The spectre of food poverty continues to cast a shameful shadow across our society. March began with the revelation that a third of councils in England and Wales are now diverting money from public health budgets to support foodbanks; then on the morning of the budget, campaigners delivered a petition of 70,000 names demanding action to address the grim reality of malnutrition and starvation in 21st-century Britain.
Against this backdrop it was perhaps unsurprising that little attention was paid to the Soil Association’s annual organic report, published the same week. Organics, or so popular stereotype would hold, is strictly the preserve of mung bean-munching Guardianistas and bearded greens, a luxury option, more bread machine Britain than breadline Britain. This misapprehension is a serious part of the problem.
The report noted that four out of five British households buy at least some organic produce and that, after several years of decline amid the economic collapse, sales and demand rose markedly last year. Unfortunately, as demand went up, the number of organic producers and the acreage of organic farms declined, leading to fears that soon demand would outstrip supply. Enabling more people to become independent organic growers, particularly those without a personal background in farming, will be key to revolutionising how we think about the food on our plates.
I do some work with a non-profit distributing enterprise in Greater Manchester called the Kindling Trust, which seeks to make the production of and access to sustainably produced, nutritious food an affordable reality for everyone. Among our projects is FarmStart, Britain’s first organic incubator farm, just outside the city. It provides the training, infrastructure and growing space required to allow aspiring growers to try out new business ideas without significant start-up costs. We work in partnership with producers, distributors and buyers through the co-operative Manchester Veg People, providing high-quality fresh ingredients not only to commercial caterers, but also to institutions such as the University of Manchester and, increasingly, primary school kitchens.
Without venturing far, I can visit Moss Side Community Allotments, a collectively managed growing space right in the heart of inner-city Manchester, where people can help themselves to fresh produce in exchange for time worked on the plots. In 2011, over half the brownfield sites in Britain were lying unused. That makes more than 32,000 hectares of land (79,000 acres) that could be used for similar community food projects, given a bit of support and public will.
Elsewhere in the country, creative minds are finding ever more imaginative ways to produce food in our cities. Consider the hydroponic farms in the tunnels beneath London, thriving in the excess heat of the city and producing locally grown salads for the retail markets.
On Monday, Brighton will play host to the first annual meeting of the Sustainable Food Cities network, a gathering of representatives from projects seeking to bring together independent food producers and procurement teams, with representatives of local authorities, non-profits and community projects, to carve out local food supply systems that look beyond multinational corporations for the nutritional needs of their populations.
Access to food is considered a basic human right, but it is a right we have been too willing to sign over to the free market to uphold, a task it has been proved increasingly unfit to deliver. Instead, the system has reaped huge profits while leaving it to future generations to meet the costs of degraded soil and water quality, lost biodiversity and catastrophic levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, state and EU subsidies continue to artificially skew the market and retail prices in favour of big business while R&D investment is concentrated on corporate agritech.
Since 2007 the price of food in real terms increased by 12% across the board, while the buying power of the behemoth retailers allowed them to push the prices paid to farmers – whether traditional or organic – ever closer to a bankruptcy cliff.
The diverse strands of independent, sustainable and organic food producers are, at present, little more than a glimmer of light in the gloom, but they may represent the beginnings of a movement for food sovereignty, restoring the connection between the people of this country and more democratic ownership of the chain that brings food from the fields to our kitchens.
Realistically, Britain is not about to shake off the yoke of global capitalism by growing its own carrots. Even if we could double the output of sustainable and organic crops overnight it would barely scrape at the edges of the industry or the scale of the problems created by poverty, inequality and social injustice.
However, it could mean many thousands of people in need have access to nutritious, healthier diets, whether at home or in canteens. It might also mark the beginning of a shift to a system of production that could promise to sustain our people and the earth’s natural treasury for generations to come.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010