Scroll to the bottom for practical suggestions of ways you can support a better food and farming system
In March 2020 the world changed. For me, this meant a sudden return to the UK from Portugal with no forward plan. By a stroke of luck I found myself starting a new job at a small organic farm in Worcestershire, Roots in Rushwick, just a few days later. And with that I was plunged headfirst into the world of small-scale food production in the Covid era. Roots has a farm shop, and that shop was Christmas-levels of busy, with none of the planning which goes into Christmas, for months. And all while trying to grasp the new and ever changing guidelines to keep our community safe – how to touch, how close to be to others, masks, gloves, sanitiser, ventilation, etc – and being face to face every day with people’s fear and anxiety.
I was not involved in the shop side of the business, but all my co-workers were flat out. What that meant for me is that what started as a few days helping them get some seeds sown so that they didn’t miss the window for the season, soon ended up being much more. I found myself in what was effectively a head grower role with responsibility for raising, planting out, watering and caring for, and harvesting all the season’s vegetables and some of the flowers we grow for cutting. With only a year of growing experience (as a volunteer, in a completely different climate) under my belt, it’s fair to say I wasn’t quite ready for this role.
The 10 months since have been without a doubt the most challenging, and in many ways the most wonderful, of my life. With significant support, I’ve grown over 450 tomato plants, hundreds of lettuces, over a thousand kale plants, around 3000 leeks, 22 other types of vegetables and a whole range of flowers besides, all from seed. We’ve harvested over a tonne of tomatoes and kept the shop supplied with a stream of delicious greens, squashes, beetroots, salads and root veg for 8 months. I’ve also experienced the profound joy which comes from being so deeply connected to the living world. I’ve watched time and time again as nature showed me the magic its capable of in a balanced ecosystem – from an army of ladybirds turning up and sorting out every aphid problem we had without me lifting a finger, to the earthworms and other soil organisms working their magic to decompact the soil and ensure I didn’t need any tools to pull out the carrots, even during the drought. And finally, I’ve eaten the best food of my life. I cannot emphasise enough how tasty vegetables are which have been grown in the best possible soil. The scientific community doesn’t know exactly why yet – freshness is a part, for sure, but the health of the plant with all its symbiotic relationships with soil microorganisms seems to be a big factor too.
Ditch the supermarket!
The purpose of this blog is to lay out the case for you ditching the supermarket and buying much of your food either directly from growers, or from a retailer which really has the farmer and the environment at heart, if you can. I’m sure everyone reading this knows that our current, extractive food system is broken – agriculture is responsible for a quarter of global emissions, severely degraded soils and catastrophic biodiversity loss. It also has some of the most poorly paid and treated workers in the world. Luckily for us all, agriculture also has an immense capacity to heal all these things.
I argued in a previous blog post that organic farming is superior to conventional farming from an environmental perspective. That is certainly true, but there are bad practices in organic farming too. Supermarkets treat their organic farmers in the same way they treat every other farmer they work with – they are expected to produce at very low margins and absorb any excess cost. In practice, this means that there are often huge monocultures, which provide the best possible conditions for pests and disease and the worst possible conditions for biodiversity (the two things are completely linked). It means that farmers often don’t have the resources to put long-term care into the soil or experiment with better practices – they just do the bare minimum required for the season’s crop. Although not as bad as its chemical-based cousin, organic farming for supermarkets is still an extractive approach to farming.
Agroecological farming, on the other hand, operates from a completely different mindset. We see ourselves as part of the living world so it is our duty to ensure that the other creatures with whom we share the land are able to thrive as part of a balanced ecosystem. This balance and diversity ensures that no one species is able to dominate. If one does start to get a bit out of hand, such as the aphids I witnessed this year, its predator numbers will rise too to keep their populations in check. Diversity is one of our key principles, which means resilience to disease is built into our system. In general terms, the pest and disease burden is getting worse every year as our climate changes to be more hospitable to them (milder winters, hotter summers), so it’s vital that we do everything we can to get nature on side to help ensure the safety of our future food supply. Healthy soils also absorb and retain water much better, making them less prone to problems from drought and flooding. Remember the long, sunny spring we had for those first few months of Covid? The non-stop rain we had for months before that? These record-breaking weather conditions we are experiencing year after year make farmers’ lives really difficult. Once again, we need a system which is as resilient as possible to deal with the erratic rainfall of a climate-changed era.
People are at the heart of agroecological farming. Food sovereignty is a global concept which was developed by the people most threatened by the consolidation of power in food and agricultural systems– peasant farmers. It includes the right of all people to food which is healthy and culturally appropriate and food providers’ right to live and work in dignity. It also sees food as something which feeds the local community first and is only secondarily as something to be traded. See this page for more on the concept of food sovereignty.
In response to fears of shortages of seasonal labour from abroad due to Covid, the Government launched its ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign in spring 2020. The reports from some of these British workers have given an insight into the kind of farming system supermarkets support. Crowded living conditions (ripe for Covid – there have been outbreaks on farms this year) and very long days doing the same repetitive work with a daily picking target that, for non-experienced workers, was almost impossible to meet. Those who did not meet their target were often laid off. The number of referrals of agricultural business to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority for modern slavery has skyrocketed in the last 12 months. Indications are that, in many cases, workers abroad providing our imported food are treated even worse.
My experience could not have been more different. Sure, its very hard work, particularly for someone not accustomed to physical labour, and the pay is low. But I have a huge amount of autonomy and diversity in my work, and being responsible for the whole process from seed to shop gives me a huge amount of pride and joy. Being in constant awe of the living world is excellent for my mental health. Small-scale, agroecological farming allows for jobs like mine. And here’s no shortage of people who want to get into this industry. I’ve just come out of a week-long agroecological farming conference attended by over 5000 people from all over the world. The session with the Ecological Land Cooperative, a fantastic organisation working to ensure access to land for aspiring agroecological farmers at reasonable rates, was attended by over 70 people. This isn’t a profession you go into for good money or an easy life – every single one of those people wants to do it because they care passionately about food, society and the environment.
Feeding the world
One of the stories the corporate-controlled food system tells us is that we need intensive agriculture to feed the world. Small-scale growers know this not to be true – we’ve seen first-hand how much food can be produced in a small area if there’s enough labour to do it. Excitingly, now there’s some evidence proving that to be the case. A report published by the Food and Countryside Commission last week used mapping and modelling to conclude that, with some dietary changes, it is possible produce enough food to feed the UK using agroecological farming methods.
The many benefits of supporting us
Agroecological farming is at an exciting point of its growth – more and more citizens, farmers, landowners, scientists and policymakers are coming out in support of the movement. Now we need to grow. And to do that, we need people like you to support us.
The more this farming system grows:
- The more people will be able to make a fair living doing the work they love.
- The more the living world will get the respect and care it deserves.
- The more opportunities there will be for the scientific community to carry out studies to improve our practices even more and, crucially, to prove to policymakers it works. This would pave the way for a bigger systemic shift.
- The more governments and corporations will sit up and listen, and be forced to reevaluate the system they’ve created which values money above all else. Isn’t it about time we created a world in which our economy serves the people, not the other way around?
- The more people will have access to nutritious, tasty, real food, to (re)discover the joy of eating.
- The more farmers will be able to experiment with agroecological processes to find what works for them. Farmers often get a bad reputation for the harm they’re doing, yet actually they care deeply about the land. They just need to be freed from the corporate-driven system most are stuck in.
- The more farmers will feel valued for the important work they do.
Every pound you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in. If you can, I urge you to vote for a world in which good food, healthy ecosystems and empowered people are at the heart of our farming system. And ideally encourage your loved ones to as well. I understand that food grown this way is, at the moment, more expensive than supermarket food and that many people are facing severe financial hardship as a result of Covid. So do what you can and if you can’t afford it at all then hang on in there, don’t waste any food and know that the issue of inequality is absolutely at the core of the agroecological movement. There are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of us working to ensure that this food will soon be the norm for everybody. Without a doubt, agroecological farming is the cornerstone of the food system of the future.
How you can support agroecological farming
This is the biggie! You can:
- Buy direct from your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. CSA is a great model – a partnership between farmers and eaters where the farm receives a fixed and predictable income and eaters receive not only excellent veg – normally in veg box format – but information about how the farm is doing and often opportunities to visit/help out on the farm. To find your nearest, this is a good place to start though it doesn’t list them all yet so its worth googling too – https://communitysupportedagriculture.org.uk/find-csa/
- Buy from an independent retailer which buys from and supports agroecological farms directly. There aren’t many of these yet, but its likely more will spring up as the movement grows and farmers realise it makes sense to collaborate on some of the sales/marketing/admin. Your local farm shop is likely to sell their own homegrown produce as well as have partnerships with other local growers – get to know the shop to find out more about their growing practices. Agroecological producers will also often attend farmers markets, though its not a requirement to farm in this way to have a stall at a market. Keep an eye on this website for more retailers as the movement grows: https://betterfoodtraders.org/find-a-better-food-trader/
- Grow your own! Even if this is just a lettuce or some herbs on your windowsill, growing your own food is satisfying and sustainable.
Many of the bigger box schemes such as Growing Communities in London and Riverford do fruit too. But the fact is that its very hard to grow soft fruit organically in the UK. Your local farmers’ market or farm shop will likely have some local fruit in the season, but it may not be fully agroecological. Fruit (or nuts) which come from trees are the best ones to choose to support this kind of farming system.
Grains and pulses
The UK market for grains and pulses is absolutely saturated with cheap imported products. These long supply chains with little or no transparency are the ones where poor environmental and social practices are the norm. This is most likely to change if the government and corporates get strong signals that they can’t get away with it any more. You can help pile this pressure on by supporting agroecological farmers in this country build the case for pulse and grain production in this country.
Hodmedod’s is a fantastic organisation which works with farmers to discover varieties of pulses and grains which work in our climate (a forgotten art, but a potentially important part of soil rotation practices). Find them at your local farm shop or buy directly from them here https://hodmedods.co.uk/
There are a growing number of small-scale mills working with farmers to produce high-quality, tasty flour grown well (a particular challenge for wheat since modern varieties are bred to be wholly reliant on chemical inputs). There’s a list here https://www.sourdough.co.uk/british-artisan-flour-mills-by-region/ They’re not all organic so do have a look through.
Meat and Dairy
We definitely need to reduce our meat consumption substantially in this country, so please do consider cutting down to only one or two portions a week if you have not already done so. However, animals can often be beneficial to the ecosystem of an agroecological farm, when managed well. One of the main principles here is rotational grazing – usually giving the animals a new patch every few days so they get diversity and interest in their diets and the land doesn’t get overgrazed – and prioritising meadows or species-rich pastures over pure grassland. Basically this system tries to mimic the grazing practices of big herds of wild animals on grasslands, which is also when the animals are happiest. These ideas are fairly new to the UK so there aren’t many farms managing their animals in this way yet, but there’s a list here https://hollyrose.eco/2020/07/uk-regenerative-farm-agroecology/
Once again, chickens can form part of a healthy ecosystem and there are a lot of agroecological farms which keep a small flock of chickens and allow them plenty of space and vegetation for them to be happy, healthy chickens. Many CSAs have these, as well as your local farm shop or independent retailer.
Note: In this blog I used the term ‘agroecological’ where before I used ‘regenerative agriculture’. I mean the same thing – a way of farming in which each farm sees itself as an ecosystem and works to promote the health and diversity of all living beings while producing nutritious food. I’ve decided to change the term I use to align myself better with the movement.