As early as the 1950s, The Soil Association was alerting the public to the perils of pesticides
If food is what connects us all then the state of the world’s food systems shows just how atomised we have become. Food and farming is in crisis.
The last half-century has witnessed the onslaught of industrial agriculture – making monocultures of the many, varied and vibrant food and farming traditions, creating inequitable social conditions, destroying wildlife habitats and bleeding the nutrients and minerals from the soil and what grows in it. Worse, this is the system, created by Western nations, being exported around the world. But there is hope for food and farming for the future…
The Soil Association
Its ubiquitous food label has done more than any other to bring organic into the mainstream. Behind its label, however, the SA, created by Lady Eve Balfour in 1946, is a grassroots force to be reckoned with. As early as the 1950s, it was alerting the public to the perils of pesticides, and making links between soil fertility and food quality. More recently, its ‘Food For Life’ campaign has revolutionised school meals, and introduced growing and cooking food to children. The website is a wealth of information – from finding local farmers’ market groups to gaining farm skills.
Consumers don’t want it, its impacts on health and the environment are as yet unproven, and it won’t solve the global food crisis: so why does the government persist in pushing genetically modified foods down our throats? An umbrella organisation of campaign groups, GM Freeze aims to ensure governments keep GM off shelves and out of fields, and that patents and profits from food do not go into the pockets of the biotech industry.
It was the ‘McDonaldisation’ (read homogenisation) of food in his native Italy in the late 1980s that led Carlo Petrini to take up arms against the degrading effects of fast food. In doing so, his now-global network Slow Food has sparked a revolution in the oft-ascetic environmental movement: reminding us foremost that we should enjoy food and celebrate it. Only thus will its integral role in maintaining culture, tradition and environmental benefits be secured. Slow Food combines advocacy with ways to protect and enjoy endangered foods and food traditions. Slow Food UK’s local ‘convivia’, the organisation’s lifeblood, bring together people who love food and food producers for taste workshops and food seminars.
La Via Campesina
Most slow foods are peasant foods, which is why La Via campesina, the international grassroots peasant farmers movement, brings together 800 million rural workers to fight against the loss of their traditional livelihoods and to achieve food sovereignty. Championing the ‘farmer-to-farmer’ model of agricultural development, La Via campesina is a network that shares local knowledge and co-ordinates local, national and international demonstrations to counter top-down development policies.
The Permaculture Association
Permaculture, a shortened form of ‘permanent agriculture’, creates agricultural ecosystems that allow humans to thrive on as little land as possible, as well as helping wildernesses re-establish themselves. Agricultural design has been severely lacking, but at its heart permaculture’s raison d’être is to work with nature, not against it. The UK’s Permaculture Association is a member-based group that supports people and projects through training, networking and research. It includes many introductory and specialised courses in permaculture.
‘Land schemes’ link people who want to grow their own food with the space to grow it. These include Landshare, championed by river cottage chef Hugh Fearnleywhittingstall; Landfit, which aims to make the most of green spaces in London, starting in the South East; and activist campaign the Land is Ours, an umbrella group providing support to local campaigns for land-access rights and reclaiming land for the community.
Food Climate Research Network
How can we reduce the overall climate-changing impact of our food supply chain? The Food Climate Research Network is a research and advocacy group looking at this issue, as well as the flipside of the coin – the impact of a changing climate on how we grow, distribute and consume food.
Compassion in World Farming
Animals are living beings with emotions and intelligence, not commodities. Thanks to the efforts of Compassion in World Farming, farm animals that used to be considered ‘goods’ are now recognised, by law, as sentient beings – leading to the end of such cruel practices in factory farming as barren battery cages for egg-laying hens, narrow veal crates and sow stalls across Europe. Many challenges remain.
An advocacy group representing 100 UK public-interest organisations, Sustain – ‘the alliance for better food and farming’ – has had a number of successes since its creation in 1999. Shedding light on the links between diet and mental illnesses, exposing the junk in baby food, supporting projects helping low-income families to eat better, and producing briefings on global trade reform, the depth and breadth of its work has assured a wide reach.
Edited by Andrew Kimbrell, Fatal Harvest: The tragedy of industrial agriculture is a collection of essays by leading ecological and agrarian thinkers from Wendell Berry, to Helena Norberg-hodge. Including the ‘Seven deadly Myths of Industrial agriculture’ and ‘Organic and Beyond’, it is a vision for agriculture in the 21st century, an iconoclastic debunking of agribusiness propaganda, and required reading for anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist.
Published by Island Press, £30