The Food Leadership Programme: Thoughts on connectivity

This blog post by Mandy Thomson is the seventh of a series of reflections by participants of the Food Leadership Programme, organised by Nourish from the 12th – 17th of July.

Mandy ThomsonMy thoughts since the Leadership Programme keep coming back to the idea of connectivity.

These thoughts kicked off for me after listening to fellow participant, Mark Williams talk about mycelium networks. Underground fungal networks that connect everything that is living in and rooted into the soil. This network, that has far reaching connections to all things living, has been described as a ‘wood wide web’. This was a revelation to me and the more l read about it, the more l was able to make connections with my own area of interest, the gut.

Our gut houses a similar fungal network called the microbiome, which is being revealed more and more by scientific research to be an extremely complex and vitally important messaging system within the body. It plays a major role in gene expression, immune response and brain function and many scientists now believe that an unhealthy microbiome is a precursor to obesity, metabolic syndrome, depression, cancer, and autoimmune disease. In fact, l believe that pretty much all aspects of our wellbeing can be traced to and altered by our gut health.

Mycelial networks and the gut’s microbiome both play key roles in keeping a fine balance between health and disease. If the system breaks down, all of life breaks down. It is all about keeping the good bacteria thriving and the bad in check. This requires that a harmonious balance of the right nutrients be maintained at all times.

Both of these systems are deeply connected to and nourished by the land. The mycelial networks through the soil in which they thrive, our guts through the food that is derived from that soil.

27.3 Foraged mushroomOur bodies and the mycelial networks are able to adapt, to a certain extent, to the terrain where they need to thrive. The ability to adapt and evolve explains why life can thrive in vastly different conditions and climates and how people from different parts of our planet have survived and evolved perfectly well eating diets that vary greatly.

The big problem that we face today is that food and the means of producing that food have been taken to strange new levels. Farming went down the root of self- perpetuating destruction where soil erosion and the leaching of nutrients went hand in hand with the widespread use of chemical fertilisers and intensive farming methods. What chance of survival for the mycelial networks that sustain the health and integrity of the soil?

On top of this, what we eat has been stripped of nutrients through processing techniques. Colourings, flavourings and preservatives are added and it is churned out in forms that are so far removed from what our not too distant ancestors thought of as food that they would not know what to do with it. Add to that mix GM crops, the overuse of antibiotics and the heavy dependence of our healthcare system on pharmaceuticals and our most precious commodities, the soil in which we grow our food and our microbiome that controls our health, are in a truly sorry state.

The evolution and sustainability of plant life is bound to the health of the soil that nourishes it. Healthy soil is sustained by healthy mycelial networks. There must be balance and harmony in this system for it to be sustainable and nourishing. There is no denying this fact. Yet we learned from the presentation ‘Scotland, Our Food Story So Far’, that since around 1700, when land became a commodity and as a nation we moved from being rural to industrial, we have become disconnected from our source of food and from the soil that nourishes us. Our health has suffered and our national health service has poured more and more money into dealing with chronic metabolic disease (various combinations of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and cardiovascular disease), all of which can be traced back to an unbalanced microbiome.

But all hope is not lost and the Food Leadership Programme brought this home to me.

We learned that Scotland is a great food producing nation and has the means to be better. We have plenty of land for crops and livestock and a move to organic, more sustainable farming is not impossible. But we are not yet at the point where our system feeds everybody well and looks after the planet for future generations. We agreed that the future of farming is through citizen engagement, and that there is an urgent need to reach out and teach people that we all need to be connected to the land that nourishes us and that we are all equally deserving of that nourishment.

We met some amazing people who are committed to connecting with the land in a spirit of nourishment. I was particularly struck by a dairy farmer, Katy Rodgers of Knockraick Farm, who, confined by law, was unable to sell her milk in its raw (unpasturised) form. Yet she was passionate about the benefits of raw dairy and had brought up her own children and then grandchildren on it, would not use anything in her home and was convinced it was a superfood. Yet here in Scotland, with all our incredible green pastures we have to buy unprocessed dairy over the border!

Tom Kirby sharing peas & strawberries from Granton - CSLast but not least I want to look at the ‘food’ aspect of the programme. I love food, which is how I came across Nourish Scotland in the first place. But, the beautiful thing about the programme was the fact that we all came together with such an obvious and unbridled passion for it! I connected to the food that was on offer in such a profound way and felt completely nourished by it. Apart from our caterer Ruby Alba’s fare that was beautifully crafted from boxes full of local produce and sustained us at every meal, everybody had brought something that was dear to them. I got to try hogweed, honey from Ally Aiken’s bees, incredibly tasty chutneys and jams, seaweeds, chocolate truffles, elderflower champagne, honeyed mead, birch sorbet, berries that tasted like the most delicious berries that you could possibly imagine… l dread to think that l may have missed out on anything! On top of that, our bread was lovingly crafted daily and our water came from jugs brimming with flowers and herbs. One night a deliciously spiced and iced birthday cake appeared as if out of nowhere. Bannocks and venison were cooked on an open fire and the facilitators treated us to vegetable curries with organic grass-fed steak. Local, sustainable, nourished and delicious. There is hope.

Another participant, Tom Kirby, asked the question “who do you eat with?”. This question became more and more meaningful to me as the week went on. I would happily eat with this group of people forever. And if food leaders are born out of a passion for food and an ability to enthuse all around them with a need to connect to the land and be equally, one and all, nourished by what we eat, then we are all leaders in our field.