In Defense of Place and Season

So Britain has gone crazy about the reality that our food system has broken down as empty shelves present themselves as the inevitable outcome of the political sado-populism of Brexit. But as we realise just how precarious the food system is – it’s worth remembering that this precarity pre-dates Brexit, European ‘weather events’ or any supply-chain excuses rendered as explanations. The idea that we can and should have access to all food anytime regardless of season or geography is a bizarre myth. To argue for food sovereignty and resilience will be wildly unpopular I know, but turning away from the need to change is just  a collective stupidity. So here’s some lessons from the Fife Diet. In the face of the Brexit food crisis we’re all looking at as if its some kind of crazy surprise, some reflections on what we should grow, produce and eat across Scotland and beyond.

Any truly sustainable food system that produces a healthy diet for people and planet must look very different wherever it is. A relocalised diet must be regional and seasonal, adjusted to the carrying capacity and conditions of place, it must be the opposite of the globalized food that knows nothing of season or soil.

A sustainable food system will not emerge from a lab, or a meat factory or from a ‘vertical farm’ or be created by Monsanto. You won’t get it by Deliveroo or Walmart. It will be delivered by small farmers and producers who sustain rich soil and who sell within short supply chains. It will be highly seasonal and organic, though in the sense that all food used to be ‘organic’. It will contain less meat, but of higher quality, and it will look very different not just within each country but within each region. It will be enriched by a living food culture that knows something of its own traditions but isn’t captured by them.

With the realisation that the Trussell Trust’s food banks have just become a normal part of our society, the first thing to recognise is that a substantial amount of people are going hungry every week in Britain today. That’s morally unacceptable and any other considerations need to be based on and stem from this reality.

So the first and most basic human right and essential element of the ‘food system’ must be an ability to feed people. In an advanced Western, post-scarcity society the fact that we are not able to do so is a direct result of government economic and social policy and this takes the issue beyond technical fixes or innovations and into the realm of social justice and social struggle.

We can look at sustainable food systems as having three essential elements to their structure, and three essential aspects to their delivery.

Any food system we intend to create must not be an attempt to restore a tradition from the past, it must be forward-facing and contain the following key ingredients. It must be low-carbon and engage in a major shift away from the high-intensity, polluting and displaced globalised food that has dominated our plates in the post-war era. It must be affordable beyond the metric of artificial food at artificially cheap prices. Affordable is not the same as cheap. And it must be ethical both at the point of production and consumption.

All of this is possible but not if we contain the discussion and the vision within the current extremely narrow terms of the debate, where corporate capture and business as usual are the norms, with only peripheral innovation allowed as window-dressing to the dysfunctional juggernaut that has brought us our now well-worn list of diet-related ill-health.

Let’s be very clear: at the moment there is no credible strategy for reducing carbon in food, or for dealing with the childhood obesity epidemic or the long list of other diet-related disease, or for tackling food poverty and insecurity. While some of that failing can be put down to the lack of leverage in devolved powers for Scotland (over benefits for example) — some of it could be pushed much harder in terms of planning (to subvert supermarket expansion and dominance), and joined-up health and education policy.

The scale of carbon emissions from the way we produce, transport and consume our food are routinely ignored behind the ‘big ticket’ items of energy, with which in Scotland we have made ambitious strides. By comparison in the food industry we are barely out of the blocks. Small-scale tinkering with ‘local food initiatives’ are dwarfed by mainstream Scottish food policy which is aimed squarely at export-growth to the virtual exclusion of all other policies.

The affordability of decent food isn’t just about making that food dirt-cheap. It’s about increasing the number of jobs in local communities; increasing wages for those with the lowest incomes; making jobs more secure.

The race to the bottom of cheap food results in, for example, dairy farmers going out of business as they sell their product to vast retailers at a below cost price. The insanity of that model excludes the reality that milk is one of the most wasted food and drink products.

In this sense, the precarity and waste in the food system is mirrored in both production and consumption. The current system offers stability only for a handful in the nexus of relationships — for many it offers a combination of economic instability and ill-health by being enthralled to a vast corporate machine or faced with the over-consumption of highly-processed, nutritionally-dubious foodstuffs.

This is not some sort of wishful nirvana. There is no need for the barbarism of industrial farming, the hell of battery egg production or the cruelty of transporting live animals cross continents for no good reason.

But if any coherent viable sustainable food system has to have these three key elements, there is one grand unifying principle that is even more essential, and that is that there must be no grand unifying principle.

Any truly sustainable food system that produces a healthy diet for people and planet must look very different wherever it is. A relocalised diet must be regional and seasonal, adjusted to the carrying capacity and conditions of place, it must be the opposite of the globalized food industry that knows nothing of season or soil.

Such an approach will inevitably be based on the democratic principles of food sovereignty as developed by Via Campesina in the Nyéléni Declaration.

In February 2007 more than 500 representatives from more than 80 countries, of organizations of peasants and family farmers, artisanal fisher-folk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pastoralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers, environmental and urban movements gathered together in the village of Nyéléni in Sélingué, Mali to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty. They defined food sovereignty as:

“…the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal-fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.

In Scotland this means a challenging process of breaking the land ownership model that lies at the heart of much of the power dynamics at play. This is particularly difficult for a nation that has much of its ‘food and farming’ culture and policy dominated by landed interests.

We are told that corporations are the creators of food, the providers of security and the harbingers of future abundance, but this is a toxic myth worth dispelling. As Vandana Shiva wrote in her recent book Who Really Feeds the World?:

“Women, who are the primary growers and providers of food, nutrition, and nourishment in societies across the world, have evolved agriculture. Most farmers in the world are women, and most girls are future farmers: they learn the skills and knowledge of farming in fields and in farms. Women-centered food systems are based on sharing and caring, and on conservation and well-being. What is grown on farms determines whose livelihoods are secured, what is eaten, how much is eaten, and by whom it is eaten. Women’s food is diverse and sustaining, and when women control the food system, everyone gets their fair share to eat. Women are the world’s biodiversity experts, nutritional experts, and the economists who know how to produce more using less. Women make the most significant contributions to food security by producing more than half the world’s food and by providing more than 80 percent of the food needs of food-insecure households and regions.”

So our emergent food system, fighting against gigantism and vested interests has three dynamics in interplay with each other: soil, democracy and creativity combining to produce new models and ways of working.

As Vandana Shiva writes: ‘While women manage and produce diversity, the dominant paradigm of agriculture promotes monocultures under the false tenet that monocultures produce more.’

This urge for productivism, a force of top-down technocratic control of the commons is a nightmare worth resisting because beyond it is an end to sustainability. What does a sustainable food system look like? It looks like the opposite of that. Diversity versus monoculture, small-scale and multi-varied rather than a one-dimensional food system.

We are all suffering from what Wendell Berry has called ‘cultural amnesia’:

“The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much. The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical — in short, a victim. When food, in the minds of eaters, is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.”

So the first act of creating this sustainable food system, what we can call a ‘restorative practice’, is to remember. This act of remembering is to cast off the dead hand of corporate food which serves up swill for profit.

There are hundreds of community projects, farmers, cooks and gardeners up and down the land who know this and are actively engaged in creating the system we need. But there is a long way to go and we need critical mass. The empty shelves of Britain’s Brexit disaster are not just a reflection of a temporary glitch, but an insight into a broken food system. Repairing that and creating a new one is a deeper act than making sure you have cherry tomatoes in February.

Comments (20)

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  1. Antoine Bisset says:

    Jolly good! Mostly sensible. However, the low carbon mantra is utter baloney. Carbon dioxide is a canard. It has pushed up the price of energy and has done less than nothing to solve the real problems. The proliferation of plastic is a major problem. A daily catastrophe. Our technologies in logistics, chill chains, in paper and glass mean that we could stop using plastic. Paper is biodegradable and glass can really be recycled. Lots of “recycling” is going to landfill or furnace. It’s a hoax.
    The planet used to be warmer, a long time ago. There was lots of CO2 around sustaining the jungles that became coal. Of course local food production makes sense, but we always want more and different. That will require care and glasshouses. We do not need corn on the cob in Morayshire, all the way from Senegal, but it’s nice.

  2. Colin Kirkwood says:

    Thank you, Mike. Good man. This is really good, sensible stuff.


    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Well said, Colin, and very good to see you popping up here. We were namedropping you just the other day for the work you and Gerri did, publishing “Freire in Scotland”. What the blurb I’ve pasted in the next para says is again desperately needed in Scotland, and ties in with the deepest aspect of what Mike Small was about in the year (or whatever it was) that he carried out his first-person-inquiry experiment with the Fife (local) Diet.

      “The Adult Learning Project in Edinburgh, affectionately known as ALP, is a sustained experiment in applying the principles of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, in a European post-industrial urban environment. Because this book explains so sensitively the theory and rationale of Freirean education, and describes so carefully the Freirean process at work in a Scottish setting, it will hearten and inspire all those who fear the iron hold of mechanistic and passive approaches to learning. Lalage Bown From 1979 to 2011, ALP has written a new chapter in the history of popular education, locally and globally, honouring the brilliance of the ‘onelie begetter’ of this approach, Paulo Freire, whose writings have inspired us all. Colin and Gerri Kirkwood The fundamental concern in all of Paulo Freire’s work is to assert the possibility and potential of human agency, by challenging the passivity and fatalism of ordinary people, intervening purposefully in their lives and enabling them to lever themselves out of ‘immersion’ in the ‘culture of silence’.”

  3. Alistair Taylor says:

    Good article, thanks.

    I live in a small town in British Columbia, Canada, and the Local Food Initiative Society has been having great success with many of the steps that you have described. A healthy sustainable system for food security on a local scale.
    Weather events (floods, washed out highways) of recent years and empty supermarket shelves have only underlined the precarious nature of the global supply chain.

    Scotland needs land reform. It needs better health and education.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    Sounds like the rational recommendations in Tim Lang’s popular book Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them (2020/2021), whose author feared a ‘perfect storm’ brewing for the highly exposed British food system.

    I was just reading about the long-ago-devised Chinampa (raised beds for growing vegetables in lakes) and Three Sisters (maize+beans+squash) systems from the Americas. Surely we have the means to grow food surpluses in places like Fife within planetary and ethical boundaries. If we drop animal husbandry we might be able to rewild half the region and avoid the worst of zooinotic epidemics too. Those able and willing can always donate unpaid labour at harvests.

    It has been many years since I first read the Food Miles Report, and its gentle illustrations of the insanity of modern fossil-fuel-powered food production. We have not seen Lang’s Great Food Transformation yet, but hopefully it is not too late. Our European neighbours, especially those with regional food-planning structures and/or long memories of WW2 or (much) more recent examples, might survive better than us in the self-harming UK. World-leading, we ain’t.

  5. Derek says:

    See comments the other day about allotments and urban market gardens…

    My work had visitors in the other day so laid on food for them, the leftovers of which were free to all. I had a cherry tomato; the first time in a couple of years that I’d eaten a tomato (tinned excepted) that I or my mum hadn’t grown.

  6. Time, the Deer says:

    This is excellent. Very much right about ‘cultural amnesia’ : the problem is that we don’t have a functioning local food culture – or food cultures, plural – anymore in this country, like you find in Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, etc. And yes, that is very much to do with land ownership – kick your peasants off the land, say goodbye to your food culture!

    1. “kick your peasants off the land, say goodbye to your food culture!” – yes very much but also our food icons – the Stag – the Monarch of the Glen – Grouse – and Salmon are in fact symbols of capture and landed power – and they are also the key drivers of ecological decay in Scotland, whether that be polluted sea lochs or land controlled for grouse shoots or deer hunts. Imagine that! a country which uses the symbols of power and hierarchy as the things to celebrate about our food culture!

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Editor, one might argue that a healthy food culture should also be interested in what non-humans eat. When our local councils seed their land with native wildflowers, it is food for our natural pollinators and others. But I would caution against romanticising past (or indigenous) relations with the natural world, where superstition, cruelty and profitarian motives may sit alongside knowledge, care and altruism.

      2. Time, the Deer says:

        Hey now, us deer were here before you lot. You chased us here – you’ve been obsessed with us for millennia. I mean it started out okay with the Pictish symbol stones and the Gaelic poetry and the odd bit of hunting and that, but then wtf happened? You guys used to be alright.

        But aye – game & salmon being touted as the ‘best’ of Scottish produce is essentially top-down food culture. What the toffs value most, and of course totally unsustainable as day-to-day food, at least in this era. It’s almost like there isn’t *any* way of managing a vast estate that doesn’t ultimately result in ecological degradation…

      3. Sandy Watson says:

        Indeed. Good culture killing the people too.

        1. Sandy Watson says:

          good should of course be food

      4. J Galt says:

        It’s not the Salmon’s fault it became associated with the the Tweedy landed gentry shower and later with the gangster like fish farming “industry”.

        As long as it’s wild caught it’s a perfectly nutritious, tasty and healthy if expensive treat.

  7. WT says:

    I disagree with you on many things, particularly your attitude to Alex Salmond but let’s bury that for a moment. I’m glad to see someone talking such sense with regard to food, the corporations which push us to eat guff and the way food production and storage affects the environment. There are so many things that people can do without much discomfort to help improve their diet and reduce the speed of climate change, most are unfashionable things like eating turnip and kale, not having tomatoes on demand, getting rid of ‘standby’ on their devices, turning off the freezer for good and buying as you need. One of the most important, turning vegan: no dairy (fridge-less), no meat (fridge-less, freezer-less), no fish (why not?). How about no TV? (pish-less). It is the things we do as individuals that can protect the planet.
    Thirty years ago I had a visitor from Naples – a friend of friend, who on seeing my lawn asked me “do you like grass? why don’t you grow food?” Encapsulates it all. I have grown my own veg and eat seasonally correct veg for nearly 15 years. It’s not self sufficiency but its fresh and seasonal

  8. Antoine Bisset says:

    Giving the article a bit more thought, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to look at the sources of our normal diet.
    In one column the “local” items, ie produced in Scotland, or the UK, and in a second column the items that were imported from wherever.
    Column 1
    Meat, (beef, lamb chops, bacon), fish (farmed salmon, cod, haddock, kippers), porridge oats, apples, milk, cream, eggs, cheese, potatoes, vegetables in season (peas, lettuce, asparagus).
    Column 2
    Fruit(pears, lemons, figs, grapefruit, fruit juice), vegetables (peas, beans, corn cob, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes), butter, olive oil, pasta, wine, beer. I do not know about local items made from wheat, bread, rolls and pre-packaged cereals such as corn flakes, as it is not generally indicated, Canada, Australia or UK…
    Maybe clear and definitive product marking, with sources would help us to choose. (I am pleased that palm oil is indicated on labels as we avoid it entirely, ruling out whole aisles in supermarkets, biscuits, cakes. There is no such thing as sustainable palm oil production, my research suggests. The gangsters demolish rain forests, habitats and villages, then plant palms. The gangsters sign up to the “palm oil producers club” and award themselves sustainability certificates.)

  9. SleepingDog says:

    I used to have the Food Miles seasonal fruit and vegetable chart stuck on my fridge, but the Soil Association provides seasonally updated information online:

  10. Niemand says:

    I was talking to my local greengrocer the other day (they run a community owned grocers) as I noticed they did not see short of supplies and she said there isn’t really a shortage at the moment, it is just that supermarkets won’t pay the higher prices. Some of those higher prices are simply because it is winter, plus a bit more, and unseasonal veg is always more expensive in winter.

  11. Iain MacLean says:

    Who is in charge of farming in England, and defacto the rest of uk, the unhealthy looking oversized woman tory with no discernible talent other than protecting Johnson & Truss and now Sunak whilst pi**ing off English farmers?

    The path for sustainable food production is well evidenced, but we, still the majority of us, will go for bargains without batting an eye, I’d add some of those folks do so out of necessity and sadly ignorance!

    We keep on returning to an old story on each and every conversation on Bella, there is little meaningful we can do for our country in the medium or long term without the powers and media of an independent state!

    We eat the crap that westminster decides we eat, along with the consequent damage to ourselves and the environment!

    Think globally, eat locally!

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