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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.