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Heartbroken, as elements of our flawed food system devastated

Originally published 3rd May 2020

Milk is literally being poured down the drain. Farmed fish up and down the country are at risk of being culled in the tens of thousands. Farmers are facing devastation to their businesses. They fear that the very supermarkets that have driven their businesses to scale up in size and intensity will now drop their contracts at the slightest hint supply is drying up: no loyalty, no care, no compassion. The ruthless profit-driven nature of this system is gobsmacking.

Why did we let everything grow so large that we lost all sense of what actually goes on? It is easy to have no care, no loyalty or compassion when you are disconnected from the harm that is being done. Has society really lost its fundamental values? Or can we liken our crowded city lives to those of a tank of farmed trout, held in confinement, ignorant of the wider world? In the city, no matter how knowledgeable you are about food issues, even the most competent and ethical shoppers still struggle to know where their food comes from.


The answer to my question about values is: no, most of us really do care about our food but are completely let down by government’s lack of regulation of the system. The disconnect between food producer and ‘consumer’ (a pernicious, mind-set-shaping term which we must reject in favour of ‘responsible citizen’) needs to close.

Smaller businesses that provide locally are often safer (in many ways) than the immense agro-industrial businesses that produce to scale to satisfy ‘the market’ (i.e. the pathological financial system’s addiction to growth, the demands of a few immensely wealthy people not shy to wield their wealth to influence policy, and the counterproductive ‘fiduciary duty’ of pension funds to maximise profits, which is often used as an excuse to exclude consideration of society- and biosphere-wrecking ‘externalities’).

Food aid abhorrent

Lockdown has quickly forced us into a food-aid society. Meanwhile the food-waste crisis is beginning to unfold, mostly driven by the shutdown of the hospitality sector. We, very reluctantly, are one of many organisations that are providing food aid to our community. I say ‘reluctantly’, but perhaps I mean regrettably, because, whilst on the one hand we are congratulated for our heroic efforts (and all the team and volunteers are heroic in their efforts, so please don’t misunderstand me), on the other, the fact that food aid is needed is abhorrent. It is scandalous, and is certainly not the long-term solution.

I cringe sometimes at the loss of people’s dignity, loss of autonomy and privacy as names are added to an ever-increasing database of need. This is not OK! This is a bust.

This is what a broken food system looks like, and we simply have not done enough to address it. A universal citizen’s income would go a long way to resolving much of the need that has come from job losses. However, smaller, more localised, supply chains are also essential, and go hand-in-glove with producing more of our own food, and reducing the food waste we are seeing as a result of lockdown. We are leaving our society vulnerable by continuing to neglect food security (food resilience), and resolving this with a more localised – and, yes, more labour-intensive food sector – will provide the jobs of the future. These are the ‘just transition’ jobs we so desperately need. A localised food system can be more responsive to community needs.

Neglected pavilion

Organisations like ours have been attempting to bring about radical change in the food system for many years. Locally, and I mean micro-locally, we have often been viewed as an unimportant side issue, at least by some.

Perhaps this explains why we still sit with a rotten damp pavilion on the Links, despite demonstrating repeatedly our cast-iron case for its refurbishment? Our vision for Leith Community Croft – which includes it being a model for others to emulate – is potentially a major part of a solution to a really difficult problem. It is the antidote to many challenges we face. We are only just on the cusp of realising its full potential.

I often wonder what kind of people would want to work in an organisation like ours, with our unattractive diabolical pavilion on the Croft at the heart of our activities?

Hope, against a background of indifference

So let’s examine that: the people who work in our organisation are people who continue to believe in a vision that things can be better. They are full of hope, and are helping to create a better place to live, despite the challenges we face. We are often working with some of the most disadvantaged children via our ‘nature nurtures’ programmes. The wellbeing economy in action. And whilst we are lauded by many individuals for our successful projects, to which Minecroft (our outdoor play/survival skills programme for children) is a relatively recent and immensely popular addition, it can sometimes feel as if our work is done against a disheartening backdrop of official indifference or condescension.

I recently attended an inspiring meeting at which the Scottish Government’s climate change plan was presented. They demonstrated the scale of change that needs to be made. However, local follow-through seems to be fragmented and lacklustre. We understand the increasing pressures local authorities are under, but we stand ready to help them contribute to national initiatives. We’re an ally and a resource just waiting to be tapped.

Funders recognise our value

I must point out that whilst locally our work may sometimes not be recognised as vital, or even important, organisations like ours do not secure grants from highly reputable, exacting and hard-to-please funders for no reason. We receive funding because these funders, at least, do recognise the groundwork for radical change that grassroots organisations like ours are diligently and determinedly progressing.


Next week the Scottish Government will discuss the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill. It is perhaps the only Bill still making its way through parliament after the Good Food Nation Bill was dropped. We understand why this happened: we are in the middle of a global pandemic and this is an absolute crisis.

Leaving the EU is also a crisis – for the food system – as trade arrangements are still an unknown, but we are leaving. We are leaving when our own food system at home is vulnerable. We had much debate at the latest Scottish Food Coalition meeting about whether we should be taking time out to reflect on what to do next, or whether it is a time to act. It is probably the case that it is time to do both: reflect and take action. We need brilliant minds thinking and reflecting, planning and preparing policy statements. However, Leith Community Crops in Pots falls equally into the ‘action’ category. Our organisation, by its very nature, is about action. It is about people stepping up and demanding change.

Participation in growing food on Leith Community Croft, whether for one’s family or wider society, is a beautiful symbolic statement, a very visual proclamation that our community wants a better food system. We hope to see this reflected in the Agriculture Bill.

Build back better

I used to believe that we could make a real difference here in Scotland, that together we responsible citizens could make sweeping, radical change and create a better, fairer society. We cannot do this whilst ignoring the biggest, ugliest problems in our society. We must be brave and bold, and set out our own divergent pathway. I was once asked at a dinner party by a government official if government was leading change or grassroots organisations like ours were leading. I’ve pondered that question for many years.

Perhaps government were leading but, after horrendous political turmoil, the community is now driving the change as government falters in the ever-changing political landscape and looming financial crisis. We now ask that national government, together with local authorities, help us realise the community’s vision, put community at the heart of our food system, an agile third-sector organisation like ours can help to ease the burden.


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