Repurposing the farm

Four years into the recession  with another six to go, and it’s time to stop waiting for things to get back to normal.

Food in Scotland: that won’t be back to normal any time soon.  As welfare ‘reform’ bites, more families will be pushed into food poverty, choosing between food and fuel, food and a phone, food and Christmas presents.

Up at the other end of the food chain, multinational food business Vion has just announced it is putting all its UK business up for sale.  This pulls out key links in the Scottish poultry, pork and beef industry.  In the dairy industry, Muller’s takeover of Wiseman creates the same vulnerability to rationalisation decisions taken in Europe, where our domestic market of 5 million people looks very small and far away.

So how could it be different?  Well we could look West, where Gus Schumacher’s Wholesome Wave Foundation works across 26 states of the union to connect farmers directly with low-income communities.  Mayors and their city-wide food policy councils are using their powers to provide non-stigmatising subsidies  to help famiies in food poverty buy fresh food direct from farmers through farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture schemes and local food hubs.  This alternative food movement is growing fast, and having a measurable impact on health.  Gus was in Edinburgh earlier this month to meet food policymakers and practitioners who came away thinking ‘well, if they can do it….’

What if empty units in Langlee and Castlemilk reopened as community retail shops, buying direct from farmers, with credit unions helping to manage large-scale community buying groups?  What if 500 new social entreprises emerged to bake bread, pasteurise milk, make healthy takeaways, and (slightly) healthy sausages?  What if urban and periurban land supported a new wave of small-scale growers, helped to work and learn co-operatively?  What if our public food led the way in sourcing locally and influencing diets?

Scotland couldn’t be better placed  to reconnect farmers with their historic role of feeding themselves and their communities.  It’s not just that we’re a food-exporting nation, growing more vegetables than we eat (and if we ever get to 5  a day, there’s plenty of room to grow more), as well as cereals, meat, dairy and eggs.  We’ve also got a robust and thriving social and community sector, good frameworks for bringing together councils, NHS and housing associations,  a national food policy framework and a tradition of mutuality.

What’s stopping us?  It’s not money – feeding people well through short supply chains will create new jobs in social enterprises across all our cities, and recirculate wealth, as well as paying back many times over in improved health.

It’s the way we think.  Received wisdom on food security: it makes sense to trust a handful of transnational food businesses to deliver on our public policy objectives while simultaneously maximising shareholder return.  Received wisdom on food poverty: let them eat cake (as long as it’s best before yesterday and doled out through a food bank) and make soup.

So what’s the alternative?  Food sovereignty is an idea born in the global South but making more and more sense in Scotland.  It puts feeding people at home well first, before food exports.  Yes, we need to send whisky and salmon round the world, just like Kenya needs to send mange tout peas and flowers, but we need to pay as much attention to what we eat and grow at home.

Unreceived wisdom: ‘the primary purpose of farming in Scotland is to feed people well’ and ‘we use public money to help make this happen’.


Pete Ritchie