What can a small coastal town in Scotland teach us about equality and social justice? Douglas Strang on a project that aims to tackle the big economic questions by rethinking how and what we eat
In 'The Great Tablecloth', the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda conjures for us the sensual pleasures of the plate - "In the blue hour of eating, / the infinite hour of the roast," - contrasting them with the solitary experience of a peasant in a field and his "poor quota of bread," eating with "grim teeth, / looking at it with hard eyes." The poem is radical, visionary, and it politicises the simple act of sharing a meal:
Let us sit down to eat
with all those who haven't eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
Despite being written in the 1950s, 'The Great Tablecloth' serves as an eloquent abridgement of the aims and concerns of the many 'food movements' which have gained prominence in recent years. Movements such as Fair Trade, Slow Food and the many urban food-growing initiatives; the latter often deliberately based in inner-city schemes, reaching out to those who have suffered most from the commodification of our food, and who are economically excluded from the 'foodie culture' of Farmers Markets and 'gastro pubs'. All of these movements and projects, in their different ways, seek to redress the injustices of the global food industry and to celebrate food as a means of revitalising individuals and communities, and of repairing their relationship to their culture and to the land.
Last month, in Kinghorn, a small coastal town in Fife, an international conference examined some of the inequalities around food production and consumption. FoodRevolt, brought together around two hundred activists, NGOs and food writers, as well as chefs, food producers and, of course, consumers. It was an intense day of talks, films and workshops focused on the politics and the joy of food. FoodRevolt was hosted by The Fife Diet which, with more than 2,000 members, is the largest project of its kind in Europe. Now in its fourth year, the project works with communities, schools, and government bodies to promote local seasonal food. Members commit to an 80:20 ratio of local (produced within the region of Fife) to imported food. The ratio deliberately inverts the fact that 80% of the UK's food is grown abroad and only 20% produced internally; in addition, it allows members to treat themselves occasionally to 'essentials' (such as coffee and chocolate) that can't be grown in Scotland.
Fife Diet director Mike Small spoke of what and how we eat as being ‘the key to us slowing down, giving ourselves and our communities real sustenance and real nourishment'. Linking food, economics, and the environment, Small noted: ‘We, as a society, have staggered into an emergency situation and we need to take immediate sustained and deep-rooted action.’ Small argued that supermarket culture, with its myths of perpetual growth and limitless choice, contributed to a food system today that is incapable of delivering the kind of change we need. The problem is systemic - ‘gigantism breeds gigantism’. The answer, Small argued, lies in actively supporting and engaging with the growing networks of local food initiatives.
Food Sovereignty is central to such initiatives. The term was coined by La Via Campesina, an international peasant organisation, and is defined as ‘the right of peoples to healthy, culturally appropriate, food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and the right to define their own food and agricultural systems.’ The concept also gives an international context to a project like Fife Diet, and links it to similar projects, such as Zapallo Verde in Ecuador, which in 1988 became the first country to enshrine Food Sovereignty in its legal constitution. A representative from Zapallo Verde was welcomed to the conference. Among the international participants in Fife were Juliana Lutz of Austria’s Speise Lokal and Daniel López Garcia, from the Spanish group Ecologistas en Accion. López Garcia drew parallels between Food Sovereignty and Los Indignados, the Spanish protest movement.
Perhaps more than anything, Food Revolt highlighted the range and popularity of local food projects, as well as illustrating the sense of community empowerment and global solidarity such projects can engender. In this difficult century of economic collapse and environmental catastrophe it is easy to feel dispirited and disenfranchised, so it is no mean feat to generate an energy and radicalism around the food movement.
Their optimism contrasted with a more negative mood among the NGOs attending. Stan Blackley, the new head of Friends of the Earth Scotland spoke well and positively about holding governments and big business to account over their environmental records. But after the failure of the Copenhagen Summit and with a growing recognition that national democracies are largely impotent when confronted by international finance, no one any longer pretends that the environment is seen as a priority. This is despite the warnings of imminent danger – including a recent report from the International Energy Agency which suggests that serious climate change will be irreversible within the next five years.
Liz Murray of the World Development Movement highlighted that organisation’s campaign of lobbying the European Parliament to introduce laws which would curb speculation on food commodity markets. This is work that needs to be supported by all and yet, regrettably, it is unlikely to be high on the agenda of an EU summit any time soon.
The problem for the NGOs, and for all of us, is that they are trying to modify a system at a time when that system is buckling; nobody really knows what to do next. Governments are paralysed and people feel powerless. No wonder then the attraction of initiatives that are community led and inclusive such as these food projects. They promote notions of resilience and sufficiency and at the same time offer opportunities for meaningful political engagement.
Amid all the talk, the most profound moment at FoodRevolt came at lunch when the conference hall was transformed into a food hall, with trestle tables and tablecloths, and all two hundred attendants sat down to share a meal - a local stew prepared without fuss on site and served by volunteers. Simple and effective, ‘the justice of eating’, as Neruda writes at the end of his poem. Or, as Fife Diet director Mike Small put it: ‘Three times a day we can be part of a restorative practice.’