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The answer to life, the universe and everything?

Originally published 9th Nov 2016

Don’t Panic!

According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42. I think this may be true because there was 42 European Countries as part of the Nyéléni Europe 2016 Food Sovereignty Forum held in Romanian, Scotland was one of them, and I was one of the Scottish delegates (representing Leith Community Crops in Pots) along with representatives Chelsea of Scotland the Bread Mags and Fergus from Common Good Food, Elly from the Jack Kane Centre, Reuben from Locavore and Frances from the University of Edinburgh – and to hear more about their interesting and ambitious work throughout Scotland.

Unfortunately I missed the first day. Ironically this was because of the issue’s very importance. I had been invited to speak at the Royal Botanic Gardens event hosted by the Scottish International Story Telling Centre, Festival of Dreams, I had been invited to talk about our food growing project and its relevance to past and present. The story of Leith Community Crops in Pots is very much a story of reclaiming food sovereignty in Scotland.

Food sovereignty explained

The six main elements of food sovereignty are that it:

  • focuses on food for people

  • rejects corporate control

  • values food providers

  • builds knowledge and skills

  • works with nature

  • localises food systems

It was summarised in the Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

This is what all of us from across the world were there to help achieve.

It was immediately clear to me that the 42 countries represented fell into two groups. There were those trying to preserve and build on what food sovereignty they had left and there were those that were keen to restore and revive their extinct food sovereignty. Sadly, it seems that Scotland might be on its own in the latter category. As emerged at the conference, there are historical reasons for Scotland’s struggling food system: the land clearances and associated land ownership issues, and the depredations of the big supermarket chains feature prominently.

The UK – out in the cold

The UK Delegation connected far more after their meeting in Expo.

The nations of the UK met towards the end of the conference, at first in the venue where the plenary sessions were held. This was too noisy, so we found another room, which turned out to be freezing. It emerged that some English delegates were disappointed that they had not had much contact with other English representatives during the very busy conference, whereas the Scots – admittedly from a much smaller nation population-wise – had all rubbed shoulders. On the other hand, we Scots – representing fewer than six million citizens – were inspired and emboldened by the great work being done by our southern neighbours, and the UK delegation as a whole remarked on how impressed we had been by how other nations had brought and shared food – testimony to what it was all about: people sharing the fundamental stuff of life.

The English project we found most inspiring was the Land Workers’ Alliance. This emerged from the Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007, and the seven Scottish delegates to Nyéléni, 2016, have returned to Alba determined to launch a similar alliance here. Building on our commitment to build on our comradery and shared purpose across the UK.

The global south

There were a few representatives from ‘the global south’. Although Scotland has little food sovereignty at the moment (though there are many great organisations and significant government support working to change this), the people of Scotland are hugely privileged compared to many in the south. So called ‘foreign aid’ often pays for the appropriation of peasant farmers’ land (land grabs) for unsustainable agro-industrial, export-oriented projects, and the privatisation and patenting of seed is an ecocidal scandal. Their problems are ultimately ours, of course, as we share a small planet.

Small farmers feed the world

Looming behind everything is climate change, which is already contributing towards migration issues, and to which industrial agriculture is a major contributor. When I returned to Scotland a friend drew my attention to a submission of Scotland Against Climate Change (a very broad coalition) to the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. One of the eight priority ideas was sustainable farming. They asked for a package of advice, incentives and regulation measures to cut emissions from farming. Agriculture – or, more correctly, agro-industry – accounts for about 25% of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Food sovereignty – and, as a major part of it, people growing their own food on a small scale in an organic way – can solve this. It is a fact that small farmers feed the world.


A final note… the Sloveninan delegate, when he heard I came from Edinburgh, said, ‘Ah, you come from Trainspotting!’ I’m not sure he relised just how close the streets I walk down daily were to that book, or indeed just how real that book has been to life in Leith. As I walked the same streets just the yesterday, the same streets I have walked since childhood I can’t help but notice how decimated the food system is in Leith, the same issues are shared in many other cities across Europe . I hope that we can make Scotland famous for something else. Let’s hope that we really become a Good Food Nation, we are committed to that cause and delighted to see Leith Croft help to deliver this.

If we don’t get it right, it will be a question of, ‘Goodbye and thanks for all the fish’?

Fruit Tree Nursery established on Leith Croft

Fruit Tree Nursery established on Leith Croft


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