Glamourising the nettle

Dissatisfaction with indigenous foodtuffs is a growing problem for those among us who believe that i

The question of food security seems to be very alive in the community at the moment. This is an area where I think it is fair to say that there has been a pretty high level of satisfaction with our efforts over the years.

Our Earthshare scheme was the UK’s first organic, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, providing weekly local, fresh veggies to the equivalent of 200 families every week of the year. (CSA is a now widespread model in which the subscribers divide the harvest between them, thus sharing the risk with the farmer.)

Moreover, the 2006 ecological footprint study of our community found that our food footprint is about one third of the national average due to the relatively high level of local, organic, seasonal and vegetarian food in our diet.

However, it has become clear in recent months that all is not as rosy in the garden as appears at first sight and that there remains much to be done.

An internal study found that while 32 per cent of the vegetables served in the community kitchens are organic and 27 per cent are locally-sourced, only 18 per cent are both. Most of us were surprised and a little shocked by how low these figures were.

They can be explained partly because of the large number of mouths that need to be fed – remember that we host in the region of 3,000 guests per year in addition to the resident community; partly because of the higher cost of local, organic food in a global market so heavily weighted towards large-scale, industrial production systems; and partly because of an appetite for foodstuffs that the local climate and soils cannot provide.

Photography by Adriana Sjan Bijman

Dissatisfaction with indigenous foodtuffs is a growing problem for those among us who believe that it is important to increase our local food security. Christopher, one of the mainstays of our gardening team over the years, notes: ‘for every cabbage that gets sold in the community shop, we sell 20 aubergines’. The Mediterranean diet is going global.

This is certainly a factor in the reduction over the years in the number of subscribers to Earthshare. It is currently around 20 families short of its optimal level.

Every so often I hear of a community in France or Italy boasting of the fact that it has decided to increase its consumption of local, seasonal food. They really want recognition for that, I think? Let them try it here!

So, in this context, we need to be clever in our efforts to increase production and consumption of food that truly nurtures us without depleting ecosystems on the other side of the world.

The main avenue we are exploring at the moment is the introduction of greater food storage and processing facilities – and the Climate Challenge Fund mentioned a couple of blogs ago may just be a useful source of funding for this.

Doesn’t root vegetable pâté with chives sound so much more appetizing than another plate of beetroot and parsnips? Doesn’t a good, local apple and blackberry pie can beat the pants off any fancy, Mediterranean fruit picked before it is ripe and squished by the journey?

Meanwhile, in the week’s Rainbow Bridge (our weekly community newsletter), I note that we are receiving a visit from Frank Cook from Schumacher College who has studied with ‘herbalists, shamans, vaidyas, sangomas, green witches, doctors, professors and medicine men’. Great stuff!

Frank will be giving a talk on ‘Community as Food and Medicine Security’ and leading afternoon workshops on identifying and eating wild weeds and food fermentation techniques. I will certainly be attending both. We need all the help we can get in our efforts to glamourise the nettle and the humble broad bean.

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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.