By Toni Fagan

 

‘Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know,’ writes Michael Pollan in Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Produced to Reverse Global Warming, ‘but in fact, it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do.’

 

Some argue that in light of climate change we need to industrialise our agriculture, but growing evidence suggests that the most efficient farms are the small-scale operations. Taking back control of the food system is not only good for the environment but is also a statement of independence against the control that massive multinational corporations have over what you eat and how it is produced.

 

In the film In Our Hands, the Landworkers’ Alliance argue that Brexit provides Britain with the opportunity to realign how food is produced, marketed and sold. The Landworkers’ Alliance is a union working for the rights of small farmers in the UK, a branch of the world’s largest union, La Via Campesina, representing 200 million small-scale farmers. The film asks: ‘What does it mean to have a food system that is good for the planet and people?’

 

Since the 1980’s, we have increased our food imports, now importing 85% of the fresh food available in the UK, and eight supermarkets control 95% of the food that is retailed.  The Enclosures of the 16th century paved the way to private ownership of seeds and feeds. Europe’s common agricultural policy was intended to support the rural classes and preserve the character of European farming, but in Britain it translated into small-scale farmers being eliminated from a scheme where the richest 3% of landowners grew richer through subsidies from Europe. The current industrial food model is in a sorry state for such a vital industry.  In Our Hands focuses on growers working, in the wake of Brexit, to cultivate an alternative model — one based on diversity.

 

Where better to start than seeds? Kate McEvoy, from The Real Seed Catalogue, says what is really needed is good seeds, openly pollinated by wind or insects and adapted to local conditions. The seed industry is now dominated by two seed companies who control 50% of the global market, producing hybrid seeds — each one identical and not adapted to their particular environment, climate or soil, with little resilience to disease. This makes hybrid seeds vulnerable — and therefore humans too. We need diversity for food security. Is it safe to be food to be in such a small number of hands — and is this how food becomes a weapon? What is really important, says Kate, is that seeds are collected by hundreds of thousands of people, but that is not how seeds are manufactured in these days of genetic modification — and if the plant is actually able to seed, then you may be sued for copyright by a big seed company because each seed is traceable at a genetic level. Furthermore, these seeds come as a package with money-making chemical fertilisers. It looks like modern serfdom. When a company owns the patent to the seed, it also owns the food on your plate.

 

Holly Tiffen, from Grown in Totnes, says that in times of crisis, such as those we face, narrowing our genetic diversity is suicide. Grown in Totnes mapped out that although many grains and pulses were suited to growing in the South West, most of the grain grown there was destined for animal feed. Grown in Totnes is filling the food gap by growing, processing, packaging and selling these staples within 30 miles of Totnes, aiming to: reduce food miles; pay a fair price to local farmers; ensure you know exactly what has happened to your food on its way to you; let you know who has grown it; help increase local food security and keep added value in the local economy. How much more resilient is a community that has food independence?

 

All over the UK, projects are being set up to support small-scale food production and processing. It is estimated that 40% of UK protein foods come from imported genetically modified soya. Street Goat is a project set up to farm goats on marginal land in Bristol — an idea that can be replicated in any town or city in the UK. Goats, pigs and chickens have evolved alongside us, living off our food waste; and we can use them to bring marginal land back into production whilst providing meat and dairy products for eating — and solve food waste problems at the same time.

 

The bold statement that emanates from In Our Hands is that it is our birthright to eat food that comes from our soil. This is about using the opportunity to develop a food system that works for people, not just huge multi-national companies whose prime motive is profit. It may be optimistic but it sees Brexit as an opportunity for small food producers to occupy the centre ground — at the same time as dealing with our issues around food waste, food miles and food security. Politicians need to hear this message — lots of small farmers creates lots of resilience. In a world where food is a commodity and hedge funds determine supply and demand — food is rapidly becoming a weapon and communities can, and must, defend themselves from that.

 

In Our Hands is showing at The Courtyard, Hereford on 25 October 2018 at 8pm. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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