Allotments, land rights and affordable food

This has also been published on Scottish Land Action Movement.

The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.


Recent news that Edinburgh City Council are planning to increase the rental prices of allotments by an average of 105% – and up to 500% for some renters – has caused serious backlash from the city’s allotment owners. This news comes at the same time that new research has shown city allotment soils are far healthier and more productive than much of the United Kingdom’s depleted farmland. Globally, around 30% of the world’s arable land has now been abandoned as poor farming practices leave soils depleted of nutrients and exposed to the risk of erosion.

Food security is one of the most serious concerns we currently face: from depleted soils, to the threat of climate change, to corporate agricultural practices that force small farmers from their land and leave the global food system vulnerable to market fluctuations. With over half of the world’s population now residing in urban areas, food production in cities is an increasingly essential development if a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 is to be sufficiently nourished.

Continue reading Allotments, land rights and affordable food

This land is your land, this land is my land?

[Originally published at Clarity News]


Only 432 people own half of all Scotland’s private rural land. How did it get like this and what can be done about it?

Walking the West Highland Way recently, a 96-mile trail that stretches from just outside Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, I passed through Tyndrum Community Woodland. I’d be happy to pass through a community-owned woodland anywhere; repairing damaged land, forming healthy ecosystems, providing resilience against future climate change, and land used not for an individual’s profit but for the long-term health of the group of people who live and work in its vicinity. However, in Scotland community ownership is nothing short of revolutionary in a country where the feudal system was only abolished in 2004.

432 people own half of Scotland’s private rural land (private land accounts for almost 90% of land in Scotland), the figure which informs a new report on land reform for the Scottish Affairs Committee in the Westminster Parliament, 432:50. Put another way, 0.025% of the population of Scotland own 67% of the private rural land. Over the past two hundred years, most European countries have introduced reforms to ameliorate similar situations and put some power back in the hands of the people. In Scotland, the situation has remained relatively unchanged until recent years, when the Scottish Government have begun using their powers to introduce incremental reforms.

Interests of private owners of land have had vastly damaging effects on the tenant communities, not to mention the long-term health of the land itself. Instead of their livelihoods and interests being supported, in many cases communities are and have historically been left to struggle. Environmental damage has been exacerbated by the introduction of vast numbers of sheep, who eat the shoots of any small trees before they have a chance to grow. This problem has deep historical roots in the Highland Clearances – but the attitudes underpinning the Clearances still exist today.

The Highland Clearances were the emptying out of the Scottish Highlands and Islands of people to make room for the landed gentry’s grouse-shooting excursions and the sheep which brought more profit than the humans. For the century between 1760 and 1860, inhabitants of the Highlands, Western Isles and beyond were forced increasingly to leave their homes as land owners began renting out the land to sheep grazing and farmers from the Lowlands and England. Any resistance to the forced evictions were met with armed response; many Highlanders died, or were forced overseas by the policy. As others were forced onto increasingly small areas of wasteland from which they were expected to subside, undernourishment and disease took hold. If you visit the Isle of Skye today, you can still see the imprints of this subsistence farming on the land – but the population of the countryside has never recovered (Tusdale glen population is currently under half what it was before the Clearances almost three hundred years ago).

Walking across Rannoch Moor, the largest uninhabited area in Britain (fifty square miles) last week, it would have been easy to delight in the expanse of moorland and plethora of wildlife around me, a land that I could kid myself had been unscarred by human pressures, a wild land left for the environment to flourish in unspoilt bliss. But the ruined cottages that crop up at points along the Drovers’ Path across the moor tell a different story. In a phrase that has stuck with me vividly since I first came across it, the Highlands are not an empty landscape, but an emptied one.

The history of local dispossession by faraway land owners has not been forgotten. Indeed, the figures above would suggest that very little has changed about the situation. Whilst legislation has ensured that a repeat of the Clearances would be illegal now – and one would hope that our society has reached a point where there would no longer be public, royal and governmental support for the armed eviction of tenant farmers – the situation in rural Scotland is still far from ideal. With such a vast amount of land held in private hands for profitable purposes, communities are still forced to live in uncertainties of their futures.

The Isle of Eigg is a prime example. In 1997 the Isle of Eigg Trust, a community group, purchased its own land after support and fundraising from thousands of members of the public. The impact and importance of this event can hardly be exaggerated: citizens standing up to take back control of their own land, their own livelihoods and futures, after years of what the island community have themselves described as “instability, neglect and lack of secure tenure”. This event kickstarted the land reform movement in Scotland. Rather than exist subservient to an absentee laird who nevertheless had the power to change rent prices and terms as and when they saw fit, the communities of Eigg wanted to take back the power over the ground under their feet.

Land reform is a question that goes to the very heart of the issue of people versus profit. Community land ownership in Scotland goes some way to addressing centuries of putting profit before people, to the detriment of lives and livelihoods across the Highlands and Islands. But it has implications far beyond the Scottish borders. In a world where corporate land grabs seem endemic and the privatisation of everything appears to be the direction that British governmental policy is heading, community ownership offers a glimmer of hope for people that would rather be in charge of their own futures than subservient to the wishes of someone else’s profit motives. And when you own the land you depend on for your home and your nourishment, it isn’t a great leap to suggest that concerns over the long-term health and protection of such land against the threat of climate change will take a greater place of priority as well.


Further reading and links:

The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland, And How They Got It by Andy Wightman – The best introduction out there to the Scottish land situation, tracing the deep and bloody roots of laird land ownership.

Soil and Soul by Alistair McIntosh – The inspiring story of the Isle of Eigg community buy-out and the fight to save a mountain on Harris from destructive mountaintop-removal mining practises.

The Highland Clearances by John Prebble – excellent historical account of the Clearances.

Community Land Scotland:

Making sustainable food affordable

[originally published on Clarity News]

Is there always a trade-off between low prices and eco-friendly food? Can we make sustainable food affordable?

Food has become a key issue for activists and campaigners in recent years, and when you look at the statistics, it’s easy to see why. A new report has found that there has been a 54% increase in the number of meals given to people in food poverty from 2012/13 to 2013/14; in the same time span, there has been an increase of almost 300% in emergency food assistance given by Trussell Trust foodbanks (not to mention numerous food banks run by other organisations).

Around 15 million tonnes of food is wasted every year in the UK alone – which accounts for almost 10% of British greenhouse gas emissions. About 870 million people in the world are severely undernourished, and 1.5 billion are overweight. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, fishing and forestry have nearly doubled over the past fifty years – the global food system is the single biggest human cause of climate change.

Food is an environmental, social, and economic issue. It’s also something that every human being needs in order to survive.

The tension between food poverty and sustainable systems

However, there is a disconnect in the UK between different kinds of food-related campaigning organisations – a disconnect that stands in the way of effective systemic change. On the one hand, organisations like the Trussell Trust, who have become particularly prominent during the last year and a half due to the unprecedented rise in the number of people needing emergency aid from food banks, provide immediate relief to people in food poverty through, for example, co-ordinating food banks. You could classify these organisations as working on “food poverty and access”.

One the other hand, many organisations throughout the UK are focusing on what could be classified as “healthy and sustainable diets”, for example promoting organic food; campaigns to shop at independent grocery stores; and campaigns to buy only locally-reared, grass-fed meat.

The question, then, is where does the link come in? How do we provide for people in dire need of emergency food aid whilst at the same time creating a system that provides a more sustainable food system for everyone? How do we ensure that “food poverty and access” is not detached from “healthy and sustainable diets”, further entrenching the class divide evident in these issues?

If somebody is in need of assistance from a food bank – or even if they are not at that dire stage, but are on benefits or minimum wage, and have dependents – preaching the evils of 99p packs of sausages and insisting that the person in question must only buy meat directly from the farmer who lives two bus rides away might not win you any supporters.

An interconnected world

However, it is undeniable that climate change is going to change our food system drastically. We are interconnected throughout the world in an unprecedented way, and the same is true of the global food system. In 2008, the effects of Cyclone Nargis on rice production in Myanmar caused a spike in the price of rice, which impacted prices of grains globally due to the imbalance caused in the global food market (financial speculation which treated food as a market commodity was also at play here), leading to foot riots throughout the world and a drastic increase in food insecurity. It is only since the world has become so interconnected that one localised poor harvest could cause such a rippling effect on food prices throughout the world.

In light of this, it becomes clear why one of the key responses to climate change is localising food production and reducing “food miles” – not only does this cut the carbon footprint of food, mitigating the climate impact of the produce, but it also creates a resilience amongst communities where they break free of dependence on the global food system.

If cheap, imported food is therefore unsustainable in the long run, is the opposite also, inevitably, true? Is sustainable food simply never going to be cheap?

The alternatives

Luckily, cheap and sustainable food is not a pipe dream, and there are people and organisations working to create a food system that bridges the gap.

Jack Monroe is one such writer. Ms Monroe rose to fame through her blog, A Girl Called Jack, particularly through documenting how she was able to feed herself and her young son through a period of poverty. Instead of reaching for ready-meals, she would cook more nutritious, and tastier, recipes using basic ingredients. Through the emphasis on nutrition and taste as well as price, Monroe demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to eat well on a tiny budget – but it takes determination to tread the middle ground in the face of bargain-basement ready meals and those with more disposable income whose faces light up in horror at the mere mention of supermarkets.

Another example of such determination comes from the Yorkshire town of Todmorden, home of theIncredible Edible movement. The Incredible Edible premise is simple: “If you eat, you’re in”. Incredible Edible began from the frustration of waiting around for the government to do something about climate change, and the belief that health and community could be transformed through local food projects.

From its outset, Incredible Edible worked on the premise that if the work they were doing was exclusionary to the most disadvantaged members of the community, it would be in vain. This key tenet of the movement meant that whilst the temptation may well have been to create a community growing project suitable only for people with land to grow food on, and the spare time (and money) to participate, Incredible Edible however actually moved beyond this and focused on providing training, education and above all inclusivity in their campaigns.

The future

Food activism should not be about dictating to people the need to eat a diet they simply cannot afford. However, it should also move beyond immediate aid to look at the underlying structural causes of food poverty, the UK’s dependence on a fragile global food system threatened by climate change, and ways to improve health and community in a society where people are increasingly alienated from each other. Food activism should be about building resilient communities in the face of opposition from slow-acting governments and dominant corporate powers.

When we talking about food, what we are talking about is no less than the future of humanity, and bridges between different strands of food activism should reflect this complex and incredibly important vision.

Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution

In 2012 I was lucky enough to visit Todmorden, home of Incredible Edible and bastion of hope for people around the world looking for evidence that small changes can make a big difference.

Incredible: Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution is the new book now available to order all about Incredible Edible Todmorden. It’s been a while since I could really describe a book as a “page-turner” but here is a story that truly lives up to that description!

ImageIncredible Edible has been a key movement that I’ve thought back to time and again when the state of our planet gets me down. It’s easy to be depressed about the environment – so easy, in fact, that it’s actually pretty hard to narrow down specific examples as evidence. From the Fijian government’s evacuation and relocation strategies for its islanders faced with rising sea levels (another news source here) to the knowledge that those most responsible for the unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere will probably suffer the least – and therefore take the least action to curb their emissions – to the fact that the UK government has a climate change-denier responsible for climate change policy, it’s easy to feel like all there is left to do is give up and (literally) wait for the tide to come in.

And that’s when I remember Incredible Edible. Incredible Edible started from the idea that maybe the way to change the world was to stop talking about inaccessible and scary concepts like peak oil and carbon cycles, and start talking about food. Incredible Edible: “If you eat, you’re in”.

ImageThe story of Incredible Edible is one of a depressing and declining Yorkshire market town that turned its future around through the powers of food and community. From its humble beginnings with a sign on a vegetable patch that read “Please help yourself”, to propaganda planting around the town, to a global network of committed individuals working to increase their communities’ health, knowledge, love for food, and future security, Incredible Edible is positive action at its best. And it isn’t elitist, either – one of the things I love most about the project is that from its very outset those involved were convinced that they could only do this by involving the most disadvantaged communities in the area – otherwise, what was the point?

From a vegetable patch outside the police station, to the hospital’s apothecary garden, to the involvement of every local school in growing projects, to new jobs and apprenticeships, Incredible Edible has turned the fortunes of Todmorden around – and created some pretty tasty meals in the process!

ImageReclaiming the right to nutritious and delicious food from the hands of multinational corporations, and building a future with real sustainability at its heart, Incredible Edible is a revolutionary way of life that doesn’t require you to have a PhD in Leninism or twenty years of experience in permaculture. All you need is to be a person who eats food!

There are many things about Incredible: Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution that are going to stick with me and inspire me to keep fighting for a future that’s worth fighting for. But I think one of the main things that I try and carry with me is this: Stop passing the buck. Stop waiting. Don’t wait for permission. Go outside, grow veg, change the world.

ImageIf you are losing hope for the future, if you are losing faith in people, if you are despairing about the future of our planet: stop. Buy Incredible: Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution. And get inspired to stop looking at the failures of those in power, and start changing the world through subverting the structures-that-be to create a kinder and radically more beautiful future for everyone.

Image(All photos taken by myself at the 2012 Todmorden Show).