processing, family businesses and traditional skills.

It is also about self-reliance and ‘taking back control’, in the sense of using what grows locally with a minimum of inputs and rejecting globalization. It is about a sense of connection, which we have traded in for the convenience of the modern food industry, but with mixed feelings, as the Food Standards Authority’s report Good Food for All notes.

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Seeds and the Commons

Global seed reserves are under serious threat. The recent ‘Baysanto’ merger is just another indication of the systematic consolidation of the seed market in the hands of a few select multi-national corporations. At present, over 75% of the global seed trade is controlled by just ten companies. This is not news and the Sustainable Food Trust has reported at length on the state of the world’s seeds and the innovative projects and movements which have emerged in response to this.

One such organisation is OpenSourceSeeds (OSS). By equipping plant breeders and propagators with a free, open-source licence for the seeds they breed, they provide the necessary legal protection to prevent the patenting of the seed by other parties. This is about protecting seeds from privatisation and consequent market consolidation, and reframing seed as a common good.

Comprised of activists, agronomists, lawyers and plant breeders, OSS has origins in the Association for AgriCulture and Ecology (Agrecol), a German NGO which supports organic and sustainable agriculture and rural development in the Global South. In the US, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) works to similar ends, aiming to bring seeds back into common ownership by creating a pledge for breeders – this is, however, not legally binding like the OSS seed license, but the two organisations work closely together on this issue.

With a commitment to agroecology, OSS advocates for diversified agriculture and farming strategies which manage to meet the needs of a growing global population whilst protecting the Earth’s natural resources. Despite the fact that we know of over 50,000 edible plant species, currently 90% of human calorific intake across the globe is supplied by just 15 crop varieties.

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The hidden cost of UK food: Is malnutrition a national scandal?

However, while hunger is a prevalent form of malnutrition in developing countries, malnourishment can also be found far closer to home, here in the UK, where its impact is significant and increasing. NHS England calls malnutrition a “common problem”, affecting millions of people in the UK. It is largely a concern for those with long-term health issues that affect appetite, people who are socially isolated and with limited mobility, and most commonly, the elderly. Following a study undertaken by the Office of National Statistics, which showed that 391 people died in the UK from malnutrition in 2015, former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron called it a, “national scandal that anyone is being admitted to hospital from malnutrition.” So, what is really is to blame for such high rates of the condition, in one of the world’s richest nations?

‘Malnutrition’ means, literally, ‘poor nutrition’ and technically it can refer to over-nutrition – getting more nutrients than you need, as well as under-nutrition – not getting enough nutrients or an inadequate balance of nutrients. In the UK the available statistics for malnutrition relate only to under-nutrition, hence our focus on this issue in the Sustainable Food Trust’s recently published report, The Hidden Cost of UK Food.

Drawing on published research, the report calculated that malnutrition costs the country approximately £17 billion annually. This includes the cost of treating malnourished people in hospitals and long-term care facilities, GP visits and outpatient appointments. In general, rates of malnutrition are not due to a shortage of food per se, but to a range of complex issues which include increased consumption of processed foods and reduced preparation of meals from fresh primary ingredients, part of which relates to low incomes and part of which relates to poor nutritional education and/or the lack of adequate food preparation facilities.

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First it was fake farms, now fake bakeries?

The practice of creating a brand name to conjure up in shoppers’ minds an idyllic, but entirely fictional, farm is the favoured sleight of hand of many supermarket retailers. It encourages customers to think, for example, of pigs snuffling around leafy fields instead of the far more harrowing steel and concrete reality of a crowded meat factory. While these activities have been roundly condemned and criticised, with the NFU even filing a formal complaint against one chain, they still persist.

In January this year, a British supermarket withdrew its own-brand, ‘everyday value’, wrapped, sliced loaf. In its place, at a similar price point of around 40p, is a near-identical loaf, marketed under the brand name ‘H W Nevill’. It made me wonder if the supermarket in question is now attempting to use a fake bakery name to convince shoppers to part with their dough? After all, its so-called ‘value’ loaf received no stars in a 2013 Guardian taste test, with the reviewer commenting that “the dough is awful, sour and claggy”, so perhaps it needed an image makeover.


On its website, the retailer boasts that, “back in 1872, Henry William Nevill founded his first bakery and started a proud baking tradition. Almost 150 years later, our hero bakers take their craft just as seriously as Henry did. Using only quality ingredients, they work through the night to create delicious bakery favourites for the whole family to enjoy.”

I decided to do a bit of digging around and found that Nevill did indeed begin as an independent company, with bakeries in Herne Hill, Acton and Leytonstone. But that was a long time ago. In the middle of the last century, it was gobbled up by industrial milling and baking giant Allied Bakeries, later to become Associated British Foods (ABF), now an even bigger behemoth that also owns Primark.

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The Flavour of Good Farming

The Flavour of Good Farming

Earlier this month, I was at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, where I was thrilled to be immersed in lively discussion about the power of sustainable food production systems to change the world for the better. Real farming holds the promise to restore lost biodiversity to the rural landscape, preserve critically endangered breeds, sequester carbon, reduce exposure of plants and animals to antimicrobials, pesticides and antibiotics, and secure the future health and vitality of the soil.

But there was one important element missing, and for a conference all about better food production, it was particularly striking. Flavour was absent from the discussion.

The sustainable food movement’s relationship with gastronomic considerations is problematic. No one would deny that ecologically and morally reprehensible farming systems can be optimised to provide hyper-palatable, nutritionally-bereft foods whose only appeal – other than its cheapness – is to the brain’s natural proclivity for the compelling combination of salt, sugar and fat. At the other end of the economic spectrum, haute gastronomic culture, with its £1000 bottles of wine, smacks uncomfortably of elitism.

But hiding within this emotional tangle is an opportunity to re-valorise farming that is ecologically scrupulous, biodiversity-enhancing and demanding of exemplary animal welfare through a conversation about great flavour. Critically, this is a strategy to extend the attraction of these farming systems and their potential social impact far beyond the realm of already-converted eco-warriors. If we care about increasing the reach of sustainable farming, it is our moral duty to address, and ultimately bridge, this rift between the sustainable food movement and the importance of flavour.

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Honeybees: A holistic perspective on a superorganism

It is a great privilege to call myself a beekeeper. Having bees in my life, constantly reminds me to notice the sheer wonder of the world around me and often leaves me with a visceral sense of my place within this world. Honeybees have seen a dramatic rise in public awareness and beekeeping has exponentially increased in popularity, however the mindset of industrial farming is still alarmingly prevalent in beekeeping practice, and how it is discussed and taught to the next generation of beekeepers.

I trained as a beekeeper about 10 years ago, and when I started I had already completed training as an organic grower. As I studied beekeeping, I was alarmed at the similarities between the methods I was being taught and the mindset of industrial farming. I was unsettled by some of the practices that seemed to be very common. Routine use of miticide within the hive, routine disturbance of the nest space, routine suppression of reproduction and routine sugar feeding, all seemed at odds with what I had learnt as an organic grower. A defining moment was a visit to a teaching apiary to inspect the bees. We opened the hives and carefully checked through the brood nest, the area where the young bees are developing, if we found any developing queens we would kill them. Our presence obviously disturbed the bees who defended their nest space, in hive after hive that we opened, by attacking us. The bees were clearly communicating the threat they felt and I was struck by the violence of this process which was charged with conflict – even putting on the beekeeper’s suit had the feel of preparing for battle. There was a clear cognitive dissonance between this experience and my imagined harmony between beekeeper and bees.

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Has ‘organic’ been stripped of its meaning?

Has ‘organic’ been stripped of its meaning?

The term ‘organic’ has come to be understood by most consumers as ‘grown without synthetic chemicals’which to most people’s surprise, does not always mean that farming practices are sustainable. The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platformdefines sustainable agriculture as “the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.”

Yet some organic farmers are participating in farming practices that, while still compliant with organic regulations, are not reflective of the sustainable farming practices and values on which organic agriculture was originally premised. Environmental damage, inefficient nutrient utilisation, heavy reliance on input substitution for pest and weed management, high energy use, limited cropping rotations and collapse of farmer co-operatives have been reported on organic farms spanning countries across the globe, including the Netherlands, Egypt, China and Brazil.

Some researchers argue that the rapid increase of international trade in organic products has resulted in complex regulatory systems that inadvertently lock out small-scale producers, particularly in developing countries, to market access and trade. Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) offer an alternative organic certification scheme that puts sustainability and small-scale producers back at the fore of organic production.

Shifts in organic agriculture

The organic agriculture movement began as a sustainable and fair alternative to industrial food production. Through its creation of alternative models of production, distribution and consumption, organic production prioritised sustainable practices that maintained a positive impact on biodiversity and resource conservation through small-scale production, crop diversification and the minimisation of external inputs. This organic system was embedded in local co-operative markets in which farmers and consumers actively participated, creating transparency and consumer trust.

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From grower to grocer: Building community food systems

From grower to grocer: Building community food systems

Across the UK the food sovereignty movement is growing. A budding plethora of networks are challenging the current corporate control of the food system and sowing the seeds of structured community food chains and holistic food economies.

What roles do these small food chains and alternative distribution networks play within the UK food sovereignty movement? And what further collaborations between the ground, the grower and the grocer are there to be cultivated and nourished?

Setting up shop       

In 2001, a number of organisations came together to generate The People’s Food Sovereignty Statement which in part, calls for the development of “local food economies based on local production and processing, and the development of local food outlets.” Within this framework The New Leaf Co-op, a whole-food store and workers co-operative in Edinburgh, of which I am a founding member, is one example of a growing network of small businesses that are seeking ways to connect spade and spoon.

The New Leaf Co-op

Consumer and worker food co-ops, markets and online food distribution hubs are cropping up around the UK. Their aim is to satisfy an increasing demand, from both producers and communities of eaters, to make accessible fairly grown, fairly traded and fairly priced local produce.

Under a food sovereignty framework, these small-scale grassroot outlets prioritise working with equally small-scale growers and producers (both locally and further afield), independent wholesalers and co-operative food networks.

Getting to market

The food sovereignty movement advocates for democratic control of an agroecological food system by the communities who grow, produce, trade and eat food. Small-scale food economies cannot compete with agribusiness, supermarket conglomerates and the industrialised food system – nor does it aim to. Often unable – and in many cases unwilling – to meet the terms, conditions and pricing demands of supermarkets, co-op, hubs and online distribution networks provide a much more accessible and fairer way for small producers to sell their goods.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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