Local food and well-being

Photo: Jules Pretty

Under cherry-trees

Soup, the salad, fish and all

Seasoned with petals.

– Basho.

We recently advertised 2 PhD positions at the University of Essex, looking for researchers to explore whether relocalised food systems could contribute to individual and community wellbeing. Our starting premise was that, “Food produced with a light ecological footprint, as a collective community effort, and distributed through short food chains could contribute to achieving sustainability, resilience and improved wellbeing.”

‘Local food’ often conjures images of happy, healthy people, green landscapes and beautiful-looking crops (see the collection of images here, for instance). Thrown into the mix is also a promise of ‘resilience’. Unsurprisingly, the movement to ‘relocalise’ food systems is gaining ground. Carol Trewin (2003) describes the spread of local food initiatives in the UK. At the end of her report, cites a claim from Food for Britain, that “significant and measurable financial benefits (are) coming from the revival of interest in local food”.

What about ‘wellbeing’? How do individuals and communities benefit? There is more research and writing on what is lost in globalised agricultural systems than there is on what is gained through more local systems. In an early review of the local food movement in the USA, Gail Feenstra cites some of the early writing on the link between local food and happier, healthier, more democratic communities: Hightower (1973, 1976), who talked about the corporate control of agriculture, and Wendell Berry’s work (1977), describing the loss of community and culture that ensues from the rise of mechanised, corporatised, intensive agriculture. And there is also the supply-side to consider: what does localisation imply for the producers who grow crops that are sold globally? Does the movement towards relocalisation also place adequate emphasis on fair and ethical trade and sourcing?

Our research will examine what’s already known and use community studies in the East of England to demonstrate what individuals gain, how communities change, and whether environment and society reconnect as a result of local production and consumption.

We’ll post updates as we go along, and introduce our new PhD students once their selection process is through.

Call for papers: Agro-ecology: Securing Sustainable Futures?

Smallholder rice fields, India. Photo: Zareen Bharucha

2nd Call for Papers: Agro-ecology: Securing Sustainable Futures?

Session Organisers: Dr Larch Maxey, Plymouth University (larch.maxey at plymouth.ac.uk) and Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, Aberystwyth University (sxw at aber.ac.uk)

This session would form part of the RGS-IBG International Geography Conference 2012

Outline: As debates around food security, sustainability, and community resilience heat up, this session brings together geographers and practitioners to explore the role small-scale agro-ecology businesses can play in shaping sustainable futures. We encourage a range of contributions which set practical measures on the ground within the context of wider policies and debates. Specifically, it is acknowledged that agricultural policies around the world are becoming increasingly fraught and contested, with different models of production valorised in different quarters. However, there is a clear lack of consensus on the way forward, with the elusive proposition of sustainable intensification encapsulating an array of impossible promises and sparking endless debate: from the use of GM, through to the need to lower carbon emissions and input costs.

Beyond the lobbying of large-scale, corporate agri-businesses, advocacy for smaller-scale agro-ecology systems has emerged. These include multi-cropping, low input systems that often draw on traditional practise and ecological design principles. A further key component of these models is their focus on localised supply systems, which often collapse the boundaries between producer, retailer, and consumer. These systems are now being adopted by a range of producers including: allotment holders; community and guerrilla gardens, community supported agriculture, gardening groups and small scale independent enterprises. Support has emerged at a grassroots level, through community organising and buy-in, but equally through government funding, for community growing schemes in particular. This support is offered in response to both the ecological benefits of these enterprises and their impact on community cohesion, health, and wider social wellbeing. However, tensions remain around the extent to which governments consider small-scale agro-ecology as a viable model for wider adoption.

This session intends to address such tensions and invites insights from producers and representative groups, alongside academics to provide a more grounded and participatory analysis. In particular, papers are invited to focus on:

  • Agro-ecology’s prioritisation of self-sufficiency, which is seen as a key tension in global food strategy as highlighted in the 2011 Foresight Report on Global Food Security.
  • The effectiveness and resilience of slow growth / steady state business models associated with agro-ecology enterprises.
  • The potential for future development and expansion of these approaches: barriers, tensions, solutions and opportunities.
  • How these businesses work as part of transitions to new development models based on low carbon economies.

Format: The final session format will be decided with the presenters. We are currently considering an Open session with Short papers (10-15 mins), aimed to feed into a ‘World Café’ style discussion / workshop. We are happy to provide further details on the proposed format if needed (Outlines are available on the RGS website).

Please send abstracts and expressions of interest to sxw at aber.ac.uk and larch.maxey at plymouth.ac.uk.

Alternative Agri-Food Networks in the Colchester area

Biodiverse meadows used to graze cattle for local markets near Maldon, Essex

Alternative Agri-Food Networks in the Colchester area and their contribution to  resilient communities

Ambra Sedlmayr [ambracsedl [at] gmail [dot] com] 

Background: Local and sustainable food sourcing initiatives in the Colchester area were surveyed to gain an understanding of the main opportunities and challenges to the development of alternative food sourcing strategies to build local resilience. A diversity of initiatives were identified and key informants were interviewed for each type of initiative. It was found that Alternative Agri-Food Network (AAFN) organisers perceive that lack of time and financial resources are the main factors limiting the promotion of AAFNs. They also believe that insufficient consumer awareness is a constraint to the spreading and deepening of AAFNs. Nevertheless, the recent development of a number of initiatives and the growing interest in local and sustainable food is promising for the future development of alternative food sourcing in the area, which is essential for developing more sustainable and resilient communities.

Ambra Sedlmayr

About the author: 

Ambra studied Biology at the University of Coimbra (Portugal). From there she moved on to conduct her postgraduate studies at the University of Essex (UK). At Essex she first completed the Masters degree in Environment, Science and Society, followed by a doctorate in Environmental Studies, focussing on the subject of agricultural marginalisation in Portugal.

Ambra’s research interests focus on the political, economic, social and psychological frontiers of conflict and tension, emerging between different ways of conceptualizing and realizing development. Her main research interest is on the maintenance and development of sustainable forms of agriculture and sustainable agricultural livelihoods in the context of  long standing and continuing pressures that drive agricultural industrialisation. Her research is intrinsically transdisciplinary and solution-orientated. Ambra is currently working for an international charity in the promotion of sustainable agriculture. She is still connected with the Centre of Functional Ecology at the University of Coimbra and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex.

Further publications: 

  • Sedlmayr, A. (2011). Agricultural marginalisation in Portugal: Threats and opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex, Colchester. PhD Thesis.
  • Sedlmayr, A. (2009). How does agricultural marginalisation come about? Presentation of a research paper at the Essex & Writtle “Sustainability and the Environment” Conference, Colchester.
  • Sedlmayr. A. (2008). The flooding of the foodshed. How cheap imports undermine local food systems in rural Portugal. Proceedings of the VII Iberic Conference of Rural Studies, Coimbra.
  • Sedlmayr, A. (2005). Factors affecting the Ecological and Economic viability of organic farming in central Portugal. Implications for the development of sustainable agriculture. Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex, Colchester. Master’s Dissertation.