How we can sow the seeds of a better food system

From apples, neeps and pumpkins to learning about traditional grain crops, this harvest season has been an opportunity to find out more about the growing community food movement in Scotland. This month I’m highlighting a campaign from the Scottish Farm Land Trust, running until 30th November, seeking to make more land available for ecological farming.

For so many in today’s world, there is an alarming disconnect between the food on our plates and how it got there. We know so little about where our food comes from and how it was produced.

Since the 1950s, farming practices have shifted away from localised, traditional methods of food production towards mechanised industrial-scale chemical-intensive monocropping. To produce food on an industrial scale, you need to take a variety, make it uniform and stable, and use this to create a monoculture – which doesn’t work without the use of artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides. This goes against the fundamental nature of living things which are diverse and able to adapt to their environment.

Rather than an abundance that nourishes us all, food is seen as a commodity. This is not good for food, it’s not good for the planet and it’s not good for us.

A Global Food System

Across the globe, this method of farming has undermined or eradicated diverse and self-contained rural economies, traditions and cultures, wedding farmers and regions to a wholly exploitative system of neoliberal globalisation and inequality. Globally, we have a food surplus in the West – alongside a public health crisis of obesity and type two diabetes – and a food deficit in areas across the Global South, with millions starving. We waste over a third of the total amount of food produced.

The increasingly globalised and geo-politicised food systems that transnational agribusiness promote are not only not feeding the world, they are responsible for some of the planet’s most worrying environmental crises. We’re depleting our soils, we’re cutting down our forests and causing floods, we’re using unsustainable quantities of water, we’re killing our wildlife and destroying the biodiversity on which all farming ultimately depends.

The management of our food systems will determine whether agriculture helps to mitigate or contributes to climate catastrophe:

“Climate change isn’t just about greenhouse gases – it is about land rights, agriculture, natural resources, and the right to manage them for the greater good. The food system is a central part of this fight – what we eat is responsible for more carbon pollution than all the world’s planes, trains, and automobiles. Between the forests and fields converted to agriculture and pollution directly from farming, what we eat accounts for nearly a third of all the gases contributing to climate change.” ‘Food, Farming and the Climate Crisis: How We Can Feed People and Cool the Planet,’ Landworkers Alliance 2019

Changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, drought and extreme weather events are already affecting agricultural productivity both globally and locally. In the face of the unparalleled threat of climate unpredictability on our food supply, we must build local and community resilience and we must call for a dramatic change in our methods of production and distribution.

The Seeds of Agroecology

The challenge of the 21st century is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet: in other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that, collectively, we do not overshoot our ecological limits. This is the premise of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics (2017).

How do we sow the seeds of a better food system? How do we produce food in a way that makes a positive contribution to both the health of communities and the natural environment?

Those involved in the global agroecology movement see ecological farming as a force for radical change, offering a political-economic critique of modern agriculture and the vested interests that determine it.

Agroecology is a model of agriculture that works with the diversity of nature, as opposed to agroindustry which extracts natural resources intensively on a very large scale for profit maximisation. Agroecology simultaneously applies ecological and social principles, combining science with the traditional, practical and local knowledge of producers. It encourages democratic, decentralised decision-making by farmers and incorporates practical, low cost and ecology-based technologies for productive farming.

Agroecology is now widely recognised as both a mitigation and adaptation strategy for climate change. Social movements around the globe – many with significant leadership by womens’ and indigenous organisations – are coalescing in campaigns for a healthy food system built on both an environmental and human rights ethos.

Not only do agroecological farming methods strengthen ecological resilience in the face of today’s climate crises, they empower people politically, socially and economically, offering a path forward for growing food to feed us all.

Act Local: Blackhaugh Community Farm

Earlier this year I was invited by Rosie and William from Perth & Kinross Common Weal to come and chat to the local group who meet in Blend café each Wednesday. I was welcomed by a lovely bunch of interesting folk who were keen to tell me all about the local projects that they are involved with – a community forest buy-out, local growing projects, a community farm among others. We had a great energising chat about the convivial spirit at the heart of these ventures.

I was given a bed for the night by horticulturalists Margaret and Andrew. The following morning, over breakfast, they spoke passionately about their interest in and love of gardening and growing and told me more about Blackhaugh Community Farm which they are both involved in. Before heading north, I stopped in to see for myself.

Located on the edge of the village Spittalfield in Perthshire, Blackhaugh farm is a 43 acre piece of land stewarded by a local action group in the common interest since 2015. The site is home to Andrew’s own Apple Tree Nursery, where he grows and grafts a range of fruit trees, nut bushes and fruiting shrubs. Many of his trees are traditional Scottish varieties or unusual cultivars, grown sustainably and specially selected for their hardiness and suitability in our varied Scottish climate.

The farm is based on agroecological principles, with the aims of supporting people to live, work and learn from and on the land through growing healthy food, creating community spaces and sharing knowledge. Since 2015, the group have renovated a farmhouse, planted over 500 trees, set up the Taybank Growers Cooperative (a 4 acre market garden which grows fruit and vegetables for sale locally through a box scheme and honesty shop), converted outbuildings into useful spaces, provided grazing for sheep and cows and hosted the first ever Scottish Scything Festival!

While I was there, I met Johnny, the owner of the farm, and Roz, a tenant, who was hard at work preparing the veg boxes to go out that week. Roz was keen to tell me about another organisation she is involved with, the Scottish Farm Land Trust (SFLT). Set up by a group of farmers and environmentalists in 2015, this project takes inspiration from initiatives across Europe acting to successfully secure farmland in trust to be managed democratically for those who want to start farming using agroecological methods.

 

Scottish Farm Land Trust

Both Roz and Jonny are founding members of the SFLT, motivated by their own personal experiences of trying to find land and suitable tenants for agroecological farming alongside a desire to create a system and structure to support others in a similar situation:

“We want to see a food system where farms are connected to their communities and produce nutritious food in a way that makes a positive contribution to the health of communities and the natural environment. This can be achieved by supporting small-scale agroecological farms. We want to see our farming system thrive, with a greater diversity of farmers and business models. Improving access to land and widening participation in the ownership of land is essential for this to happen.” Scottish Farm Land Trust.

The SFLT are currently holding a crowdfunding campaign until the end of November to raise funds to develop their organisation (at this time, the board is entirely voluntary) and put their plans into action. They are keen to support a new generation of farmers to lead the change in farming that they believe Scotland really needs.

The story of the SFLT began in 2015 when a few of the founding members visited Terre de Liens, a civil society organisation created in 2003 to address the difficulties faced by agroecological farmers in securing agricultural land in France. In just 15 years, Terre de Liens have been successful in purchasing over 3500ha of land, creating tenancies for over 200 farmers and raising €65million in public share offers. This is a model that works.

The Scottish team was then invited to join an EU-wide incubator project (2015 – 2017) for Land Trusts run by the Access to Land EU Network, involving case-study visits to the Czech Republic, Greece and Poland and to more established land trust organisations in Germany and France, allowing those involved to learn slowly, make connections and build relationships.

In 2017, the SFLT worked with Nourish Scotland to run a survey of the general public to find out how many people wanted to start farming agroecologically in Scotland. Over 1000 people responded; significantly, 71% of those who did want to start farming said that access to land was the biggest barrier – a problem reflected across Europe.

According to the SFLT’s research, in the last 10 years, the value of farmland in Scotland has increased by 85%, while farm incomes have increased by only 15%. Moreover, the price of agricultural land itself is typically higher than could generate a return from agricultural production. Farmland is largely seen as a commodity on which to speculate, rather than a public good providing good quality food.

Scotland has a more concentrated pattern of land ownership than most other European countries. The trend is towards further consolidation of this inequality: existing landowners are more able to buy land for sale than new entrants.

For those not in a position to purchase land, the options for renting are limited and the number of agricultural tenancies is falling. In 1913, there were over 70,000 available in Scotland; this fell to under 15,000 by 1980. In the last 20 years, the number has fallen again by over 40% – despite legislative changes attempting to reverse this trend. There is a huge need for change.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Land Commission published a research paper on increasing access to farmland. Here, the SFLT was highlighted as a ‘new model to increase land availability for new entrants’, a model which has already been demonstrated to be successful elsewhere.

By working collaboratively with other organisations that make up the ecology of food justice groups in Scotland – such as Nourish Scotland, the Soil Association, the Scottish Crofting Federation, Landworkers Alliance, Organic Growers Alliance and others – the SFLT hope to build and support a new network of agroecological farmers more strongly connected to their local communities, creating opportunities for more people to get involved. The SFLT also hope to be able to influence policy around tenancies, organic agriculture and land distribution, advancing rural regeneration and the transition to a more sustainable agriculture in Scotland.

The enormity of climate and ecological breakdown and social collapse can easily overwhelm. One very tangible thing we can do is support those projects that are coming up with practical solutions and catalysing radical change. You can donate to the Scottish Farm Land Trust’s crowdfunder here [https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/sflt]

 

 

With thanks to Margaret and Andrew for their hospitality and to Roz Corbett for her help with compiling the background information and sources for this column.

Image credit: the Fife Diet

 

References

Blackhaugh Community Farm website: https://blackhaughcommunityfarm.weebly.com/

Andrew’s Plants & Apples website (bare-root trees are available from November to March): https://plantsandapples.com/

Food, Farming and the Climate Crisis: How We Can Feed People and Cool the Planet, Landworkers Alliance 2019

Agroecology in Action, Landworkers Alliance 2019

 

 

 

Comments (9)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Excellent, practicalities rather then rhetoric in approaching mitigation to climate catastrophe.

    In the long term we are going to have to be looking at the abolition of land ownership as a concept – the land belongs to the Earth and we are merely it’s stewards. It’s absurd that rich people can use land to then make themselves richer, to no benefit to communities, to nature or to the future of the species. Although, in the end, when systems collapse is endemic ~7-25 years from now, it is highly unlikely most landowners could prove ownership, nor would they even know when groups of climate refugees just move onto their land and start farming and/or rewilding it.

    Do we need to remove the difference between ‘food growers’ and ‘farmers’? The former implies hobby and the latter a business, ultimately they are going to be one and the same. Agroecology and agroforestry principles can equaly apply to someone growing food in tubs in their front yard to multi-acre farms and parks. Urban areas have plenty of scope for food growing too.

    Times they are a-changin’, but to adapt every class strata in society is going to have to change the way it thinks and acts about a lot of things.

    1. Derek Henry says:

      What crowd funding ?

      Yeah, like that is going to work……

      Can we please stop looking at these problems from the wrong starting point.

      1. Mairi McF says:

        Hi Derek,
        I don’t normally respond to comments like this. In this case, ‘crowdfunding’ in general is not proposed here as a solution or answer to any of of the issues you have so clearly articulated in your post above. It is a tiny gesture of support to free up a person’s time and energy to do work and research that has been demonstrated to be vital – work that has, up until this point, been carried out by people voluntarily (often by farmers who spend their days working). Any help and support is welcome.

  2. Derek Henry says:

    Crowdfunding campaign ?

    Why is that ?

    Do they understand how the monetary system works ? Probabaly not if they listen to political parties. Lets look at the flooding that is happening down South.

    The Tories for failing to invest in flood defences and pretending climate change isn’t happening, and the Labour lot for either suggesting foreign aid should be cut, or trotting out their usual ‘tax the rich’ line as though either of those approaches will cause flood defence engineers to rise fully formed from the primordial soup.

    The constant talk of numbers just demonstrates a lack of understanding of how government actually get things done.

    They need to take a Modern Money approach. The only way that is going to happen in Scotland is the “double out” with our own currency and central bank.

    What Modern Money tells us is that the state can command any resources available for sale in its own currency. And it tells us that the only constraint on what resources it can command is the inflation constraint – in other words multiple bids for the same item that causes the price to rise.

    So the correct approach is to forget about the numbers. They just happen automatically as a consequence of taking action. And they always add up as a matter of accounting. What you need to concentrate on is the engineering resources required. Where are they and what else are they doing at this point in time?

    If what they are currently doing is less important than fixing flood defences, then you suspend what they are currently doing and reallocate them to fixing flood defences.

    Within construction that is fairly easy because everything needs the State’s permission to proceed anyway – via planning and building control. That means you can delay any project currently proposed or operating via advanced policy tools rather than using the primitive price mechanism to bid away resources.

    So the State can set a price for a job, and if it doesn’t get enough bids from free resources it can suspend activity around the area to free up capacity until it does get enough bids for the job. Projects are then reordered in time with the state’s requirements coming first. Since the mechanism used eliminates other offers there can be no multiple bids. Therefore no change in prices and no inflation.

    The real costs are then borne by the businesses whose projects are delayed and by the banks whose lending volume will drop as projects are prevented from starting due to lack of available resources. Which would always be the case however you get there.

    Will be the case above as you have just proved by them having to go ” crowd funding ” without state help it will fail.

    So, with a correct Modern Money understanding, you end up with a much more precise and direct approach to resource allocation. The correct people and stuff are found, surgically extracted and reallocated in a way that the carpet bombing approaches of ‘tax the rich’, ‘cut foreign aid’, or ‘expansionary fiscal austerity’ could never achieve.

    In addition, by concentrating on finding the available actual resources at your disposal, you end up realising that the engineering talent within the armed forces exists and is much better deployed repairing riversides in Yorkshire than rearranging the rubble in some distant land.

    It’s all very straightforward once you think about it properly in terms of actually getting stuff done.

    So once Scotland is Independent and free from the UK neoliberal fiscal rules and the EU neoliberal fiscal rules. If the people of Scotland want this type of farming to grow and vote for it then forget about the numbers or the where we will find bits of paper from.

    These are the questions you need to answer below

    a) What “skills” and “real resources” do we need – Stuff governments can run out of – not blips on a spreadsheet at the Scottish central bank

    b) Once we know what “skills ” and “real resources ” are needed – Do we have them ?

    c) Yes – we do have them so lets employ them to get on with it

    d) No – We do not have them – So how do we move “skills” and “real resources” from somehwere else in the Scottish economy into this area to get the job done

    e) Where ever we do move the “skills” and “real resources” from we make sure we don’t leave “skills” and “real resource” shortages in those areas of the economy

    f) They way you do that is become more productive over all. Higher productivity allows both “skills” and “real resources” to move around the economy. Or train the unemployed.

    g) The best way to improve productivity is to get rid of the “automatic stabilisers” we currently use in our monetary system and replace them with a job guarentee.

    This piece is all about the numbers. Forget about the numbers the numbers don’t matter. If Scotland becomes independent and has its own central bank free from neoliberal fiscal rules. What skills and real resources we have is all that matters stuff we can run out of and how we decide to use them.

    Lets stop looking at the problem from the wrong end.

    1. Charles L. Gallagher says:

      Some excellent points Derek. On floods around the river Don, when are planning authorities going to get into their collective thick skells the meaning of the two simple words, ‘flood plain’, the clue is in the name! It’s pointless building massive, unsightly flood defenses when they’re being told repeatedly by ‘hydrology engineers’ that the rainfall must be slowed in the uplands. Derbyshire and Yorkshire suffer from the same abuse of the uplands being drained inappropriately and rain-absorbing vegetation burned-off in the pursuit of the massacre of cultivated ‘grouse’ so that a few greedy people can blast them out of the sky. So unless the Government gets its proverbial finger out of where the sun doesn’t shine and starts planting some, actually a lot, of their ‘magic money trees’ plus listening and acting on the sound advice from people who know and have warned about building on ‘flood plains’ for years, these disasters will just keep happening. Landowners will have to change the management of their moors and if they won’t the Government will have to intervene with legislation. The days of thousands of people having their homes ruined for the pleasure of a few are over for good.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    This sounds very much like what we should be doing. What was the name of the Scottish Land Commission paper? I couldn’t find it on their website.

    This approach should benefit from a scientific study of wildlife, soil, water quality and other environmental aspects, since it would be expected that an agroecological approach would have significant positive benefits on these in a short time, and you would want to take ‘before’ and ‘after’ measurements. Early encouraging results should boost confidence and increase appeal of the stewardship model.

    Another thought would be related to information pooling systems amongst food growers, particularly in the changing environment of the climate emergency, where new crop threats (occasionally opportunities) are going to emerge as temperature bands move North and weather becomes more extreme. Perhaps agroecology naturally lends itself to quarantining and vector curtailing better than monocultures and the irrational, energy-wasteful, pathogen-exporting existing system. Still, you would probably want higher-level measures to prevent the spread of, say, biological crop destroyers.

    Presumably you would still need a support network of other professionals such as veterinary staff, soil scientists, farm inspectors maybe, mechanics, carpenters, distributors and so on. Possibly blacksmiths, if it all comes down to the plough again.

  4. Derek Henry says:

    So how would an Indy Scotland with its own currency and central bank ” pay for ” this type of farming ? Away from gold standard, fixed exchange rate neoliberal fiscal rules.

    Answer : Easy Peasy

    The problem will be political not if we can afford it or not.

  5. Walter Haugen says:

    We need about a thousand times more efforts than this AND we needed them yesterday. The only realistic solution is to work on all these solutions at all levels simultaneously. As for myself, I am working on growing more food with organic methods and a lowered energy footprint. I am also building soil and developing landraces. [Landraces are better adapted to climate change than so-called “pure” varieties.] With funding and student workers I could do much more. I am in southern France.

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