Dignity became the heart of the new Farmerama podcast series, Who Feeds Us?. But, that wasn’t the intention. Originally, the producers set out to explore the diverse ways food is being grown and produced all over the UK during the first lockdown.
“In listening to the stories from people all over the UK, it soon became clear dignity is what people really want from their food system. This is what the National Food Strategy is missing – it’s not about just putting any food on the plate, it’s about dignity in putting food on the plate, ” says Abby Rose, co-founder of Farmerama Radio.
“If the pandemic has shown us all anything it’s that our priorities were off, we had forgone dignity to be part of a desperate hamster wheel of perceived market success.”
Had dignity been a point of consideration for the Agriculture Bill discussions, it may have meant that MPs were more willing to vote to ensure that imported food meets the equivalent standards of that produced by UK farmers.
The true value
To talk about dignity, the focus of the conversation changes from costs and efficiency to benefits and value.
“We’ve taken ourselves out of the commodity trap,” says fourth generation farmer John Pawsey from Shimpling Park Farm, which grows crops and grazes sheep.
This year they sold half their lambs, organic and pasture fed on diverse clover lays, to private butchers.
“The first thing we talk about with new buyers is what we do and how it fits into the wider picture of conservation. We’re happy to talk about price, of course, but that’s the last thing. I’m not going to be in a race to the bottom for organic prices – it’s about value.”
Pawsey started to convert his 650-hectare farm to organic in 1999, when he realised that 14 years of conventional farming was no longer viable. Now, 21-years later, he also farms 800 hectares of neighbouring farms organically.
Conservation was a key driver, as was increasing biodiversity on the farm. A soil health test shows that organic matter has increased from 2.9% to 5.5%.
Shimpling Park Farm hosts non-organic farmers, who often come when their chemistry is failing and they’re looking for more soil- and nature-friendly solutions.
“It isn’t until you understand the changes happening within the landscape and the business that you realise how much organic farming should be respected,” Pawsey says. “The government is now talking about ‘public money for public goods’ – organic farmers have been delivering this for a long time and that’s largely gone unrecognised.”
Paswey maintains it's up to organic farmers to make sure people understand the difference between conventional and organic, and to back that up with quantifiable evidence. But for him, treating visitors with dignity isn’t about saying ‘isn’t this brilliant?’, it’s about answering their questions and listening to their needs.
He continues: “It’s difficult to point out differences without making people feel threatened. There have been instances in the organic movement when it’s had a ‘holier than thou’ approach. That didn’t earn respect. But, there’s a much more inclusive tack now.”
Inclusivity is key to Calon Wen, the Welsh organic dairy co-operative that has grown from four farmers to 25 over the past 20 years.
The pandemic hit the dairy sector hard, especially those that supplied the hospitality sector, with reports of farmers having to pour milk down the drain all across the country, and Calon Wen was not immune.
“At some point it was zero-value,” says Fiona Edge from the co-op’s marketing team.
Milk prices are one of the products that have been notoriously squeezed by supermarkets and Calon Wen was set up to enable farmers to sell direct, rather than wholesale.
“The co-operative gives the farmers more say and a platform for their opinions to be heard,” says Edge. “I think dignity is about respecting where your food comes from. How can you have dignity if you’re not treating the animal, the land or the farmers with respect?”
Calon Wen also advocates for the farmers when it comes to supplying supermarkets in Wales, nudging them to order more when organic milk is low.
According to Edge the benefits are two-fold: it proves organic can be affordable and an everyday item. When customers opt for organic, it proves to the supermarkets there is consumer demand for organic products.
“Too expensive” is an accusation often levelled against organic foods, but as Scottish baker Rosie Gray, featured on the Who Feeds Us? podcast, says: “There is no dignity in someone being told if you can't afford food you can eat crap. It's rude.”
Where our food comes from
For a truly dignified food system, nourishing food needs to be available to all – that’s an argument most would agree with.
But, when we talk about dignity in food, more and more people believe the conversation needs to go deeper.
Who has access to land, and an opportunity to grow nourishing food, is an issue. Half of England is owned by 1% of the population – just 25,000 people – according to Who Owns England?
High land and rural housing costs make it nearly impossible for new entrants to farming to establish a farm business, and potentially offer more diversity in the crops that are grown.
This concentration of land ownership determines the types of food that are available to eat, the way we talk about it and who has agency in the conversations.
As Farmerama’s Abby Rose puts it: “I am feeling clearer than ever that all oppression is the same, we can only change our oppressive relationship to the land and natural world if we also change our oppressive relationship to other human beings.”
Gather is a documentary that tells the story of the growing movement amongst Native Americans to reclaim their identities through food sovereignty, while battling the trauma of centuries of genocide.
The film states that 70% of all food around the world today originated from the Indigineous peoples.
“Before this whole trend of eating organic came along or ancestors built this complex food system of wild food the Apache people ate. We didn’t call it organic. It was just food,” says farmer Clayton Harvey from the White Mountain Apache Nation.
In a similar vein:
“Many many of the technologies that we cherish as organic and regenerative farmers such as composting, raised beds, permaculture… these are technologies that have roots in Africa and Afican Diaspora practices,” says Leah Penniman from Soul Fire Farm, speaking on a webinar hosted by The Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) and Land In Our Names (LION).
“Not just the agricultural techniques but also the economic techniques like co-ops, credit unions and work parties.”
Organic farmers know that diverse agricultural systems work better than monocultures. Advocates believe in regenerating the soil, restoring biodiversity and farming in harmony with nature. All of these learnings go hand-in-hand with regenerating communities, restoring dignity and living in harmony with one another.
Every day, we ask the world to open their minds to the benefits of organic agriculture.
Now, we need to further open our minds to the possibilities of what dignity in food really means – for all.
Lizzie Rivera is the founder of ethical lifestyle website Live Frankly. She is a journalist writing with a decade's worth of experience and has been focused on sustainability since 2014.