The fact that globalisation has an impact on people’s lives in the UK is undeniable while the desirability and level of this impact is still very much up for debate. After spending the last few months in Totnes — a small yet increasingly well-known town in Devon, UK — I have spoken with many people seeking practical ways to connect to their local area so that they do not have to rely so heavily on sprawling global supply chains.
There are many good reasons for this engagement with the local, such as to help minimise reliance on the excessive use of non-renewable energy supplies, to raise awareness of the conditions under which goods are produced, and to enable people to make direct social connections with their community. These considerations can have an impact on many areas of people’s lives in Totnes, and they are particularly tangible when looking at issues around food.
Food is central to our existence; we all rely on it to live. Yet how many of us truly know where our food has come from, what has been involved in its production, and what is contained within it? The mass-production and depersonalisation of food is epitomised in the modern-day supermarket experience. As consumers, many people have become accustomed to eating packaged and processed food and have little awareness of how it came to sit on the supermarket shelves. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture continues to erode and distort the diversity of our food chains, and a massive amount of what is produced continues to be wasted.
Most of us are well aware of these problems, but often it is hard to know where to start with tackling such wide, systemic issues.
During the time I have been living in Totnes I’ve noticed that a strong contingent of people avoid the supermarket chains’ attempts to dominate consumption habits. Further, some people and community groups in Totnes actively participate in creating more sustainable, versatile and resilient local food systems.
There is a wealth of community-run food projects engaging with this topic in different ways, many under the Transition Town Totnes (TTT) umbrella and others spreading beyond it. Initiatives such as TTT’s Nut Tree project seek to “add to the availability of local food on our doorsteps”, and have planted and continue to manage 300 trees to date. TTT’s Incredible Edible group develop pockets of un-used land in town to make “public spaces beautiful food resources”. The public are encouraged to freely pick the crops grown on the Incredible Edible sites across Totnes, encouraging an ethos of social and environmental connection through food.
Totnes Development Trust’s Gardening for Health project enables the local Doctor’s surgery to prescribe gardening sessions where volunteers are led by qualified gardeners to grow food in a council-owned garden. Another local community project, Little Bo People, provides locally and ethically sourced meat through rearing sheep on the local Castle meadow. This enables people in the community not only to gain an awareness of where their meat comes from, but also to participate in how it is cared for. This project is now seeking to diversify their work into caring for chickens, bees, and fruit trees.
I have also attended a foraging workshop as part of TTT’s Skillshare programme. There are regular foraging courses in Totnes, with many people taking advantage of this abundant free, fresh food. Those people running these kinds of initiatives in Totnes are aiming to grow as much food as possible for themselves in a celebratory, collective and open way.
In addition to the community-growing projects I have also seen initiatives seeking to engage the larger players in food markets – producers and retailers – to strive for more local and accountable food systems.
The Food-Link project being run by Transition Town Totnes is a great example of this. The project “seeks to strengthen the links between local producers (within a 30 mile radius of Totnes) and the retailers and restaurants within the town”.
This work has helped uncover some common barriers to local food supply. One issue that has been highlighted is that when one looks at what can be eaten locally the diet is quite heavily based on meat and dairy, which requires far more land and energy than other food production methods. Some crops that could be grown for human consumption are often being used as animal feed or are not being grown at all due to the lack of adequate processing facilities in the area.
To tackle this issue the Food-Link project is exploring the staple crops that are not currently grown locally for human consumption but could be — such as grains, legumes, edible oils and nuts — and looking at what processing facilities would be needed to make this easier. From these types of activities a picture begins to emerge of how practical engagement can have a real effect on food systems and people’s consumption habits.
The level of engagement around food production and consumption from some people and groups in Totnes seems to be changing attitudes in many ways. Those involved are engaging with nature, and adapting their expectations about food: its availability, its appearance and where it comes from.
Well known academic and activist Vandana Shiva recently spoke to a rapt audience in Totnes about how “food is the currency of life” and how we need to reclaim ownership from mass agricultural corporations over what is grown, what we eat, and what goes into our food. Her talk certainly did not fall on deaf ears; there is an infectious enthusiasm that surrounds some people’s engagement with food systems here in Totnes and many are actively working towards positive change. My time here so far has increased my faith in the power of small-scale local action enabling a butterfly effect of positive change. For me, personally, it has also motivated a rethink of my own consumption habits. I look forward to putting these new ideas into practice in the area in which I live.
Florence Scialom is a Masters student at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She is living in Totnes for three months as part of her research into local economies and (alternative measures of progress outside of) economic growth.
During her time in Totnes she is volunteering with a new project called the Network of Wellbeing (NOW).
To stay in touch with Florence you can follow her on Twitter @Flo_Sci
Top image is of a group of volunteers at a community plot in Totnes and the second image is of a foraging skillshare, given by Dave Hamilton. Both images by Annie Laymarie of Transition Town Totnes Skillshares.