Updated: Nov 20, 2022
I used to work as an engagement manager for Compass Group, delivering food, nutrition, and sustainability workshops to primary school pupils. I found astonishing the number of children who didn't understand where our food comes from.
The majority of people interact with food within a supermarket. On the one hand, they are great as they allow us to go into one space, buy everything we need, and carry on with our busy lives. But all we see is the final product wrapped neatly in plastic on a shelf. There is such a disconnect between our food systems and the consumer.
I have heard children asking parents if the chickens on the farm were the same as the chicken on the supermarket shelf. I've also heard children asking where vegetables come from. Considering we all need food to sustain ourselves, I find it pretty wild that we eat this stuff without thinking about where it has come from.
Where does our food come from? The soil. Soil systems are one of the richest ecosystems on Earth. One square meter of the stuff may contain hundreds of thousands of animals across thousands of species.
Naturally, most crops, trees, and plants rely on fungi to gather minerals (nitrogen, phosphorus, etc) and moisture from the soil in return for carbohydrates and lipids made by plants via photosynthesis. This mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship is as old as the first land plants. However, our food system's industrialisation has replaced these natural processes with chemical fertilisers.
George Monbiot brilliantly summarises what we need in his book, Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet. "Agroecology means not only farming more sensitively, with fewer chemicals, less use of machinery and more reliance on natural systems but also changing the relationships between farmers and the rest of society. It means creating food networks that aren't dominated by seed and chemicals companies, grain barons or supermarkets, but are independent and self-organised."
While people are keen on this shift, George also says, "Small farmers around the world are seeking such solutions and have come together to build a global agroecology movement. But they lack the government support and funding Big Farmer has enjoyed. One paper found that the UK spent £6 billion of foreign aid across 7 years on conventional farming projects, provided no funds for projects whose main focus was the development or promotion of agroecology."
What we need is radical change now. We must shift away from our chemical-dependent, destructive farming methods towards localised systems focused on improving biodiversity and soil health.
What's the best way to do this? I'm sure it's not a one-size-fits-all solution - but I will contribute towards this change by educating and creating discussion around these critical topics. You can read about how beans and other legumes can benefit both people and planet here.