“Sometimes the best way to fix a system is to start a new one.” As the flames rise on a quayside in Gweek, Cornwall (at last September’s Firelight event), the passion is clear. Alex Geldenhuys, founder of sail cargo cooperative New Dawn Traders, is talking international shipping and imagining alternative ways of importing food. “Even with the best olive oil in the supermarket, the producer is only getting a tiny percentage of the price you pay. I wanted to find another way around – where the farmer gets the lion’s share.”
Tackling our broken food system is a meaty challenge to say the least. From fairer prices for farmers to reducing carbon emissions; minimising the environmental impacts to maximising food security, public health, and worker pay; the heavily industrialised global food system that’s gobbled and churned through the last 50 years has wreaked all kinds of harm on people and planet. Fed by deep-set market forces, mega business and international politics, it’s a true behemoth to even try to understand – let alone unpick and rebuild in a fairer, cleaner, healthier way.
But combining a burning love for life on the high seas with a pragmatic skill for international logistics (and negotiating customs bureaucracy hell), Geldenhuys has her sights set on the small piece of the puzzle where she can make a difference. “I mean, we’re so tiny,” she says. “But it’s got to start somewhere. Our journey is a symbolic one; playing our part in the global movement to bring food trade back to a human scale, and consumerism to a conscious level.”
New Dawn Traders connects a network of small family farms and producers on the Caribbean and western European coastlines with UK customers – bringing them the finest olive oil, coffee, chocolate, almonds, rice, beans, honey and more, with transparent pricing, bulk-buy benefits and zero emissions from shipping only by sail. “I wanted to build supply chains where there was no compromise in the ethics and values of what we were shipping, who we were dealing with, how we were selling it, and making sure people were fairly treated from one end to the other,” she explains.
In contrast, the ‘ethics and values’ of the mainstream food system make for some startling statistics:
Makes that sail-shipped honey taste a whole lot sweeter in comparison…
“It’s got to start somewhere. Our journey is a symbolic one; playing our part in the global movement to bring food trade back to a human scale, and consumerism to a conscious level.”
Of course, by Geldenhuys’ own admission, hers is just one tiny example of a positive model that benefits a tiny number of people compared to the global food system responsible for all the pain and destruction listed above. And while positive models like New Dawn Traders are important to inspire – with potential to replicate and scale – they’re too often dismissed by big business and policymakers, who tell us that without industrialised agriculture and trade we’d starve.
After the Second World War, when food scarcity had been such an issue for global populations, the onset of mechanised farming, chemical fertilisers, synthetic pesticides, monocrops, and agricultural subsidies helped reduce hunger and rebuild economies. “There was a focus on production and quantity over anything else,” explains independent agronomist and consultant Richard Harding. “Quantity has always been the metric farmers are measured against; there isn’t an incentive to produce on nutrient density or environmental impact or anything like that. And since nitrogen fertiliser came into widespread use in the 1970s, farmers have become universally addicted to it as a cheap universal tool for increasing their yields.”
But, several generations on, this approach has taken a heavy toll on the environment and wildlife, fuelled climate change and caused all manner of harm to human health – both from eating chemicals in the food, and to workers involved in its production and distribution.
Worse still, the Covid pandemic and recent supply chain crises have shown us, loud and clear, that food insecurity hasn’t gone away. Increased dependence on food banks, empty supermarket shelves, panic buying of everything from tinned tomatoes to toilet roll, and countries limiting exports and stockpiling commodities to protect their domestic food security, have shown the vulnerabilities of our current system. In the UK in September/ October 2021, around 1 in 6 (17%) adults were unable to buy essential food items. And the war in Ukraine looks set to further destabilise things; together, Russia and Ukraine export more than a quarter of the world’s wheat supply, and Russia’s grip on the global fertiliser market has seen some fertiliser prices skyrocket almost 400% since last January.
Back in 2011, Prince Charles gave a talk on the future of food at the USA’s Georgetown University. Some of his comments are scarily prescient in the light of what has played out in the last two years. “Imagine if there was a global food shortage – if it became much harder to import food in today’s quantities,” he asked. “Where do countries turn to for their staple foods? Is there not more resilience in a system where the necessary staple foods are produced locally? So that if there are shocks to the system, there won’t be panic?”
“Is there not more resilience in a system where the necessary staple foods are produced locally? So that if there are shocks to the system, there won’t be panic?”
He also cited figures from the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, which estimated that demand for food would rise by 70% between “now” (his talk in 2011) and 2050 – the equivalent of 219,000 new mouths per day. And that increased demand for biofuels would further squeeze food production – for example, in the US, four out of every ten bushels of corn are grown to fuel motor vehicles (figure also from 2011 – likely more now).
So without endlessly reeling off more figures evidencing the doom and gloom many of us already feel around the current system, what can be done to fix it? And, along with Geldenhuys and her New Dawn Traders crew, who else is steering a strong course to improve things and deliver us the fresh hope we need?
The good news is, there’s a huge groundswell already running, and far too many brilliant initiatives, projects, farmers and organisations to name.
But first, a word on soil…
Around 95% of our food comes from the soil; it’s essential for human life. “The soil is the planet’s most vital renewable resource; top soil is the cornerstone of the prosperity of nations,” Prince Charles said in that same Georgetown speech. “It acts as a buffer against drought, and as a carbon sink, and is the primary source of the health of all animals, plants and people.” As well as growing food to keep us alive, global soils contain more carbon than the atmosphere and all the world’s forests combined.
The majority of global farming systems do not nurture soil health, but exploit and damage it. Over half of all soils globally are now classified as degraded – a process which ultimately turns 30 million acres of food producing land into desert every year. Erosion also washes or blows away 24 billion tonnes of soil a year. In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization made a stark – and hotly debated – claim that there may only be enough topsoil left globally for 60 more harvests.
Sorry, more gloomy statistics. But this context – that we need to look after our soil to ensure humanity’s own continued existence – has already kickstarted an agroecological revolution that has been gathering pace in recent years. Increasing numbers of farmers worldwide are adopting growing systems that restore the soil, reverse desertification, do not use any chemical inputs, nurture biodiversity, and work with nature to produce better, tastier, healthier food for their local communities.
“In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization made a stark – and hotly debated – claim that there may only be enough topsoil left globally for 60 more harvests.”
Smallholder farmers produce over 70% of the world’s food, on less than a quarter of the world’s farmland, according to wefeedtheworld.org, a photographic project featuring work from the likes of Rankin, Martin Parr and Graciela Iturbide. “We are often told by corporations, governments and the media that without a high-tech, chemically intensive industrial food system, we would soon starve,” they say. “We Feed the World cuts through this misinformation to creatively tell the stories of the farmers and fishers who really feed the world.”
One model that brings together smallholder-style farms with customer convenience is community supported agriculture (CSA) – thought to have grown from the Tekei movement in Japan in the late 1960s, with other roots in Switzerland and the US. Different CSAs work in different ways, but essentially people pay for a share of a local farm’s produce for a whole season – and then get a regular share of the produce each week (often including eggs, dairy, bread, poultry, meat and even firewood, as well as fruit and vegetables). It’s more of a commitment than subscribing to a straight veg box scheme, and, as many involved in CSAs insist, more rewarding for everyone involved.
“Community supported agriculture is a partnership between farmers and consumers in which the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming are shared,” explains the UK’s CSA Network website, arguing that CSAs work for people, planet and producer. For people, because they build communities, provide volunteering and skills building opportunities, and increase physical and mental wellbeing for everyone involved. For planet, because they grow agroecologically – improving soil health and increasing biodiversity – and are low carbon, low waste, low energy, low food miles (many CSAs supply to an under 20-mile radius) and have minimal packaging. And for producer, because farmers know who/ how many they’re farming for, what capital they have for planning at the beginning of the season, and get better margins from selling direct to consumers, “from field to fork”.
“Nowhere more than in the pandemic, did we see the absolute resilience of the [community supported agriculture] model… Our CSAs just carried on as normal, and people’s food supply carried on as normal, in stark contrast to what was happening in the supermarkets.”
CSA has been around for decades, but has experienced considerable growth in the last couple of years. “There’s definitely more awareness,” says Suzy Russell, CSA network coordinator. “In our annual survey in January 2019, people were telling us we needed to create more awareness of CSA as people think it’s the Child Support Agency! We don’t get that anymore.” The numbers speak for themselves – with UK member farms more than doubling from 65 in March 2019, to 152 in March 2021, and approaching 200 in 2022.
“Nowhere more than in the pandemic, did we see the absolute resilience of the model,” Russell continues. “Most of our CSAs just carried on as normal, and people’s food supply carried on as normal, in stark contrast to what was happening in the supermarkets.”
On a mission to tackle food insecurity in its local community, Soul Farm is a CSA in Flushing, Cornwall – run by Laurence and Adele Jarrett-Kerr – which supplies around 90-100 weekly veg shares to its members. The couple also set up the Tregew Food Barn, a popular weekly market selling their vegetables, plus fish and seafood, bread and other produce in collaboration with a great network of other producers in Cornwall.
Soul Farm grows all its produce using agroecological methods (Laurence learned the ‘no dig’ approach from family friend, mentor and no dig guru Charles Dowding). But for Jarrett-Kerr, farming in harmony with nature is a given rather than their central mission – which is more focused around social justice. Soul Farm has a self-selecting sliding scale of payments for their CSA shares, meaning they can offer low-income and free shares, subsidised by members who’ve opted into higher rates. In the 2021 season they were able to provide 20 free shares each week.
“Our mission is good food for everyone,” explains Jarrett-Kerr. “We’re having debates at the moment about whether or not to become organically certified. Our fight isn’t about being organic, or the environmental issues. For us, it’s about doing all of those things, but providing it to everybody. One reluctance I have with putting the organic label on it, is that people in any sort of food insecurity, may have a stigma on that label. But if they can just be eating organic food, without thinking about it, then that’s really great. Our primary mission is to get food to people in food insecurity. But we recognise that people on higher incomes are vital in helping support that system.”
So if we need to rebuild our current food systems, could CSAs be the answer? “They’re definitely a big part of the answer,” says Russell, explaining that CSA Network’s vision is for a CSA in every neighbourhood. But CSAs – which are typically run on relatively small plots, don’t always have enough space for field crops like potatoes, and don’t currently get any support from DEFRA if they’re under five hectares – can’t provide all the food.
“One reluctance I have with putting the organic label on it, is that people in any sort of food insecurity, may have a stigma on that label. But if they can just be eating organic food, without thinking about it, then that’s really great.”
Delicious as fresh locally grown veg might be, we can’t just eat vegetables. “Who grew the rice next to your curry, where does the flour in your daily bread come from?” ask Hodmedod’s, considering how arable crops and bulk commodities are often overlooked in discussions about local food, but form a vital part of our diets.
Now supplying pulses, grains, seeds, flour and more from over 30 British farms, Hodmedod’s grew out of the Great British Beans trial project. Exploring what we should be eating and how to produce it as locally and sustainably as possible, they wanted to “stimulate and assess demand for indigenous pulses” – like fava beans, which have been grown in Britain for around 5,000 years.
Favas used to be an important part of British diets, as a protein-rich food that could be easily stored and eaten year-round. But as the country became wealthier, people gradually had more access to meat and dairy for their protein, and beans became stigmatised as the food of the poor. Farmers kept growing favas to feed their livestock – they grow easily, and return fertility to the soil by fixing atmospheric nitrogen – and then, more recently, to export as animal feed.
But to Hodmedod’s founders Nick Saltmarsh, Josiah Meldrum and William Hudson, it seemed crazy that the fields around Norwich were growing animal feed for export to distant lands, instead of feeding the humans who lived right there – especially when most of the pulses eaten in the UK are imported from abroad.
A big part of Hodmedod’s early mission was to educate and enthuse people about eating fava beans through recipes, events and creative marketing. Thanks to their hard work, support from several high profile chefs like Melissa Hemsley and Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers, and some brilliant press coverage, they’ve established an impressive following and expanded their offer to include carlin peas, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas and a wide range of cereals, flours and heritage grains.
“Finding the right farmers…has taken us from Cornwall to Scotland,” say Hodmedod’s. “Though we’re a small business, and in total the farmers we work with are probably only committing about 1,000 acres to crops for us, we’ve made quite an impact. Between them, our farmers look after tens of thousands of acres, and we’ve been able to support them as they begin to change the way they farm by adopting regenerative practices.”
For farmers, the rise of organisations like Hodmedod’s and Wildfarmed – the brainchild of Andy Cato, former musician and half of Groove Armada, who sold his publishing rights to buy a farm, and set out on a quest to transform the wheat industry – offer vital support and routes to market. This helps make transforming what they grow, and the way they grow it, a more viable option.
Wildfarmed’s ultimate goal is not about artisan bread for hipsters, but to produce enough wheat to supply flour to high-street food retailers and national chains like Greggs, to truly transform the wheat industry.
“The whole industry has evolved to produce bulk commodity which can be stored; large quantities of homogenised products,” explains Harding. “Wheat is by far the largest and most profitable crop grown, but the crop that’s treated with the most chemicals – so the whole industry has a vested interest in keeping farmers growing wheat and buying these inputs. Farmers are on this hamster wheel where they have to produce the output to pay for the inputs.”
Strictly free of these chemical inputs, and prioritising biodiversity and soil regeneration in their growing methods, Wildfarmed has a rapidly growing network of over 40 farms across the UK – giving farmers a chance to step off this “hamster wheel”. They buy farmers’ produce at farm gate prices, which “makes it viable for them to embrace change”.
Milling the wheat to sell on, they’ve also developed partnerships with some of the UK’s leading restaurants and bakers, and sales have increased by more than 1,000% in the past 12 months. Wildfarmed’s ultimate goal is not about artisan bread for hipsters, but to produce enough wheat to supply flour to as many high-street food retailers as possible – including national chains like Greggs – to truly transform the wheat industry at scale.
“Getting that connection between the producer and the purchaser is the thing that challenges me the most,” says Tim May of Kingsclere Estates, a 2,500-acre mixed farm in Hampshire. “Producing and being a farmer is one skill, but sales and marketing is a whole new world. These bridging organisations like Wildfarmed, Hodmedod’s, Riverford and The British Quinoa Company – who we work with – are phenomenally useful.”
May explains that many traditional arable farms ended up growing animal feed for the commodity market, because it was easiest, with less strict quality criteria. Indeed, 36% of the world’s crops feed livestock, not people. “But it doesn’t feel right to do that. We really ought to be growing the food we eat, and then, if there’s any by-product, feeding that to the animals. What I’m focusing on here, is growing human food.”
At the opposite end of the scale to small CSAs, May manages a huge mixed farm through “enterprise stacking” and community building – a visionary approach that’s caught the attention of many in the farming community and even mainstream press, most recently Radio 4.
As well as his core farming activity on the estate, he’s launched Pitch Up! – an initiative to help build a “circular community” of farmers, producers and other businesses at Kingsclere, who use each other’s by-products or waste.
Growing for the UK market only, May has spent the last ten years regenerating Kingsclere’s soil. He currently uses an eight-year rotation system: for four years grass, herbal leys and livestock grazing build soil fertility, followed by four years of cropping. So on the grassland, a small dairy herd and mobile milking parlour produces top quality organic milk; then a pasture-raised egg company has a flock of chickens that follows the herd, tracking protein-rich grubs in the cow dung and distributing the manure to help clean and build fertility in the pasture. For his crops, May grows organic quinoa for The British Quinoa Company, linseed for an organic soap company, gluten-free winter oats, and is also about to start field-scale trials for heritage wheats using Wildfarmed’s strip-till system.
There’s also a woodland burial company, nature counselling service, and mountain bike adventures on the estate, with a new foraged pet rabbit food brand – 2021’s Pitch Up! winners – about to start its business incubation.
“We’re in charge of our destiny. The success or failure of the business now comes down to us being good stewards of the land, rather than us being good purchasers and applicators of chemicals.”
Kingsclere was spending “a few hundred thousand pounds a year” on chemical inputs before May decided to go organic ten years ago. Now, as well as saving that money and getting higher prices for premium crops that feed people not animals, he also feels more secure.
“At the moment, with fertiliser prices going through the roof, we’re completely insulated from that – it doesn’t really feature in our thoughts,” he says. “We’re in charge of our destiny. The success or failure of the business now comes down to us being good stewards of the land, rather than us being good purchasers and applicators of chemicals.”
So does May feel optimistic about the future of farming, or see storms ahead? “There’s an awful lot of system change, and research and development around that system change, to be done,” he admits. “We want to be a positive example of how it can work for other farms – so are working hard to share our story and experiences. We hope people will build on what we’ve done and improve it – and together we can leapfrog to get these systems working even better. It takes a lot of work and effort, but we’ll never get there if people don’t step up to the challenge.”
Be it Kingsclere, Soul Farm, Hodmedod’s, or New Dawn Traders, sharing positive stories is at the heart of getting more people on board and multiplying their impact. And where farmers and sailors of the past may have scoffed at the idea of Twitter or Instagram, digital technology has put wind in the sails of system change. From organisations like Open Food Network, whose open source e-commerce software is designed to help food producers and community food hubs sell direct to customers, to endless retweets on Tim May’s Twitter account, better food and farming systems don’t feel quite so far beyond the horizon.
Back at the quayside, Geldenhuys stokes the fire. “What I’ve realised is that the key to change is how we communicate,” she reflects. “It’s how we share information, and have an attitude of collaboration, not competition. At New Dawn Traders, we’re using the old tools of sail and ship, but combining that with new technologies. I think the two are working really well together to make a new system possible.”
Inspired to make some changes to how you shop and eat? The best way to help better food and farming systems grow is by buying their produce!
Farms to Feed Us: search for good food near you, with their nationwide database connecting small-scale, sustainable food producers to their communities
Open Food Network: find organic farms or local food hubs near you and buy direct
Find your nearest CSA and buy your share
New Dawn Traders: browse the product catalogue and check their 2022 voyages schedule
Hodmedod’s: explore the wide selection of British-grown pulses and grains, to order online
The Sustainable Food Trust is also a great source of information and inspiration
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