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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.