Today we are excited to talk to Rachel Dring from Growing Communities.
This community-led organisation, based in Hackney, works tirelessly to change the currently damaged food system to a more sustainable and fairer one for us the consumer, the farmers and the environment.
We can't wait to know more about what they do!
What would you say the main issues in the actual food system are?
In a very heavily crammed nutshell, it comes down to three key things, which play into each other and create a kind of vicious circle: the industrialisation of farming and food production, which is pushing us towards an ecological and climate crisis; the global neoliberal economy, which drives unsustainable farming and leaves small producers struggling to survive; and the loss of food culture and traditions, as more people grow up in cities without a close connection to nature.
The children’s storybook idea of the farm with a mix of free-ranging animals and a patchwork of colourful fields, alive with birdsong, and a farmyard busy with people working together is very far cry from reality. Today you’re more likely to find a lone farmer working on a vast landscape of monoculture crops, using huge machines to plough, sow, spray and harvest.
Conspicuously missing from this modern landscape are wild-flower meadows and hedgerows, wetlands and other vital places for wildlife and insects. Modern farming is destroying the natural systems that underpin our ability to produce food. And the people are missing too – chemicals and machines have replaced the farm workers – so once vibrant busy country towns are now quiet places, devoid of young adults who leave to make a viable living in the cities.
Secondly, it’s the economy. You may ask, if it’s becoming common knowledge that this way of farming has to stop if we are to have any chance of surviving this century, why don’t they just stop doing it? We can largely blame global market forces for that. In an economy driven mainly by labour productivity, producers who are using sustainable practices struggle to survive. Because, for instance, managing weeds is a much easier quicker job if you just spray it with a chemical rather than employ people to do it by hand or with basic machinery. And the prices farmers get for their produce has been going down steadily over the decades, as food corporations get bigger and more powerful. To compete today, farmers must either scale up, simplify and automate their operations or go out of business, losing many of the public goods they provide along the way – employment, biodiversity, soil fertility and carbon storage, and nutritious food, to name a few.
Market forces are stacked against farmers trying to grow in a sustainable, regenerative way. What’s more, small scale farms receive very little, if no, government subsidy. And they often pay additional organic certification fees for the privilege!
The last part of the puzzle is the loss of food cultures and traditions, which are developed over centuries as people learn how to feed themselves in their particular landscape; how to catch, grow, prepare and preserve their food in the most natural and healthy way possible, within the limits of the land and climate they’re living in. As farming becomes more industrialised, people are displaced from the land and migrate to the cities, where it’s harder to access natural foods and people grow up without a close connection to nature. As the pressures of modern life mount up, food traditions are lost and people increasingly look to corporations to feed them. When people don’t value or even have awareness of the foods and methods of production that are essential to sustaining our survival in a landscape, then they will not know what they’re missing and they won’t demand better. So when communities no longer have influence over a food system, the corporations control how we eat.
How is the way consumers shop linked to the climate emergency that the planet is facing?
Buying from supermarkets is the biggest issue. They dominate 90% of the food market. While I appreciate supermarkets have brought us cheap food and a seemingly limitless supply of it from all over the world, their economies of scale and aggressive trade practices have brought sustainable small-scale producers to their knees. Not to mention the amount of food waste that’s inherent in this system. We’re learning that cheap food comes at a great social and ecological cost. And the reality of living on a finite planet is that we need to learn to live within limits.
It’s also about what we’re eating. As a nation we’re eat way too much meat and sugar and not enough fruit and veg. The average Brit consumes 2.5 portions of fruit and veg a day while meat consumption is way too high. It’s estimated that a planet-friendly diet would require Europeans to reduce their red meat consumption by 77%. Plus we seem to have given up on cooking. The Brits are the biggest consumers of ready meals and take-aways in Europe. The UK eats almost four times as much packaged food as it does fresh produce.
Food fads don’t really help either. In the vacuum left by our absent food cultures, diets and food fads fill the gap. As a nation we’re get fatter and since we’ve lost our food culture, we turn to the “experts” to tell us how we should eat. Often these food fads and diets involve highly processed foods (think margarine crammed with trans fats, “low fat” foods crammed with sugar) or “superfoods” which are imported from across the globe – goji berries, avocados, coconuts etc – while we completely overlook our native produce.
The pursuit of convenience, health and cheap foods is keeping the unhealthy, unsustainable food system afloat.
"We feed urban communities in a fair, sustainable way in the face of corporate dominance and climate change"
Firstly, start thinking about yourself as a food citizen rather than a consumer. It’s empowering, enjoyable and a damn sight more tasty! Learn to make food from scratch, grow salad on your windowsill, have a chat with a farmer, taste their delicious wares and learn about our incredible food history. We’re seeing a global rise in awareness and interest in food growing. The artisan bread-making, food-growing, beer-brewing, gin-distilling, cheese-making revolution is a sign that people are wanting to come back into a greater relationship with their food and reclaim their food culture.