Resilience is fertile

Soil Association’s Natasha Collins-Daniel explains why we need to change the way we produce our food

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 30 October 2020

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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This article first appeared in our Ethical Shopping issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 30 October 2020. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

One of the key things the global Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted is how quickly things can change.

In changing times, resilience is key – and organic production has this at its heart. In fact, creating a resilient and sustainable food system, which is less exposed to short-term shocks and restores a safe climate, abundant nature and good nutrition, has always been core to our aims at the Soil Association.

Organic methods encourage diversity and building rather than depleting. This results in farming practices that are not only more planet and wildlife friendly, but also less vulnerable to drought, flood, pests, disease and other potential impacts or shocks.

Many agree our food system is vulnerable to the kind of shocks that will come with a rapidly changing climate. Our collective concern now is about how to save lives; there has been much talk of a ‘green recovery’ and ‘building back better’, but little meaningful action on this. Do we really want to go back to how things used to be?

Broken food systems

The food industry, and particularly our dependency on it running smoothly, has come into sharp focus. We won’t forget the empty supermarket shelves we saw back in April as the system struggled to respond to increased customer demand and disruption along the supply chain.

Our complacency around where our food comes from has been shaken to the core.

Before the pandemic, organic food and drink sales were on the increase as people looked for more sustainable choices; it seems the current crisis has fast-tracked changing shopper behaviours.

A YouGov survey commissioned by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission & The Food Foundation revealed 42% of people feel the crisis has made them value food more.

85% want to see at least some of the personal or social changes experienced during lockdown to continue; 51% say they have noticed cleaner air and 27% have noticed more wildlife.

Social bonds are stronger, with 40% saying they feel a stronger sense of local community. Some 3 million people, 6% of the population, have tried a veg box scheme or ordered food from a local farm for the first time.

Love local

This change in behaviour, prompted by the crisis, could also serve as an opportunity to reconsider the benefits of more local food systems.

Shorter supply chains, for example, have proven to be resilient in times of crisis, with local community shops often able to keep food on the shelves amid panic-buying in a way big supermarkets can’t.

But if we want to encourage more localised supply chains, we must address the issue of profitability. Many ventures – like growing apples in Sussex or sheep farming for textiles – are just not financially viable in our current context.

Now is the right time to consider proper routes to market for goods like these, to revitalise localisation. This is not to return to the middle ages, but to acknowledge the holistic benefits of having strong localised supply chains and to acknowledge that increasingly, citizens want to know a product’s journey has not negatively impacted on the environment, nature or indeed human health.

At a time when significant and positive change seems so possible, I would urge shoppers and producers to contact their local MP to raise their concerns and add their voice to the mix to ensure the food and agricultural industries remain viable, sustainable and something we can all be proud of.

Cast your vote

Food and how we produce it, along with a shift in diets, has the power to transform our world. I hope that in time both the shape of the food system and the role it can play in addressing climate change will be front and centre for citizens worldwide.

Choosing organic wherever you can is one of the most simple forms of direct action you can take. Our collective choices all add up: more demand for organic food and drink means more people casting a vote for farms that support our planet, biodiversity and the highest standards of animal welfare.

But it’s only part of the picture. It is widely acknowledged that this decade is crucial for humanity, and that farmers and land managers have a pivotal role to play. We need the right government support for farmers to transition to nature-friendly farming like organic and agroecology; we need support for local supply chains and we need recognition that the climate, nature and human health crisis, and their solutions, are all connected.

Preventing the kind of disruption we have recently seen may still be within our grasp, but changes will need to be made as we tackle the interconnected crisis of climate, nature and health.

If nothing else, I hope at the end of all of this we value our food more and consider how we treat our planet. By treating it with respect, and working with nature, it is likely that it will treat us well in return.

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