One of the many privileges of being a researcher is that I get to go to some very select places. During the past week I’ve been lucky enough to be a guest at two fascinating, contrasting but connected, locations.
As a guest of the Sustainable Food Trust I went on a tour of the Duchy Home Farm and Highgrove Gardens in the company of a group of scientists. It has been a long standing ambition of mine to see the Duchy Home Farm, having read much about it in journalistic reports and a range of academic papers. A successful organic farm is always an impressive place to be and the welcome we received from the Farm’s dairy herd was memorable. As we stood in a field discussing the future of agriculture, of the challenges of adapting to climate change, the pressures of the increased demand for agricultural products and making farming a sustainable way of life, the cows joined us. Curious and confident they were reminders of the real life problems of farming that are sometimes lost in the seminar rooms and lecture theatres of much academic debate. One of the most notable features of the discussion was the way in which the urgent challenges of agriculture are pushing thinking beyond the dichotomy of organic and non-organic to issues shared by all farming.
Highgrove is very much the reflection of its owner; a personal statement, as most gardens are, but on a larger scale than most people could aspire to. On entry a very polite but firm instruction to return your phone and camera to your car, and leave it there, is given. No doubt there are very good security reasons for this, but it brought to mind that gardens are a very particular place in our contemporary society. You only realise the ubiquity of photos, tweets, texts and the electronic chatter of the day when they are removed. Only our own voices and the twittering of birds accompanied us on the tour, marking it as a place apart from daily life. The walled vegetable garden, with its arched tunnels of blossom strewn apple trees, demonstrated the combination of beauty and utility that can be achieved in horticulture.
My second visit was to a Waste Food Banquet as a guest of FareShare SouthWest, as part of the Bristol Food Connections Festival. This was an invitation only event (somehow I now count as an influential person!) to highlight the work of FareShare and the Surplus Supper Club. As I’m sure most people realise, our contemporary food system is hugely wasteful and many people go hungry. After an amazing 3 course meal made from food that would otherwise be wasted, there was a panel of speakers. Geoff Tansey provided an overview of the problems of food poverty in the UK and the work of the Fabian Society on the same topic. Ruth, from the new social enterprise supermarket HisBe in Brighton, told us how retailing can and should be. Tristam Stuart, of Feeding the 5k, outlined the specific problems of a wasteful food system. Then Phil of the Trussell Trust outlined the work of the trust in providing food banks and the numbers of children and adults who are fed in the city by food banks.
So what do these postcards from my privileged life say about the problems of food and agriculture? Firstly, that they are not being met with passivity as many people in a variety of organisations and from a range of starting points are at work now. The immediate needs of the hungry in the UK are being recognised, and assistance is in place. But the answers are not easy, there is no single magic bullet that will solve food poverty in the UK, but the multiple causes are being identified. What has been lacking so far has been the political will to address these questions with the vigour required to be effective. As yet there are no solutions that reach along the food chain but, by sharing skills and experience, these are not far away. The team at the CCRI are in a unique position to be part of that dialogue as we work with so many people in the food chain in both rural and urban areas.
[My thanks to Julie Ryan for waving her editorial wand over this work, its contents and faults remain mine].