Let's work together

Much of what eco-villages began doing decades ago is being adopted by the mainstream

Something wonderful is happening within the world of ‘alternative’ communities at present. This movement, whose very raison d’être is grounded in a comprehensive rejection of mainstream society – seeing it as being so misguided in its orientation that it makes little sense to try to reform it from within – is today seeing a growing number of alliances with that very society from which it has been so alienated!

Ecovillages around the world are building partnerships with local government, universities, enterprise promotion agencies and other community-based organisations. This trend is very much in evidence here at Findhorn. A new United Nations sustainability training centre opened last year, with the Moray Council, our local administration, as full partners.

We teach two accredited semesters per year to students from US universities and host visits from many UK colleges and school. A group of consultants based within the community is engaged in several mainstream sustainability initiatives, including advising the Cairngorn National park on how to reduce its carbon footprint, designing a model carbon-free island off the west coast of Scotland and working on the design of a new, a low-impact settlement of 60,000 people in the south-east of England.

A partnership initiative closer to home brings our community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme, EarthShare, into partnership with the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network.


CSAs are an ingenious idea whose aim is to increase people’s connection to local food and to support local – and generally organic – farmers. CSA subscribers commit themselves financially to the scheme for a year in return for which they get a weekly box of vegetables. EarthShare – Britain’s oldest and largest organic CSA – is somewhat exceptional in that it delivers vegetable boxes every week of the year.

This reduces food miles (in the case of EarthShare, the furthest farm is only five miles from the community) and dispenses with the need for wasteful packaging. Moreover, with around 50 types of organic vegetables and soft fruit, EarthShare is doing its bit to promote biodiversity. The harvest is shared between the subscribers – in a bumper year, the boxes are full to bursting; in a lean year, they are merely generous. This gives us cheaper food than at the local supermarket (just think about how many middle-men are cut out) and guarantees a good income for the farmer.

EarthShare has been used by years for demonstration and training purposes by the Soil Association, Britain’s leading promoter of organic food. Now, it is playing a similar function for the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network. Currently, eight trainees from across the region are coming to Findhorn on a regular basis to learn to become organic farmers, with some specifically interested in creating a CSA.

I sometimes sense a feeling of unease within some quarters of the ecovillage movement at the development of all these partnerships. If mainstream society considers us to be appropriate partners, such thinking goes, we must have lost our radical, cutting edge.

However, I believe it is society at large that is changing fast. So much of what made ecovillages look strange and alien places as recently as a decade ago – organic food, micro-generation of energy, complementary medicine and a spiritual sensitivity – are becoming increasingly mainstream. Having stepped outside mainstream society for several decades, ecovillages are coming back into the fold, carrying with them many precious jewels gathered on their journeys.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.