With reports showing that industrialised farming contributes to more than 10 % of climate change (see for example 1), that conventional farming is highly inefficient and actually more costly than small-scale multi-input agriculture (see for example 2) and even the UN insisting that our food systems need to change drastically if we expect to be able to feed ourselves and our families in the future (3), it seems increasingly clear that we need to change the way in which we obtain and consume our food.
For some, this begins at a personal level: a great way to gain more food autonomy is to begin growing your own food. With this comes the need to learn about growing methods as well, crucially, learning about how to propagate your food varieties; otherwise you may have gained autonomy on one part of your food but you are still dependent on the large seed corporations to produce it in the first place. For more on this see my article ‘Seedy Issues’ here.
For others, the change is more political; with a diverse range of campaigns from Beyond GM (4) to the Campaign for Seed Sovereignty (5) raising awareness and influencing political opinion on the complex web of rules, regulations and trade agreements which affect our food, whether we are aware of them or not.
Another angle to come at it is the health angle, and your body’s need to have access to a diverse range of nutrients. Even if you have no interest at all in gardening or in politics you may be concerned over what food you eat and how it will affect your health.
Linking the issues
It can be seen that all of the issues mentioned are interrelated. When trying to create a healthy and happy life, it is important that we choose the right food for us. This means that the more resilient and healthy our food systems are, the happier we can be. Occasionally, laws, trends and regulations can come in the way of this: from the ‘norm’ of supermarkets only accepting a tiny proportion of the food varieties available (see for example 6) to dying arts such as seed saving and fruit tree grafting causing a deficit in our ability to produce good food (see for example 7).
A key aspect of improving our own and others’ ability to have access to healthy and sustainable food is to utilise what skills and knowledge are out there and create connections which can be more beneficial to ourselves and our environment than the complex web of logistics which so often characterises our internationalised food systems. It is with this in mind that I participated in the project Orchards Without Borders last month.
Orchards without Borders: trees which please
The project (9) is a cultural exchange between England and France (and hopefully further afield) to help provide education, information and holistic interest in orchards and their uses. Set up by the Brighton Permaculture Trust (10) and Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (11) on the English side and Collines Normandy CPIE (12) in France and funded partly by Interreg (13), the part in which I participated was a study trip to Normandy where we visited both organic and non-organic orchards, taught orchard-related lessons in a French school, learned about how to make traditional products such as pastries, cider and pate de fruits. A healthy amount of actual tree planting was also involved.
We travelled by car and ferry from Brighton to Normandy. On the ship on the way there we saw what could have been surmised as a good omen; a taster of how the rest of the trip would go.
Once in France we found warm welcomes wherever we went. One thing which was particularly pleasing was how celebratory every meal we had appeared. I am not sure if this is due to French culture in general or just the people we were with, but it was highly satisfying experiencing the joy of shared food with people we had just met. From many years of working to engender enthusiasm in the pure celebration and joy which can be present in every single mouthful of food which we eat, it seems that if we are to make a cultural switch in which we create more sustainable food systems which benefit both us and the planet, this cannot be possible if we do not appreciate food in the first place (see for example 13).
Something which goes along nicely with appreciation of eating food is appreciation of what goes into food. As part of the trip we learned about traditional Norman ways to use apples, including a session in a real French bakery where we were taught how to make a number of Norman baked delights.
We also learned how to make pâte de fruits, a kind of sugary, fruity paste which is dried in order to preserve the good nutrition in the fruit and make a tasty sweet which is kind of healthy (if you are ok with having half as much sugar as fruit) for the winter. As far as I am aware there is not really a direct English equivalent, though we do have a very ancient tradition from long before sugar was introduced to the British Isles of making a kind of dried fruit leather (for more on this see 14). Our teacher, Josine, told how in some parts of Normandy the tradition is so important that there are whole festivals devoted to the making of this sticky delicacy. She mentioned one place, Vire, where the mixture is made in a giant cauldron which is stirred by the townspeople for hours on end while they sing traditional songs.
Though our cauldron was not that large I still had a go.
Throughout the trip, one thing which kept resurfacing as a key issue was the importance of diversity; both in our orchards and beyond. Whilst teaching eight, nine and ten-year-old children we used the newly invented ‘Orchards are Alive’ magnetic board to help illustrate the huge range of creatures and plants which are present in a healthy orchard from season to season. We visited one eating-apple orchard where they grew around thirty different varieties of apple. This diversity of life is important to keep the ecosystem in balance, but also to produce healthier fruit. Indeed, most apple varieties need at least one other type present in order to achieve pollination, and some need two (15). Pollination itself is done by insects such as wasps and bees (17) so if there is too much pesticide you are creating more work for yourself as you will endanger the creatures which will make the fruit for you.
Caring for orchards means caring for not just some fruit trees but the intricate web of which they are a part. There are some aspects of the web which it may be necessary to discourage; for example, any apple grower I have ever met cannot say the word ‘vole’ without a distinctly sour look – but as long as you respect the holistic nature of it then balance can be achieved, rather than simply encouraging a monoculture where ultimately you are creating a lot more work and less nutrition.
Once you start realising how important diversity is to growing fruit, it can be extrapolated outwards to include – well, everything. All plants need to reproduce in some way and most of our food plants use insects to do this. Many plants also have sympathetic relationships with each other or produce by-products which can be used by others; this mutually beneficial effect cannot be achieved if you strive to just grow one thing in one place.
The same goes for own bodies, whether we are aware of it or not. The more diverse our range of nutrients is the healthier we are; with supermarket trends towards selling only a few varieties of food this is being thrown off balance. Indeed, there appear to be a number of trends which actively discourage diversity; from the EU’s regulations on seed adaptability and resilience (see for example 17) to border controls limiting the diversity of our own human population.
Orchards without Borders is helping to redress this balance by celebrating the diversity we have and cultivating more. We brought back a number of Norman varieties of apple to grow in Sussex, and there are some Sussex apples mingling in Norman orchards. Perhaps you do not have any fruit trees to hand to swap; but there are probably a number of ways in which you can encourage biodiversity in your own life.
- Gilbert, N, 2012. ‘One-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture’. Nature, 31/10/12. http://www.nature.com/news/one-third-of-our-greenhouse-gas-emissions-come-from-agriculture-1.11708 – retrieved 11/12/14
- Oakshotte, I, and Lamberley, P, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury: London
- UNCTAD, 2013. Wake Up Before it’s too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here: http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf – retrieved 11/12/14
- Beyond GM, 2014. ‘Home’. http://beyond-gm.org/ – – retrieved 11/12/14
- Campaign for Seed Sovereignty, 2014. ‘Seed Sovereignty’. http://www.seed-sovereignty.org/EN/ – retrieved 11/12/14
- Bifurcated Carrots, 2007. ‘Biodiversity Begins at Home’. http://bifurcatedcarrots.eu/2007/10/biodiversity-begins-at-home/ – retrieved 11/12/14
- Soil Association, 2014. ‘Ben Raskin’s Seedy Weekend’. http://www.soilassociation.org/news/newsstory/articleid/7458/ben-raskin-s-seedy-weekend – retrieved 11/12/14
- Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2014. ‘Normandy Partnership: Orchards without Borders’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/orchards/withoutborders – retrieved 29/11/14
- Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, 2014. ‘About’. http://bhfood.org.uk/about/ – retrieved 29/11/14
- Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2014. ‘Who We Are’. http://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/about
- Collines Normandes, 2014. ‘Le CPIE’. http://www.cpie61.fr/ – retrieved 11/12/14
- North West Europe Programme, 2014. ‘Interreg’. https://www.nweurope.eu/ – retrieved 29/11/14
- Pretty, J, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Routledge: London
- Mears, R, 2013. Wild Food. Episode 2: ‘Wild Food and Foraging’. BBC: London. Excerpt available on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZbGRWO8wnU – retrieved 11/12/14
- Law, B, 2014. Woodsman: Living in a wood in the 21st Century. William Collins: New York
- Plants For a Future, 2014. ‘Malus Domestica’. http://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Malus+domestica – retrieved 11/12/14
- Sheil, S, 2013. ‘Seeds and other Plant Reproductive Material: Towards new EU Rules’. European Parliament, 10/06/13. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/bibliotheque/briefing/2013/130547/LDM_BRI%282013%29130547_REV1_EN.pdf – retrieved 11/12/14