My cycle ride to work takes me through Greenwich Park, and at this time of year, even just after dawn, you can hardly move for (mostly older) people scanning the ground intently and filling bulging bags of sweet chestnuts.
I’m a sucker for foraging, too, and have to resist the urge to leap off my bike and join in, because if I started I’d lose track of time and never make it in to the Otesha office that day. But to me these foragers make a beautiful sight, and I’ve been pondering why.
It’s not just the setting of Greenwich Park, with its ancient trees, autumn colour and long shadows, though of course that helps. It’s something beautiful that foraging shares with ‘growing your own’ and with truly locally produced and sold food: knowing your food from field (or tree, or hedgerow) to plate, having control and influence over how what you eat is grown or gathered, transported, prepared and cooked.
That idea of local control over food production is at the heart of the ‘food sovereignty’ movement, which is taking an important place in the debate about how food, social justice and the environment are interconnected.
The concept arose out of the landless peasants’ movements of South America, particularly La Via Campesina, and focuses on the need to return control over and access to land, seeds, water and finance to local, independent producers. That’s a big challenge in the face of a food system dominated and controlled by agribusiness and mega-retailers, but many see it as crucial to building a truly sustainable food system.
Much of the debate about food sovereignty focuses on so-called ‘developing world’, and deals with poorer countries’ struggle against unfair trade rules imposed by the rich countries. But could the concept take off here, too?
Why not? Agribusiness and the supermarkets dominate here just as they do elsewhere. Small farmers are going bust and being swallowed up into corporate-owned megafarms at alarming rates. Young people who want to make a go of working the land find it is priced way out of their reach. A new survey says 9 out of 10 Europeans see buying local as a good thing, but half say it’s too hard to figure out what’s local and what is not.
So why is ‘food sovereignty’ not on the agenda in a big way here? Well, perhaps it will be before long. Later this month we’ll be at the Houses of Parliament (they do let tree-huggers like us in sometimes) for ‘Food Sovereignty Day’, hearing how to “build the food sovereignty movement in the UK” and learning about what is already going on in this country to “challenge the dominant, corporate agribusiness model”.
Will anything come of it? I hope so. How we produce, distribute and eat food, and who controls those actions, is crucial to our environment, health and the bottom line, so the food sovereignty movement is looking like a really important development in the wider debate about sustainability and justice.