Sustainability: Possibility vs The Myth

Back in late 2012 we wrote about the Hollow High Street and looked at the question of what we buy into as consumers and the waste that comes with it. However, this is just one part of a wider argument in food production and during the last two months we have been on The Kindling Trust's Commercial Organic Horticulture Course. This has allowed us to spend time with growing co-operatives that supply food to Manchester and Liverpool. We have been on the 21 acre farm site at Moss Brook Growers, the smaller scale urban growers at Glebelands and the local care farm at Fir Tree. We wanted to explore how people have gone down a sustainable route, and how organic growing can create it's own problems for the idea of sustainable growing models. It has lead to ask difficult questions about what we do, about our soil and our future sustainability.

Looking at some of the myths about our food system.

Now, if we are concerned about sustainability on our 1/4 acre what about impact does the idea of sustainability have to the average consumer? What challenges do they face when they don't grow for themselves? How do they feed their families well? We could join this argument with the belief that consumers are on a level playing field. That we all have the option not to use supermarkets, that we can all shop local and have access to organic and sustainable food. That is the myth. It is a lovely, comforting myth in which we are all on board with the idea of sustainability and lowering carbon footprints. The simple fact is as a nation, as a species we are failing to do the latter. If you dig in your garden, on your allotment, fire up your tractor or rotavator to till or break up sub soil, you release carbon. If you drive any car, get on a bus, train or plane, you release carbon, if you buy food, eat meat, cut your grass, fart in mixed company, you are releasing carbon. We are carbon junkies. We are are the worst kind of junkies. We are in denial. For some reason, the organic movement and the shuffling of organic products onto shelves were seen as away to compete against mass scale field production. That the organic products would speak for themselves and beat the big companies at their own game. Yet, many of those first organic companies are now either owned by the big boys or have become big companies and become part of a failing system. A system that does not consider sustainability. Organic has become another promotional myth, another way to mask the real problems.

Organic doesn't mean sustainable, ethical does.

We don't want to blunder into this by telling people to live as we live on Pig Row, to eat organic and to buy in a sustainable way. We would be preaching to the converted and the rest would click away. We'd also be lying. No one is truly sustainable. The reason is the economic model we all inhabit, a model that we tied to our politics during the Cold War and a model that is constantly akin to a house fire that can never be put out. That is why when people trot out the myth that organic can compete with industrial production they are merely buying again into that economic model. They seek competition and in a strange way believe competition produces choice. It doesn't. It only produces the myth of choice. Product A is better than product B. Shop C is better than shop D. That cost E is lower than cost F. These are choices without the possibility of a question. How much did it cost to produce? How much did it really cost to produce?

Can organic beat mainstream food producers? Why we shouldn't be asking that question.

Organic farms tend to only have a maximum production of around two thirds. This means only two thirds of the land will ever be in use at one time, and on some farms this can grow to three quarters of the land being in production. The remaining land is left as fallow or covered in a green crop and then there are green corridors or zones to create biodiversity on the farm. These green zones, sometimes comprising of green manures, mixed hedges or bug banks can also be found on mainstream production farms when subsidies are available. However mono-culture farms do not leave land to go fallow if they can or use crop rotation. The practice of fallow land/green manures allows land to rest and for soil to recover. How many of us do that in our gardens and on our allotments? Not many that you can think of and not any at all that we know. This leads us to the biggest myth in our present economic and food model, that science will save our soil. The truth is that we are over cultivating soil on a domestic and national level. Don't believe us? If you have a road nearby that is next to a field, take a look at the level of the road and the level of the field. This is called soil erosion and is the product of overusing land.

We cannot talk about sustainability without talking soil.

How soil erosion connect with the the average consumer? It doesn't. Mass scale organic farming will not solve soil erosion due the economic model we all live in. The only way the system we have would suddenly work is if everyone agreed to be organic tomorrow, that we'd pay a fair price for our food but we are a nation in debt and debt leads to apathy. We cease to question when our bills are greater than our consciences. The final piece of the jigsaw to make a difference is the average person in the street. We cannot carry on the myth that changing our food production will change our world not without a complete rethink. We have to change everything including ourselves and that is a difficult thing to ask when at the moment we are tied to a system that corrupts us all.

While our economic system promotes competition we will win the only outcome, extinction.

Organic costs money. Sustainable organic production costs money. That is why very few organic farms compete to grow potatoes or carrots, the big bug spraying farms have that monopoly. They can grow hectare after hectare of them, all controlled, all tagged and tracked through satellite technology that allows the tractors to roll down the right gullies, harvesting the right crop at the right depth. Take carrots, you pluck a few from the garden, in the hour you take to walk or drive to your allotment, unlock your shed, get out the fork and start pulling those wonderful organic carrots, one tractor has taken the tops off an acre of carrot, another has followed behind to loosen up the root and pluck it out and a third has collected the harvest and stored it. For your half row of carrots, lovingly tended, grown and harvested, dug up on a fine evening in late summer, three tractors have undercut your costs. Yes, we know that our carrots taste better. That is not an argument that sways the average person in the street, and when carrots are sold at 59p for a large bag in a supermarket beside a bag of organic ones for the same size at double the cost, you are beginning to see the problem. That nasty idea of competition raises it head again. 

Supermarkets are not evil if that is the only choice you think you have.

You are probably screaming that these consumers should shop local but what happens when all there is locally is a supermarket? It is easy to demonize the supermarkets but many people do not have the choice to go anywhere else. This is what competition has gotten us, the myth of choice, the snobbery of which supermarket you shop in. We all use supermarkets, we often say that we are just 'popping in' to one as if this is an excuse for the fact that many of us consume rather than create. The idea of the relentless consumer has even become a form of entertainment from game shows with wilder and bigger prizes to shows that thrive on competition, like The Big Allotment Challenge or The Island on Channel 4. The latter panders to our greatest fears that is we don't keep buying the house will burn down, the system will stop and we will be without shelter, warmth or food. We recently embraced the idea of shopping at a supermarket for a full shop, we won't lie, we do use local shops and supermarkets as there are things even we cannot make. It's four year since we used a big supermarket giant but most of them use them weekly and we cannot get on our soap box and condemn them. There is a myth that those of us who have gone down the organic route or have selected different lifestyles are somehow better. We are and should never be in competition with each other. There are no Joneses to keep up with. That again is the economic system speaking and while we are geared up to being in competition with everything we have missed the point. 

We know you are screaming about herbicides and pesticides, and other assorted nasty chemicals in the soil that they are eating. That organic leads to better health. Let's stop that argument now. There is a myth that if you are organic that your vegetables are cleaner than your non-organic neighbour, they simply aren't unless you can control down the molecular level what is in the soil, the air and the rain. We are not dismissing your attempts to be organic, we just want to bust some myths, so we can start to talk about the real issue, the sustainability of the soil, the species and the planet. Let's face a fact that will not change: we will cease to exist as homosapiens sometime in the future. This solar system is not eternal. However, in the billions of years we may have left we can do our best not to end through stupidity

Soils saturated with heavy metals cannot be grown in.

In the North of England we have a legacy of industrialization that has saturated our soils with heavy metals, the advent of mass spraying in our cities and countrysides have done nothing to improve the soil and neonicotinoids though banned are not forgotten, they can be found in UK farm soil. This is what short term planning has afforded us and it is time we considered sustainable models we have to stop the blame game. We have to stop pointing fingers at people who shop differently from us. We need a supply network that ditches the idea of competition. Having shelter, food and warmth is not a competition, it is basic right. In the end we have all been seduced, the very fact you are reading this on a smartphone, or laptop or tablet shows this. We have not missed the irony of this. We can use what we have to build a model of economy that has at the centre of it the welfare of our species and planet. This is something that is in the reach of all of us. We can do it now by buying things that reflect this ethos regardless or where and how we shop. Food may be the first step to change but it has to be tied to a better rate of living for all or else we will carry on blaming everyone else.

Over the coming weeks we will be looking at supermarkets and local shops in our area. We will consider how the food we buy can be stretched out. This is not a competition between the local high street and the big boys. It is an exploration on how we can bust myths, challenge preconceptions and create possibilities in our kitchen.