Potatoes at a farmers' market. Photo: John Morgan via everystockphoto.com.
Eat your way to a better world
4th December 2013
Keen to save the world but don't want to end up in a Russian prison? In the second of her 3-part 'Activism for Busy People' series, Ruth Stokes suggests changing the way you source your food as an approach to activism that won't turn your life upside down.
Food choices can support a fairer, more sustainable system that will keep UK farmers in business and variety on the high street.
When it comes to food, convenience is often the concern that dominates our decisions. And in many ways, that's fair enough - after all, who has energy for anything other than the easiest option after a long day at work?
The big supermarkets give us that convenience. But they also wield a huge amount of power over our food supply, and there are some serious issues behind the bulging, gleaming shelves, tasty though they may look.
From our reliance on imports, problems with squeezed suppliers and the increasingly sidelined indy retailers to issues surrounding food security and the environment, I believe there are issues that need addressing here.
Campaign groups such as War on Want and Tescopoly have plenty of information on the nuts and bolts of these areas, and are making ongoing efforts to create a fairer, more sustainable food industry. But what can the individual do? What if you're fed up with signing online petitions but don't want to get involved in protests on the streets?
This is one of the things I set out to investigate in The Armchair Activist's Handbook, alongside how to tackle my excessive consumerism and a whole host of other issues. As a result, I ended up trying out various different methods to reduce my reliance on supermarkets - hoping to find an approach that would it around my busy life and wouldn't break the bank.
One of the key things I focused on was finding ways to source my food in a more local, sustainable manner. The recent horsemeat scandal is an excellent example of how distant we have become from the source of our food, and how complicated and opaque the supermarket supply chains are now. I wanted to reconnect, to reduce my environmental impact, to eat local, seasonal food, and to help keep UK suppliers in business.
And here's what I found: to make it ethical, convenient and affordable, I needed to combine a mixture of approaches. There are some amazing projects in the UK and abroad, that are working in practical ways to build accessible alternative, and tapping into these can help us change the way we shop. It's just about getting the right balance.
One project that I took inspiration from was the Incredible Edible movement, which started with Incredible Edible Todmorden and has been replicated all over the world. The thing that makes Incredible Edible Todmorden special is that it's shifted the responsibility of food from outside suppliers to those living locally, with the ultimate aim of becoming a self-sustaining town.
Vegetables have been planted on the roadsides, and anyone can help themselves. It also runs a number of other iniatives - such as Every Egg Matters, which uses surplus eggs from people around town - to get people actively involved and connected to their food.
While not everyone will be able take action on this scale right now, Incredible Edible shows us how we should be thinking: for a more sustainable future, we need to look at the resources we have and make more of them.
There are plenty of organisations and schemes already in place to help. Websites such as Growington, for example, allow you to link up with people living close to you to share or swap homegrown fruit and vegetables. There are also real-life produce swaps, like Apples for Eggs, the Belfast Food Swop and the London Swappers. The Food Swap Network brings together a list of swaps happening all over the world.
Meanwhile, other groups look to harvest the bounty on their doorstep. Learning to forage has revealed to me a huge amount of edible plants I never knew existed - and others, such as nettles, that I didn't realise were tasty (they're just like spinach, in case you were wondering). Abundance is one example of a harvesting network, focusing on fruit.
Of course, it's unrealistic to suggest that someone could survive on foraging and swapping alone, but these tactics can be a useful addition to a bigger local food strategy, and help to prevent the edibles around us going to waste.
Crucially, we need to connect with our local farmers and producers. And not just from an environmental perspective; if their vital skills are lost, they'll be gone forever.
Community Supported Agriculture schemes - where consumers buy a share in the harvest - are one way of linking up. There are also handy local food finders, such as Big Barn, Supply Local and My High Street, to help you source food close to home. In some areas, innovative schemes such as Farm Direct bring together local producers in one easy-to-use website.
Using these tools, I found that supermarkets are not always the most wallet-friendly place to buy food. Some items are cheaper, but others - vegetables in particular, are often not. Taking time to research, then pick and choose your outlets depending on what works for you, is well worth the effort.
As the local food movement grows and more schemes appear, it's only going to become easier to access more ethical options. But it's a supply and demand issue, and we're the ones who will choose if it's a movement that thrives.
Personally, knowing that certain food choices can support a fairer, more sustainable system that will keep UK farmers in business and variety on the high street is motivation enough.
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