Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have raised many questions about the security and future of our food.
But could these challenges catalyse a dramatic change allowing better livelihoods for local farmers and producers and better habitat for wildlife?
In response to this, the team at Schumacher College have recently launched Britain’s first degree in Sustainable Food and Farming starting in September 2021.
Caroline Aitken, of Whitefield Permaculture, who developed the course, believes it’s the first undergraduate degree to take a holistic view of the food system enabling the next generation of famers to innovate in food and to work in an ethical and sustainable way.
“We felt that it was a really important way to offer a positive solution,” she said. “We’re trying to shift the system of food and farming from the ground up without waiting for legislative policy, government grants or worrying about Brexit.
“There’s a really good news story in food and farming. It involves environmental regeneration, reviving the rural economy, improving public health and biodiversity. This is about taking a positive view of food systems as whole.
Although students will spend time working on farms around the region, much of their study will take place on the 1,200 acre-estate belonging to Dartington Hall Trust, an educational charity for arts, ecology and social justice.
All students will have the opportunity to study for a higher education certificate or diploma or continue with the full degree.
The estate already has a number of projects including an innovative agroecology trial in partnership with Luscombe Drinks. In addition over half the fruit and vegetables grown in the College gardens are eaten by staff and students. They will also be able to study for a higher education certificate and diploma.
“The question shouldn’t be by ‘why is good food so expensive? The real question should be ‘why is bad food so cheap?’ The fact that people cannot afford good food is a key social issue,” added Caroline.
The damage caused by food waste and mass-produced low-quality food is significant. According to research by the Sustainable Food Trust for every £1 spent on poor quality food another pound is spent in loss to biodiversity and pollution and damage to public health.
In addition, a report by the Inter Academy Partnership, a network of science institutions looking at international health policy, concluded that the existing system of global food production has to change radically.
It is currently responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all emissions from transport, heating, lighting and air conditioning combined.
And yet this comes at a time when the United Nations calculates that in the UK alone, 8.4m people are struggling to afford a meal.
The degree came about as a result of Food Cultures research carried out by Caroline for the College two years ago. She was convinced it was possible for education to help lead the transition to a more sustainable food system.
After consulting a variety of people across the sustainable food industry, common themes emerged such as a lack of business skills from new-starters, as well as a lack of overall understanding how of the industry works, partly as a result of career-changers who didn’t have a background in the industry.
Patrick Holden set up Sustainable Food Trust because he felt more needed to be done to address challenges within existing systems but he admitted, when he began his career in agriculture, it was a very steep learning curve:
“When I entered farming, I had no background in it at all, I was from London and came to it fresh. What I was looking for was not just the practical, agricultural stuff but also the cultural and social aspect.
“Change can either come from the bottom up or the top down. We need to get people who are serious about running sustainable businesses, or making their existing businesses more sustainable.”
However it seems where new entrants are succeeding in spite of the challenges, they are also pioneering new methods and new business models.
Engaging with local communities for vegetable box schemes, adding value to farm produce producing items such as ice cream and cheese or sharing processing facilities to keep costs down are just some of the strategies which are emerging from the ground-swell of small-scale sustainable food production in the UK.
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, a charity representing over 100 different organisations advocating for better food and farming, feels that as food is such a universal concern it can be an ideal focus for sustainability.
“It’s something tangible and effects everyone, so it can be a great motivator for change. When we’re thinking about the future of food we have to look at where our future farmers are going to be coming from.
“It’s time to start rolling out the practical solutions and informing people about how they do this. We need to learn from the pioneers who are finding ways and making it work.”