Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Rowntree's Gift: Using Food Baskets

picture by me

A Food Basket seems a simple thing. The first image that probably comes to mind is a hamper, overflowing with various delicacies. However food baskets contain more than just treats. In his 1902 study of poverty, Rowntree used the idea of a ‘basket of goods’ to show what a household needed to live a decent life. Those that did not have the requisite goods in their ‘basket’ were considered poor. For Rowntree this included such items as cheese, dumplings and several other products and services he saw as necessary. The relationship between food and poverty is therefore held in the simple notion of a ‘food basket’.

As a measure of something as complex as food poverty, the idea of a food basket can be seen as crude. It sees the world as purely made up of those with, and those without. However, what interests me about the idea of a ‘food basket’ is that it is presented as an ‘absolute’ measure of poverty yet has room for a variety of subtler, relative measures. By defining what is ‘necessary’ there is room for subjectivity. Food baskets can be manipulated to include many different items. They are fertile ground for debate about an age old question: What do people need to live a decent life? Food baskets show that we choose what makes people poor but that there are some things people need.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has continued to use a ‘basket of goods’ today. Their 2009 study has shown that food prices have risen 9% in the year to April 2009, having a clear impact on the poorest members of society. This shows that we cannot be complacent about poverty in the UK today.

Exhuming the idea of a Victorian philanthropist might seem odd, however it is increasingly pertinent. Rowntree’s original study, whilst not perfect, helped to dismiss the myth of ‘the undeserving poor’. This idea is still to be found today in ideas of an ‘underclass’ and the supposed ‘chav culture’. By showing that there is an absolute side to poverty and that many people don’t have access to these basic resources, food baskets can do more than they first appear to.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

biodynamic agriculture

image from here

First of all, this is a great source of information on biodynamics. Secondly, a small overview.

Biodynamic agriculture is a farming practise by which humans can withdraw what they need in terms of produce without the introduction of external influences such as pesticides or hormones to the farm. It is in essence the creation of a model eco-system on the farm.

The principle of the practise is that each component of your farm nurtures another component, partly through its waste, partly through its yield. The crops feed the animals; the animals fertilise the land and produce compost for the crops.

Rather than mere dependence on season, biodynamic husbandry calculates harvesting and breeding by the cycles of the moon. This may seem fanciful at first but the article Lunar Effect on Thoroughbred Mare Fertility by Nicholas Kollerstrom compares the breeding records of 14 years of data from a leading UK stud farm and finds a striking correlation between successful conceptions and the stages of the moon. It was found that there was a definite trend of mares being in season in the days following a full moon. On a farm that depends upon the delicate balance of a natural ecosystem, such information is vital as the harvesting methods is geared for necessity, not industry.

Monday, 12 October 2009


image from herokids

Oliver Twist sheepishly walks towards the towering Mr. Bumble.
“Please sir, I want some more.”
“MORE?!” yells Mr. Bumble

This famous scene from Oliver Twist is one that we can use to think about the wave of ‘productionist’ answers to food security problems. Replace Oliver with the world’s citizens and Mr. Bumble with policy makers, and we see an interesting picture emerging. Like little Oliver the world is asking for ‘more’. The answer given by policy makers is on the surface the opposite of Bumble’s indignation. They want to give us more.

Key documents about the future of food have come to the same basic conclusions. The FAO, the UN body responsible for food policy, believes we need an increase of 70% more food. DEFRA sees a 50% increase in cereal, and an 80% increase in meat production as necessary to avert food crisis. The World Bank was amongst the first to see that Food production will have to increase. Despite disparate figures, most key bodies agree that production must increase, that indeed we will need ‘more’.

However their answers have more in common with Mr. Bumble than we might think. Understanding of ‘more’ is narrow and taken to be purely about production and not distribution. Explanation for this can be found in the consistent prioritising of economy over society. The primary Public Service Agreement of the UK government to its citizens is to “raise the productivity of the UK economy”. Creating a fair society and “stronger communities” come much further down the list. This is indicative of what we see in food policy, prioritising growth when really we should be thinking about what resources we have now, where inequality is and how to address this. Though factors of fairness, safety and sustainability are included into documents, it seems like there are economic blinkers on policy makers. There are 1 billion poorly nourished people in the world and 1.6 billion people are overweight. Simply producing more food will do little to address such injustice.

I believe citizens need to sharpen an argument for what we want from food policy. To start asking questions about social justice and sustainability is difficult but necessary if we want a food system that truly gives us more.