2 Dec 2008
A write-up of the 2008 Soil Association conference
Last year’s Soil Association conference offered delegates a deep immersion in the peak oil/Transition debates, and was, for many, a seminal experience. This year’s took the discussions deeper and offered delegates an update on progress since and a re-energiser in terms of the scale of the work needed to be done for food and farming to truly be ‘in Transition’. You can hear podcasts from the whole conference here and download the pdf of the conference programme here.
I arrived slightly late, midway through a video address from Caroline Lucas MEP, which was excellent. This was followed by Jeremy Leggett, who gave an excellent refresher in peak oil and climate change, based mainly around the recent Peak Oil Task Force he was a major player in, which brought together 8 companies from across UK industry to look at the implications of peak oil. The report concluded that peak oil would be in 2013 and would “hit society like a tidal wave”. He went through the various objections to the peak oil concept, and addressed each one in turn. We can get through though, he argued, with a Green New Deal (he was one of the contributors to the nef report) and with a revolution in energy generation.
After Jeremy was Dr Pete Smith from Aberdeen University, who talked about soils and their role in the stabilising of carbon emissions. There is, he said, twice as much carbon in soils than there is in the atmosphere, and three times more than in forests. Although he was short on specifics in terms of what a carbon-negative economy would look like, he called for a broad campaign of rebuilding and revaluing soils. Population, he said, would be our big challenge, with 9 billion people being on the Earth by 2050 (I always take these figures with a pinch of salt, the energy base then will no way suppor that number of people). The other key challenge will be how to feed all these people, and the need to continually increase production. This seemed quite frustrating for me, using the Predict and Provide model in the wrong place.
This was followed by a workshop session, where delegates had 4 choices for the session. I went to one on urban food production,which was chaired by Rosie Boycott, the London Food Czar. She talked about her Capital Growth scheme, which aims to create 2012 food gardens in London by 2012, in time for the Olympic Games. Carrie (didn’t get her surname…) then spoke about the Swillington Farm CSA near Leeds, in an old walled garden, which feeds many families and which allows those involved to feel part of a wider community.
Richard Spalding from UWE (an old lecturer of mine from many years ago) spoke about the ‘Blue Finger’, a parcel of high quality farmland which heads out of Bristol going north, and which used to be home to a raft of market gardeners, farmers and allotments. Much of this land is now under great threat of development, and Richard argued the case for it being preserved and put back to a productive use. He also talked about some of the built environment heritage that can be found along the ‘Finger’, 13th century barns, remnants of apple pressing and so on. The revival of this would, he argued, unite urban and rural, in a ‘Joyful Transition’.
The final speaker was Emma Noble from the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme, which was discussed a while ago here at Transition Culture. This wonderful project is now in hundreds of schools in the UK, bringing fresh fruit and vegetables onto children’s plates.
After lunch Soil Association President Monty Don spoke of his hope for the organisation to initiate a revolution in how the nation feeds itself. He was followed by Patrick Holden. The only way to get politicians to introduce change, he said, was with the pressure of informed public opinion. What has to happen, and happen urgently, he said, was to move from an agriculture based on using stored sunlight to actual susnshine. This is, he said, the biggest challenge ever faced by agriculture. Even if the nation were put on a war footing, this would still be a huge task. The challenge, he said, is to take food and farming into a world that is resilient to external shocks.
Patrick was followed by Hilary Benn MP, the Minister for Food, who gave a pre-recorded video presentation from London. His talk was a classic politician’s speech which sounds great but which actually says very little. On GM, his take was that the 2 questions we need to ask are ‘is it safe to eat?’ and ‘is it safe to grow?’ The answer to both those questions, he said, according to all the research he had read, was yes. We need more trials, he said, in order to be able to establish the answers. Ultimately though, it is up to us what we eat, up to the shops what they stock and it is up to the science. One thing he did say that was interesting was a direct acknowledgement of oil depletion, when he spoke of ‘oil running out sooner rather than later’ or words to that effect.
His talk was followed by an opportunity for the audience to quiz him. Gundula Azeez tore into Benn about his claims that the research thus far shows it to be safe to eat and grow, referring him to a recent study from the EU, which she described as being for GM what the IPCC reports are for climate change, and which came down on the side of GM being a technology we really don’t need. Vandana Shiva also laid into him over the GM question. The question we should be asking about GM, she said, is does it increase livelihoods of farmers. She has, she said, 20 years of research which show that adding more toxins to food is clearly not in the interests of public health. Food security is increasingly become an issue, he said, and his department will soon publish a paper on the subject.
The day ended with a presentation from Vandana Shiva, who was, as ever, on fine form, delivering the annual kick up the backside to everyone present. She talked about how the climate and the food crises are now being used by the GM industries to push their seeds, claiming they can solve both, whereas actually they can solve neither. She spoke of the last time she was in a part of India where farmer suicides are especially high. She visited the widow of a farmer who recently took his own life. She found that although the BT cotton seeds he used were branded differently, they were all made by the same company, so when one variety failed he tried another, but they were all from the same company.
GM seeds, in India, the US, or anywhere, lock farmers into cycles of debt and repayments from which they can never hope to escape. She spoke of the G20 conference that just concluded, which decided to keep pushing for economic growth at all costs, saying that the solution put forward is to just repeat ideology. GM seeds need 13 times more pesticides than normal crops, and these costs add up. Indian cotton farmers used to grow cotton among a diversity of other things, food, fuel etc. They were food secure. Now they are indebted and highly vulnerable. For farmers in India, growing roses for export instead of vegetables raise enough money to buy back one quarter of the vegetables you would have grown anyway. With food becoming more and more a commodity, food for people is being priced out, competing with biofuels and other uses. The EU, she said, is even contemplating allowing a potato that could be grown for furniture! (must be a bloody big potato).
The GM issue, she said, is being used to divide North and South, the North being told that blocking GM is condemning the South to starvation, and the South being told that blocking GM will lead to their ‘being left behind’. One of the main objections to GM is the fact that it continues the system that caused all the problems in the first place. With the unravelling of the credit bubble we are seeing every piece of the model falling apart, we need to shift now to a co-operative model.
In the same way that we saw Wall Street collapse, we are seeing agriculture collapse. It is time, she said, to take agriculture back. We need to return to the soil. We need to remove soil from the influence of economics. We need to intensify carbon in soils, and focus on soil, not oil. It represents the changes we need to make; it is not just the ground we stand on, it embodies the change towards a network of resilient communities which are localised and which enhance wellbeing. Soil teaches us to be earth citizens. We are seeing many livelihoods falling away… supermarkets in India have lost 90% of their growth. We have to remain realistic and compassionate, and we must build alternatives. What we must never forget, she concluded, is the power of the dispossessed. They, after all, have nothing to lose.
That evening featured a great Slow Food banquet at the Bordeaux Quay, with an amazing array of local food, and chatting and socialising into the early hours.
The second day began with Tim Lang, the only Professor in Food Policy in the world. The fundamentals for 21st century food and farming, he said, were climate change, energy, water, biodiversity, land use, labour, urbanisation, demographics and nutrition. His talk was a powerful taste of academics at their best, deeply knowledgable on his subject, a passionate speaker, and a man on a mission. One of his key aims is to see the production of a National Food Plan for the UK, one that addresses all of the challenges set out above.
Then I spoke, and gave an overview of the Transition model, and how much had happened since the last conference. I illustrated my talk with examples of food projects taking place across the Network, from urban community gardens in Bristol, to fruit tree plantings in New Zealand. After me was Julie Brown from Growing Communities in Hackney, a wonderful project I will blog more about later. Her model for urban food production is very useful, and has much overlap with Transition groups.
The final speaker of the session was Peter Melchett. One of the facts he said that stuck with me was that 5-7 fold increases in fuel and pesticide use has only led to a 2 fold increase in actual production. He questioned the assumption that we need more food to feed more people, comparing it to toxic mortgages. Given the scarcity of the oil and the cost of it, as well as the need to cut emissions hugely, the question should really be what would food production look like and how will we equip the world with the skills it will need.
After a break were more workshops, which I missed, and after lunch there were more, which I missed too…. not very good I know for a roving Transition Culture reporter, but I had other things to do, and did some useful networking! The event closed with two speakers who had both travelled from the US. The first, Judith Redmond, told the story of Full Belly Farm, an exemplar CSA in California. It was an inspiring story of how local food systems can work.
The final speaker was Cathrine Sneed. I saw her speak 14 years ago in Bristol at the Schumacher lectures, an amazing talk that made my cry, and which changed my outlook on many things. A quite extraordinary woman. Her talk was so powerful, so moving, so profoundly important, that I will not do it justice by trying to write up my poor notes. So click here and listen to it. Really. Give yourself 20 minutes and listen to it. She has an amazing tale to tell.
And then that was that. Fascinating to see how the peak oil/transition thing is gradually embedding itself into the Soil Association’s work, and where it is meeting resistance. You can download the ‘Inconvenient Truth About Food’ report, launched at the conference, here.