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'The future of food is local'. Dave Whelan of the Edible Landscape Project says now is the time for us to make the change

Whelan says we can make a small difference by thinking about our food sources.

Dave Whelan

LOOK OUT AT your back yard or garden, if you have one. If you’re lucky enough to have a lawn, is it a nice lawn? It doesn’t feed you though. Could that lawn be put to better use? 

We run the Edible Landscape Project, a Westport-based grassroots movement that has developed a bottom-up approach to climate change and specifically how it relates to food. Our mission is to inspire individuals and communities to make smarter food choices that positively impact on local food security and our environment. I believe this coronavirus is a warning signal that changing is coming and the future of food is local.

Perhaps in our pre-crisis lives, we didn’t spend much time thinking about where our food came from. Maybe even now we continue to take for granted that supply lines will continue uninterrupted, and our every demand will be met. So far, it’s true to say that, with some possible exceptions, our supplies have been relatively unscathed by the crisis. We can be thankful for that.

But is this a false sense of security?

Let’s investigate the problem, or lack of a problem, in a little more detail and see what we might discover. 

‘Just in time’

Most big retailers operate a just-in-time system. This depends on a fine balance between demand and supply, and timing. It also operates through the mostly unseen hard work of people who grow food, harvest it, package and process it, transport it, and deliver it to our shop shelves.

But what if there’s a disruption, say the weather is bad and a crop fails; take bananas for instance. In the absence of a suitable alternative, like supplies from a different part of the world being unaffected by the weather event, we’d wind up with no bananas on our shop shelves. So, that’s just one example of what can happen to disrupt our food supply – weather.

Let’s probe that a little further. What if there’s a global pandemic – no longer a ‘what if’ of course – and the people who pick the bananas are unable to show up for work, so the bananas aren’t picked, and the containers remain empty, and the ships destined to cross the ocean to deliver their banana cargo can’t sail anyway because the crew has now come down with the virus. And you’re standing, socially distanced, staring at the spot where your bananas should be, and wondering where the superfood that you’ve been putting on your cereal for 30 years?

This same scenario could happen to any number of foods that we throw into our shopping trollies week in and week out, from peas to beans, chocolate to apples, to well, bananas.

The shocking reality is that we import over 80% of the food we consume here in Ireland.

When we stare into the empty space where the bananas from Honduras or the green beans from Kenya normally sit, our retailers might reassure us and say, “Don’t worry, we’ll have that in next week.” Or a government body might say, “don’t worry, we can produce all of our food needs here.”

Food revolution

At the moment, most people are highly reliant on retailers for food. The retailers respond to consumer demand, and over the years, we as consumers have demanded a wider range of products at a lower price.

In order for retailers to operate in the highly efficient just-in-time system, the risk of disruption must remain very low. As soon as the risk increases; like labour shortages, weather-events, or global pandemics, the system doesn’t work so well anymore, leaving us all exposed to food insecurity.

As shocking as the Covid-19 changes have been, and they are a huge shock to us as a society, and as a species, this experience is an indication of the challenges we now face. I believe we now need a complete revolution of the way we do things. Whether Covid-19 or climate change, these food security issues are now impossible to ignore.

Addressing food security will not take weeks or months, but years. It will involve the following:

  • The scaling up of cereal, fruit and vegetable production
  • Training people in the proper stewardship of the land
  • Protection of our environment
  • Elimination of all chemical use
  • Remediation of our freshwater lakes
  • Recovery of biodiversity
  • The building of regenerative systems
  • Educating people on home economics
  • Incentivising food technologists to create better systems for managing scarce resources

All of the above may seem like an insurmountable challenge but there is a very simple and sustainable alternative.

We can begin to manage our own exposure to food insecurity by educating ourselves, buying some seeds, growing our own fruit and vegetables, supporting our local organic farmers, composting, and minimising food waste, just to start with. 

Taking control of our own food source is a liberating experience. Of course, it’s also up to policymakers to enable some change at the macro-level, but I wouldn’t hang around, because policy, just like the container ships that are bringing us all our food, for now, can take a long time to correct course. 

You are the beginning

Look out at your back yard again. If you do have some space, couldn’t it be put to better use? Of course, it could. Any space, no-matter-what size can become a mini food farm. 

So too can that golf course which now stands in splendid isolation with itself. Ditto, all that land that lies unused around the country. But let’s start with the small stuff, and stick to getting more food value out of the back garden as we wait out this strange time. 

Unfortunately, this virus is probably just the start of future global disruptions. Not pleasant to hear, I know, but the sooner we come to terms with that, the better we can prepare and get ahead of the future changes. For years, scientists have been warning us about a global pandemic. Now we might begin to take their warnings about climate change seriously, too, and start to get our house in order by getting our gardens growing for us.  

Start by growing just one thing. Just one. It’s worth a try. Join the Edible Landscape Project’s ‘Grow One Thing’ campaign. Take a short video of ONE fruit or veg you’re growing in your garden, share a few of your own tips and tricks and email them to us.

Dave Whelan is Programme Director of the Edible Landscape in Westport, Co Mayo. More information at Web: www.ediblelandscape.ie  | Facebook: www.facebook.com/ediblelandscapeproject   | Twitter: www.twitter.com/ediblescapes  | LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/edible-landscape-project and info@ediblelandscape.ie

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