Tag Archives: food sovereignty

Exotic Excess at the Harvest Stomp

All photos by Alan Husband.

The Exotic Excess Cafe. Photo by Alan Husband.

The Exotic Excess Cafe. Photo by Alan Husband.

The poet William Blake said “the thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest” (1). If he was right, then the visitors to the Exotic Excess Café at Groundwork (2)’s Harvest Stomp Festival (3) this Autumn Equinox are now very well provisioned. The Café, run by community interest group This is Rubbish (TiR) (4), was perhaps inaptly named as we were not selling anything but giving away huge amounts of surplus fruit and vegetables. As the autumn sun shone down on the tightly trimmed grass of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, London, we could hardly move for interested and thankful visitors and happy festival-goers.

Thankful receivers bearing our plentiful harvest. Photo by Alan Husband.

Thankful receivers bearing our plentiful harvest. Photo by Alan Husband.

A Modern Harvest

The festival had many diverse stalls, from bee-keeping demonstrations with honey harvests to vegetable competitions for home-grown harvests. At the Exotic Excess café, however, we were focussing on a slightly different kind of harvest. As an estimated 36% of the food purchased in the UK goes to waste before it even reaches the consumer (5), there is a huge potential to intercept this and re-direct it to people who need food. As I have already explored through my work with the Gleaning Network (6) and the Food Waste Collective (7), there are a number of different strategies already operative in the UK for how to do this.

A key aspect of any food redistribution work is (unsurprisingly) sourcing the food and then finding hungry people to give it to. Perhaps of equal importance is the way in which we perceive and react to our food. If we show appreciation and thankfulness we are probably more likely to give value to the stuff we eat and see it as a worthy substance that should be used carefully and responsibly, rather than as a commodity. One fantastic way of doing this is to have a celebration! So that’s exactly what we did…

Talking about the Food

As we currently produce around enough food in the world to feed 12bn people (7). This coupled with the estimated 30 – 50% of food which is wasted annually on a global scale (9) shows starkly that food scarcity is an illusion and better organisation of food systems is necessary.

However, if we confront people with only facts such as those stated above, there is a chance of creating feelings of anger and/or helplessness. We prefer to inspire – which is why we have Exotic Hostesses serving up intercepted food on silver trays, and encourage communal eating in shared appreciation with a finale of a giant Salad Toss – where we entice members of the public to aid in creating a salad so large it has to be tossed in a tarpaulin.

Preparing Fruity Sticks, and for the Great Salad. Photo by Alan Husband.

Preparing Fruity Sticks, and for the Great Salad. Photo by Alan Husband.

Fruity Sticks and Salad Tosses

When I participated in the Exotic Excess Café last July at the Waterloo Food Festival (10) the predominant food stuffs we had intercepted was bananas, apples, peaches, grapes, oranges…In other words, fruit, fruit and more fruit. This year, we had many more vegetables to redistribute, including numerous packets of rocket and crates of lettuce, as well as carrots, courgettes and peppers. Thus the Salad was a savoury one, but we still had many many fruits to distribute, which we did in the form of make-your-own Fruity Sticks (a hit with the younger visitors) as well as inviting passersby to collect from our “shop” – actually, freely available produce for anyone to take and consume.

Who Could Resist? Photo by Alan Husband.

Who Could Resist? Photo by Alan Husband.

A Glimpse of Abundance. Photo by Alan Husband.

A Glimpse of Abundance. Photo by Alan Husband.

Excess to no Excess

At many food surplus events I have worked at, we have excess food at the end which it is a puzzle what to know to do with. I still have some kilograms of dried corn left from last September’s sweetcorn glean (11), waiting to be polenta-ed; and we were definitely far from taking all of the corn which was going to waste on that day.

However, the vibrant volunteers, along with the warmth of the day and the irresistibility of taking free food (especially when it’s been sprinkled with edible glitter) meant that the event was a great success. Once the festival-goers had got over any confusion or even suspicion about why we were not asking for money, most took to the idea with pleasure. So when we began gathering people for the grand finale, the Great Salad Toss, we ended up with quite a crowd of about twenty to take on the noble role of holding the tarpaulin while the salad ingredients were poured in.

Helping the Sultan to entice people to give a toss. Photo by Alan Husband.

Helping the Sultan to entice people to give a toss. Photo by Alan Husband.

Salad tossing can be a tricky business, and with such a giant salad it has to be seen as a precise art. Luckily we had This is Rubbish’s Sultan overseeing affairs, and the tossing went smoothly with much enjoyment from the crowd.

A perfect toss. Photo by Alan Husband.

A perfect toss. Photo by Alan Husband.

What’s Next?

All feedback I received on the day was positive, and we collected many ‘food waste pledges’ from people inspired to take personal, practical steps towards reducing food waste in their own lives. There will probably be more Exotic Excess Cafés to follow – check out the TiR website (4) for more information – yet ideally, we shouldn’t have to run such events at all, if we all begin using food in a responsible and respectful way.

To this end TiR have many other projects including the brand newly launched ‘Stop the Rot’ (12) campaign, aimed at influencing government and industry to introduce new ways of dealing with food which will reduce the amount of waste in the UK. In order to be effective the campaign needs as much publicity from the British public as possible, so feel free to spread the word. Even if you do not feel you wish to place your energy into national politics, remember that all government action is ultimately decided by what the citizens of a country do – or don’t do.

All change begins at a personal level, and in this time of harvest it is worth noting the abundance around us and perhaps changing our perceptions to envision and act towards a more fruitful future.

References

  1. Blake, W, 1790 -93. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Bodleian Library: Oxford (Re-printed 2011).
  2. Groundwork, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.groundwork.org.uk/Pages/Category/about-us-uk – retrieved 2/10/15
  3. Groundwork London, 2015. ‘The Harvest Stomp’, Project Dirt Events. http://www.projectdirt.com/apps/event/37931/– retrieved 2/10/15
  4. This is Rubbish, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.thisisrubbish.org.uk/ – retrieved 2/10/15
  5. WRAP, 2015. Estimates of Food and Packaging Waste in the UK Grocery Retail and Hospitality Supply Chains. http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/UK%20Estimates%20February%2015%20%28FINAL%29.pdf – retrieved 2/10/15
  6. Feedback Global UK, 2015. Gleaning Network. http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/gleaning-network/– retrieved 2/10/15
  7. Hanover Action for Sustainable Living, 2015. ‘The Food Waste Collective’. http://www.hasl.org.uk/food-waste.html – retrieved 2/10/15
  8. De Schutter, O, 2013. ‘Report on Right to Food’. United Nations General Assembly: Geneva
  9. Institute of Mechanical Engineers 2010. ‘Waste Not Want Not’. IMechE: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf?sfvrsn=0 – retrieved 10/9/15
  10. This is Rubbish, 2015. ‘Exotic Excess, Lower Marsh Market, Waterloo’. http://www.thisisrubbish.org.uk/event/july-2014-exotic-excess-lower-marsh-market-waterloo/ – retrieved 2/10/15
  11. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Gleaning First-Hand’. Abundance Garden, 3/11/14. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/gleaning-first-hand/ – retrieved 2/10/15
  12. This is Rubbish, 2015. ‘Stop the Rot’. http://www.thisisrubbish.org.uk/project/stoptherot/– retrieved 2/10/15

Notes

All photos by Alan Husband. Want to see more of the day? His Flickr album is here: Harvest Stomp on flickr.

The Biodiversity Web and How we can Re-Thread It

From a cursory glance into your local shop or most media outlets, it could seem that the trend of high-input, intensive farming – wherein monoculture-grown crops which are bought at low prices then transported to be sold at high prices or, in many cases, thrown away or left in the fields to rot – is the norm of today’s world (see for example 1). This has many problems, not least that this type of farming is in no way sustainable and the systems surrounding it involves an estimated 30 – 50% (1.2 – 22 billion tonnes) of food being wasted annually, before it even reaches a human stomach (2).

The factors surrounding such inefficiencies are many, but luckily, they are not the only way. Low-input, efficient and sustainable farming has been practised by many groups for centuries if not millennia (see for example 3); and though recent decades have seen the rise of large machinery, disregard for biodiversity and ecology and factory-farmed animals and crops (see for example 3), concepts such as sustainability and biodiversity are gradually becoming popular once more. Key names of the sustainable design movement of the past thirty years include Masanobu Fukuoka who recommends very low-input agricultural techniques such as ‘No-dig Farming’ (4) and use of seed bombs (see for example 5); and Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who coined the term ‘Permaculture’ and the principles with which one can use such a design style in practice (see for example 6, 7).

The Web of Biodiversity - visible in many places if you know where to look. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

The Web of Biodiversity – visible in many places if you know where to look. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Caring for our world: not just for the minority!

These names, though well-known to people already interested in sustainable growing, may be completely unheard of to most of the public, including, probably, many farmers who are utilising what could be called ‘Permaculture’ or ‘Natural Farming’ simply through their own recognition of the holistic nature of the world and their respect for this while maintaining awareness of how to use the energies around them to create enough resources for themselves. Even in the world of what could be called ‘conventional’ farming, however, such ideas are permeating. In 2013 the UN Conference on Trade and Development published a report, entitled Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now (8). This is not a bunch of alternative thinkers or unconnected-to-the mainstream farmers; but the UN, an internationally recognised and (more or less) respected organisation.  The report recommends

“A rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.” (9)

This shift would not be possible without a fundamental reappraisal of our relationship with our environment. We need to consider what has been coined the ‘true cost’ (10) of farming; not just the price of the crop itself, which is in any case subject to the tides of the international market, but the cost to the environment of what is going into the farming. Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, co-authors of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat (11) refer to studies (see for example 12) which show that when looked at in this holistic way it is clear that as well as the environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity caused by high-input monoculture and factory farming, it is in fact less efficient – indeed, farmers actually lose money by utilising such methods -and worse for our health. For more details on this, see my report here (13)

When these factors are taken into account, it seems impossible to take the words of groups such as Syngenta and Bayer, who claim that large-scale agriculture with high use of chemicals in necessary for crop production (see for example 14), with much serious credence.

The joys of having many fruit varieties! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

The joys of having many fruit varieties! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

A Different Way…

There are, indeed, many groups who are experimenting with other ways of farming which take into account animal, environmental and social welfare, without forgetting the welfare of the farmers themselves. The shift is, in many ways, a subtle one and involves us all starting to look at things from a holistic perspective. We can all be conscious of the ‘web’ of biodiversity which surrounds us and connects to us; whether we are designing a farm, a home-scale garden or simply our week’s activities. As we all eat food, regardless of whether or not we have access to land for production, so somewhere we are all affecting the way in which that food is grown. One of the simplest ways in which we can become more aware of how to help create beneficial connections is just becoming aware of the different factors involved. From many years of involvement in practical projects for sustainable living I feel that these factors can be split into the following main categories:

  • Seed sovereignty – The need for autonomy and diversity of seed choice in order to create more sustainable and secure food systems
  • Critical Education – Passing on of key skills in growing, such as seed saving and sustainable, regenerative or holistic farming (otherwise known as permaculture, agro-ecology and any number of indigenous terms); but also other key skills to help society to become regenerative and sustainable, such as effective communication methods and social designs (for more on this see for example 14)
  • Food sovereignty – Linked to seed sovereignty, this involves re-integration of food networks into locally autonomous ones, and re-distribution of food surplus in the short term leading to self-regenerating food systems which create zero or very little waste in the long term. On a personal level, putting this strand into practice can be as simple as getting involved with your local vegbox scheme or food re-distribution group.
  • Networking- Creating links between different groups and individuals for mutual benefit and to avoid duplication and waste

These three come under the broad theme which it is probably prudent to remember, and which has many names though I am calling it:

Culture of Biodiversity –The need to recognise, appreciate and celebrate the need for biodiversity to benefit the heath of the planet and of ourselves, and to strive to improve this at all levels.

This can apply to many aspects of life, whether it is a diversity of currencies, such as supplementing one’s salary with work-exchange, use of LETS (15) and CSA credits (16) and local currencies; of people, such as exploration of the rich mixture of cultures which is available to us; and of plants, such as use of heirloom seeds and trees or buying odd varieties of vegetables to encourage preservation of different genes, and collection and cultivation of rare or forgotten plants which still may be of key use to us as a society.

The above list is by no means exhaustive but it seems that when we take into account the importance of seed sovereignty, critical education, food sovereignty and networking along with the broad theme of a culture of biodiversity we can begin truly cultivating a sustainable world.

Real farming

  With this in mind, it is refreshing to find so many groups who are already working towards these things. At seed level, we have events such as the Great Seed Festival (16) and Seedy Sunday (17) and the newly set up South West Seed Saver’s Co-op (18) and the Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Co-op (19) (BPBSC), as well as the London Freedom Seed Bank (20), Open Pollinated Seed (21) and the Heritage Seed Library (23) who are promoting seed saving of heritage varieties.

From seed to fruit; with groups such as the Brighton Permaculture Trust (24) who can plant a heritage-variety orchard for you, and who are involved in the Orchards Without Borders cross-cultural exchange project (25) (26).

For education there are innumerable campaigns and organisations out there to hep you to decide for yourself what is right, from the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (27) to Beyond GM (28) or Compassion in World Farming (29), as well as actual education establishments such as the Schumacher College (30), the Centre for Agro-ecology, Water and Resilience (31) and online resources such as those offered by the Soil Food Web (32). One downside to such establishments is the somewhat exclusive cost of many of the courses on offer, though this may begin to change as our culture begins to shift away from dependence on solely money as a currency, or as people become more autonomous with food and shelter and so have more money available for other things.

In terms of promoting a culture of biodiversity there are a number of groups such as the Permaculture Association of Britain (33), who promote permaculture in practice through the Diploma programme and the LAND Permaculture Demonstration Network, and the Gaia Foundation (34), which amongst other things is encouraging indigenous growing practices to promote biodiversity.

With such a wealth of actions going on from such a diverse range of groups, suddenly the future seems altogether more hopeful. Yet it is when we come together that our actions can really come alive, and that is where the networking side of things comes in.

Next week, I shall be attending an event which brings together many of the above-mentioned groups and individuals, as well as a whole host more; the Oxford Real Farming Conference (35). partly set up as an “antidote to the official Oxford Farming Conference” but mainly as a place for people to engage with positive actions and solutions, “to ask what the world really needs, and what’s possible, and to show what really can be done” (35), the Conference is now in its 6th year, with over 550 delegates planning to swoop upon Oxford this coming Tuesday.

Conference Networking

This year’s ORFC focusses on four main strands of alternative farming:

Farming Outside the Box: “fresh ideas and vibrant discussions at an event designed by farmers for farmers” (36)

Digging Deep: “economic and political trends that are shaping farming –– and at the deep ideas, of morality and science, that form the zeitgeist and underpin all our attitudes and actions” (37)

New Generation, New Ideas: “farmers and of everyone else who completes the food chain – bakers, butchers, distributors, retailers” (38)

Nuts and Bolts: “in depth discussion of all aspects of real farming” (39)

Each strand features speakers and there are also practical workshops for those who wish to get really in-depth.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference is just one of many examples of the power of networking, and I shall be reporting from it this Tuesday and Wednesday, 6 and 7 January 2015. Check this blog for inside information on all things Real (farming)!

References

  1. Collapse of Industrial Civilization, 2014. ‘Monoculture: Food Variety Tree’. http://collapseofindustrialcivilization.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/food-variety-tree-754.gif – retrieved 4/01/15
  2. Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not”. Institution of Mechanical Engineers: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf?sfvrsn=0 – retrieved 4/01/15
  3. Kirschenmann, F, 2004. ‘A Brief History of Sustainable Agriculture’. The Networker: Volume 9, No. 2. Science and Environmental health Network: Iowa. Available online here: http://www.sehn.org/Volume_9-2.html#a2 – retrieved 4/01/15
  4. Fukuoka, M, 1985. The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy. Bookventure: Online
  5. Bones, J, 1995. “On a Green Mountain: Interview with Masanobu Fukuoka, Sensei of Natural Farming”. Wildness Rus, 1995. Archived content. Available as an internet archive here: http://web.archive.org/web/20051224120427/http://www.seedballs.com/gmmfpa.html – retrieved 4/01/15
  6. Mollison, B, 1988. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari Publications: Tasmania
  7. Holmgren, D, 2011. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. Permanent Publications: The Sustainability Centre, Hampshire
  8. UNCTAD, 2013. Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here: http://unctad.org/en/publicationslibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf -retrieved 4/01/15
  9. UNCTAD, 2013. ‘Key Messages’. Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here: http://unctad.org/en/publicationslibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf -retrieved 4/01/15
  10. Lamberley, P and Oakeshott, I, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury: London
  11. Emily S Cassidy et al, 2013. Environ. Res. Lett. 8 034015. “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare”. University of Minnesota: Minneapolis
  12. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘The Meat Industry and Ideas for What We Can Do About It’. Permaculture News, 15/04/2014. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/04/15/meat-industry-ideas-can/ -retrieved 4/01/15
  13. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Scientific Research Condemns Neonicotinoid Pesticides: What More Will it Take?’ Permaculture News, 17/07/2014. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/07/17/scientific-research-condemns-neonicotinoid-pesticides-will-take/ -retrieved 4/01/15
  14. Macnamara, L, 2012. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: The Sustainability Centre, Hampshire
  15. Letslink UK, 2014. ‘Welcome! So what are LETS?’ http://www.letslinkuk.net -retrieved 4/01/15
  16. Soil Association, 2014. ‘Community Supported Agriculture’. http://www.soilassociation.org/communitysupportedagriculture – retrieved 4/01/15
  17. Great Seed Festival, 2014. ‘The Great Seed Festival: Celebrating the Seeds that Feed Us’. http://www.greatseedfestival.co.uk – retrieved 4/01/15
  18. Seedy Sunday, 2014. ‘Seedy Sunday Brighton’. http://seedysunday.org – – retrieved 4/01/15
  19. Land Worker’s Alliance, 2014. ‘South West Seed Saver’s Coop’. http://landworkersalliance.org.uk/south-west-seed-savers-cooperative/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  20. Biodynamic Association, 2014. ‘Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Co-op’. http://www.biodynamic.org.uk/farming-amp-gardening/seeds/biodynamic-plant-breeding-and-seed-co-operative.html – retrieved 21/12/14
  21. London Freedom Seed Bank, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://londonfreedomseedbank.wordpress.com/about/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  22. Open Pollinated Seed, 2014. ‘Introduction’. http://www.open-pollinated-seeds.org.uk/open-pollinated-seeds/Introduction.html  – retrieved 21/12/14
  23. Garden Organic, 2014. ‘What is the HSL?’ http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl – retrieved 21/12/14
  24. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2014. ‘Home’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk – retrieved 04/01/15
  25. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2014. ‘Orchards Without Borders’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/orchards/withoutborders – retrieved 04/01/15
  26. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Orchards Without Borders: Exploring Biodiversity and Culture’. Abundance Garden, 11/12/14. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/orchards-without-borders-exploring-diversity-and-culture/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  27. Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, 2014. ‘About’. http://bhfood.org.uk/about/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  28. Beyond GM, 2014. ‘Beyond GM’. http://beyond-gm.org/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  29. CIWF, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.ciwf.org.uk/about-us/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  30. Schumacher College, 2014. ‘About Us’. https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/about – retrieved 04/01/15
  31. Coventry University, 2014. ‘Centre for Agro-Ecology, Water and Resilience’. http://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/areas-of-research/agroecology-water-resilience/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  32. Soil Food Web, Inc: Dr Elaine Ingham, 2014. ‘Homepage’. http://www.soilfoodweb.com – retrieved 04/01/15
  33. Permaculture Association, 2014. ‘Our Work’. https://www.permaculture.org.uk/our-work -retrieved 04/01/15
  34. Gaia Foundation, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.gaiafoundation.org/about-us – retrieved 21/12/14
  35. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2014. ‘About’. http://orfc.org.uk/about/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  36. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘Farming Outside the Box’. http://orfc.org.uk/orfc-2015/farming-outside-the-box/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  37. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘Digging Deep’. http://orfc.org.uk/orfc-2015/digging-deep/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  38. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘New Generation, New Ideas’. http://orfc.org.uk/orfc-2015/new-generation-new-ideas/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  39. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘Nuts & Bolts’. http://orfc.org.uk/orfc-2015/seminars-and-technical/ retrieved 04/01/15

Seeds and their complications: An Introduction

The world of gardening is becoming an increasingly complicated one; as our food systems grow to ever more convoluted global networks, and law-makers and corporations alike continually threaten to implement sets of arbitrary rules which (only just) make sense to them on their terms, but which can be completely devastating to anyone actually attempting to grow food to, say, eat it (see for example 1, 2).

Saving seeds: in many ways a simple gesture. But there are many seedy issues to be aware of too.

Saving seeds: in many ways a simple gesture. But there are many seedy issues to be aware of too.

This year the EU scrapped a proposed law which, if put into effect, would have made it compulsory for all seeds in the entire continent to conform to specific restrictions of ‘Distinctiveness, uniformity and stability’ and to be registered, at rather large expense, with the EU (3). This would mean that anyone saving seeds which are adaptable and of a varied nature would have their seeds made illegal; even though, being adaptable, these types of seeds are more resilient and so more likely to be useful for future generations (4). Even if their seeds could pass the ‘Distinctiveness, uniformity and stability’ tests, many seed banks would have had to go out of business because of lack of funds to afford the something like £3000 per variety fee (3) (for more on this see my articles here and here).

More things to be wary of

Now the law has been scrapped, thanks at least in part to the huge amount of public criticism against it. However, other factors exist which could, if allowed to flourish, be a severe threat to our biodiversity. The international nature of our world now means that even if we are residing in Europe, it is not only the laws of the EU which are affecting us. Currently being formalised in ‘secret talks’ – though there has been a fair amount of publicity about them, so they are now not so secret – are a number of Trade Treaties which, if put into practice, could suddenly restrict all kinds of activities around the world.

The four main trade treaties which have come to my attention are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (5) between the US and the EU; the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) (6) between the US, EU and other parties; the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) (7) between Canada and the EU and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (8) between twelve states across Asia. Though there has been no official release of the texts of any of the Treaties, enough concerned parties exist that there is quite a lot of information out there on what the agreements probably entail (see for example 9). One of the main concerns is that they would end up homogenising trade regulations, which in worst case scenarios could result in all of the most inefficient and bureaucratic aspects of trade staying in place while all of the actual human considerations would get forgotten.

One example which the Stop TTIP Campaign gives is the homogenisation of meat trade rules (10) which the TTIP could result in between the US and the EU. If taken to extremes this would mean that, as the Treaty is aimed at creating free trade between the two continents, then in the interest of allowing competition the US would increase imports of EU meat and exports of meat to the EU, while the EU would increase imports of US meat and exports of meat to the US (10). Apart from the obvious logistical inefficiencies which this would create, there is also the concern of the EU introducing US meat regulations to European meat. These regulations are quite different from those in place in the EU; for example, as living standards for meat chickens are generally lower in the US, it is compulsory for all factory-farmed chicken to be washed in chlorine before it can be sold (10), as it could carry diseases. The concern here is that suddenly, all European chicken would be made to be chlorine washed as well.

However, chlorine-dipped chicken may not necessarily be that detrimental; it may end up helping people to think more about their meat and where it comes from, and encourage consideration of whether or not they want to be putting such potent chemicals into their bodies. It may even stimulate a move away from factory farmed chickens to free range meat; which from the chickens’ point of view at least is quite desirable.

In terms of seeds, these agreements could make it so that there is no obligation to label food or seeds as containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), thus making it impossible to tell if your seeds or food have genetically modified material in them. Since genetic modification is such a new science and no one can be entirely sure of the effects of GMOs this would make it extremely difficult to ensure the health of you crops and yourself (see for example 11).

It’s not just governments…

The TTIP, TISA, CETA and TPP agreements present an interesting challenge to anyone who wishes to grow food for the sake of eating it, or anyone keen on preserving biodiversity, or at least their own health. It is not only governments who create these challenges, however. When it comes to GMO labelling, there are a number of corporations who are also attempting to make it rather difficult for us to know what we are growing or eating. One example is the state of Vermont, USA, who are due to implement a law, Act 120, making labelling of all GMOs mandatory by July 2016 (12). A number of Trade Associations are currently challenging the law in court, arguing that, as the law will affect “eight out of every ten foods at the grocery store”, it is too “costly” to be worth putting into effect and will do “nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers”. If the law suit is successful, the state will continue to have no labelling for GMO-containing foods – which means if you are shopping in Vermont and have bought ten items, chances are only two of them are GMO-free; though you will never know for sure.

This is not the first time corporations have fought US government or federal policy on GMOs. In 2012 agrochemical companies Monsanto and Dupont, along with a number of other large corporations from chemical companies Bayer and Dow to ‘food and drink’ (depending on your definition) giants Kellogg’s and Pepsi, contributed to a $45.6m advertising campaign against the state of California introducing mandatory GM labelling (13). The campaign in favour of the law spent a lot of money too – $8.9m (13) – but the fact that the law was eventually voted against suggests that the corporations’ spending power may well have been influential.

Think locally…and globally?

These issues, though local to one country or continent, affect everyone, even you. When it gets to the point where a corporation or government tries to control life itself, by patenting seeds and refusing to allow consumers the ability to know what goes into their food, then that’s when the simple act of saving your own seeds can take on a whole new significance. There have, undoubtedly, been many cases of these worrying trends being overturned; not only with the scrapping of the PRM Regulation in Europe, but also with the overturning in both Chile and Guatemala, earlier this year, of the so-called “Monsanto Laws” (2) which had been put in place in those countries with severe detrimental consequences to farmer’s livelihoods and the biodiversity there. The laws were only overturned because of the vocality of the local people; also evident in stories of farmers burning seeds given to them by Monsanto on the grounds that the seeds, being genetically modified, will contaminate their own seed varieties with potentially unsafe or unstable genetic material (see 14, 15).

A particularly powerful gesture is the example of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when Monsanto donated, as a “perfect easter gift” (14), around 400 tonnes of vegetable seeds to that island. The farmers of the island had just been through a devastatingly dramatic upheaval; many had to rebuild their whole lives; yet more than 10,000 of them felt strongly enough about the importance of their food and seed sovereignty that they proceeded to burn all 400 tonnes of the gift seeds (14).

A strong statement, indeed: and yours do not have to be quite so controversial unless you want them to be. It is important to be aware of all of the different factors involved when exploring the issues surrounding seeds, and it is with this in mind that I participated in the Great Seed Festival in London last month. Watch this space for a write-up of the festival.

References

  1. Raskin, Ben, 2014. “Using a Chainsaw to Crack a Nut”. Soil Association: Bristol.
    https://www.soilassociation.org/blogs/latestblog/article/792/using-a-chainsaw-to-crack-a-nut – retrieved 10/11/14
  2. Haworth, Charlotte, 2014. ‘Seed Saving, part 1: Seedy Issues’. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/10/18/seed-saving-part-1-seedy-issues/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  3. Gable, Ben. “All About the New EU Seed Law”. Real Seed Catalogue, 2014. http://www.realseeds.co.uk/seedlaw2.html – – retrieved 10/11/14
  4. Bowen, Pat (Seed Circles). Interview with me at Seedy Sunday, Brighton, 02/02/2014.
  5. EU Commission, 2013. ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Draft: Without Prejudice’. Ecology International, 2013. available as PDF here: http://keionline.org/sites/default/files/eu-kommission-position-in-den.pdf
  6. European Commission, 2014. ‘Trade in Services Agreement’. http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/in-focus/tisa/ – – retrieved 10/11/14
  7. European Commission, 2014. ‘EU-Canada.’ http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/international/cooperating-governments/canada/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  8. Trade Negotiations’. http://www.international.gc.ca/trade-agreements-accords-commerciaux/agr-acc/tpp-ptp/rounds-series.aspx?lang=eng – retrieved 10/11/14
  9. Computer World UK, 2014. ‘TTIP Update – the Glyn Moody blogs’. http://www.computerworlduk.com/blogs/open-enterprise/ttip-updates–the-glyn-moody-blogs-3569438/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  10. Stop TTIP, 2014. ‘What has it to do with chlorinated chickens, GM food, and hormones in meat?’ https://stop-ttip.org/blog/faq/what-has-it-to-do-with-chlorinated-chickens-gm-food-and-hormones-in-meat/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  11. Seeds of Freedom, 2014. ‘TTIP will sacrifice food safety for faster trade’. http://www.seedsoffreedom.info/ttip-will-sacrifice-food-safety-faster-trade-warn-ngos/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  12. GMA Online, 2014. ‘GMA Files Lawsuit’. http://www.gmaonline.org/news-events/newsroom/gma-files-lawsuit-to-overturn-vermonts-unconstitutional-mandatory-gmo-label/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  13. Flynn, D, 2012. ‘GM Food labelling in California goes down in defeat’. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/11/big-setback-for-right-to-know-about-gm-foods-prop-37-goes-down-in-crushing-defeat/ retrieved 10/11/14
  14. Stock, R, 2014. ‘Haitians Burn Seed Donated by Monsanto to Protect their Native Maize Seed’. Health Impact News, 10/11/14. http://healthimpactnews.com/2011/haitians-burn-seeds-donated-by-monsanto-to-protect-their-native-maize-seed/retrieved 10/11/14