Manifesto for feeding cities

For the first time in history there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. As we begin to face up to the challenges of climate change, peak oil and resource depletion, the issue of how urban populations can best be fed is increasingly urgent.

What's the problem?

Currently the supermarkets and agri-business control our food. The centralised and industrialised system they have developed has provided us with plentiful, cheap food but at enormous cost to the envirionment and communities. If we looked at our current food system through the lens of energy and resource use rather than simply through yields or profit we would see that it is massively energy inefficient.

Our current food and farming system requires us to put in between 5 and 10 calories for every 1 we get out.  That means the energy we get out in the form of food is up to 10 times less than it has taken to grow it. And the way we put those 10 calories in is through fossil fuels - mainly oil and gas - in the form of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, in on-farm machinery and in the energy required to process that food and get it from the farm to our plates.

Our current food system also accounts for at least 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and it's dependence on cheap fossil fuels makes it extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in the supply and price of oil and gas. Food distribution is based around long centralised supply chains that function best when supplied by large monocultural farms. This type of industrialised farming has polluted our soil and water and displaced or eradicated native wildlife. On an individual basis we are increasingly disconnected from our food, where it comes from and the people that produce it. Most of us lack basic skills or understanding of growing, preparing and cooking food - all of which increases our dependency on a fragile food system.

It turns out that much of the food created by this system is not very good for our health - obesity and other diet-related health problems are affecting more and more of us. Not only is our current food system unsustainable, but it has turned us into a nation of passive consumers in a top-down system from which we expect unlimited 'choice' but over which we have little control.

What needs to be done

Growing Communities believes that if we are to create the sustainable, resilient food systems that will see us through the challenges ahead, we need to work together to take our food systems back from the supermarkets and agri-business and put the power back where it should be: with communities and farmers.

We believe the mainstream food system needs to be turned on its head and replaced with one which works according to the following set of principles. 

In summary the food traded should be:

* Farmed and produced ecologically
* As local as practicable
* Seasonal
* Mainly plant based
* Mainly fresh and minimally processed
* From appropriately scaled operations (which gravitate to the small rather than the large scale)

And the system as a whole needs to:

* Support fair trade
* Involve environmentally friendly and low-carbon resource use
* Promote knowledge
* Strive to be economically viable and independent
* Foster community
* Be transparent and promote trust throughout the food chain

We believe that a food system working according to these principles could enable us to reduce the amount of energy, fossil fuels and resources it takes to feed us while creating jobs and community in both urban and rural areas and producing delicious food that is good for us and the planet.

We also have a vision of what this sustainable, resilient food system might look like in the future, which can be expressed in the form of a diagram - the Growing Communities Food Zones. This shows what type of food could best come from where and is an initial attempt to illustrate what percentage of our food we might aim to source from different zones.

It starts with the urban areas in which most of us live and moves outwards applying a kind of food subsidiarity: raising what we can as close as we can  and then moving outwards taking into account the principles outlined earlier and a number of factors, such as soil type, climate, what grows best where, size of plots available, infrastructure and transport links available, the degree of mechanisation that makes most sense, and the perishability of the produce.

To get closer to that vision and make the systems that feed our cities more sustainable and resilient we need to produce food in way which:

* Does not depend on fossil fuels, artificial fertilisers and pesticides.
* Uses renewable energy plus more animal and people power.
* Backs this up with the appropriate technologies and machines.
* Restores the birds and the bees, the soil microflora and fauna.

And as a society we need to:

* Adjust our diets to reflect how much of what kinds of foods we can best produce, aiming for  everyone to have 'enough' and to minimise waste.
* Shorten supply chains and dramatically increase production based on human-scale, mixed farms located in and around urban areas
* Build appropriately scaled trading relationships - starting from the local and working out to global which enable micro producers, small farmers, coops, larger farms and imports to exist in harmony.
* Re-connect people with food and farming - involving them in the consumption, production, trading and celebration of sustainable food

Then we need to identify all the practical alternatives that fit the bill - farms, projects and enterprises - and ensure they multiply. Fast!

How we might get there

The mainstream food system makes it increasingly hard to farm or produce food sustainably. The smaller organic farms and market gardens we need to have more of are exactly the kind of operations that struggle to survive in the mainstream food system. The food they produce often costs more as its production relies more on people power and natural processes than on chemicals and machinery and in a world of cheap and available fossil fuels, dominated by the supermarkets and agribusiness, it can be very hard to compete and raise food in a sustainable, ecological way.

Sustainable farmers and growers - urban and rural - now and in the future - need direct help to enable them to survive and thrive. Some of the things they need are:

* local retail outlets which will sell their produce at a fair price and enable them to make a living.
* help with pricing, marketing and product development.
* a sense that they are connected to and appreciated by those that buy and eat their food.

We do not believe the supermarkets and agri-business will or indeed can, by their very nature, provide farmers with these things. Individual consumer choices at the supermarket cannot be harnessed and focussed towards specific farmers and so cannot provide them either. Government could bring about change - but at the moment, they do not seem to grasp the scale and nature of the problem.

So where does that leave us?

Well, if individual consumer choices were targeted and focussed via collective community-scale action then we could start to transform the systems that feed us. We could start to use our collective buying power and skills to reshape the farming landscape - literally to change what it grown, how it grows and what farming look likes.

Our experience has shown that urban communities are well placed to provide farmers and urban growers with many of the things they need, by establishing alternative trading routes for those farmers and growers.  Which is why community-led trade and the Growing Communities approach has the potential to make a real difference here.Through community-led trade we can reach out and support those farmers now and in the future who struggle to farm sustainably and make a decent living. And in the process we can create sustainable and meaningful work for ourselves, while providing our communities with good food.

This approach of getting on with creating a viable alternative to the current food system is in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller who said: "You can never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

We know that what we are doing is tiny in the grand scheme of things but if we can find people willing and able to set up community-led box schemes using the the Growing Communities model and match them up with farmers and growers willing to take a chance with those communities then we could start to make a real difference. Look at our Start-Up Programme website for details of how you can get involved.

Website by Joe Short