The industrial food chain takes food on a journey of several thousand miles, originating in gigantic monocultures, produce passes onto far-flung food processors and packing factories before ending up on your plate. It has become an unfortunate norm that food travels thousands of miles prior to consumption.
Truly sustainable design requires understanding a product’s entire lifecycle. Sustainable food requires more than just responsible agricultural techniques – the entire length of the food chain needs to be considered.
Relearning the seasons
These modern supply chains have created a year round supply of most produce, something nature never intended. We have forgotten the bright colours of each season. We all once knew these by heart but for local food chains to succeed people must relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons. There is an informal alliance of small farmers and local chefs who are driving the re-education of consumers. Chefs have been instrumental in leading a movement to save local agriculture and share the pleasures of eating by the season. The best restaurants now showcase the superior qualities of fresh food grown with care and without chemicals.
The multidisciplinary nature of the local food chain makes it a movement, not merely a market. The decision to buy from a local farmer rather than from Tesco is a civic act, a form of protest to opt out of the supermarket and globalised industrial agricultural system. Buying from local farmers is more than just a consumer choice, it is a political decision. Reversing the damage done to local economies and the land by the juggernaut of Big Food requires a revolt by local small producers and consumers against the global industrial machine. It is difficult to pass up the convenience of the supermarket, but every purchase we substitute to local producers is a step in the right direction.
A global food rebellion
The start of this rebellion is the growing demand for food from local producers, known and trusted by consumers. A global, totalitarian diet poses a threat to the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities. The survival of local landscapes and biodiversity was the reason a French anti-globalisation activist, and farmer, drove his tractor through the glass, not of a bank or an insurance company, but a McDonald’s.
The most powerful protests against globalisation to date have centred around food. Protests against seed patents in India have brought 400,000 Indians into the street. The globalisation of food that treats it as a commodity has created a system dominated by the iron law of competitive advantage. If other countries can grow a product with cheaper land, labour or environmental laws, why grow it here? People crave the sense of security that comes from knowing: your community and country can feed itself.
David and Goliath
Local agriculture preserves practical local knowledge, farmers bring a community, satisfaction. The promise of global capitalism, much like the promise of communism before, demands faith that the destruction of things now will help achieve a greater happiness and prosperity in the future. To a degree communism was founded on the issue of food. The Soviets sacrificed millions of small farms and farmers to the dream of a collectivised industrial agriculture. At the Soviet Union’s collapse more than half of the food consumed in the Soviet Union was being produced by small farmers and home gardeners operating without official sanction.
Today’s centralised industrial food system hasn’t satisfied people’s consciousness, so they have sought out independent farmers markets. The problems with our food system, unlike the Soviet’s, is that it produces too much food at too great an environmental cost. Everyday we participate in this battle; we can reject the industrial machine’s offerings and choose local. This is not to say that local farmers cannot commit ecological malpractice, they can, but there is a level of transparency and accountability at the local level that cannot manifest at the industrial level.
Buying and selling locally also tends producers toward polyculture, as they cannot sell vast volumes of the same crop, this helps to diversify landscapes away from destructive monocultures. Well designed polycultures maintain fertility and reduce disease prevalence, reducing demand for chemical pesticides.
Find, prepare, preserve
“Eat your view” is a concept of active conservation probably more effective and sustainable than writing cheques to environmental organisations. Participating in a local food economy requires considerably more effort than shopping at the supermarket – one will have to become reacquainted with seasonal cooking. The industrial food chain offers the convenience for busy people a way to delegate their cooking and food preservation to others. This food system has, over the past half-century, transformed not just our landscapes, but our diets. Our knowledge of how to navigate the seasons using local produce has been eroded. Finding, preparing and preserving food is one of the pleasures of life, the machine would rather we crave the Big Mac. A change of approach to focus on the survival of landscapes, species and traditional food connoisseurship is the most pleasurable thing we can do.
The nation of England was once a dense forest. Thousands of years of human activity have seen the amount of woodland decrease significantly. A flight above our island shows that although the rains make the land green, open fields now replace the woodlands that once dominated from shore to shore.
Turning back the clock
Forest farming is an agricultural strategy which involves the planting of many different plant species on the same site. Mature forest farms are environments of extreme beauty.
A forest farm is modelled on a young woodland – a canopy exists but enough light can penetrate to the herbaceous ground covering plants. A three dimensional system of herbs, shrubs and canopy trees – forest farms create edible produce at different heights throughout the year.
Through intelligent design different species interact to collectively maintain the soil fertility. As the vast majority of crops in a forest farm are perennial (living for many years) the soil is undisturbed by harvest – this benefits soil fungi and in turn the crops themselves.
Nature’s grand larder
Forest farming produces a wide range of edible products: fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, salad crops, herbs, spices and mushrooms. There is also significant scope for the production of herbal medicines, soaps and dyes.
Forest farming creates a riot of colour, scents and wildlife – this a significant step away from the uniformity of arable monoculture. Mechanised monoculture farming is optimal for seeding and harvest efficiency.
It takes multiple years to establish reasonable yields from a site, the target is to improve yield year on year. This is a characteristic of a perennial crop based site, there is no starting from scratch as with annuals.
Advantages of forest farms over arable monocultures
- Forest based systems are more resilient to climate crises – this will become of greater significance due to global climate change.
- The plant covered soil of a forest farm stays wetter in drought and is more stable in flood than open fields.
- Large perennial plants can more easily exploit minerals available throughout the soil due to their larger root systems.
- Forest farms sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into the soil and woody biomass of shrubs and canopies.
- Polycultures provide a greater variety of habitats for insect life, critical members of our Earth’s ecosystems.
- Plant diversity in agriculture is beneficial to wildlife, soil, the environment and people.