Over the next four days we publish a series of articles by Mike Downham on local food production in the context of a just transition to a sustainable zero carbon economy
The local food story so far
Growing veg wasn’t in my family, and from what I can remember I never had any contact with anyone who grew veg when I was growing up in London. But from some instinct – perhaps because it’s not so long for most of us since there were farmers in our families – as soon as I had a garden, I wanted to try growing something I could eat. As I liked to eat purple sprouting broccoli and strawberries, I chose to concentrate on those – it was only a small patch in front of a terraced house in central Newcastle. Thinking I’d better do something about fertility, and with no farms nearby to beg or buy muck from, I collected some buckets of waste from the local slaughterhouse. This raised some eyebrows in the terrace, but my reputation was restored when the neighbours saw the size of the broccoli plants and the strawberries.
Having been overpaid by the NHS for 20 years I was privileged to be able to move on from that front garden to an allotment, then a subsistence smallholding, then a commercial farm with a Community Supported Agriculture scheme.
It’s not surprising that people, on their own or getting together with others, have been producing food in their urban neighbourhoods for a long time – it makes so much sense at so many levels. Theoretically the benefits embrace physical health, mental health, biodiversity, food security, food sovereignty, reduction of carbon emissions and political organisation. On top of theory, both the work of producing food and the eating of it are a lot of fun, especially if done collectively. Wherever working class people can get hold of land, in backyards, allotments, unused corner sites, reclaimed industrial sites, school grounds, or, if they can’t find land, in window-boxes and pots on doorsteps, they will grow vegetables and fruit, run hens for eggs, and when they have a bit more elbow room even raise a goat or a cow or two for milk, or animals for meat.
Historical surges in this activity, successfully driven by states because they were so popular, include the UK County Council smallholdings made available for servicemen returning from the first World War; the UK Dig for Victory campaign in the second World War; and urban food production in the Cuban Revolution. These surges did not last for long once war or the threat of war had subsided. In 2006 there was a resurgence of local food production driven by the Transition Towns movement across 43 Countries, mostly in the Global North. But this initiative soon petered out because it did not seriously challenge the powerlessness of communities, particularly in relation to land tenure, even when producers and consumers came together in cooperatives.
Across the Global South, and in the less industrialised parts of the Global North, small farmers producing for local markets are under increasing pressure from one set of capitalists who want to buy their land to farm it intensively or sell it on, and another set who want to sell them chemicals, seeds and machinery as must-haves for ‘modernisation’. Despite this, 70% of the world’s food supply still comes from small farms, and there’s a strong international movement of small farmers fighting to hang onto their land and achieve food sovereignty – the right to choose what food they produce, and how they produce it, in local partnership with the people who eat it. Via Campesina represents 200 million producers across 81 countries.
The new opportunity
The conjuncture of the coronavirus pandemic with the rising global movement for climate jobs as the basis of an effective strategy to limit global warming, and with the discreditation of capitalism by its evident inability to deal effectively with these two emergencies, has the potential to change the balance of power between labour and capital. Demands which were unrealistic a few months ago have become realistically achievable. As consciousness of new possibilities grows, organisations have started to formulate demands, or to push more urgently through coalitions for demands they had already formulated.
In Part 2 to be published on 11th June Mike looks at the extent to which food production is integrated into proposals for a Green New Deal. If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.