We started on time, and did not blame the children. We asked questions, and shared LOTS of important information and insights till our heads were swimming. Miesbeth Knottenbelt, Nourish member & volunteer, reports on the first session of the 2000m2 Field of Enquiry series at Whitmuir The Organic Place: “Our global and local field”.
The day opened with an overview to frame the series: ‘To get the conversation going’ (Pete Ritchie quoting Michelle Obama when she initiated model gardening on the White House lawn), and understand the issues much better, we need to equip ourselves with a critical look at the global context. Indeed, we did exactly this with the help of three excellent presentations by ‘the experts’, an afternoon tour around the farm to demonstrate what these things look like in practice, and lots of time to digest this input in discussion.
Pete introduced the hardest, but most important questions: What does ‘success’ look like? The New Economic Foundation tells us that we need to think about not just feeding everybody, but also well-being, social justice and stewardship. Markets cannot be depended on to look after people’s health, the environment and other creatures, nor does it concern itself with fair distribution. Also, global governance is weak and corporate lobbying is strong. There are clearly a lot of challenges, but also important opportunities both for Scotland and for the world. The information presented to us illustrated that this is a complicated game of compromises. To mention a few:
- International trade supplies the UK with a huge percentage of our food, this trend is increasing steeply, and the bulk comes from a handful of the countries (Brazil, France, the US, Argentina, Spain), as researcher Henri de Ruiter showed. While trade can be argued to be an efficient way of producing food (e.g. transporting tomatoes from Spain is a lot ‘cheaper’ (in all sorts of ways) than heating UK greenhouses and then transporting them internally), but one of the worrying trends is that it tends to lead to mono-agriculture. Yet diversification is key to resilience.
It gets worse: the bulk of the crops we import (soya, palm oil, maize, wheat) is used to feed our animals. So we set ourselves up to compete with our animals for feeding ourselves, and thereby actively produce greenhouse gas pollution that speeds up climate change. But before we decide that we should not breed animals for food, it is also clear that they play an important part in satisfying our protein needs, can be fed on waste, and produce manure (all huge areas for productive exploration).
- We need to think about how to use our land wisely to grow food, but cannot simply cut down more (‘unproductive’) forests or convert (less ‘productive’) grassland to (highly productive’) cropland without reducing our ability to absorb the carbon emissions that threaten us.
- Focusing in on the possibilities afforded by organic farming we saw that it typically produces 20% less ‘yield’ but produces a range of other important ‘ecosystem services’ which are often hard to quantify and therefore do not ‘count’ when it comes to high-level decision making. During his talk, professor Nicolas Lampkin noted that ‘sustainability intensification’ is perhaps better understood therefore as aiming to produce enough rather than aiming for maximum returns, taking into account what it is we need and how we can utilise our resources better in more holistic ways. So we heard about things like the importance of looking after our earthworms (for preserving soil structure), and pollinators; mixed cropping (also for resilience); and agroforestry (for a range of reasons). The challenge is finding feasible (economic) models to get this off the ground in current contexts where trends are moving in opposite directions.
Our afternoon tour round Whitmuir farm powerfully demonstrated the benefits of these wider ‘ecosystem services’ at play, and also added important social dimensions to these formulas:
- While we looked at the fences and ditches around us from the top of the hill, we learned about the historical significance of shifting landownership patterns and emergence of markets.
- In the greenhouse we heard about work with local schools in reducing and composting their food waste.
- At the 2000 m2 plot we saw how the kids are getting involved in gardening and are being introduced to the delicious tastes of fresh food…
But we also heard about the failing economic models, of this and other more conventional farming practices around the area, and, pondering depressing stats of farmland being abandoned in the area, we were left wondering who we will be able to depend on to feed us in future, why the work in front of us is not being valued, and how the worrying trends we heard about can be reversed….
Lots more to be learned in subsequent sessions, and we did much more than just get the conversation going!
If you want to read more about the topics of the session, you can access the presentations and resources of the day in this Dropbox folder. If you have questions about the Fields of Enquiry series, you can e-mail Heather Anderson at heather @ whitmuircommunityfarm.org.