Contribution by Vicki Hird
When I mentioned love in a workshop with Defra
It was a bit of an awkward moment. I can’t quite recall what the topic was and it was a few years ago.. but I felt so moved to mention love – that we all probably have a love of nature, of food or farming that we can build on. I do remember wanting to put a ripple in the conversation, to stop the smooth dull flow of policy chat I probably wanted to create an emotional response.
What I love are the small creatures, the invertebrates. I always have and some, like the cockchafer and the bee fly, really make me joyful. In pandemic lockdown my tiny garden has been a hugely critical place. I’ve also been writing a lot about what we can learn from bugs (for a book) and I became a bit reckless and carried away. I stretched my thinking about what we need as dwellers on this planet and how invertebrates fulfil their multiple needs. Fascinating stories of cockroach parental care, complex and huge termite societies and beetle defence mechanisms. I loved it all.
Many people I work with love good food. I’m not a big foodie, but I appreciate their passion. And there are those in real need, who can’t afford any decent food let alone satisfy a desire delicate flavours and amazing looking dishes. Their predicament is both appalling and largely preventable. I know this as my colleagues at Sustain work on these issues. Given a chance though, they may want to love good food and love being able to feed their family on good food. Should they be denied that because we can’t get decent work and wages, safety nets and food provisions? those are the barriers to securing good food for all. Not, of course, cheap food.
Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash
Whilst we are still having some of the same debates we were having in 1990, something has changed recently. So many farmers have recognised there is a problem they’ve not been asked to solve in years past. Citizens have realised they are part of a solution to nature loss and climate change if they buy and eat and waste differently. And government is, slowly, shifting how, post Brexit, it supports farmers who remain, understandably alternately hopeful, fearful, and sceptical that government will get it right.
Defra kicked off their ideas with an optimistically titled ‘Health and Harmony’ consultation in 1998. Maybe I dropped my ‘love’ bomb at one of their consultation sessions. They envisaged ditching basic payments – the old EU subsidies – for a whole new contract based on farmers delivering public goods like nature restoration, clean water and healthy soil..(more bugs I hope). Inevitably, the whole process is now mired in complex, bureaucratic detail, rather far from the passion for nature and food and farming originally envisaged. The harmony is a bit distressed and health is rather absent. But it’s a beginning of a new relationship, and one to nurture if we can.
I often read and hear that farmers and farm workers love what they do. Love the countryside they work in and their animals. I imagine a fair number don’t. It’s hard work and often badly rewarded. The tiny 9% that farmers get of what we spend in total on food says it all. For me, that is a disaster and a fundamental problem we need to resolve. They need to have their work rewarded. And they need to know better what their customers need. Not what the intermediaries, the processors and manufacturers and the multiple retailers, and the commodity traders need. Or what they say consumers ‘want’. Or what their adverts seduce people into thinking they want.
My love of bugs have probably kept me coming back to food and farming issues so often over 30 years. That plus our failure to remove the big drivers of harm to farmland and so the bugs that can or should live in it. The squeeze that the buyers exert on farmers continues to cause harm. It also maintains a big barrier between farmers and all of us who eat. The ‘go between’ between us, telling farmers what and how to farm and us consumers what to eat through expensive, brilliant marketing. To sort this out we need supply chain regulations but also we need a major revolution in new, farmer focussed routes to market. Can we grow the markets where farmers have control and can change what they grow or rear when they need to, in order to farm well.