Going the extra mile – whether you like it or not

‘Freshly clicked’. The advertisement on the back of the Tesco delivery truck promised efficiency, convenience and fresh produce delivered to right outside my door. Sounds great, right? Online shopping has saved people time for years now, bar the occasional “Oh no, I tried to order 1kg of apples but I accidentally just ordered 1 apple instead” (true story).

The play on the common phrase ‘freshly picked’ shows just how far we have come from a tangible relationship with the harvest we consume. Food can be ordered online and delivered to our door the next day with contact between farmer and consumer non-existent. It is not surprising, then, in a situation where the food we eat is so divorced from any knowledge of the soil in which it was grown, that the food system has grown ever more international and complex.

Knowledge of the impact of food miles on greenhouse gas emissions, and an understanding that consuming local food encourages local farmers which in turn builds resilience against any coming shocks to the international food system, is certainly increasing. The rise in interest in, and success of, local food shops, farmers’ markets, community gardens, and veg box schemes demonstrates this – albeit confined primarily to a particular social demographic. However, progress remains limited: in 2015, the UK imported £9.1 billion worth of vegetables and fruit, and only exported £1 billion worth. That’s a pretty large trade deficit.

Supermarkets continue to dominate the grocery sector in the UK, which means cheap and unseasonal produce remains the name of the game. Consumers have become used to food availability that simply is not possible without huge levels of international imports to get around the fact that the UK climate does not produce all the food all year round. Eating seasonally is inconvenient for us, now, and not just a necessary way of life as it used to be.

Continue reading Going the extra mile – whether you like it or not

How Should My Garden Grow?

How can you most effectively reduce your carbon footprint through your choice of what food you grow yourself?

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Growing your own food is often, and justifiably, talked about as an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding the environmental impact of food miles and out-of-season veg from the supermarket. In the UK, between 20 and 30 per cent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture – from pesticide use to refrigeration and transportation.

Over half the world’s population now reside in urban areas, and urban food production is becoming increasingly popular as a way to mitigate climate change, improve food quality and reduce personal carbon footprints.

The variety of herbs, fruit and vegetables grown by allotment holders, community farms and the like are endless – just take a wander around the town of Todmorden for example, where peppers grow outside the police station in homage to the Beatles, and the hospital boasts an apothecary garden with herbal remedies galore.

However, for those just starting to venture into the world of grow-your-own, especially those doing so from a concern to reduce their impact on our planet’s delicate climate, choosing what to grow can be an overwhelming experience. This is especially true if you, like the vast majority of us that live in urban areas, suffer from limited growing space. What on earth should you choose – what is the most effective way to grow food and save the planet?

Continue reading How Should My Garden Grow?

Five environmental issues that will make headlines in 2015

(Originally published at Clarity News)

1. Fracking

Over the last year, fracking politics have entered mainstream political discourse in the UK. The Infrastructure Bill currently making its way through parliament has the potential to legally oblige the Government to extract all available oil and gas reserves in the country, which would necessarily include fracking. This has prompted widespread public outcry and the creation of numerous community groups to oppose widespread fracking across the country. A list of licenses for unconventional gas exploration given by the government is due to be released this year, and decisions from planning authorities, the UK and Scottish governments regarding the extent to which fracking and unconventional gas exploration will be allowed, will also be announced. This will shape the direction of energy politics in Britain for better or worse, and is worth keeping a close eye on.

Continue reading Five environmental issues that will make headlines in 2015

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).