Written by Sid Sharma, Co-founder and Creative Director
My Superpower Is The Ability To Fly
“Dad, what would your superpower be?” Came the now commonly asked question around the breakfast table by my six and eight-year-old. Mostly I switch from having the power to be invisible or the ability to fly. I then dream up various scenarios of how I would use these powers (obviously always for the common good), while I encourage the kids to eat up their toast and cereal. The eight-year-old wants to be Spider-Monkey Boy (superpower – to be able to climb up anything). The six-year-old is Flower Girl (superpower – shoots out fountains of flowers from her eyes).
Well I’ll let you into a secret; the other day I did fly, but sadly not under my own physical prowess, I got on a plane for a holiday to Italy! OK, god dammit I am sorry, I shouldn’t have. I have self-flagellated myself for doing so and I am thinking of offsetting my guilt by offsetting the carbon. But before my XR friends chastise or excommunicate me, please bear in mind that being stuck with the kids on the same street for more or less twenty four hours a day for four months during lockdown led me to this very bad environmental decision. I was weak – COVID-19 made me do it!
What A Birds Eye Perspective Can Give You
Anyway, apology made, so let us continue my tale. What I saw from this bird’s eye view 35,000 feet high in the sky was the equivalent of a violent slap in the face by a cheated lover. From the take-off from Bristol airport towards the South Hams coast and then across the English Channel all down the length of France until we swing a right over the mountainous terrain of Switzerland and Northern Italy, one thing was undeniable. As far as the eye could see, a never ending criss-cross patchwork of squares and rectangles in shades of greens and browns, faintly truncated by thin green-grey outlines of hedgerow and trackways. Then the clusters of towns and cities interconnected by the spiderweb arteries and veins of transport and logistic routes. These roads were far more proliferate than the meandering snake-like lines of water courses that flowed resolutely seawards. Occasionally there was a dense plot of forest green probably due to the topography of land meaning it was not viable or suitable for farming.
What I found profound about this perspective was it revealed so starkly that there doesn’t seem to be much space left for nature. Our flight path charted a truncated surface, organised solely for the flora and fauna we’ve deigned acceptable to heap on our dinner plates such as cows, pigs, wheat and barley. All other species need not apply.
Now, I am not unaware of the grim statistics that scientists are providing, but just observing the landscape from such a height viscerally exposed and reminded me just the extent of what is going on.
The State Of Nature
Humans have totally transformed the landscape for their own use, this obviously is not a recent phenomenon, we’ve been at it for millennia. The transition from small bands of hunter-gatherers to agrarian based societies was an early precursor of things to come. But here in the UK it was WW2 and its aftermath where food insecurity needed to be addressed. Hence the birth of the The Dig for Victory’ campaign which sent our land use transformation into turbo drive. In the effort to convert as much suitable land into productive farmland Landowners were offered sixty pounds per tree to fell mature trees centuries old. Smaller fields were merged into ever larger and larger ones, decimating hedgerow ecosystems, scrubland, woods and forests. By the end of the war arable land in the UK had doubled to 20 million hectares, going from the smallest area of land use to the biggest in just five years.
Farmland now covers 70% of the UK. Since the 1970s, farming has simplified, industrialised and intensified, providing less and less habitat for native wildlife. While the rate of such habitat loss has slowed in recent times, the situation is still getting worse. A third of agricultural land is used to grow crops, many of which are fed to animals.
The UK is now one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. Despite nature struggling against all odds to survive, more than one in seven native species face extinction and more than half are in decline. One in four mammals and 30% of UK birds are at risk of disappearing forever, and we are facing insect Armageddon amongst our native invertebrates such as bees, moths and butterflies. The main reason for this is the way we grow and consume our food.
Yet the irony is that the British public are a nation of animal lovers and donate millions of pounds annually to animal and conservation focused charities. Donkeys get more money than our war heroes or the victims of domestic violence. We are obviously a sucker for those long-eared, sad-eyed adverts that stare forlornly at us from the back of our newspapers and social media streams.
A Green and Pleasant Land
There seems to be this collective lie sold to us in Britain about our green and pleasant land. The land of Robin Hood hiding from the evil Sheriff amongst impenetrable forests of Nottingham; Beatrix Potter would have us believe the countryside is awash with mrs Tiggy Winkles, Squirrel Nutkins and Jeremy Fishers. But the reality of our landscapes is that they do not marry our literature anymore, only 2.4% of the UK’s landmass is made up of our ancient woodlands, and many of the animals in Beatrix’s books or now on the endangered list. Sorry to burst your nostalgia bubble, people!
I often don’t get invited to go on Sunday country walks due to my cynicism of what I am told is an area of outstanding beauty. Don’t get me wrong, there are of course there are beauty spots but they are increasingly few and far between. I personally have never really enjoyed walking in the generic landscapes of farmland U.K. The fertiliser-fake green buck-wheat or brilliant yellow of rape seed landscapes that seems to go on forever, or on coastal walks where often the fields border the sand of the beach, such is our thirst for arable and grazing land that it cannot be wasted by letting nature take even an inch!
This story of land (mis)management is by no means unique to Britain, it is comparable to what is happening across the globe. Globally industrial agriculture accounts for around 35% of all the greenhouse gasses we produce, it is a primary driver for the loss of so much natural habitat and biodiversity due to land grabbing of virgin land and forest, and the use of pesticides that poisons the soil year on year increasing farmers unsustainable reliance on expensive chemical fertilisers.
Yes of course we need to feed ourselves and crop yields are increasing but it comes at a price that is now no longer justifiable on so many fronts, not only climate change. Losing our natural landscapes also translates into a loss of culture, heritage and knowledge. We have in essence dumbed ourselves down. Lost amidst the biodiversity is not only the flora and fauna, but the indigenous cultures that hold the secret to many a cure and ancient wisdom. Of ways of living in harmony with nature and not believing that our species, Homo Sapiens, is master of the universe and that there is no place for anything other than that which serves ‘us’.
Indigenous peoples, who make up only 4% of the global population, are directly responsible for or oversee more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Where Indigenous people steward land, we find evidence of richer biodiversity and healthier ecosystems. These benefits are often sustained in Indigenous communities by deep appreciation and respect for the needs of other species, which then further contributes to what scientists call positive feedback loops.
We have also been dumbed down by letting the most powerful handful of British food retailers dictate how and what we eat. For example we used to grow thousands of different apple varieties here in the UK, but instead we are satisfied by the five or so varieties we now get at supermarkets, the bulk of which are imported from New Zealand 18,000 kilometres away. The fact is that the UK produces now only 61% of all the food it consumes (NFU, 2019). Hidden in that statistic, the UK imports some 60% of the vegetables we eat, and up to 90% of the fruit.
The Criminality of Waste
After an hour, an announcement over the plane PA system informs us that we need to ready for landing. My daughter hands me a half-eaten sandwich and tells me that she doesn’t want anymore. This visual prompt gives me the second dramatic insight of the journey perfectly demonstrating the insanity of our current lives. Globally we throw away a third of all the food grown. The annual food waste from the US and Europe could feed the whole world 3 times over! This food waste starts from the beginning of the food chain process from its production and continues right through the logistical journey to market and then carries on into the shops and supermarkets and finally in our homes, where so much of the food we buy is wasted and ultimately thrown away.
So, I make a simple calculation in my head and imagine that if we stopped being so wasteful with the food and changed our eating and buying habits then maybe 30% of the land used for growing our food could return to nature. And if people realised that meat should only be a treat not a daily staple then potentially nearly 50% of all farmland could be given back to nature. I felt the Garden of Eden beckoning me! Already there are inspirational early pioneers of the rewilding movement such as Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree at the Knepp Estate who have transformed a loss making 3,500 acre farm into a unique rich and diverse nature reserve. The results have been dramatic, showing that if you leave nature alone it will regenerate quickly, reversing the cataclysmic declines of wildlife from over the past five decades.
We need complexity in our world
There is now a growing consensus in the scientific world that the causes of coronavirus pandemics are due to the loss of biodiversity. Humanity’s destruction of the natural environment creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19, with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.
As a species are we really happy to surround ourselves by only our domesticated enslaved animals such as cows, pigs, sheep and cats and dogs, and never ever behold the sight of wild boar, lynxes and wolves? We have seriously messed with complex and delicate systems that have taken thousands of millennia to balance and replaced them with binary systems with harsh artificial interventions that are now proving disastrous. We have failed to give nature the space it needs and the sanctuary and protection from us and our activity. Now it seems to be fighting back by using organisms undetectable to the human eye in the form of a virus.
Intersectionality In relation to food
COVID-19 has of course not only exposed the fragilities and inherent problems of our food system but also the vast inequality of our society. On the whole I think we have all lost in this pandemic, but as always some have lost out way more than others. I myself must admit that I first enjoyed the collective pause of our busy world and all it’s noise and activity – replaced by quality time with my children, lovingly home-cooked meals and the novelty of playing teacher for a few months. Admittedly, mine is a privileged position, buffeted by the furlough scheme and with some level of financial security.
But of course, I know that this wasn’t the reality for everyone, especially those who were already ensnared in the poverty trap. As strict lockdown measures were enforced, millions of people in the UK were unable to feed themselves. FareShare the charitable food redistributor and other food charity organisations were buckling under the pressure to provide emergency food to those that needed it. FareShare delivered the same amount of food in the two months of April and May as they did for the whole of the previous year, this is a staggering amount if you take into account that in 2018-2019 they provided the equivalent of over 46 million meals to vulnerable people.
Then, there was the rhetoric of war from our political leaders, the fight against the invisible enemy, the one that preyed predominantly on the elderly and sick. And again, food was connected to the mortality rates. Those who were obese were 30% more likely to die from COVID-19 if they had it. Those who worked in our care homes, drove our buses, stacked our shelves and worked in our hospitals were dying in greater numbers. These were some of societies lowest paid and least respected jobs, but now all of a sudden, the country woke up to the fact that in fact these people were keeping our country running and became heroes overnight. Now we can finally see how important these essential service jobs are, surely we need to address why our nurses and hospital cleaners who work relentlessly still have to go to food banks to feed themselves!
Henry Dimbleby (yes son of Newsnight legend Jonathon and founder of Leon Restaurant chain) has just published part one of a National Food Strategy commissioned by the Government, the first one for 75 years. In his report one of his main recommendations is to ensure that disadvantaged children have access to health and nutritious food. Dimbleby recognises that “Eating well in childhood is the very foundation stone of equality of opportunity. It is essential for both physical and mental growth”, he goes on to say, “It is a peculiarity of the modern food system that the poorest sectors of society are more likely to suffer from both hunger and obesity. In the post-lockdown recession, many more families will struggle to feed themselves adequately. A Government that is serious about “levelling up” must ensure that all children get access to the nutrition they need. “
Access to good fresh food will not only help us on a journey to a more equitable society it will save the NHS billions of pounds. Heart disease is the number one killer of people in the UK, and the causes if it are directly linked to lifestyle and eating habits, but for some reason the government is reluctant to implement taxes on unhealthy food and insist on clearer food labelling in our retail industry claiming that we do not want to live in a nanny state and introduce a ‘sin tax’. I think however that the Prime Minister’s serious brush with COVID-19 has had an impact on this stance and we may well see some much-needed political resistance to the power food lobbying groups that spend billions to protect their interests.
It was not only access to good food that the lockdown unearthed, we faced another issue that the politicians were quick to capitalise on. More battle cries came from our leaders calling on our young to step up with scythe and shovel and harvest our crops, keeping the supply lines stocked up and do their national duty. Millennials were being called on to enlist and pick all the fruit and vegetables from our farms that were going rotten, but they soon realised why it was only cheap (code for indentured) labour from countries like Romania whom were prepared to work for the minimum wage with little job security and shack up for months on end in slum-like six berth caravans. Our young British workers were not prepared to endure the bleak work conditions and pay insecurity that the demonised Eastern Europeans have had to endure for the last few decades.
Everyday super heroes to the rescue
So, if my flying super-power has given me an insight and perspective on some of the reasons why our broken food system so urgently needs sorting out, what is the new super-power that I will need to help fix it? Well after some thought I realised that my new world-saving-alter -ego is to be Reversa-Man, a superhero with the ability to reverse the ecologically disastrous effects of modern-day farming and consumer culture we are being forced to participle in.
With my extraordinary healing powers….
- I will encourage organic and regenerative farming methods. This would eradicate the millions of tonnes of chemicals from our soils and help make them fertile again.
- I will demonstrate to my fellow humans that growing vegetables and fruit at home is easy, whether on a windowsill, balcony or a garden. Once ready to eat I will teach simple cooking techniques that make veggies so utterly delicious that even professed meat-lovers cut down on the bacon, which will help cool the planet down.
- I will make it mandatory for all of us to be able to access affordable and healthy food no matter what income we are on or where we live.
- I will set aside vast swaths of the planet to rewild and let nature be and leave well alone – we can’t have all the planet and its resources for our use alone, we need to learn how to share.
- I will encourage us to listen to the wisdom of our elders, our grandparents, so that we learn to buy only what we need, and use every last morsel. We eat lots of what is fresh and available locally – the way it is meant to be. We will learn to pickle, ferment, freeze and use all the edible parts of our produce. Nothing left to waste.
- I will give those who grow sustainable and food the respect and recompense they deserve. We will have to spend more for better food, but it is a price worth paying in the long term for the planet and people.
- I will insist that we all take the time to sit at a table everyday with family and friends and break bread and share our worries, hopes, dreams, worries and laughter.
- I will show support and solidarity to all our local food retailers who stock local suppliers and have a direct and trackable relationship with the land. This will make a better resilient local food system.
But the question is do we have to wait for a super-hero to fix our very broken food system or do we have the belief in ourselves to make the right simple daily food choices to do it ourselves.
We will have to make consumer sacrifices, but the irony is that these sacrifices will eventually not feel that way and they will actually enhance our lives, our environment and our happiness.
Now what would you like your super-power to be?
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Aside from being Kambe’s Creative Director, Sid is a life-long food lover, activist and social entrepreneur. He was awarded a BBC Food and Farming award for his innovative sustainable food practices at his chain of restaurants. In 2016 and was also given the title of Sustainable Food Champion by The City of Bristol. He sat on the Bristol Food Policy for 3 years. He is trustee of FareShare South West and is a Director of Bristol Food Network who are co-ordinated Bristol Going For Gold in partnership with Sustainable Food Cities.