Food campaign news
Grassroots activists meet in Europe’s first food sovereignty forum
I've been given the opportunity to represent both World Development Movement (WDM) and Bristol’s community food projects at the European Food Sovereignty Forum, Nyeleni, in Austria. This forum will be a meeting point for around 400 delegates from producers, consumer organisations (food cooperatives, etc), NGOs and community projects from all countries in Europe. It will be an excellent opportunity for food projects across Europe to share ideas and collaborate their actions so as to forge a fully fledged European food sovereignty movement.
My blog posts over the next week or so will be documenting this forum, the decisions made in the working groups as well as profiling the various radical food projects that have been set up in countries across Europe.
First of all however, I am going to write a bit about my thoughts over food sovereignty and tell you all about projects struggling for its realisation in some parts of Bristol.
The entrance to that last Nyeleni forum in Mali in 2007 - attributed to donkeycart
Food sovereignty NOT food security
Before working for WDM I didn't know of the existence of the concept of food sovereignty. My only knowledge of food politics was through the lens of food security, the institutional term for the study and of the developing world’s lack of food. Through this lens, organisations like the World Bank and governments like the U.S. have been “trying” to tackle world hunger for several decades. Indeed it was under the guise of food security that the green revolution, the technological crusade to raise crop yields, was rolled out over the rural systems in the developing world.
A critical analysis of the green revolution and the developed world’s “attempts" at solving world hunger have been gone over in great detail, most notably in Eric Holt-Gimenez and Raj Patel’s Food Rebellions. But in short, whilst the green revolution has been successful in raising crop yield for large scale industrial farming it has acted negatively on the majority of small and medium sized farms in the developing world. On top of this, a push towards export oriented agricultural economies and the rise of global agrochemical giant Monsanto and commodity speculators like Glencore has decimated the global South’s ability to produce its own food.
This has resulted in many rural producers being stuck growing monoculture crops like green beans in Kenya or flowers in Guatemala and have to rely on their miniscule export profits to pay for the imported wheat, rice and maize that they once were self sufficient in. Then, when a food crisis hits and the import costs of food rocket, they are the ones that suffer whilst on the other side of the food system, commodity speculators and agribusinesses are making windfall profits. Consequently, the campaign for food security has not solved world hunger, instead it provides a largely (arrogant) western and institutional approach that at best fails to understand the root causes behind food shortages and at worst fuels the agricultural crisis that affects billions of producers and consumers.
This is why food sovereignty is such a breath of fresh air. It is an attempt led by the global South to reclaim the narrative; abandoning the food security-lead idea that the developing world needs food charity and creating a conception of a movement of peasants and small farmers reclaiming power over production, trade and consumption. Indeed, La Via Campesina, is the world’s biggest social movement, linking landless peasants movements in Brazil with small farmers in India along with other organisations that stretch across 70 countries. In total it represents about 200 million farmers across the world.
For a decent insight into the expansiveness of this organisation check out this video
A European food sovereignty movement?
You may ask; but why does Europe need a food sovereignty movement for we are not beset by starving masses or the kind of inequalities present in rural areas of India? Maybe that is why the concept is still little known over here in the UK? It is clear, however, that we are as locked into this unequal food system as much as the consumers in the developing world…only we are chained to the system at the top, where, for moment, we are able to get cheap food, whenever and wherever we want it. It doesn’t take long to look beneath this rose tinted mirage to discover that our food system is rotten; based on exploitation, cheap oil, heavily biased subsidies, bottom line economics and environmental degradation.
Our neoclassical policies are not only the source of the problem for the developing world; they are a severe problem for us. It is the same food system that pumps out tons of fatty and unhealthy food to deprived areas of the UK, wastes tons upon tons of food thrown in bins and skips across the country, and the same food system that allows gigantic supermarket chains to run riot over local markets and producers. Added to this Europe is currently one of the leading hubs for commodity derivatives trading, a practice that causes destructive spikes in the food prices in the global South and an issue that only we in the global North can sort out.
So it is with this realisation that European social movements have to act to raise the profile of this struggle so we can act in unison with those in the South to fight for a more equal, more sustainable, more democratic and more regional food system.
Bristol’s food movement
Because the challenge of changing the whole food system is so daunting it has come to various communities to ‘think global, act local’ and set up their own local food systems. Where I am in the South West of England there are already a large number of community-led projects trying to make their own local food systems. From community gardens to local food coops, community supported agriculture and permaculture courses.
In Bristol we have the Royate Hill community orchard, for example. It's a space of land perhaps no larger than an acre but packed with over 40 varieties of apple, five varieties of plum, three of quince, and thre of damson. In a supermarket dominated world where only five varieties of apple are transport friendly enough to reach our shelves this project demonstrates the limits to the ‘range’ choice that supermarkets allow.
Mike Finegold, one of the coordinators of the garden and the local permaculture association told me about their apple tasting events, cider making, pruning and grafting workshops and harvest festivals. He explained the importance of understanding that every time you input something into your garden from elsewhere, you are taking something out of that cycle. The laden espalier trees across the orchard demonstrate that growing in a closed series of interconnected cycles can be done without addding oil-based fertiliser or Irish peat. To this extent nothing is put to waste and everything has a secondary and even tertiary use.
Mike was clear to me however that the sustainable food movement is far from won. He gave me a perhaps cynical, perhaps realistic outlook that the permaculture and radical food movements are yet to really reach out to the vast majority of western consumers that depend on the cheapness, convenience and range that give supermarkets a strangle hold over the current food system.
This garden is part of a network of community gardens across Bristol. From the old dilapidated railway tracks that have now been converted into Eastside Roots, the community garden hub, to the old graveyard next to the trinity centre that now hosts a polly tunnel, a small orhard and various roots and fruits. Along with a series of other gardens dotted amongst the different areas of Bristol, these community hubs act as a vital socialising space where volunteers such as refugees, people with mental health problems and stressed out city dwellers can find a cathartic outlet in digging, weeding, watering and harvesting.
The other project I checked out was a relatively new community supported agriculture (SCA) development. Instead of acting as a market garden, business Sims Hill Shared Harvest is set up as a kind of cooperative. Members either pay £40 a month for a full membership or £20 for a half membership. Failing that there are also a small number of working memberships available. In exchange for your membership you receive a dividend from the garden’s harvest. This allows the grower community to have an upfront financial security so that they can buy inputs and allows the members to feel ownership over their food. James Adamson, one of the garden managers at the project, told me about f their aspirations to one day use horse driven machinery to negate their reliance on fossil fuels. He also explained about the precious social fabric being created around the garden and how valuable connecting person around food has been to the local community.
The other week I was also able to go to the Reclaim the Fields- south west gathering. This showed the sheer abundance of community food projects that are popping up in the South West. It was really exciting to sit in various open space workshops sharing ideas and useful tips about CSAs, food mapping, resistance to biotech, squatting land and detoxifying soil.
In addition, the Bristol WDM group that I’m involved in has been trying to strengthen the global perspective of the local food movement in Bristol for the last year. We have held public meetings, film nights and discussions; highlighting the issues and facilitating a dialogue into the possibilities of an alternative food system. We also recently performed a protest outside Barclays to raise awareness about its role in destructive food speculation.
No to tesco - Bristol campaign of corporate resistance has grown into a series of positive alternative projects. Photo attributed to Walt Jabsco
There is an exciting momentum in the food movement in Bristol. In the wake of a hard fought ‘No to Tesco’ campaign people are looking for positive alternatives to challenge supermarket dominance that fit alongside the boycott campaigns. Not only does it feel like we have the council on our side (check out their report entitled who feeds Bristol?), there are a number of grassroots initiatives beginning to take root around the city. To name a couple; the Community Kitchen and The Stokes Croft People’s Supermarket are looking to reshape consumer relationships with local food. The People’s Kitchen is trying to bring together local cooking skills to cook community meals and unite diverse communities around food. The People’s Supermarket is looking to create a direct relationship between the consumer and local producers in a way that gives the community ownership over their local food market. It seems that in a couple of years Bristol could be a fine example of an alternative food system.
Hoping to achieve
What I am hoping to achieve from this forum is to be able to meet and hear about the diversity of methods to challenge the food systems status quo. I am hoping that these stories will give me an up to date insight into what the food movements across Europe look like and that this will give me tried and tested methods and tips to bring home and put into action. To think of Bristol alone; the idea that this is just one city’s experience in the midst of so many cities across Europe, each with their own community of activists, each testing out new ways to regain control over their food, is an inspiring and uplifting thought.
If you are also interested in the European examples of local food sovereignty projects and how they are challenging the status quo; please keep an eye on my series of blog posts over the next week or so. I am expecting an interesting journey. You can also follow me on Twitter.