Keeping it local and under our control

This is an expanded and edited version of a combination of a number of posts that were originally published on our sister blog, Alternative Estuary. There were a number of issues raised in those posts that need to be looked at in more depth. These range from the fragility of the complex food supply chains we rely on, through to the need to collectively gain more control over our food supply and in the process, start to bring some power back down to the grassroots.

The just in time food supply chains we have come to (over)rely on are incredibly complex. They enable us to have food from across the globe pretty much on demand. They have done away with the notion of seasonal eating that those of us with a fair few decades on the clock remember from our childhoods and teenage years. They have become something so integral to the way we live these days that we barely give them a second thought.

That’s until things start to go wrong. They are starting to go wrong. There’s a shortfall in the number of lorry drivers needed to keep just in time food supply chains functioning smoothly. Part of that is down to Brexit and continental based drivers not wanting to work on deliveries to the UK because of the extra hassle that’s now involved in transporting foodstuffs in from the EU.

Also, there are the consequences of the ‘pingdemic’: Pingdemic ‘threatens food supplies’ amid warnings app is ‘losing social consent’ – Independent | 18.07.21. This is when the NHS Test and Trace app advises the user that they have been in contact with someone who has tested ‘positive’ for Covid-19 and is advised to self isolate, even though they are perfectly well with no symptoms. This is exacerbating the already existing situation with the shortage of the truck drivers : Shortage of HGV drivers exacerbated as UK economy bounces back – Commercial Fleet | 08.07.21. So, when truck driver in an industry already short of drivers is pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app and then self isolates, you can see that this is going to disrupt the food supply chain! As a consequence of this, shelves of some lines in the supermarkets are starting to empty as there simply aren’t the drivers available to keep them stocked. There’s now talk of deploying troops on truck driving duty in a bid to keep the shelves stocked.

This may only be a temporary problem and that after one or two months, some kind of solution will possibly be cobbled together to keep the system blundering on until the next crisis. Mind you, it wouldn’t surprise us if this drama was used as an excuse to jack up food prices again. Brits face high grocery bills as EU red tape threatens to increase costs – Retail Gazette | 02.06.21. For families on low incomes, increases in the cost of food will place more stress on already stretched budgets.

Systems are not designed to fail. They fail because increasing levels of complexity make it harder to maintain a holistic overview of what’s happening. Not having this overview means that it’s more likely for unintended consequences to occur as unanticipated events happen to disrupt supply chains in unexpected ways. Complexity may be seen by come commentators as the hallmark of advanced civilisation. The downside of complexity is that when parts of the system fail in unexpected ways, it potentially poses a threat to the civilised life we have taken for granted without a second thought. When things really start to fall apart as a consequence of unexpected events it turns out we weren’t really prepared for, the veneer of civilisation can reveal itself as something that’s actually quite fragile. That’s because we lack the resources, intellectually and emotionally as well as physically to be able to fall back on our own resources when parts of the system start to fail.

What the current situation is starting to do with some people is make them ask pointed questions about where our food comes from and the processes involved in it getting onto our plates. With regard to food imported from developing countries, they’re asking questions about exploitation on farms and in some of the initial processing facilities. They’re asking questions about why some countries export a substantial proportion of what they grow when they sometimes struggle to feed their own populations. They’re asking questions as to whether it’s really a good idea to ship produce from half way around the globe when it could actually be grown here. They’re asking whether we should start eating seasonally again. They’re asking how fresh (or not) is the produce that ends up on our plates. They’re asking a lot of questions and that can only be a good thing…

It’s coming up with answers that can be tough. Obviously, the shorter and less complex the supply chain is, the less prone it will be to disruption, whether that’s through malicious action or a lack of holistic thinking leading to unintended screw ups. A more localised and less complex supply chain will also mean the food that reaches our plates will be fresher. However, even with these shorter and less complex supply chains, we will still have to rely on other people for our food needs. As we have said a few times before, whoever controls the food supply chain can also control the populace. With a growing level of mistrust in the government, it’s understandable that there’s an increase in people wanting to start growing as much of their own food as possible…

As a bit of an aside, there’s this as well: Boris Johnson could offer healthy eating ‘rewards’ after furious Tory backlash to tax plan. Basically, it’s an app that tracks your supermarket spending and offers you ‘rewards’ for spending more on fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and low calorie meals. However, it’s not just one of your usual health apps – this is one promoted by the government to get people to change their behaviour. There’s a bit to unpack with this one…

What could possibly be wrong with encouraging healthy eating you ask? Look, we’re all for people having the chance to eat healthy food. The debate is around whether that’s just another consumer choice or taking action that actually starts to address a lot of what’s wrong about the complex, ‘just in time’ and ultimately unsustainable food supply chain we’re obliged to rely upon.

With this proposed app, if you buy enough of what’s deemed to be healthy, you’ll get a ‘reward’. A ‘reward’ for being a good consumer. A ‘reward’ for consuming the products of a problematic food supply chain. If you take a critical look at this proposal, it does seem like an incremental step in getting people used to the idea of a system of social credits. In China with their social credit system, this kind of future is already here, as detailed in this piece from Wired: The complicated truth about China’s social credit system – Nicole Kobie | Wired | June 7, 2019. Social credits and their opposite, social de-merits, are about behaviour modification and ultimately, controlling the populace. Do you really want to go there?

What’s better, being a model consumer who buys the right kind of foods in return for a ‘reward’ or getting together with your neighbours to start growing your own food? Growing your own obviously because it gives people a genuine degree of control. The thing is, growing your own vegetables and fruit, individually or communally, isn’t something that can be tracked, monitored and rewarded by the government. It’s something that’s right out of their control – they don’t like that one bit! Which is precisely why we love the idea of community food growing because it gives us control:)

The collective aspect of doing this is vital. Setting up a community garden / seed bank / food bank is a way of bringing people together and re-building neighbourhood solidarity as well as resilience. In these fractious, troubled times, it’s vital we fend off the divide and rule merchants who would have us at each others throats…

Gaining control of our food supply at the grassroots is not some nice, feel good add on to our lives. It’s certainly not virtue signalling. If we want the freedom and autonomy that we need to live a truly human life, it’s an absolute necessity. This is what the Alternative Estuary project is about – doing what we can to encourage, support and facilitate those taking the first steps towards growing their own food. It’s one of the first steps in what ultimately has to be a full on revolution that will rid us of the techno-fascists and the corporations who are hell bent on exerting their malign control over our lives, once and for all.

Here’s a list of some resources that will hopefully set you and your neighbours on the way to regaining some degree of control over your food supply, your lives and in the bargain, build some much needed community solidarity:

Setting up a community garden

How to Start a Community Garden – Elizabeth Waddington | ethical.net | February 14, 2020
“Community gardens make a community more food-secure. Food security is vital for the long-term survival of any community – yet, all too often, communities become ‘food deserts’, with many people going without enough food. Community gardens ensure access to good-quality, local, and organic food.”
“Community gardens put power back into the hands of local people, reducing reliance on regional authorities or government to provide for their needs. Communities are increasingly recognising that co-operative efforts can improve areas’ wellbeing more quickly than by relying on authorities to do so.”

Set up a community garden – RHS
“A community garden can bring a wide range of benefits – from connecting people with each other to growing fresh food to enjoy. If well-planned, a community garden can offer people a place to relax, a way to engage with nature, meet others and get active outdoors.”

STARTING A COMMUNITY GARDEN – American Community Gardening Association
“This fact sheet is designed to give many different groups the basic information they need to get their gardening project off the ground. These lists are in no way meant to be complete. Each main idea will probably trigger more questions, so an assortment of ways to carry out that idea are presented; pick and choose those that seem to apply to your own situation.”
Although this is from the USA, pretty much most of the information is generic and, as it is a bullet pointed check list, it’s accessible and very useful:)

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Setting up a community seed bank

Stroud Community Seed Bank
“As a group, we celebrate locally adapted seed, seed diversity and growing without the use of chemicals. Through Google groups, emails and gatherings, we support each other, share advice, tips and stories to improve our learning and enjoyment of seed saving. At every opportunity, we connect with community members, groups and schools to strengthen community bonds, resilience and spread knowledge of the importance of seed saving.”

How to organize a Community Seed Bank – seedsavers.org
“Unlike their larger counterparts, community seed banks are less about long-term preservation and more about sharing seed season to season. For that reason they’re sometimes called “seed libraries.” No matter what they’re called, the essence of all community seed banks is the same: they’re a central place where seeds (often locally grown) are stored and shared with local growers. Most offer their seed for free because the philosophy behind community seed banks is that seed is not a commodity but a shared community resource.”

Tips for Starting a Successful Community Seed Bank – Catherine Winter | Morning Chores
“We live in a time when food security isn’t a guaranteed thing, and people around the world are taking serious steps to grow their own food and medicine. As you can imagine, one of the most important aspects of this kind of self-sufficiency is high-quality seeds.”
“Considering how expensive heirloom and organic seeds can be, one of the best ways to expand one’s garden is to save and share seeds. Plus, you’re promoting local plant diversity!”

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Setting up a community food bank

How to start a foodbank: the story of Luton Foodbank – Left Unity
“What place does food hold in the constellation of human needs? Maslow’s hierarchy of human need puts food among the base of human needs, alongside breathing, water, sex, homeostasis, sleep and excretion. It should be clear to all that food is a basic need, which is central to a cohesive, stable, humane society. Bertolt Brecht wrote in The Threepenny Opera, “First comes feeding, then comes morality.” If you cannot obtain food to feed yourself, then all other questions of culture, morality, law and right become secondary or meaningless.”

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Look, we’re not saying that you should drop everything and become a full time peasant farmer! For a start off, as things stand with land ownership and tenure in this country, unless you have access to a serious amount of dosh, it’s nigh on impossible to get access to the land you’d need. That will only happen after a massive social, political and economic transformation. We’re about what we can do in the here and now that will be the first steps towards that…

Between the various members of the Alternative Estuary crew, we currently manage four plots of varying sizes with the distinct possibility of a fifth one being developed in September. With the two garden plots, the aim is to achieve 20-25% self sufficiency in vegetables. Obviously that varies from year to year as do the weather conditions. We’ll freely admit that this year has been a challenge due to a considerably wetter than normal summer and…the sodding slugs! The point is, we’re putting our money where our mouth is and actually doing it. What we want to do is learn from our experiences and use that to facilitate anyone in the area we cover who is serious about growing their own, particularly if they’re doing it as a collective. Basically, it’s carrying forward the vision that emerged early last year with this project that started out in Southend: Crops NOT Shops: Growing the Mutual Millennium.

This is just an initial overview of the situation. The aim is to use this piece as a basis for a longer, more in depth resource that hopefully at some point next year, we can turn into a pamphlet we can release in hybrid form – printed and downloadable PDF. Obviously, more work is needed before we get to that point. Input into this from those with more knowledge and experience in the areas we’ve covered will be welcomed.

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