Occasionally I encounter someone who refers to our planet as being one on which scarcity is a problem. It is understandable how you could arrive at this viewpoint; after all, the media in this country often mentions food security issues and there are many people who are hungry, even right in our own home towns.
Institutions such as the idea of global aid seem to exacerbate this view; relying as they do on people in one country or region giving away some of the resources they have to another, seeming to imply that we cannot have all the resources we need right where we are. But is it helpful to see our world like this?
There is a lot of sentiment that scarcity is an illusion; and even an ever-growing body of evidence to show that wherever you are, abundance is a possibility.
Back in 1980, architect, innovator and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller wrote of how thinkers such as Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx had managed to influence global conceptions to the point where
“All books on economics have only one basic tenet – the fundamental scarcity of life support. The supreme political and economic powers as yet assume that it has to be you or me.” –R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980 (1)
However, having undertaken a lifetime of research and experiment, he concludes that this conception is based simply on not looking at the wealth of the world in a holistic manner. If we account for all of our resources using what Fuller calls “cosmic accounting” (1) then we are all billionaires.
In the 2012 report to the UN Right to Food, Oliver de Schutter estimated that there is enough food being produced in the world to feed 12 billion people (2). This, even in spite of the fact that our farming methods are so inefficient that in many cases the inputs of oil-based products outweigh the outputs of food (see for example 3), and the current trend of ‘high-yield’ intensive monoculture farming is destroying habitats, ecosystems and soils (soils being something which is generally regarded as a useful substance for growing things in) to the point where, in some places in the UK, soil structure has completely broken down in over 75% of maize fields (4).
The UN Conference on Trade and Development’s 2013 report Wake Up Before it’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now (5) explores how changing our agricultural systems will help to build more stable food sources, community development and – crucially – more food production (5). Even before that change is fully implemented, however, there are ways in which we can help to redress the balance.
For if we are all billionaires, and are producing enough food for 12 billion people, why are some still going hungry? Perhaps there are some who are taking more than they need, but there’s only so much excess you can eat, even if you are huge. When we begin examining this, we find that much of the commercial food produced in the world actually does not even get eaten – or come close to being eaten.
Food production for…humans?
The Institute of Mechanical Engineers estimated in their Global Food Report Waste Not, Want Not that
“30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach” (6)
There are many factors affecting this, from weather patterns to supermarket quotas and the global economy to local fashions in taste, and it is not only the producers who could be more efficient in their production. In many places, the industrialised, ‘high-yield high-input’ farming system means that crops are designed to be intensively grown in monoculture systems aimed at producing a large amount of crops at the same time. This method inherently carries a high risk of waste in it; for a large number of reasons, from higher risks of disease, pests and lack of nutrition involved in monoculture farming (see for example 5) to the practicalities of successfully harvesting and processing what is usually several thousands of individual crops at one time. These are compounded by supermarket regulations on size and quota, which here in the UK are quite specific in a way in which growth is usually not (7). The Soil Association estimate that 20-40% of UK Fruit and vegetables are rejected on “cosmetic grounds” (although who decides these cosmetic grounds is unclear) before they reach the consumer.
For more (and more extreme) examples of unusual crops check out the Guardian’s gallery here
Turning problems into solutions
Luckily, the very complicatedness of the factors affecting why we are wasting so much food is also a fantastic opportunity. These factors show that often producers feel as though they do not have a choice about having to throw away vast amounts of their crops. And sometimes, they may not wish to throw them away. This leaves ample opportunity to take this abundant overflow of stagnating energy and utilise it.
This is exactly what the Gleaning Network (8) are doing. The Network is a campaign made up of volunteer ‘gleaners’, who get into contact with farms which have a surplus of unsellable (but still perfectly edible) crops, and go and pick said crops, distributing them to local charities and community groups who are in need of fresh food through Fareshare (9), a redistribution organisation who intercept food from going to waste all over the country, giving it instead to people who would like to eat it.
The Gleaning Network could only collect the surplus food from the farms if farmers were sympathetic, showing that the food production wastage problem is not as simple as just being the responsibility of the producers. At least there are some producers who see the incongruence, and are taking proactive steps to address it.
But what is this ‘Glean’?
The idea of gleaning is not a new one but dates back, as far as I can tell, to feudal times, or just after the concept of land ownership rather than common land which everyone can use became prevalent in England. I have heard a number of stories of who the original ‘gleaners’ were, and my favourite variation is this: that once the idea of land ‘enclosures’ as a pose to ‘common land’ began becoming steadily more and more popular, in particular around the 14th century (10), suddenly a large amount of the population, who had previously been farming using semi-communal resources on land which was owned by no-one, found themselves instead deemed as trespassers on someone else’s land. Yet the land owners recognised that the people living on what was now their land still needed to survive somehow; and indeed, it would be beneficial to them, the landowners, if the peasants continued to exist, since the landowners needed them. If there were no workers to farm the landowners’ land, the land would not be much use to the landowners. With this in mind the landowners would always purposefully leave a proportion of their crops unharvested in the fields. This would then be gleaned – that is, collected – by those who needed it.
So the Gleaning Network is reviving this practise – with all of the modern twists that the supermarket quotas, the ‘high-yield, high input’ farming systems, and the global economy bring with it. The Gleaners are back: but now instead of a few villagers picking their way across some small be-hedged fields, the Gleaning Network now regularly co-ordinates surplus harvests of upwards of 1 tonne of crops at one time.
Why is this happening?
The extent to which food waste has become commonplace is an indicator that it is perhaps not just one thing which needs to change, rather, that our entire culture could do with looking at from a slightly different perspective. Why do people find it acceptable to throw away what is clearly edible food in the first place? Some may feel it is beyond their control; but even so, it could be seen that this very attitude indicates a marked disrespect for, and lack of connection to, our food.
In his book Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature, Jules Pretty explores the idea that many in our culture may have lost (or temporarily forgotten) the deep significance of the role which food plays in our lives, and how with the simple act of eating, we are communicating in a vast number of ways to the environment, other people and creatures, and of course, our own bodies (11). “As consumers”, Pretty says,
“The choices we make send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production that we prefer. We may not realise that we are sending these messages, but we are.” (Pretty, 2002) (11)
Just the simple act of realisation can be incredibly empowering. When you sit down to eat your dinner, do you listen to your body’s reaction to your food to gauge what is the right thing to feed it? Do you rejoice in sharing food, and in the power of the simple act of eating with others? When you procure your food, do you think about the effect this will have on the environment around you, and the other people, plants and creatures in it?
When we begin thinking about these things, it may well transpire that our own strategies of feeding ourselves, from sourcing our food to getting rid of waste, begin changing dramatically. In this way our whole culture of attitudes to food can begin to become healthier, more efficient and more beneficial to us.
One of the key aspects of creating a new culture is to create new stories as part of the culture. In this way we can strengthen our ties to each other, the planet and our food. In order to do this we do not have to disregard everything which comes before us; indeed, this is what makes us up so we have to integrate it in order to move forwards. All of our favourite stories and inspirations will probably be what is most useful here. As Joseph Campbell puts it, we can all make our own myths to help enrich our lives, and when we do,
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.” (Campbell, 1949) (12)
For me this means following whatever stories I feel I can shape constructively into my own personal mythology in order to create a world of true abundance. With this in mind I began my foray into the world of gleaning. Intrigued? Stay tuned for the next post, where I explore this activity at farm level…
- Fuller, R.B, 1980. Critical Path. St Martin’s Griffin: New York
- Schutter, O, 2013. Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. United Nation General Assembly: New York
- Lamberley, P and Oakeshott, I, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury: London
- Monbiot, G, 2014. ‘The farming lobby has wrecked efforts to defend our soil’. Guardian, 5/6/2014. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/jun/05/the-farming-lobby-has-wrecked-efforts-to-defend-our-soil – retrieved 10/10/14
- UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2013. Wake Up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations: Geneva. Online copy can be found here: http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf
- Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not.” IMECHE: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf
- Lawrence, F, 2004. Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on your Plate. Penguin: London
- Feedback Global, 2014. ‘Gleaning Network’. http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/gleaning-network/ – retrieved 22/10/14
- Fareshare, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.fareshare.org.uk/about_us/ – retrieved 22/10/14
- Fairlie, S, 2009. ‘A Short History of enclosures in Britain’. Land Magazine, Issue 7, Summer 2009. http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain – – retrieved 22/10/14
- Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Earthscan: Oxford
- Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Fontana Press: London