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A ‘fresh’ start: Exploring the social dimensions of the food systems that supply Bristol

A chard seedling attempting to grow on Lydia's patio garden

For many years now, I have been researching work in food production ‘out there’: beyond the reach of a day trip and in languages that are not my own. I found the Moroccan tomato so interesting that I wrote a thesis on it. Now though, I want to know what’s occurring closer to home. What of the food produced in the UK? Who is working in the fields? Who is taking the risk that the supermarkets will buy their produce or not? Who is footing the bill, personally, socially, emotionally, for keeping the food coming into cities despite Covid 19, and despite Brexit? After farm work was recognised as ‘essential’ during the pandemic, have workers gained status, or simply more health and safety challenges?

It is to these questions that I am now turning. I want to know who is working to feed Bristol and how they are getting on. More specifically, I want to know about fruit and veg; that food group that we all eat. Vegan, vegetarian, meat eater or flexitarian; we all eat some fruit and veg. Even if it is highly processed into a form with higher ‘added value’: perhaps a smoothie or the filling in a pre-prepared lasagne. What’s more, the UK government want us to eat a specific quantity: five portions a day. Scientists also estimate that if everyone in the UK ate these recommended portions, then our average carbon emissions would go down because fruit and veg have, in many (but not all) ways, a lower impact on ecosystems than other food groups.

How workers and farmers are getting on isn’t just important in its own right, but it also affects food security overall. This is particularly so in regards to exactly those foods which we need more of in this stressful, challenging climate, when it is all too easy to reach for the beer, or the chocolate or the ice cream. Not that I want to get into the business of identifying good and bad foods, they all feed us. Nevertheless, dealing with the coronavirus epidemic and the news that obesity is a major risk factor in suffering badly from the virus, brings fruit and veg into the policy arena again. In the new plan to tackle growing rates of obesity, adverts for fast food will be curtailed before 9pm and there will be a ban on ‘buy one get one free’ offers on sugary and fatty foods, with new encouragement for shops to promote fruit and vegetables. Yet while the focus is on consumers and their needs, the availability of fresh ingredients for this pro-health recipe goes unquestioned. OK, apples do grow on trees, but they must still be picked.

Some people will have seen other news stories. Of crops rotting in the fields last autumn, of seasonal workers flown to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria in the middle of a pandemic, working when everyone else is asked to stay at home. Putting their own lives at risk when white collar workers are ushered inside. More stories, of a lack of seasonal workers and of British workers signing up when for a long time such work has fallen disproportionately to migrant and European workers [1]. These stories alter as we draw back from the pandemic and its outbreaks, through Brexit, and prior to Brexit. Yet the question of who feeds us and how, at what costs and taking on what risks, remains for many of us, out of sight and out of mind.

So this is my new project, and I start this week. In my kitchen, because we’re in a pandemic and that’s where I have a garden table standing in as a desk. I do want to reach out though. So, if you are, or know a farmer or worker in this sector, please get in touch, I would love to listen to your experiences and your challenges. Or even come and see them. I’ve taken flights and chased questions about food to places that look like they will produce answers, simply through their seductive difference to my own normality. Now I am interested in the everyday difficulties in the details faced by farmers and workers in the UK. I’m not looking for heroes and villains, but simply for people who work in the food system.

To be specific, my project focuses on the conventional (not organic) side of the sector. This is simply because it feeds the majority of our country and the city I live in. That could be those who produce vegetables that end up in packaging branded with union jacks, but which otherwise, are just normal. Just simple apples, or tomatoes, or cucumbers, with lots of plastic and stickers, or none at all. I want to consider conventional scale production as close to home as possible and marvel at its successes, struggles and contradictions. Considering ONS data and recent analysis we can observe that only 1-2% of workers in the UK works in agriculture, yet nearly 50% of food consumed in the UK is produced here [2]. How is this done? At what cost? Who is helping and making sacrifices so that the apples keep coming and the carrots arrive fresh and looking perfect.

1. See, Scott, S. (2013), Labour, Migration and the Spatial Fix: Evidence from the UK Food Industry. Antipode, 45: 1090-1109. doi:10.1111/anti.12023

2. The estimate depends on the interpretation of data and could be considered as much as 60%, see, Lang, T. (2020). Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and what to Do about Them. Pelican. p., 26

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This blog was written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Lydia Medland, it was originally published on her blog Eating Research and has been re-published here with her permission.  Lydia has a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the British Academy to research food systems in the UK. 

 
Dr Lydia Medland

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