Coronavirus is helping to highlight how eating is as much about politics as it is agriculture

Vegetable garden
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When was the last time you ate? And what was it? A banana? A piece of chocolate? The question of eating during these strange times has increasingly become, in the words of farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry, an “agricultural act“.

Early on in the coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown, we saw images of empty supermarket shelves. Many consumers, who rarely imagine the connection between eating and the land, perhaps see food as an abstract idea appearing magically on supermarket shelves. The things we take for granted such as bananas, rice, or even cacao for chocolate, are produced in faraway places that arrive here via long supply chains with exploitation of land, resources and people along the way.

Eating is perhaps a political act too, then.

Is coronavirus increasing people’s awareness of the food chain?

Since 2009, the organisation I work for – the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) – has worked to develop affordable, low impact, small farms for ecological agriculture that can improve soil health, boost biodiversity and invigorate rural communities. And a recent study of 2,000 adults has revealed some promising news on this front. Because looking at the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the planet, it revealed that as many as seven in 10 people are now more aware of the human impact on nature, and 59% are more concerned about preserving it.

The UK produces only around 50% of the food we consume. And the easy accessibility of food masks the realities of the long food chains and heavy fossil-fuel use behind the food Britain doesn’t produce. The Guardian headline Romanian fruit pickers flown to UK amid crisis in farming sector, meanwhile, demonstrates the topsy-turvy logic of industrial agriculture which aligns the movement of goods, people and money only when it serves us: the consumer. However, there has also been an upward trend in local veg box schemes having more customers, with people valuing their local growers and farmers who are now recognised as key workers as they provide people with a direct supply of local food despite the crisis unfolding around them. Three million people have reportedly now tried a box scheme or bought food directly from a farm for the first time according to a recent YouGov poll.

Farming that benefits everyone

The ELC has known the above for a long time. We produced a report, Small is Successful, which shows that small-scale ecological farming works economically, serving both people and the planet. Our mission is to create small farms for ecological land use. We are the only national organisation to do so in England and Wales. The thrust of the cooperative is to help new farmers get on with the business of farming by taking care of planning permission, land purchase and logistics – helping those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to live and work on their farm.

The ELC does this by challenging the twin barriers facing new entrants to farming — high land prices and planning consent (legal permission). The cooperative retains the knowledge around planning permission to use it again and again to help those with land-based skills but who are unable to navigate the labyrinth of planning policy and local politics. The ELC puts in planning applications on behalf of such ecological enterprises and helps establish key shared infrastructure on site (e.g. barn, solar energy and water), along the way offering material and design support.

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Currently, the ELC is nearing the end of a Community Share Investment Offer. This is where non-profit enterprises like cooperatives raise money through an investment scheme, offering investors interest on share capital. In the case of the ELC, people can invest from £500 to £40,000 and become an investor member of the cooperative and thus have a say in how the cooperative is run at each year’s general meeting. So far, the offer has been an amazing success, having already reached the initial £400,000 target and now on its way to a £500,000 stretch target.

New farmers growing more during coronavirus pandemic

The ELC’s first project, Greenham Reach in Devon, was granted temporary planning permission in 2013 and now has permanent planning permission. Three flourishing small farm businesses have changed the landscape for the better, benefiting the natural world whilst also producing local, ecological food and medicine.

Steepholding, one of the three farms at Greenham Reach, is working hard to provide local food for delivery. Its veg box scheme has seen a huge surge in demand. Steepholding’s response to the crisis has been to increase production as much as possible and continue producing good food for the local community. And the ELC’s second site in East Sussex secured temporary planning permission with new entrant farmers moving on-site in autumn 2019 and finding themselves – after the wettest winter and four named storms later – setting up farms in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak. Their response? Get stuck in, grow more food.

It has been incredibly heartening to see how well the Share Offer has been going. With a minimum investment of £500 and a projected return of 3% per year, it seems that, for many people (directly and indirectly), supporting resilient, localised and ecological food production is a sure thing to do in these uncertain times.

The aim of the ELC Share Offer is to develop more sites, with a target of creating 18 small new farms on six new sites by the end of 2023. Pushing for recognition that ecological agriculture is a real and practical way to address our climate crisis, rural underdevelopment and getting new entrants into farming (and increasing UK food production), the ELC model tackles many of the issues we currently face.

Featured image via Ecological Land Cooperative (with permission)

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Phil Moore is a beginner farmer based in West Wales and one half of the communications team for the Ecological Land Cooperative.

To find out more about the ELC and the share offer, please visit: https://www.ethex.org.uk/elc2020

For more on how small-scale ecological farming works economically, see Small Farm Profits and publications from The Landworkers’ Alliance.

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