The View from the Observation Car

A guest post by Rob Elliott, food writer, traveler and co-proprietor of the green, organic, real food B&B Aspen House in picturesque rural Herefordshire, where they pride themselves on the locally produced, seasonal, organic food they serve. Rob’s books The Food Maze and How to Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow are available from Real Life Publishing. Rob also blogs on Food, Life and All That.

Around five years ago, the new social movement of Transition Towns sprang into life.  Its stated purpose was to raise awareness that human society faces two enormous challenges – peak oil and climate change.  Its vision was to create resilience at a local level in order to move from where we are now to where we need to be.

Five years on, and the Transition network has grown dramatically.

According to their website there are 382 official initiatives, with a further 458 about to fledge, across 34 countries.  There is also a growing library of Transition books.  The movement is obviously on a steeply ascending graph and it can’t be denied that it is indeed a brilliant idea.

Yet for me it still doesn’t quite hit the spot.

Having been involved with several local Transition initiatives from their inception, I observed that steering committees are quite often set up by self-motivated individuals keen to promote their own agendas, leaving other would-be Transitioners feeling disconnected and lacking in motivation.  Maybe the problems of peak oil and climate change are simply too overwhelming and remote.  None of this seems to be a problem in Totnes, Stroud, Lewes, Fife, Machynlleth and a handful of other places that have been promoting an alternative world view for decades.  But what of the others?  Perhaps many of them are only holding together because of the dedication of their hard-working steering groups.

As with any organisation, the 80/20 rule applies, with 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people – but Transition is supposed to be different.  At the very first meeting we attended, the organisers made it clear that as a ‘steering group’ their role was going to be a handholding one in the early stages, and that the responsibility for bringing the spirit of Transition into the community would soon involve everyone else in the room.

Unfortunately not so – there was no gush of egalitarianism, no devolution across the board – in fact, no apparent willingness on the part of others to take on any responsibility at all.  This shouldn’t perhaps come as a surprise – most people prefer to be told what to do and have an innate fear of taking the initiative.  So those few stalwarts who set up the idea four years ago are still the people who make it happen today.  They may no longer call themselves a steering group, but that is still their role and, without them, the initiative would collapse.

Where is all that promised excitement, community spirit, optimism and desire for change ?

With nebulous concepts such as peak oil or climate change, it is difficult to focus and translate it into something personal.  Peak oil might be a serious issue, but most attendees at a Transition meeting will become defensive when required to think about their own use of oil. Where there should be excitement, instead weariness sets in amongst those who see nothing but a long hard road ahead of them.

To Sally and me, it seemed obvious that what was missing was the glue to bind everyone together.

We thought we had cracked it – food !

The global industrialized food system is arguably the biggest contributor to the peak oil/carbon emissions problem, but food involves everyone, so it has the potential to be the core of the solution.  Part of the Transition answer to the problem is to buy local food.  It is disappointing therefore that, in the Transition Companion, the real reason for this is not fully explained.

The Transition Companion doesn’t tell you which way to go or what your journey will look like, but suggests there will be  some especially good views along the way. I cannot see how this is helpful.  We don’t need a Bradshaw’s Tourist Handbook, we need to be told exactly what is going on.  We don’t need to be told about the ‘good views along the way’, we need to see the whole picture.

Quite rightly Transition highlights all the inspirational food-related projects that are increasing in number every day – the Community Supported Agriculture, the land share schemes, the community orchards, the guerrilla gardening, permaculture smallholdings and individual garden plots.  All this is effective, essential and extremely encouraging, but still alienates those who, for one reason or another, cannot get involved in these kinds of initiatives.

How useful it would be if Transition showed us how we call all make a positive contribution to the solution simply by changing the way we shop for food, by removing our custom from global to local.

In the few minutes it has taken you to read this, world population has grown by another 1500 or so. There are nearly 16 million more mouths to feed since we passed the 7-billion milestone at the end of October last year.  A large proportion of these hungry people live in China and India, the latter adding 1.5 million to its population every month.

If the global economy goes belly up sometime in the next decade, China is a country with money in the bank and will be well placed to buy up all the commodity cash crops available.  Profit-hungry global corporations are not going to supply the bankrupt West.  They will go where the money is.

Food security is as important as peak oil and climate change, and we have too little of it - if the wheels come off the global food supply system, we too risk going hungry.

Gazing from the green observation car on this branch line at all the views along the way will only distract us from the mainline express currently hurtling towards oblivion carrying all the world’s money-mad, consumer-drugged, GDP-obsessed profiteers, the drivers partying along with the passengers.

So here’s a suggestion for all those involved in Transition groups: call a new meeting and ask the question, “If there were no supermarkets, how would we feed ourselves and where would our food come from?”  Then make a list of all your local food suppliers, open the discussion and work out how you are going to use them as your only source of food.

We can build a truly resilient alternative to the flawed global food system, simply by changing the way we shop and eat.

Photo by Loco Steve via Flickr

This Good Earth

Take a quick look at your shoes . . . not the top, the bottom.

Dirty ?

You might think that there’s no shortage of ‘dirt’ in the world, but you’d be wrong.

I don’t really mean ‘dirt’ of course, but soil – that complex mixture of minerals, organic materials and organisms, that is necessary for the growth of all land plants.

Now that we’re no longer hunter-gatherers, and rely on the cultivation of soil based crops for our survival, the health of the world’s soil is a critical concern, but something we all too often take for granted.

It might seem like soil is an endless and replenishing substance, but it’s not. It takes hundreds of years to build-up a few centimeters of fertile, humus rich soil, essentially making soil a non-renewable resource in any meaningful time frame.

This is a problem because many modern farming methods have resulted in rates of soil erosion and degradation well in excess of rates of replacement, as Professor David Montgomery points out in his book Dirt, if we spent our money up to ten times faster than we earned it, we’d go broke pretty quickly – so it is with soil.

Overgrazing or slash and burn agriculture leaves soil bare and exposed to erosion. Sustained compaction by heavy machinery causes increased rainfall run-off, removing sediments, and leaving soil dryer. Removing hedges and trees, whether to aid mechanised monoculture or to gather firewood, increases erosion by wind. All removes fertile topsoil, making land less productive and requiring greater fertilizer inputs in order to maintain yields.

Ultimately the soil can become too thin to sustain large plants, and without their supporting root structures, may simply be washed or blown away, resulting in duststorms and desertification - a significant and growing problem in many parts of the world.

History gives us several traumatic examples of agricultural collapse and societal disruption following the loss of fertile soils – from the American dustbowl of the 1930s, to the collapse of mechanised collective farmland in soviet Kazakhstan in the 1950s and 60s. Those of us living in cooler climes shouldn’t think we’re immune either, as Iceland’s catastrophic soil loss of the 1800s shows. Even as you read this blog Chinese engineers are battling against the continued growth of the Gobi desert, which is threatening water resources and food production for millions of Chinese.

Maintaining our soils is a complex problem, and the solutions will need to be equally complex – but better land management techniques will be key, with greater emphasis on sustaining the quality of the soil over a period of time.

Land reform is also going to be a critical issue across much of the developing word, where unsustainable farming practices are often the consequence of poor subsistence farmers having no long term security on the land.

Granting them longer-term rights to farm the land, and providing access to affordable initial capital, would allow them to remain in place, develop more sustainable farming methods, enhancing their ability to feed themselves and their family, without constantly destroying more natural habitat and giving rise to soil erosion in the process.

Sustainable fertile soils are the basis of human civilization. If we don’t respond successfully to the challenges of Peak Soil, we’re going to struggle to continue to produce enough food for the 7 billion of us now living on the planet – not to mention the additional 219,000 new mouths the world has to feed every day !

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

- President Roosevelt (in 1937 – after the Mid-West dust bowl)


Photo by Wikimedia Commons


One of Life’s Guilty Pleasures

Most of us are aware of the terrible history of the Atlantic slave trade, which lasted for four hundred years until the 1860s, and saw an estimated 12 million black Africans transported by Europeans to the Americas to work as slaves in plantations and mines.

Numerous films and books such as Amistad, Amazing Grace, and Roots, portrayed the lives of slaves, slave owners and slave traders alike. Powerful and shocking though these depictions are, they mostly ignored another key party to the slave trade – indeed the party without which it is unlikely to have existed . . . the consumer.

The sugar, cotton, coffee, tobacco, rice and metals produced by slave labour was destined for transport to the markets first of Europe, then later across the Americas, and sold in order to provide the profits to sustain the system. Customers were happy to buy sugar and cotton, seemingly oblivious or uncaring regarding its production through slavery.

I’m sure we would never imagine ourselves as potential slave owners or traders – but if we were somehow magically transported back in time, would we also deliberately avoid sugar and cotton, or would we too become an uncaring consumer ?

It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.

It’s a depressing fact that although illegal in all countries, there are now more slaves around the world today than at any time in history. As has always been the case they are exploited by the unscrupulous and greedy in order to generate a profit from their labour, which includes the harvesting of cocoa for chocolate.

An estimated 1.8 million children work in cocoa plantations in West Africa. Many are trafficked from rural areas with false promises of paid work and are forced to work long hours in poor conditions, prevented from leaving, denied education and beaten if they don’t work hard enough or try to escape.

Despite global awareness of the problem, the international chocolate trade has so far been unable to implement guarantees or certification regarding slavery or child labour. Of course, no one is suggesting that all chocolate is tainted and it’s neither helpful or healthy just to feel somehow guilty that things are not as we would wish them to be in other parts of the world.

But the fact remains that our world is interconnected, we, the consumer, are part of the system and our actions and choices do collectively impact the lives of those far away. Ultimately if we want to change things then we must act . . . and the good news is we don’t have to stop eating chocolate !

Fairtrade is an increasingly well known organised social movement that aims to help producers of commodities in developing countries make better trading decisions and promote sustainable practices and ethics. Consumers pay a small Fairtrade price premium, which is then re-invested in improving local producer communities.

Increasing awareness and public concern about poor practices and exploitation in the cocoa industry has led to a recent rise in the number of companies producing Fairtrade chocolate – why not give them a try ? Even if you don’t buy Fairtrade 100% of the time, the more we switch, the bigger a positive influence we’ll have.

I imagine William Wilberforce would have approved !


Photo by Amrufm via Flickr

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Food Banks

Despite our welfare system, and society safeguards, people still go hungry in the UK, and across the rich world, as a result of debt, sickness, job loss, relationship breakdown, addiction, mental health problems or delays in receiving state benefit.

Food banks collect donated food and then redistribute it to those in need, usually via some form of referral system from professional welfare agencies. The idea is that food banks aim to support people for the short time until the system ‘catches up with their problems’ – serving those who fall through the cracks.

In the UK the number of food banks have increased dramatically in recent years, with the charity The Trussell Trust, providing a standard model and advice for those wishing to set-up a foodbank. The effects of the economic downturn have caused a significant rise in the number of people in need of support in the UK, and more than one new food bank was opened every week during 2011.

If you’re interested in doing something to help combat poverty in your local area consider volunteering to help at a foot bank, or simply donate – either financially or food. If you don’t have a local food bank, then perhaps you might want to work with others to help set one up ?


Photo from Cardiff Food Bank


Play Nice and Share

A short post about food, on World Food Day (October 16th) – part of the Blog Action Day event.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”

- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (the original gourmet)

It’s often said that food is one of the few things that connects us all – from the skyscrapers of New York to the jungles of New Guinea.

Biology textbooks will tell you food is chemical energy and nutrients for our bodies; but our relationship with food is far more complicated than that.

Very few of us would even describe having a relationship with air, or even water, which are even more vital to our existence. Clearly food isn’t just chemical energy and nutrients; its emotional, social and cultural. The significance of food is interwoven through our societies from the top to the bottom – from state banquets to birthday parties, whether comforting home made soup for the family or microwave meals for one in a plastic tray. Jean Brillat-Savarin was right, what we eat is central to our lives, it does define who we are.

And not just individually, also as a species.

You’ve probably heard the mantra Half the world is overweight, while the other half starves.

It’s not that far from the truth.

Around a billion people are currently undernourished across the world, with 17,000 children dying from hunger every day. Another billion people have little food security, due to poverty.

At the same time a billion people in the world are overweight or obese, facing increased health risks and shorter lives as a result.

Unfortunately all the forecasts are for both statistics to worsen – with climate change, increasing fuel costs, water scarcity and rising population, alongside poorer quality diets, decreasing levels of physical exercise and increasingly westernised ways of eating in many parts of the developing world. The hungry look set to get hungrier, and the fat fatter!

Food doesn’t just connect us – it also divides us.

The problem isn’t scarcity, but policy, politics and a lack of compassion in the system.

There’s more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, we just need to get better at sharing it.

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Photo by lettorovication, via Flickr