Rachel Dring

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!

Hi Rachel,

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"

What can we, consumers, do to change this?
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. 
Educate yourself – read some books (we’d recommend Sitopia by Carolyn Steel; English Pastoral by James Rebanks; Meat: a Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie). 
Support agroecological farmers – small to medium-scale organic farmers that are actively protecting wildlife, restoring soil fertility and protecting wild places. The best way to do this is to buy as direct as possible – through veg schemes and farmers’ markets, for example – and choose organic, local and seasonal. For coffee, tea and chocolate, look for small-batch, single-origin products. 
Ask questions at shops and in restaurants. Ask where the food has come from and how it’s been produced. If they can’t give you a straightforward answer, that’s an indication it hasn’t been well-sourced. 
But I also want to stress that we can’t put all the responsibility on the consumer. Sure, our shopping choices make a huge difference to farmers’ choices (or lack of), but not everyone is blessed with an array of ethical food shops and farmers’ markets in their neighbourhoods. Sometimes “good” food is very hard to find. But it doesn’t have to be that way! We need systemic change to bring sustainable, local, organic and fair food to the mainstream. Our government doesn’t do enough to support sustainable and healthy food. The upcoming trade deal with the US, for instance, will make things much much worse and the conservatives seem hell bent on relaxing our food standards to open up these trade links. So we urge you to get political, follow Sustain, the Landworkers’ Alliance, Compassion in World Farming and others, write to your MP, join the protests and sign all those petitions!
Why is consuming seasonal food so important to the environment? 
Eating seasonally connects you back to the here and now – eating what’s possible for nature to produce in the place that you are. That includes meat and fish; they have seasons too, which we’re mostly unaware of. 
Not eating seasonally is very carbon intensive – if we want asparagus in March, it has to be flown over from Peru or Mexico. If we want to eat tomatoes all year round, they will be grown in heated greenhouses in Holland. 
It’s also not wise to become overly reliant on other countries to feed us. Climate change causes more droughts and floods, which means food shortages, and other countries aren’t going to be so willing to export their precious crops to us when the going gets tough. 
The great thing about eating seasonally is that the food tastes so much better when it’s grown naturally and travelled a short distance. It also connects you to the seasons, so you find yourself more in tune with nature, you start to feel more aligned. The closer to nature we are, the more we value it and the more we will fight for it.
How does Growing Communities tackle the climate emergency? 
We’re supporting and championing agroecological farming. We do this by firstly creating a market for local farmers’ produce, through our own box scheme and farmers’ market in East London, but also by encouraging the creation and development of more alternative retailers. To support this we started up the Better Food Traders – a certification scheme and network for ethical retailers who are values-led. 
We also support campaigning work and try to influence government policy. Julie Brown, our director, sits on the Fruit and Veg Alliance, who work with Defra to inform a national food strategy. This is the bigger picture stuff – we’re pushing for the government to radically overhaul its farm subsidies so that agroecological farmers are rewarded for producing climate-friendly, healthy food, which would make organic food cheaper and more accessible for everyone. 
On a more earthy level we have created urban growing sites around East London where we grow organic produce for the veg scheme and involve local people in learning how to grow food. We need to skill our urban dwellers up in the very essential skills of feeding ourselves. So each year we train a new cohort of organic growers, who then go on to work on larger farms, some go into teaching and community food growing. 

How can a non-East-Londoner have access to the food that your eco-farmers supply? 
Find your local Better Food Trader, discover your nearest farmers’ market, or connect with farmers directly through CSA schemes or online stores where farmers sell direct to the public. The Soil Association’s Food Finder and the Open Food Network are good places to start.
What would you say to people who think that organic food is out of reach economically? 
Food is cheaper now than ever before. In the 1950s we spent about a third of our income on food compared to about 10% now. Of course, there are many other consumer goods vying for our hard-earned cash nowadays. But we all make choices about how we spend our money and if we don’t value food, and there are cheaper options out there, then we won’t spend the extra. Having said that, there are a growing number of people that are falling into food poverty and food bank use is on the rise. We believe everyone should have the right to healthy fresh food, which is why we’re working on campaigns to level the playing field for sustainable farmers and make healthy fresh food more affordable. 
Some 21% of our veg scheme members consider themselves on a low income. This shows you can eat well on a budget but it means eating less and better meat, cooking more from scratch, wasting less and growing some of your own. (And if you want to start doing that, we highly recommend our former growing trainee Claire Ratinon’s book How to Grow Your Dinner: Without Leaving the House.)

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