Comment: Let's not forget who feeds us

Abby Rose explains why we must stop taking farmers and food producers for granted – and why local communities might save us.

Abby Rose is the co-founder of Soilmentor, an app that monitors soil health and helps with regenerative farming.

Prior to the pandemic, people didn’t give a lot of thought to the idea that food comes from soil, not supermarket shelves. After all, supermarkets have driven a wedge between producer and consumer, creating a disconnect from how our food is grown and where it really comes from. Well, maybe not any more.

When Covid-19 first hit, it left many UK supermarket shelves empty and restaurant supply chains without a route to market. Suddenly, finding reliable sources of food became the priority for everyone. For some, that meant growing their own or learning to do so, setting up community growing schemes or buying direct from their local farms. Many farmers, growers and fishers who usually supply to restaurants had to adapt and create local distribution models. Quite quickly we started to see this web of localised food networks emerge all over the UK, and a new appreciation for the people who provide us with sustenance.

As regenerative farming became my career and passion, it struck me how much everyone takes farmers for granted. I started speaking to some of them along with other food producers – from fishers and beekeepers to chefs – about their experiences feeding their communities during the pandemic. It soon became clear that what people really want from their food system is dignity in how we access and grow food, how we put food on the table and, most of all, dignity in the food on the plate.

Where the industrialised system failed us, local communities and producers stepped up. It’s as if we witnessed the emergence of an entirely renewed food system created by the hands of the people, from the ground up. A system that prioritises nourishment, community, healing and a sense of self-worth, as well as respect for the animals, plants and people putting food on our plates. This is also a system that values profitability over productivity. For too long, we have been sold the idea that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world but, it turns out, quite the opposite is true.

‘Suddenly, finding reliable sources of food became the priority for everyone. For some, that meant growing their own or learning to do so, setting up community growing schemes or buying direct from their local farms.’

While the highly productive conventional system is propped up by huge subsidies and mainly produces commodities – the majority of which go to feed animals or produce energy – the more localised smaller-scale farming systems produce 70% of the world’s food and are often (by necessity) more focused on turning a profit, or at the very least feeding themselves since they don’t have subsidies to rely on.

If the pandemic has shown us all anything, it’s that our priorities were off. We had forgone dignity to be part of a desperate hamster wheel of perceived market success, fuelling a commodity system that didn’t actually nourish us. Thousands of small-scale ecological food systems have gone from being niche fantasies of regenerative farmers to a vital source of food for many around Britain. Restaurant owners who see themselves merely as people who craft food have been struggling, while restaurant owners who also see themselves as food producers – essentially seeing their business as one and the same as the farm they work directly with – have been able to adapt and survive.

I truly hope some of these localised food systems stay with us, and we will continue to value the people directly responsible for growing and harvesting our food with their own hands. They are a vital source of healthy food. Will we think back and remember how hard small-scale food producers worked to ensure that we all stayed fed and healthy? That they were the real source of sustenance when we needed it? Will we continue moving forwards in our search for more dignity across the food system so everyone has access to nourishing food? I’m certainly more hopeful than I used to be.

Abby Rose helps run her family farm Vidacycle in Chile, makes a monthly farming podcast, Farmerama Radio, and is the co-founder of Soilmentor, an app that enables farmers to monitor soil health.

This article was first published in Courier issue 38, December/January 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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