Linda Hull, co-ordinator of Somerset Land and Food, reflects on what we need to do if we’re to grow more food closer to home and support our local producers
I don’t suppose I need to tell followers of this website that industrial agriculture is trashing the planet. However, I admit to being shocked to read recently in the Foresight Future Food and Farming Report that it sucks up a staggering 70% of global water supply. The problem remains that while food encompasses everything that we humans care about, our food system is failing and the scale of it, and its negative impacts on land, resources and health are often just “too big to see.”
If we were to let food be our guide to the “urban paradox” – and to a good life – as architect and author of Hungry City, Carolyn Steel urges, what would we find ourselves doing? The Campaign for REAL Farming (Resilient, Ecological, Alternative, Local) calls for nothing less than a People’s Takeover of the world’s food supply! Spokesman, Colin Tudge, believes there is still enough existing good law and room for manoeuvre, politically and economically, to enact an Agrarian Renaissance, obviating the need for a full grown revolution. He outlines a route in his paper “Eight Steps Back to the Land”
Having attended recent events with titles such as Food and Public Space, Food & Spatial Planning and Tackling Food Security through Science & Technology – all in London – and, closer to home, the Let’s Grow Food and Reclaim the Fields gatherings, it’s clear to me that food system activists need to work much smarter, and in much closer collaboration, if we are to make any real progress in reversing destructive trends.
What would a People’s Takeover require of us? Below I share some reflections on a summer of research into the bigger picture. And a few further questions!
We need to:
- Stop wasting food – with £1bn worth of food being thrown away every month in the UK, this must surely be the first step to securing our food supplies! And if it can’t be eaten, let’s use food waste to generate energy…
- Ensure that reserving land for food production, both commercial and non-commercial, is firmly on the radar of our local authority planners. Currently, food production does not specifically feature in planning policy and the upcoming changes to planning could make it even more difficult to reserve and protect land for growing food, especially the best and most versatile land (BMV). However, Sustain’s recent report Good Planning for Good Food has opened a debate with the Royal Town Planning Institute and urges all of us to make sure our Local Development Frameworks specify the allocation of land for food. Similarly, although focused on London and its green belt, Cultivating the Capital provides a very useful set of principles for food system activists to apply in their own situations.
- Identify where real and robust demand for land, and locally produced food, lies. Waiting lists are not the most robust indicators of demand for land in a particular area, but they are a starting point. How can we best share knowledge and data at the community level about the issues of food supply, the availability of suitable land and the extent of the market in and for locally produced food, so that demand can be stimulated sufficiently and in time to make our communities resilient to shocks to our food supply chains?
- Enable greater access to land. Reaching out to landowners can be a complex undertaking and determining who owns land can be very difficult to establish. One eye watering fact is that 70% of land in Britain is owned by 1% of the population… however, with only 1% of churn in the market for land, new micro enterprises on existing land must be the way forward. Oxford based Landshare CIC is pioneering the development of a guide for landowners focusing on “land partnerships.” Tom Curtis of Landshare believes landowners can minimise and externalise risks posed by the price volatility of key inputs, commodity price fluctuation and the impacts of potential tax changes on agricultural diesel via such partnerships. Traditional farm business tenancies can be used together with turnover rents to create new mixed, highly integrated, labour and knowledge intensive farming and growing enterprises on land already owned.
- Lobby for the use of surplus, vacant and derelict Local Authority and other publicly owned land for both commercial and community based food production. Brownfield land – areas that have been previously developed but are currently unused – offers great potential for new growing space. In the report Can You Dig It, the authors reported that in 2007 Britain had 12,710 hectares of vacant brownfield land that is unused or may be available for redevelopment. This land can be developed “as is,” without levelling, demolition or clearing of fixed structures or foundations.
The vast majority (85%) of this vacant land is located in urban areas or within 500 metres of a built-up area – precisely where growing spaces are in highest demand. About one-third of this land has been deemed suitable for housing, but only a fraction has been allocated for housing development. Of this unused suitable land, 28% has yet to be allocated for any specific use. This unused, uncontaminated, and unallocated urban land represents a significant opportunity for growing spaces.
Across England, 50 counties and unitary authorities owned and managed 96,206 hectares of agricultural land in 2006. Councils could be encouraged to consider converting some of this agricultural land into growing spaces instead of selling it off. This conversion can be done automatically under Section 336 of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1990.
How can we best negotiate for access to land for community based growing spaces? A fascinating dataset of surplus land can be viewed on the Homes and Communities Agency website. Thousands of training gardens could be established on meanwhile leases on some of the public and/or private land currently lying empty. Nationally, the Community Land Advisory Service, in development under the auspices of the National Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, seems well placed to set standards and develop protocols for this, having the ear of government, as it does, via DEFRA and DCLG. But it must build on the experience and aspirations of the many hundreds of local initiatives in operation up and down the country.
- Support and enable massive re-skilling in the sphere of food production and in particular to enable our young farmers and the 7000 students currently reading agriculture in this country to access sufficient land and market share to make it viable for them to succeed the half a million existing farmers, many of whom are at the end of their careers. More people must understand the needs of new and existing local producers, if they are going to be able to use the next decade to offer us a localised alternative. That is to say, we must keep them in business now for when we will really need them…
- Work together to amass Nurture Capital to invest in local projects. With many local food projects soon to come to the end of their funding, how can we set up alternative ways to invest in local food production? Practitioners in the USA are pioneering the use of Slow Money to bring investment, literally, back down to Earth.
- Amplify the work of existing “disruptive innovators” and other radical alternatives. Some of my favourites which I have come across so far include:
- Mary Clear of Incredible Edible Todmorden is an inspiring and formidable woman. Claiming “if you eat, you’re in” she and her team have started a small revolution by “accidentally gardening” on some of the most raggedy bits of land in their community. Strongly believing that, given there is trouble ahead, if we don’t create a kinder culture now and provide opportunities for the most marginal people in our society to feed themselves first, she feels much of what the rest of us are up to will be a waste of time. To this end, amongst many other things, they have succeeded in engaging police and firemen in a competition to grow as much as possible on their land holdings. Incredible Edible campaigns are now active worldwide
- Building on 10 years of community food activism, a draft planning advisory note on incorporating space for food growing in new developments has been developed by Food Matters in conjunction with Brighton City Council as a part of the Harvest project. It applies to new build commercial, residential and mixed developments and to conversions where applicable and is intended as guidance for planning officers, developers and interested residents to inform them on what is possible to achieve depending on the scale and type of development. With 10,000 ha of peri-urban land owned by the Green controlled administration of the City Council and a Green MP to boot, all eyes are on the seaside city to see if this political context can make the difference and tip the balance in favour of feeding Brighton with sustainably produced local food.
- Reclaim the Fields is a constellation of young people and collective projects willing to go back to the land and reassume control over food production. At the recent South West Gathering held in Bristol, the atmosphere was positively buzzing as activists such as those at Grow Heathrow, who have squatted the site of the proposed, though currently postponed, third runway and turned it into a market garden, rubbed shoulders with liberation permaculturalists, academics and herbalists. Personally, I feel that land can be accessed without the need to squat if security of tenure is required. I do think occupying land to spark debate and educate, however, has tremendous value, creating cultural space which can then be moved into by others.
- Reclaim our plates – the debate about changing diets to be much more plant based and locally sourced is one which will continue to cause controversy, but I like Colin Tudge’s formula of “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety.” And, perhaps more to the point, I concur with Sam Henderson of Church Farm and FARM:shop, who declares that if every household had a direct, personal relationship with at least one farm, that would be a truly radical development!
- Acknowledge Food Sovereignty and respect the Right to Food – the latest step in my summer’s journey to understand the dynamics of how we get back to the land to produce local food for local consumption has been re-acquaintance with the notion of “food sovereignty.” Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their markets; and to provide local fisheries-based communities the priority in managing the use of and the rights to aquatic resources. Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production.” (Statement on Peoples’ Food Sovereignty by Via Campesina, et al.) Securing Future Food sets out why it is necessary to make the radical shift towards ecological food provision in order to secure future food for the world’s predicted 9 billion people.
In conclusion, we need to harness the “convening power of food” as Professor Kevin Morgan says, chair of the new Bristol Food Policy Council. “We have to render food visible. Only via visibility and connectivity will we be able to protect and enhance our local food webs.”
My journey continues with the challenge of making Foodmapper relevant and accessible to a wider audience. Work is in progress to develop a “master map” where relevant land based data is widely and easily available – ie land quality, topography, soils, ownership, flood risk and current or potential use. A huge opportunity exists to capture and present the wealth of data currently residing in our fragmented network, particularly in the face of claims that there is a lack of data and evidence to inform the best and most effective actions we need to take to create sustainable food systems.
Complaints that there are too many disparate maps, platforms and data sets which aren’t well known enough, and are impossible to cross-pollinate, beg the question of how to develop and popularise a national platform that can strengthen collaborative relationships, connect practitioners with good intelligence, improve knowledge transfer and rapidly enable a proactive network of food system activists to bring new land into production and protect it for local provision of good food. Such collaboration is now desperately needed as funding is dwindling, climate is changing and food prices are rising. Visit Foodmapper today and plot YOUR local food webs.
Linda first wrote this article for Bristol Local Food – a very useful publication (do check out their website).
Somerset Land and Food is a project of Somerset Community Food – a grass-roots charity that aims “to re-connect people with the social, health, and environmental effects of growing, buying, preparing, and eating local food”.