The Ecological Land Cooperative has launched a campaign to ask landowners for donations of small parcels of land to create clusters of affordable smallholdings for new entrants to ecological agriculture.
An organisation dedicated to helping new entrants into farming, the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) develops affordable, low impact, smallholdings protected for ecological agriculture in perpetuity. And they need land to do this.
Addressing the crisis for new entrants to farming
There is no dispute that there is a crisis for new entrants to farming where the cost and availability of land are one of the biggest barriers a new farmer faces when they are seeking to build a farm business. This shortage of supply of farms is reflected in the age of current farmers: in DEFRA’s recent report, Agriculture in the UK, just 13% of farmers are under the age of 45, and just 38% are under the age of 55. Further, the number of farmers under the age of 45 has fallen each year during this last decade from 18% in 2003. The average age of today’s farmer is 59.
The first ELC site, 22 acres at Greenham Reach in Mid-Devon, was purchased in 2009, and now has three thriving mixed smallholdings. The ELC has gone on to purchase two further sites raising funds through community investment, friendly loan providers and grants.
The ELC has big ambitions and is ready to take on more land to create more smallholdings. Yet the biggest challenge the cooperative faces is accessing land. To help solve this the ELC is asking existing landowners to consider donating some of their land to be protected for ecological agriculture in perpetuity.
Why ecological agriculture?
At this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference Michael Gove, Secretary-of-State for Defra, spoke of Brexit and the inevitable changes it will bring to UK agriculture:
“The heart of farming is always going to be about food production. But ultimately, public money should go towards people who are working hard in order to ensure that our environment isn’t harmed. If we are going to have £3bn spent, then that £3bn should be an investment for the future, rather than an incentive to carry on just as people have been doing ever since the Second World War – farming in an intensive way.”
The ELC supports people that would otherwise struggle to access land – in part due to “the current subsidy system [which] bids up the price of agricultural land” and the fact that people “use agricultural land for tax purposes” as Michael Gove conceded at the conference. The new farmers that the ELC supports produce food in a way that benefits the environment – it is possible to achieve both with agro-ecological farming methods.
We desperately need more ecological farmers to produce food in a way that improves biodiversity, protects wildlife, does not pollute our water nor degrade our soil, and provides good, affordable, healthy food to local communities, thus invigorating local economies.
The ELC aims to help new entrants to farming to overcome the hurdles of high land costs and inflated house prices, and get their farm businesses up and running. By providing affordable and secure smallholdings the ELC is addressing the crisis in rural employment , seeking to bring young people and fresh ideas into farming. Land is worth more than its monetary value and the ELC believes the natural world is a wellspring of good food, biodiversity and ecosystem services which farming, when carried out with care for the natural environment, can rely upon.
The ELC is looking for donations of land of any quality to continue their work to improve land and create smallholdings which will be protected for ecological agriculture in perpetuity. The criteria for the land is:
• Size: 20 acres or more (or near to one of our existing sites)
• Has good vehicle access
• Aspect is South/East/West facing
• Altitude is below 200 metres
Are you able to email your friends? Post a Facebook message or tweet? Ask your farmer neighbours about land that might be available? Put a message in your local newsletter?
Any word, any thoughts and any landowners you may have contact with, or know of, would be great to hear about. Just get in touch with us at communications@ecologicalland.
The Ecological Land Cooperative
The Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) is a community benefit society, co-operative in structure, established to address the lack of affordable sites for ecological land-based livelihoods in England and Wales.
They work to address a range of complex and deep-rooted social and environmental challenges in a simple and pragmatic way: by removing barriers to land access for sustainable uses. Set up in 2009, the ELC’s core business model is the acquisition of land, securing planning permission and installation of infrastructure for clusters of three or more affordable residential smallholdings. Smallholders are provided with permission to build their own sustainable home with off-grid utilities and road access.
Their first project, Greenham Reach, in mid-Devon, was granted planning permission in 2013. The 22 acre site is now home to three smallholdings operating as independent businesses but working co-operatively to manage the whole site, Greenham Reach, is a living example of ecologically managed land used sustainably for land based livelihoods with the environment in mind.
The ELC has since purchases two further sites, one in Arlington, East Sussex and one on the Gower Peninsula, Wales both of 18 acres.
The Ecological Land Cooperative is supported by the Ecological Land Trust which is a registered charity, no. 1158032. Donations of land and money made to the Trust may be eligible to be offset against tax.
This is the third in a series of articles about ‘one planet’ living – the first in rural areas, and the second in cities. Now we discuss the situation as regards food production.
A revolution in the production and consumption of food would dramatically improve health, soils, and the state of the planet. Here is how it could work.
Why we need it
I don’t think that this can be said often enough: in 80 years time, unless we’re hit by some cataclysmic catastrophe, there will be over 11 billion souls on our little planet. If current trends continue, around 85% will live in cities and we will have passed the safe limits of several of our planetary life-support systems: climate change, biodiversity, soil loss, ocean acidity.
How can we support and feed everyone without trashing the planet?
It’s not that far off. Babies born now will probably still be alive in 80 years. If you’re under twenty, you might well be yourself.
We need a revolution in the way we think about food because right now food is the hardest part of our ecological footprint to reduce. Just take a look at these cities’ footprints, expressed in global hectares per person:
Diagram courtesy Global Footprint Network.
No matter the overall size of the footprint, if we look at the footprint’s individual components, food stays pretty constant and becomes relatively larger proportionately as the overall footprint shrinks.
To reduce it we need a revolution in the way food is produced and consumed. This is what is being proposed by various food manifestos being developed in England, Wales and Scotland. I don’t disagree with any of them, I just wonder if, radical though they are, they are yet going far enough.
As Gunhild Stordalen, of the EAT Forum in Sweden puts it: “We need action to end the disconnect between consumption and production” because food is the main issue around which coalesces many others: climate change, poor health, social inequality, soil loss, biodiversity loss.
Anyone who knows me, knows that one thing I care passionately about is determining whether something is really sustainable or not. A big advantage for me of ‘One Planet’ development as practiced in Wales is its measurability. Because outputs and inputs are monitored for sustainability, we can tell what works.
The improved productivity of smallholdings
We need to produce more food per hectare, cheaply, without unwanted side-effects. Measurement is how we know that one planet smallholdings and some similar Community Supported Agriculture schemes are more productive than conventional agriculture such as sheep farms, without subsidies and using no artificial inputs.
Data from a conversion of a sheep farm into nine 6 acre family-held smallholdings run as One Planet Developments in Pembrokeshire is as follows (data made available annually as a condition of planning permission, 2016 figures):
Value of needs met directly from site:
Income from land-based produce:
From educational activities:
Total from land-based activity:
Value placed on total household needs:
92% of the 9 families’ household needs were therefore met from the land. Prior to conversion, the single farmer’s annual income was £2,500–£3,500 from raising sheep (not including agri-subsidy) (data from Tao Wimbush of Lammas).
This is an impressive 30-fold increase in land-based productivity. Productivity will increase further as soil fertility increases because the land is being fed with compost and manure. Previously it was fed with lime. No subsidies were given or required.
Let no one tell you that organic growing is less productive than non-organic unless you’re absolutely sure they are comparing like with like.
Further evidence on productivity
These results are underscored by a recent report from the Landworkers’ Alliance (A Matter Of Scale: A study of the productivity, financial viability and multifunctional benefits of small farms of 20 ha and less, Landworkers’ Alliance and Centre for Agroecology, Coventry University, 2017). Key findings:
Productivity data for 18 indicator vegetable crops showed small farm yields being higher than non-organic field-scale yields for those which benefit from more intricate husbandry and hand picking. At established market gardens these yields were much higher than average non-organic yields.
Integrated, mixed farming means that inputs and waste are reduced compared to monoculture farms, improving their ability to cope with extreme weather and resist disease.
When compared to average UK farm incomes the sample was performing well financially. 78% received no farm subsidies; subsidies made up below 20% of the income for 19% of those who did.
Most farms were adding value either by direct marketing or processing produce into cheese, juices or preserves.
Mainstreaming this approach
That’s all very well, but it’s a minority. So can we mainstream this approach?
Here’s stage one. OPDs and similar food suppliers in a local area are beginning to co-operate to market produce using the ‘patchwork farm’ concept. In this model producers sell through a collectively-managed portal.
In east Carmarthenshire, coordinated by Red Pig Farm and supported by Calon Cymru Network, one of these, the Black Mountain Food Hub, uses the Heart of Wales line to deliver food to pick-up points in station hubs (below), for customers who have ordered online to collect. It is a new kind of food market.
Sara of Black Mountain Food Hub and Red Pig Farm, which is transitioning to One Planet Development.
Hang on, what about the price?
Yes, food grown with intensive labour inputs is usually more expensive than supermarket food. So to mainstream this approach, a shift of policy support is required to alter the price balance between this type of food and food sold in supermarkets.
Supermarket non-organic food is cheaper because external costs are not factored in. So – and this is unpopular – how about a tax on polluting nitrogen fertilisers? Akin to a carbon tax, this would, says Richard Young of the Sustainable Food Trust, reflect the external costs of their use and encourage a switch away from them.
Then there’s consumer education. Peter Seggers of Blaencamel Farm, Cilycennan, Carmerthenshire practices agro-ecology with market gardening and feeds his 300 strong local community with year-round organic produce by feeding the soil and using polytunnels. He believes consumers are prepared to switch to more sustainable foods even if they are dearer if we educate them about their add-on benefits through passionate communication, and tell them of the damage done by intensive farming.
Change the current subsidy system
The Landworkers Alliance amongst many others have proposed a post-Brexit shift in subsidy and planning practice to support small farms, smallholdings and measurably sustainable agriculture. This would enable the wider uptake of ‘one planet’ developments, neighbourhoods and communities and save public money.
The average subsidy for sheep farms on the hills in 2009-10 was £53,000, while the average net farm income was £33,000. This suggests that the contribution the average farmer made to subsidising his income by keeping sheep was £20,000.
Such unsustainable farming practices are heavily supported by subsidy in Less Favoured Areas (80% of the agricultural land area of Wales).
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA)’s chapter on Wales documents that about 37.4% of Wales is Enclosed Farmland, consisting of 34% Improved Grassland and just 3.4% Arable and Horticultural land.
From the above data on conversion from sheep farm to One Planet Development, we know that this is a balance that can be shifted away from meat to more varied produce.
One Planet Developments can only be permitted without subsidy. Each One Planet conversion of a sheep farm could therefore save an average of £53,000 of taxpayer’s money, as well as making the land more productive, improving biodiversity, and reducing carbon emissions from livestock.
Feeding the masses from local food means more jobs
One hundred years ago Wales was more or less self-sufficient in food, farming was more diverse, and most of it was organic. Yet the population was only 600,000 less. So Wales could, in theory, feed itself. Several studies (Double Yield: Jobs and Sustainable Food Production, Vicki Hird, SAFE Alliance, 1997) show it’s possible to do this.
Jobs would be almost doubled, as a Soil Association study shows (Jones, P. & Crane, R., 2009, England and Wales under Organic Agriculture; How much Food could be Produced? Centre for Agricultural Strategy, Reading). This compares yields of foods growable in England and Wales under organic production (which produces half the greenhouse gas emissions) with the volumes currently produced under “conventional” production.
To support the switch to more, smaller farms providing local food, more processing facilities, including packers and abattoirs, need to be provided locally. Presently much food has to travel a long way before it can be processed. This would add value to produce and keep more of the profit and jobs locally while reducing food miles.
Looking further ahead
Local food and the importance of hinterlands
In the old days, cities were fed from food produced from their hinterlands. Nowadays food comes from all over the world and we’ve lost the connection between city dwellers and their surrounding land. People often have no idea where their food comes from or how it is grown.
The food revolution I propose would take steps to repair this situation by reinventing the concept of hinterland.
In Wales, the National Development Framework for Wales, currently being developed, envisages four regions, which are known as Joint Governance Committees. These regions could be managed as hinterlands to provide food and natural resource services for urban areas.
In this model, mid-Wales supplies the Cardiff-Newport stretch and the valleys, West Wales supplies the Swansea-Port Talbot region, and North Wales, the Conwy-Bangor-Caernarfon area.
How? A leading example is the Toronto Food Strategy, which uses the hinterland model. This is taken from a recent report containing insights into how urban areas can design and maintain highly-developed, integrated food-related policies.
The Toronto food revolution
The Golden Horseshoe region runs around the Greater Toronto area and neighbouring communities. The hinterland is shown in the map below.
In 2011/12 these municipalities adopted a ten-year plan to help the food and farming sector remain viable, link food, farming and health through consumer education, enhance competitiveness and sustainability and cultivate new approaches.
Its broad aims and membership have achieved much but also seen conflict arise between advocates of small-scale, ecological agriculture and so-called “big agriculture”. Face-to-face meetings are sorting out differences.
In Wales, a similar approach is possible. The purpose of Joint Governance Committees is to support partnerships between local authorities upon issues which transcend their borders, so that their development plans do not run in conflict.
Land management, food provision and one planet development can be tackled together better at this scale. A hinterland approach can give rise to a model as illustrated in the following picture:
I believe that procurement strategies of publicly funded bodies such as schools and hospitals should be used to set up relationships with local suppliers in their hinterlands, thereby guaranteeing markets for local organic food from nearby farms and smallholdings and new processing plants.
Schools in particular could ‘twin’ with farms and also use them as teaching aids. Kids would learn about growing food and healthy food.
The National Farmers Union Cymru is already moving in this direction. So are some schools, such as Llandovery College.
The farms would have a motivation to diversify into organic vegetable and even grain production, as they once did, more jobs would result, rural Wales would begin to be revived, and food miles would be reduced. Lots of wins.
This would be done by legislation such as Wales’ Well-Being of Future Generations Act, which, as it bites, will mandate all bodies which spend taxpayers’ money to do so sustainably. Under the act, public funding must support the UN Sustainable Development Goals and reduce Wales’ footprint from three to one planets within about forty years.
Recolonising the countryside
Having more people living and working in the countryside is difficult within current planning culture, which is why it should be made easier to obtain planning permission for accommodation in rural areas providing that sustainable land-based work is prioritised.
This is exactly why the One Planet Development policy was designed: to address this failure and regenerate the countryside.
Many remote areas would benefit from higher levels of population density, provided it was introduced in a sensitive and sustainable manner. The lamb and mutton currently produced on 3.6 million hectares of rough pasture – approximately 15 per cent of the land area of UK – represent just 1.5 per cent of our national diet.
And new urban developments should be planned with food supply and sustainable transport links at their heart. A fantastic example is The Cannery, Sacramento, California, which is a housing project that puts an urban farm and agricultural college in the centre of a community – a farm-to-table sustainable urban farming showcase linked by cycle lane and public transport to the rest of the city.
Plan of the Cannery
To summarise the ‘One Planet’ demands
1. That to aim towards one planet living should become an underlying principle of all planning and official policy as de facto the only objectively-verifiable sustainable strategy. This would inevitably have the effect of making the food system more sustainable.
2. That the same set of social and environmental criteria should be used to assess all planning applications to create a level playing field in order to encourage this.
3. That these criteria should be informed by ecological footprint analysis, amongst others, which enables all projects to be compared for their environmental impact – at present we have no way of determining the objective sustainability of a site.
4. That official attitudes to land use and procurement should change to help urban and rural areas use one planet approaches to become more productive of locally consumed healthy and organic food.
Imagine you have a factory producing sandwiches for supermarkets and petrol stations etc. Maybe you’re producing 100,000 packs a day or even more. Now imagine the worst thing that could happen. Perhaps someone comes in to work with food poisoning and contaminates the product and 100,000 people come down with food poisoning.
Obviously you’re going to take stringent precautions to keep the product as it should be and people safe. Staff will wear special clothing including hair and beard guards. Disposable gloves will be worn. Temperatures of the storage taken and recorded regularly – perhaps every hour. Suppliers will be subject to similar rules and everything will be checked and double-checked. You get the picture.
Now, since businesses have a tendency to bend or break rules to save money, we’ll back these rules and regulations up with the force of law and inspectors will visit to make sure all is as it should be. Penalties for breaking the law will go as far as imprisonment. In view of the risks if something goes wrong, this makes good sense.
Now let’s apply those laws to anyone and everyone who makes a sandwich or any food for that matter.
Imagine the scene – the Oxo family of Dad and two kids sit at the table whilst Mum dishes up a meal. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. Dad opens it and in walks.. The Health Inspectors.
“We notice you’re not wearing approved clothing, Mrs Oxo. Where are your refrigerator temperature records? Why do you not have a separate hand-washing facility?”
The next scene is Mrs Oxo standing tearfully in the dock as the judge passes sentence. “Two Years! Take her down!”
Think that’s ridiculous? Insane? – Read on!
Feeding chickens kitchen scraps
Because there is no requirement for owners of less than 50 birds to register, there are no hard figures about how many people keep a few back garden chickens – the best estimates are around the 750,000 mark. I know from my website forum that most of those keepers are unaware of the law and many who are aware just ignore it.
Technically you can get two years in prison for feeding your pet hen kitchen scraps. Hens are livestock and the law doesn’t differentiate between home owners with a couple of birds and agribusiness operations with 100,000 birds.
Food that is fine to serve to the family is illegal to feed to your chickens. Even a tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce freshly opened and heated in the kitchen. It gets crazier. You pick a cauliflower and cut the leaves off on the plot. It’s fine to feed those leaves to your hens. Take the cauliflower into your kitchen, cut the leaves off and it is illegal to feed those to your hens.
The reason is to prevent contamination with meat or or meat products. There is an exception to the kitchen scraps law – vegan households. However, to quote from the government web site:
There is a complete ban on using kitchen waste from non-vegan households and from catering waste containing products of animal origin. It is illegal to use catering waste from kitchens which handle meat, or vegetarian kitchens which may handle dairy products, eggs etc. This ban also includes catering waste from restaurants and commercial kitchens producing vegan food.
The reasoning behind the law on feeding kitchen waste to chickens
The reason for this legal madness is to prevent the chickens contracting a disease from contaminated food including meat products and passing it on. The Animal and Plant Health Agency state:
This is to prevent the introduction and spread of potentially devastating notifiable animal diseases, such as African and Classical Swine Fever, and Foot and Mouth disease. These diseases cause significant animal health and welfare problems and damage to the economy.
Of course, there were sensible rules to follow for the hens’ health but for many years we managed without the full force of the law hanging over us.
Pigs and kitchen waste
The other animal that was commonly fed waste was, of course, the pig. The swill bin was a fixture of school and commercial kitchens. But this is now illegal. The Animal and Plant Health Agency say to support their reasoning:
The most likely source of the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001 was pigs being fed undercooked catering waste containing the virus which originated from outside the UK. The outbreak resulted in the destruction of more than 10 million cattle and sheep, with compensation running into many millions of pounds.
If I recall accurately the most likely reason was pigs being fed on undercooked catering waste that included illegally imported meat. So it wasn’t the catering waste as such – it was illegally imported meat and a failure to process the waste properly. Two failures that reinforced each other with catastrophic results.
If the infected meat hadn’t been illegally imported then we most probably would have been OK or if the waste had been properly processed we would have been fine.
It’s worth noting that the 2007 outbreak of foot and mouth disease was caused by poor bio-security procedures at the Pirbright laboratory.
Why ban kitchen waste in animal feeding?
After all, we didn’t ban viral research laboratories after the 2007 outbreak. One hopes bio-security was taken more seriously and better applied though.
The logical course of action after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak would have been to look at better prevention of illegal meat imports whilst ensuring the safe handling of waste foodstuffs in the animal food chain.
The safe handling of waste foodstuffs to feed animals could have been accomplished by regulation and education. People are more likely to follow rules that they know, understand and agree with the reason for.
Instead we have a law that many home poultry keepers are not aware of and free discussion of feeding hens on scraps could be considered incitement to break the law. This is counter-productive as giving specific advice on safely treating waste food to feed pet hens, say on a poultry forum, risks legal action.
That’s a real risk, by the way. Not just theoretical. I’ve had menacing emails from official agencies for suggesting popping a few slug pellets in with stored potatoes as a ‘misuse of pesticide’.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency proudly say:
APHA and Trading Standards continue to find and investigate incidents where farmers and smallholders are illegally feeding pigs and poultry with catering waste, often because they are unaware of the disease risk posed to their livestock by giving them this type of food.
I’d suggest it’s far more sensible and safe for everyone for those farmers and smallholders to be feeding their livestock on scraps legally and openly rather than in secret. That way their processing methods could be checked and supported with advice
How is food waste handled now?
Some councils now separately collect food waste from households and much catering and supermarket waste food etc. ends up in biodigesters. Here the waste goes into a system that produces methane gas which is burnt to produce electricity that is sold into the grid.
To encourage biodigesters the government was paying a large subsidy to the owners. So the owners naturally disposed of wastes like slurry from dairy farms in the biodigesters and even started growing crops to digest!
The subsidy comes from the taxpayer and generally benefits those who were wealthy enough money to invest large amounts of money in the equipment.
Who benefits from the current law?
There is, of course, the argument that the law protects the farming industry from disease and changing it would be a grave risk to the economy and cost to the taxpayer.
The owners of biodigesters obviously benefit although the reduction of the government subsidies means there are not a great number of new ones coming on stream now.
The largest beneficiary has to be the animal feed industry. Buying and processing food waste for animal feed is of necessity distributed and small scale. Manufacturing and importing processed animal feed is ideal for large international corporations.
My opinion about feeding food waste to chickens and other livestock
My opinion is that the current law fails to protect the industry and the illegal feeding actually could be a greater risk. It technically criminalises home poultry keepers for following a practice that has been followed for hundreds of years.
I’d like to see the risks, if any, of feeding chickens and other livestock properly analysed and quantified by independent researchers. That is researchers not funded by businesses with vested interests or government agencies whose relationship with big businesses is far too cosy for my liking.
I have no faith in those agencies when they make sweeping statements of risk without openly publishing the research and logic that backs it up.
To me, feeding waste food to animals who turn it into high value edible food and high grade fertiliser makes perfect sense. Especially when carried out at a local level.
A version of this article appeared in Home Farmer Magazine.
Sophie Paterson explores how a movement founded in France is connecting communities to local farmers and food makers across Britain: enter The Food Assembly. But does it really offer the best deal to producers, hosts and customers alike?
La Ruche qui dit Oui!
Or, to translate directly, ‘the hive that says yes!’. A noble sentiment which is perhaps catchiest in French. With a change in name required to appeal to an English-speaking audience, The Food Assembly was born here in the UK in 2014. It was built upon the La Ruche qui dit Oui! movement, founded in 2010 by Guilhem Chéron, Marc-David Choukroun and Mounir Mahjoubi a short hop across the Channel.
Functioning as a hybrid online-offline form of farmers’ market, The Food Assembly connects consumers with local farmers and food makers. It offers an online shopping portal with weekly face-to-face collection events. A chance to meet both producers and your neighbours, the concept has spread far and wide. The Food Assembly boasts 1,100 assemblies across France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, Denmark, Germany and Italy.
The first Food Assembly popped up in London’s Hackney, then another close to Wales, in Chester. Now we have Food Assemblies all over the country, giving back power to producers and consumers across the UK. Each one is an independent and local project while remaining part of The Food Assembly collective. It is the local farmers and food makers and a unique community spirit that keeps the Network alive.
How a Food Assembly works
So how does this award-winning food community work? According to their website:
Along with The Food Assembly, two kinds of people make an Assembly happen: Hosts and Producers. The Producers sell directly to [customers] through our online market. Hosts organise the weekly online shop and the local pick-up market in your area. Members pay the Producer directly. Producers also know how much to harvest each week for orders, which means there’s no food waste.
The Food Assembly - Vimeo
Let’s think about it in practice. If, hypothetically speaking, I lived in Leeds, all I would need to do is locate my nearest Assembly using the search feature on the website’s homepage. By entering my postcode, I’d be directed to Leeds Food Assembly Hunslet.
After joining for free, I could purchase anything from organic wholewheat pasta to the intriguingly named salsakraut. According to information provided by host Anne-Claire, the online market opens every Thursday morning and closes at midnight on Monday. Having made an order in time, I could then pick up my order on Wednesday. The weekly collection slot runs from 5-7pm at The Grub and Grog café, near the Leeds Docks.
So far, so good… but is there a catch?
For, say, a child-free city-dweller with standard working hours and easy access to transportation, this sounds relatively straight-forward. I can immediately, however, imagine a host of circumstances which could potentially limit participation to a rather narrow spectrum. That aside, what about the producers themselves? A major claim made by The Food Assembly is that one of the benefits to producers is the effective removal of a middleman.
In an Assembly, you sell your products directly to Members without [a] middleman. You will earn 83.3% of pre-tax turnover. The remaining 16.7% covers the Assembly Host, Internet service, transaction and technical support costs.
So, whilst farmers and food makers are free to set their own prices and customers pay the producers directly, 16.7% of turnover is essentially redirected. 8.35% goes to the Host and 8.35% to The Food Assembly, who claim to act not as a middleman but instead as a “service provider“. As noted in a recent Farmers’ Guardian article:
The Food Assembly itself gets the same commission for providing the web platform and dealing with payments. These are administered by Mangopay, an online payment technology designed for marketplaces, crowdfunding platforms and sharing economy businesses.
The Food Assembly in turn state that the 83.3% turnover represents a better deal to producers than what they would receive if selling to a supermarket, which they claim would see farmers receive only 15-25%.
The hosts of these events, meanwhile, seem a friendly and enthusiastic bunch, if the Food Assembly blog is anything to go by. According to the website: “Hosting a Food Assembly is a rewarding and rewarded part-time activity! This is a fulfilling and flexible role that enables you to bring fresh food to your family, friends and neighbourhood.” From the profiles provided, it seems many hosts juggle their role alongside existing employment, self-employment or studies.
The gig economy
Digging deeper into the special terms and conditions, however, reveals hosting is quite the undertaking. Significant responsibilities are shouldered by the host and seemingly few by The Food Assembly as a company. Here are some extracts to give you an idea:
Should your application be successful you shall immediately begin the preparation of your Food
Assembly, unless postponed by the Company. As part of Preparation, unless delayed by us, you will be required to find a suitable Collection site for the Delivery of Products ordered by the Members of the Assembly within two weeks of receiving confirmation that your application has been successful (or from receipt of a notification from us that you can commence Preparation if previously delayed by us).
Seems like a pretty tight turnaround there! If you make it, there’s then a requirement to meet various conditions and provide various documentation.
The Assembly must be opened in accordance with these conditions within six months of the launch of Building. If an Assembly is not validly opened within this six month period due to any fault of yours, we may suspend you from acting as an Assembly Host. You will not be entitled to claim any damages, compensation or remuneration solely as a result of such suspension.
Ouch. Assuming as an aspiring host you made it so far:
The opening date of the Sales Space will be determined by us in our absolute discretion. We
reserve complete discretion to delay the date and/or to decide that the number of Members
and/or Producers is insufficient and/or due to our management or organisational constraints.
And when it comes to the running, you’re responsible for maintaining and moderating the individual assembly’s web pages and features, managing both members and producers and their sales, maintaining database records, actually running the events and personally employing any personnel you might bring on board to help you with all of this. And of course you:
…assume liability for all information you provide in the course of the approval of Products for Distribution. In the case of an error or an omission to the detriment of the Members and/or the Producer, you will bear all costs and accept that we shall not be liable in this respect.
If, for some reason, as a host you’re unable to hold a Distribution Day and cannot find an alternative date, you would be solely responsible for any additional charges or costs incurred by the Members and Producers. In the event you decided you no longer wished to act as a host, a three month notice period is in place. On the other hand, The Food Assembly retains the right to close any assembly:
that, after 6 months activity, has not yielded at least twenty orders a month for a period of three consecutive months by providing one month’s notice of the Company’s intention to do so. You will have no right to any damages, compensation or remuneration as a result of such closure.
And to top it all off, there’s this lovely rather open-ended line to boot:
You will be fully responsible to all Members and Producers for the consequences of the closure of your Assembly.
It seems clear where the real power lays and it’s definitely not with the hosts. Despite their many claims of ‘fairness’, this self-described ‘social and collaborative enterprise‘ perhaps has some way to go to merit them.
At face value, The Food Assembly appears to chime with many of the values we at Lowimpact.org share: supporting local, independents over corporate conglomerates, fostering community connections, strengthening sustainable agriculture in rural economies. There is no doubt it has helped to raise the profile of the local food renaissance. But for me, there is a big but.
Whilst providing an alternative to supermarkets is not something to argue with, I must admit feeling a little uncertain as to whether there isn’t really a middleman of sorts after all. Although it seems to work well for many customers, hosts and producers, I can’t help but think that producers often already offer plenty of opportunities to support the local food economy – and in ways directly in common with growing the solidarity economy, rather than the sharing economy. Think community-supported agriculture, veg box schemes, direct farm sales and even ye olde traditional farmers’ markets. Meanwhile, the terms under which the self-employed hosts work distinctly strike me as reminiscent of the less savoury elements of the so-called gig economy.
Ultimately, I’ll be sticking to buying directly from the farmer but I’m tempted to visit what will soon be the nearest Assembly to me in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to see it in action. In the meantime, if any of our readers have experience of shopping at, hosting or supplying a Food Assembly, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
About the author
Sophie Paterson works as part of the Lowimpact.org team with a focus on social media and book promotion. She spent the past year living and volunteering on a farm in Devon. In any spare time she undertakes natural building work and training and attempts to keep up her Arabic language skills.
Where is real ‘opposition’ in the West when all major parties support cancerous, perpetual growth? Surely it’s time for major political figures to stand up and say that the quest for perpetual economic growth is the engine behind the destruction of the biosphere, and will eventually kill us unless we stop. Here, Brian Czech of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy in the US makes the case for the Democrats embracing a stable, non-growing economy that will allow us to live within nature’s limits, and therefore survive. We think it’s a very important message. Over to Brian
Democrats are stunned by Donald Trump’s lack of culpability for racist rhetoric, Twitter tantrums, and international insults. They shouldn’t be. They’re the party of “It’s the Economy Stupid.” They should know that if a president inspires a bull market, creates a few jobs, and grows the GDP, he can “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing voters.
Elected Dems can’t hold Trump accountable because they can’t break their own addiction to growth. They’re defenseless against a growth-mongering president. They want the credit for economic momentum from the Obama era, yet they just know that stock market boom is all about Trump.
Hearkening back to Obama’s economic performance makes the Democratic Party look like a Super Bowl loser taking credit for the half-time show. They’re in the process of being long-forgotten. Trump owns the Department of Commerce, the fiscal policy pen, and the printing presses for reports on growth. Not to mention the Twitter Feed from Hell.
There is a solution for Democrats, if they dare take it. It’s a simple solution but a real paradigm shifter: It’s a new outlook on growth. Ironically, Trump’s going to help them more than anyone in their own party. By the end of his term, economic growth will never look the same. Consider three ugly lessons:
1) Trump proves it doesn’t take a stable genius to grow the economy. Any old dummy can do it by trashing the planet. All you have to do is dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, dispose of public lands, and generally run roughshod over the hard-won environmental institutions of earlier administrations and congresses. Don’t worry about offshore oil spills, the Arctic, or endangered species. Just drill baby drill, and grow the economy!
2) Trump doesn’t want his Americana – especially his American economy – saddled with poor and huddled masses from the “shithole countries.” He’d rather have the entrepreneurs, industrialists, and inheritors who bring instant big money to his hotels, golf resorts, and casinos. His personal financial obsession melds into a brutal economic philosophy: Keep the little money out, bring the big money in. That’s the quickest way to excite Wall Street, grow the GDP, and take credit for both!
3) Trump doesn’t view the international community as a precious outcome of creation, evolution, or civilization. To him it’s a collection of potential customers or, at best, business partners to skunk. Trump pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accords. He’s threatened multilateral obligations from NAFTA to NATO. He’s an insult to the United Nations. Rather than pursing goodwill among nations, Trump pursues the terms of trade most likely to bolster American GDP, regardless of what it does to the hopes and dreams of less advantaged nations who once revered the USA for its generosity and its democratic approach to capitalism. The United States is losing respect like never before; a doubly dangerous trend in an age of international instability.
Trump gets away with it all by hiding behind the goal of GDP growth. His minions at the White House collude. How many times have we heard them tell us that Trump does more for blacks than Obama ever did, because he’s growing the economy faster and providing jobs for all? And how is he providing these jobs? By “taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion and to cancel job killing regulations,” as Trump’s EPA Administrator puts it. Meanwhile he justifies his international bullying with, “When the United States grows, so does the world.”
Right now, due to the bipartisan obsession with economic growth, Democrats look like losers at the GDP racetrack, racist sentiments are fair game again, and the rapacious pursuit of growth is liquidating the environment. Democrats, racial minorities, and environmentalists can pine independently, “Woe is me.” Or, they can unify and announce to the president and Republicans, “It’s not just GDP, stupid.”
Continuing The Wool Journey, Sue Blacker of The Natural Fibre Company explains the uses of different fibre types. It is said that everything of a pig can be used but the squeak and the same is true of fleeces!
But as not all fibre is wonderful, so even once the best of the harvested fibre has been selected and stored well, the fibre type will determine its end use. Understanding which fibre is suited to what purpose is very important in ensuring that the producer can get the best price for the product and that the processor and end customer get something which will actually work for them. Thus all of The Wool Journey parts 1-4, which described wool types, are very relevant going forward into processing.
Sorting and grading: no need to waste anything!
For both The Natural Fibre Company and Blacker Yarns, the same approach is taken to sorting and grading, to ensure all customers get their fleeces and yarns as effectively processed as possible.
Pictured above is our sorting table across which every fleece coming to us greasy will go.
The key is to find the appropriate use for each part:
Dirty, with vegetable contamination, short
Matted and unable to be pulled apart
Covered with spray paint (at The Natural Fibre Company, this is known as graffiti!)
Clean but very short
Coarse or hairy
Reject fibre means fibre which will probably not be spun into yarns, but that doesn’t mean it is useless! This fibre generally resembles the examples shown as poor quality in The Wool Journey Part 7 and here are some possible uses for it, ideally separated before sending fleeces for processing.
Dags and crutch, belly and neck wool
Wool from these areas may not be clean enough or long enough to be used for spinning yarns, but it can be used for an excellent natural mulch. This fleece contains all the dirt and other nutrients which help as fertiliser, while the fibre absorbs and holds water which can be released to feed plants and when spread around young plants can also act as a mulch and weed deterrent. The additional benefit of dirty, coarse fleece is that slugs do not like moving over it, so it can help protect your young vegetables, salads and other plants from them.
Matted well is too densely tangled to process into yarn, but can be washed or scoured and used to line hanging baskets and for pet beds or chopped into lengths for peg loom rug weaving. The grease and dirt in peg loom rugs can be washed out after weaving, though take not to shrink them too much! Matted fleeces with long locks on the outside can also be carefully felted more evenly underneath to make the increasingly popular sustainable “vegetarian” sheepskins.
Graffiti is a real shame! Many shepherds persist in painting numbers on their sheep (though ewes can generally recognise their lambs without needing to read the number) or otherwise marking them to denote information such as treatments, or other management decisions. Despite everything on the label and the fact that the paint will fade on the animals outdoors, mill scouring will not remove this completely, although the crayon markers used for ram harnesses are an exception. So marking, if it is done, should be on the head, tail, ears or back legs, where the fleece quality will be lower. Occasionally this wool can be used by hand to achieve colour effects on felted items for instance, though it will eventually fade, so is probably best added to the mulch pile along with the dags, etc.
This is the sort of stuff, along with the occasional whole totally matted fleece, which is rejected for processing and the photos below were taken of what falls below our sorting table.
We make all of this into bales of greasy reject fibre, which are then sent off to a shoddy merchant, an expert wool trade activity which collects together various streams of waste and reject fibre from processing and re-cycles them into such things as carpet yarns, felt for underlays and other uses, insulation and some re-cycled yarns using short fibre.
Typically this is alpaca neck hair and lambs’ wool. Less than an average of 5 cm, 2 inch fibre staple length will be too short to spin, except in specialised wool re-cycling machines, so this is best used for felting and as it is often beautifully fine it works well for attractive felted scarves, jackets and toys. Longer lambs’ wool can be woollen spun and is the basis of most lambswool knitwear as it is also fine and soft.
Coarse or hairy wool
With fibre thickness at around 35 microns and above, this may not make baby clothes but is very hard wearing so is ideal for rug yarns or durable woven goods such as upholstery. This also applies to the coarser back leg wool from some sheep which can be separated from the rest of the fleece for this purpose. In addition, although it is too smooth and coarse to spin easily alone, the leg hair from alpacas can be blended with 50% wool, adding brighter natural colour, and spun for excellent rug and carpet yarns. This type of wool also felts less easily than finer wools so can be scoured and teased to make fluffy stuffings for toys or bedding such as pillows and duvets. Generally coarse wools from mountain and hill sheep need to be blended with downland wool to enable them to pass successfully through the carding process and sometimes longer fibre also needs chopping down to shorter lengths to stop it from acting like a brake and blocking the machine.
The use for wool in carpets and upholstery is vital where there is a fire risk, such as in hotels, large venues and transport of all types, so just because it’s not suitable for next-to-the-skin yarns does not mean it has no value or use – indeed the greater bulk of wool is needed for these purposes.
Coarse wool as illustrated above is also great for bedding due to its anti allergenic, wicking and insulation capabilities. Larger scale production can make building insulation as well, where not only the effective insulation properties of wool but again its high temperature of combustion are important: indeed wool will not catch fire until it reaches three times the temperature of many insulation materials with the exception of silicate-based versions. Wool insulation does still need treatment to reduce the risk of moth damage however, though moths much prefer dirty wool to clean so this is helpful, and wall panels can be stuffed and sealed, which means moth access is limited.
This means it can be made into yarns and the fibre falls into two main categories:
At 27-35 microns in fibre diameter, medium wool is ideal for weaving as it makes more durable rugs, cushions and throws than the softest wool and the woven or knitted fabrics can be finished by washing, felting, smoothing or brushing to soften the handle and improve the appearance. Medium wool will also work for hand knitting or crochet accessories, socks, gloves and other items which need to work hard, as well as being warm and beautiful. Medium wool can also be felted for crafted sculptures, accessories such as hats and bags, the layers in mattresses (along with coarse wool as well) and many other items. Adult mohair is in this category and may usefully be blended with wools to add lustrous highlights useful for dyeing and increase durability. The example below is Gotland.
At below 27 microns, fine wool is best for the softest yarns, less hard wearing and more suitable for babies and next to the skin and it can of course be blended with other fibres, such as silk, linen, cotton, cashmere, hemp or naturally coloured wools to make a wonderful range of products. Such yarns are usually tolerated next to the skin by most people. There is a further break point at below 20 microns where the wool or alpaca, or kid mohair may be called superfine. Generally everyone likes sub 20 micron fibre and yarns while some people find 20-27 microns insufficiently comfortable except with something between the garment and the skin. The examples below are Blue-faced Leicester and mohair.
The British Wool Marketing Board classifications give further wool types, and there is a great page on their website, mainly about commercial sheep, including .pdfs of information on the main breeds for wool, somewhat similar to The Natural Fibre Company’s Meet the Animals page.
Key decisions about “everything else”
Each breed of sheep, goat or alpaca, and at each age, as well as each colour, produces fleeces with different characteristics as we have described in The Wool Journey parts 1 to 4. It is important to understand the possibilities for the particular breed and style of wool.
The main attributes to take into account in designing a yarn are:
Lustre, which will affect dye take-up and appearance of the yarn, is often characteristic of upland breeds and may also mean that the fibre might be coarser, straighter and more technically challenging to spin
Crimp, which affects elasticity and memory of the yarn – generally downland and primitive sheep breeds make bulkier, more resilient and more stretchy yarns
Length, which helps for worsted spinning, since the requirement here is generally for an average fibre staple length of 10 cm, 4 inches
Weight, since Longwool sheep wool, mohair and alpaca fleece are generally heavier than fibre from shorter woolled sheep, so the resulting yarns are leaner and more drapey
Therefore blending these different styles of fibre, or leaving them unblended, will create yarns with different attributes, useful for different projects and styles of knitted and woven fabrics. There is a great opportunity to try things out here! This is where the art of combining the perfect blend of attributes to make a great yarn really starts, whether you want a 100-year life carpet yarn or a delicate lace yarn for a ring shawl.
There are useful books, from the Wool Board amongst others, along with Sue Blacker’s book, Pure Wool, on 17 breeds with associated patterns designed to make the best use of the attributes of their wools. You can also find helpful information at the Meet the Animals page of The Natural Fibre Company website or can call us or other mills, weavers and knitting companies for further information. Deb Robson’s Fleece and Fiber Source Book is also a mine of information on breeds worldwide and is specifically very helpful for hand spinning.
The Wool Journey will now (at last!) start to travel through the processes to make a yarn, and we will then later discuss more about designing yarns!
A word of caution! From this stage onward, we will be processing the wool and although we take great care, each process will do some damage to the fibres compared to their natural state straight from the animal. In particular, washing and drying fibres and then twisting them or dyeing them will all tend to make them harder in handle. So this is why starting with the best quality and handle for the particular purpose is important, as it will increase the possibility of achieving that purpose.
About the author
As British wool spinners, The Natural Fibre Company add value by processing quantities of fleece from 20 kilograms up to over a tonne and more. As we scour, card, dye and woollen and worsted spin under one roof, we are effectively experts in all aspects of the process of turning raw fleece into high quality yarn. Most of our customers are in the UK for rare and specialist breeds.
This is the first of a series of webinars on specific aspects of the money system and various alternatives to it.
If like many people, you feel that computers are tedious tools you’d rather not invest all your life in, you might not have paid much attention to cryptocurrencies. Much of the discussion is highly technical and uninviting. Yet we at Lowimpact.org strongly believe that monetary innovation is critical if we are to create a low-impact world, and we think it’s important to get a grip on cryptocurrencies and understand their uses and the kind of world they portend.
That’s why our next webinar will be a hands-on introduction to a popular cryptocurrency, Litecoin. We’ll cover
what a cryptocurrency is
why it’s different to normal money
how they might be used towards creating a more sustainable economy
Before attending the webinar we invite you to create a Litecoin wallet (instructions below) and make a donation (in ‘normal’ money), some or all of which we’ll give you back in Litecoin (depending on how much you’d like to donate for the webinar). Do register in advance as places are limited to 15.
The webinar will be run by Matthew Slater, a software developer for complementary currencies. He co-founded Community Forge, which free hosts software for collaborative credit schemes; he co-drafted the Credit Commons white paper, a proposal for a global solidarity economy money system, based on mutual credit principles.
We recently posted an article explaining the environmental problems associated with the enormous amounts of energy involved in mining and transacting with Bitcoin; and Arthur Brock recently said about it:
‘It seems like it would be hard to design a cryptocurrency to more faithfully reproduce all the same problems as national currencies as well as bitcoin has. It’s almost like it was a virus to lead everyone who might pose a threat to the current systems away from actual viable alternatives and trap them in an energy and hardware consuming contest, competing to centralize a “decentralized” system.’
So why is Litecoin different? Well, it’s not completely different. It’s still a cryptocurrency. But cryptocurrencies do take power and money away from banks, which as far as we’re concerned is a step in the right direction (although ultimately, perhaps not the answer). Here are some benefits of using Litecoin:
You now have a wallet, and an account that you can login to using the Login ID you received, and password that you used to register.
When you login, you can see your wallet address, which looks something like this (this is mine):
You give that address to people so that they can make payments to you, or you can put it on your website, so that people can make payments to you in Litecoin – like this.
That’s how to get set up with a Litecoin wallet – easy, no?
When you’re in your account on Litevault, your balance is shown at the top right of every page, and there are tabs at the top that allow you to see your transactions and to send payments. This screenshot shows my transactions – I received one payment of 0.1 Litecoin and another of 0.29 Litecoin, so that my balance at the top right shows 0.129 Litecoin.
One Litecoin is currently valued at around $250, so that means I’m holding around $32 worth of Litecoin.
During the webinar we’ll talk more about how to purchase Litecoin and how to send and receive payments.
If you’d like to practise making payments, then when you make a donation for the webinar (see below), add an amount that you’d like us to pay back to you in Litecoin, and let me know via email (dave at lowimpact dot org). We’ll then send you that amount in Litecoin and you can check that you’ve received it in your wallet.
There’s a transaction fee of $1, regardless of the amount transferred (sometimes fees can be $20 for Bitcoin).
Then you can put my wallet address in and see my balance and my transactions. Everything is totally public and accountable with Litecoin (and all cryptocurrencies), but, if you don’t make your wallet address public, it’s totally anonymous. You can’t see who made those 2 payments to me, for example.
Donate here to secure your place. We’ll use all donations to reach more people / provide information / attempt to change the money system. Pay what you like (as mentioned above, if you donate, say, £20-50, well pay as much of it as you like back to you in Litecoin; anything left over will be your donation to us).
Also, email me – dave at lowimpact dot org – to register. More details will be emailed after registration.
The webinar will take place in a Zoom room. You just click on the link we send you at the specified time, and you’ll be in the webinar.
This webinar will take place on Saturday, Feb 10th, at 11am GMT.
Please share this amongst friends who you think might be interested.
We’re determined to spread the word that any attempts to move towards a more sustainable and democratic world are doomed to failure if they don’t address the money system.
Recently we ran a general webinar about the money system, but we felt that future webinars need to hone in on specific subjects, so that complete beginners can begin to develop an understanding of various aspects of how our money system works, what problems it causes, and what we might do about it; and more experienced people can dip in and out to increase their knowledge where they might have gaps.
Most people are not technical, and therefore 99% of information online about the money system, banking, cryptocurrencies etc. will be beyond them. We’d like to draw more people in by providing introductory information, but allow people who have slightly more knowledge to expand on what they know by asking specific questions.
The webinars will be run by Matthew Slater, a software developer for complementary currencies. He co-founded Community Forge, which free hosts software for collaborative credit schemes; he co-drafted the Credit Commons white paper, a proposal for a global solidarity economy money system, based on mutual credit principles.
We thought we’d start with a practical webinar on how to set up an account in a cryptocurrency and to start trading in it. Cryptocurrencies are in the spotlight, so we’ll focus first on the basic essentials that people need to know, and help people set up an account and trade in a cryptocurrency called Litecoin. We’ll blog about this webinar tomorrow.
We’re not saying that crypto is the answer, by the way – there are many problems associated with cryptocurrencies (and especially Bitcoin). They can be hoarded and speculated with, rather than used as a means of exchange, and the majority of them require (quite a lot of) electricity to mine and to use. They can be disruptive to the current system however, which we think is a good thing. But apart from cryptocurrencies, there are other currencies and systems that can be tried.
Cryptocurrencies have shown that beyond doubt, our dominant money system is the result of design decisions to support the kind of economy we have. But we can do better than this – we can experiment with various types of currency that are more geared to developing the kind of society we’d like to see – i.e. democratic and sustainable, which this one patently isn’t.
Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be running more webinars to help people to develop their understanding of the global money system and various alternatives to it. We’ll be providing basic introductions to various key topics, allowing people to ask specific questions and pointing them in the direction for further information.
Here are some ideas for topics that we could cover in future webinars.
Economics of Bitcoin
Cryptocurrencies for good
Problems with and solutions for the money system
30 years of experimentation with complementary currencies
How to prepare for economic collapse
Building your local economy
Monetary hacks: holochain, Faircoin, Credit Commons, Hullcoin etc.
Plus we’re happy to look more into subjects that you’re interested in – just let us know.
The Fair trade movement was set up to secure better prices for struggling small farmers and craft producers in poor countries, and to provide funds for various improvements in their communities. It has, however, come in for some criticism for various reasons. Some criticism is based on the practical application of the Fair trade model – see here. Many of these points are valid, and will require regulation, changes to some practices and purges of corrupt individuals.
A common claim is that not enough money makes it to producers, but even if increases in farmers’ income are relatively small in real terms, this can still represent a significant percentage increase that can help them hold on to their land, and more importantly, it guarantees prices over a longer period, allowing them to make realistic plans that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
But there is a second type of criticism that is disingenuous and pernicious, and requires an explanation. These criticisms come from pro-corporate, libertarian ‘think-tanks’, and they claim that instead of paying small farmers a little bit more, it’s best to help them ‘modernise’ (which means chemical fertilisers, pesticides and machinery). This is exactly what happened during the ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1960s, which offered technological solutions to non-existent ‘food shortages’ that were aimed at increasing profits for Western corporations producing the technological inputs such as high-yielding plant varieties, agricultural machinery, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. When you recognise that as the main aim, you can see that it was very successful.
However, it resulted in millions of small farmers losing their land, because a technological solution that benefited the West was offered instead of land reform, which would have benefited poor farmers and resulted in higher yields without the ecological damage and the increase in farm size associated with the application of technology (see ‘food production’, below). Smaller farmers couldn’t afford the machinery, pesticides etc, and couldn’t compete with larger farmers, who eventually bought them out and employed them as labourers, until more machinery and pesticides made their jobs superfluous, and they moved to urban slums. It’s a modern-day enclosure movement that robs small farmers of their land and enriches Western corporations producing machinery and synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
Technological ‘solutions’ to non-existent problems
The technological approach (of course) continues – the next wave of encroachment will be the introduction of GM crops, again designed to enrich the corporate sector at the expense of small farmers (it will drastically reduce the number of small farmers in the same way that the Green Revolution did). More here. The important things to remember are: 1) that there is no food shortage, only a shortage of money for many people in poor countries, that prevents them from buying enough food – if they had more money, they could eat as much as people in the West; and 2) that smallholdings produce more food per acre than large, monoculture farms (see ‘food production’, below).
Perhaps another (and possibly the most important) reason that pro-corporate groups oppose Fair trade is that the Fairtrade movement works with co-operatives of small producers. The focus of co-operatives are not just fair prices, but also organisation, to build a better, non-expolitative system – and nothing terrifies the corporate sector more than groups of working people organising to build something that will divert money away from them.
Peasant smallholders don’t choose to leave the land
Another tactic that they use is to claim that people don’t really want to be peasant farmers, because it’s too much like hard work. This is the most pernicious argument of all – a disguised attempt to remove smallholders from their land. La Via Campesina is an advocacy organisation for peasant farmers in poor countries who want to hold on to their traditional lifestyle and avoid the slum/sweatshop route at all costs; and in the UK, the ELC is making land available for would-be smallholders, and they are swamped with applications for each plot. It’s exploitation and poverty that pushes small farmers off their land, not a desire to escape the lifestyle. It’s a healthy, natural and extremely satisfying way of life that is very difficult to achieve in the West, and one that poor farmers are desperately trying to hang on to in the ‘South’.
For ideological reasons, ‘free-market’ economists (the modern capitalist economy is anything but free) or corporate think-tanks will try to tell you that Fair trade doesn’t help the poorest farmers – because maybe Fairtrade groups are operating in Central America but not Ethiopia. However, the cost of living is higher in Costa Rica, so poverty is relative; Fairtrade groups will operate in the poorest countries if and when it’s possible; and Ethiopians will have leverage to charge more if the corporate sector doesn’t have so many other routes to exploit small farmers; and finally, would those same economists and think-tanks criticise efforts to help small farmers in the UK, just because they’re not as poor as small farmers in Malawi? The more that small farmers are helped to prevent wealth extraction by the corporate sector the better, wherever they are.
Such criticism must provide encouragement to the Fairtrade movement, because they know that they have hit the corporate sector where it hurts most, by helping to distribute wealth away from them and towards small farmers. But it’s all about who is offering the criticism, and it requires a little detective work to try to discover their motivations.
Libertarian when it suits them
Examples of this kind of criticism can be seen here, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, here, from the Adam Smith Institute and WorldWrite and here (written by a program officer at the pro-corporate, ‘libertarian’ Institute for Humane Studies, funded by one of the infamous Koch brothers). There are many more examples. These organisations are anti-environment, pro-corporate and ‘libertarian’ in ways that don’t actually promote liberty. Yes, they stand for liberty from state interference, but they deliberately ignore the corporate-state alliance, and the fact that liberty is just as impossible under a corrupt corporate hierarchy as it is under an oppressive state hierarchy.
Judging by the comments on the BBC article, most readers weren’t fooled. This one, for example:
Major, mechanized farming methods are what made these people reliant on the so-called First World to begin with. Coffee is a primary example. All coffee used to be shade-grown. Today most of it is produced in cleared fields. This clearing of the native environment eliminated the natural system of pest control, necessitating the use of chemical insecticides. It depletes the soil, meaning that you also end up using chemical fertilizers. Between the use of these chemicals and modern tilling techniques, the soil is utterly depleted and a layer of hardpan is created below it, eliminating drainage. The result? Environmental devastation. Anyone who claims that these people need to convert to our way of farming is really saying that they need to convert to our way of life (such as it is) because there is something wrong with theirs. Martin Espinoza, Kelseyville, California
Who funds these organisations? My guess is that they’re largely funded by the corporate sector – the ultimate beneficiary of their propaganda – but it’s difficult to know, because they don’t generally disclose their funders. See here and here for two examples. Organisations that are clearly not corporate-funded by the way, are happy to disclose the sources of their funds – see here, for example.
WorldWrite is part of the LM group of organisations that attract attention by being deliberately provocative, but are essentially anti-environment and pro-corporate. In fact, the journalist in the BBC article in the link above, who introduces WorldWrite, is also from the LM stable. Beware.
To summarise: their approach is wrong for three main reasons
1. Food production: it leads to an increase in the size of farms, when the opposite should be happening. Only mixed, intensively-farmed smallholdings will feed a global population headed towards 11 billion, without eroding soil and biodiversity. See here, here, here, here and here for more information on this.
2. Environment: industrial, monoculture farming involves the removal of hedges and trees, it poisons nature with pesticides and erodes soil with synthetic fertilisers rather than organic matter. See here for more.
3. Corporate dominance: it promotes the corporate sector, that produces fertilisers, pesticides, GM crops and machinery; again, this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing, for social, political and environmental reasons.
I urge you to reject these types of arguments as disingenuous, pro-corporate and environmentally-damaging, and to investigate the kinds of groups making them. Our support for Fair trade doesn’t have to be unconditional – we can still be critical of specific practices or examples of corruption – but overall, Fair Trade represents a noble attempt to help smallholders to make enough money, and to organise to be able to keep their land, and so to counter the trend towards large, monoculture farms that has so damaged rural livelihoods and the environment in the West.
This describes how my kids and I built an arcade machine, based on a Raspberry Pi. So, the first question many of you will be asking is….
Well, number one – Raspberry Pi machines are cheap (£30), non-corporate, mini computers that run Linux and will make a good second computer for children (for example), a media player in another room, or a data server. It might save people buying another laptop and it means you can reuse the peripherals of older PCs (screen, mouse etc). More here.
Secondly, children need to learn to code. There is no way this isn’t going to be a useful (and possibly essential) skill in the future. Laptops are great but don’t lend themselves to tinkering in the way a Raspberry Pi does. There’s a curiosity factor, plus the fact that if you really mess up, it’s easy just to wipe the memory card that functions as a hard drive & start again with a fresh version.
An arcade machine is a good way of introducing a Pi in an interesting way. The first arcade machines had blocky graphics but were simple to write code for, and have become retro chic for the next generation. Our arcade machine runs on the normal version of Raspbian (the main operating system for the Raspberry Pi), playing games using software like Scratch, Python & Processing.
A Raspberry Pi computer.
The frame was made from scrap and recycled bits, such as a repurposed speaker from an old radio, or an old phone charger to power the Pi. You will need:
A Pi3 (the latest as of end 2017) is the quickest model. The Pi zero is cheaper but slower, but a wifi version is now available.
A power supply (rated at least 2 amps, ideally 2.5), USB / wireless keyboard and mouse.
This makes connecting with speakers, joystick & buttons easy.
An old computer screen is perfect for this, or a posh new HDMI 8″ screen is about £40. If the screen connector is VGA (an older type of graphics interface), you’ll need a VGA to HDMI connector.
One or two small (4Ω ) speakers can be driven by the Picade hat, or take the Pi headphone output and plug into your stereo.
Softwood plank offcuts, plus some plywood for the panels.
Paint, wire, screws, angle brackets to hold the screen in place.
The Pi has a lots of ’GPIO’ pins sticking out, which let it interface with the rest of the world, by reading switches and sensors, and turning on LEDs and all sorts of things. Software lets you easily read the state of these pins if they are set as inputs, so a program could look and see if a button connected to an individual pin is pressed. This opens all sorts of possibilities, as the program can then make a character jump in a game, or start playing music, send a tweet … whatever you can think of. Connecting joysticks and buttons makes gaming more physical – a keyboard works, but it’s not got the feel of the real thing.
Building the frame
We used an old 14″ monitor screen rescued from an old work computer. Luckily this unscrewed from the stand, leaving just the screen, power adaptor and VGA cable. The screen size determined the width of the case and the height of the panel. Two sides, made of softwood, are held together by a forward sloping shelf holding the controls and a top plank. Cutting the sides creatively gives the screen and controls a slight angle which is more comfortable to play on. Long screws joining them is strong enough for our purposes. Your measurements will probably vary depending on the size of screen you are using, but the shape is about right. These are the only bits that need to be strong, the rest was made out of offcuts of marine ply that once packed something.
Cut a rectangle out of the front panel, the size of the viewable part of the screen. Drilling holes along the inside edge of the hole until you can get a saw in works if you don’t have a jigsaw. Angle brackets and a couple of bits of scrap wood behind the screen hold it up against the back of the front panel. The power supplies for screen and Pi were connected to a 2 socket extension lead which was fixed to the inside of one side, the adaptor held down via bits of strapping.
Small holes drilled in 2 circles at the bottom of the screen allow sound from the speakers through. They were fixed by screws into bits of scrap glued to the back of the marine ply, as it was too thin to screw into, but the alternative would just to have been to use bolts from the front. A couple of buttons ended up on the front panel too. A ply back panel & side panels completed it, painted with retro 8-bit graphics from old arcade games. A gap in the top helps to ventilate the screen and also provides somewhere to grip when moving it.
To make life easier we used a Picade Arcade Hat, available from pimoroni.com. This sits on top of the Pi’s GPIO pins and makes connections a bit easier. It has screw terminals for the joystick & 6 buttons, as well as some more utility buttons for things like the ’escape’ and ’enter’ keys, and a soft power switch. This needs pressing to turn the Pi on, and holding for 3 seconds turns the Pi off again – handy if you’re not using a keyboard. A wireless mouse & keyboard, if you have one, makes things easier to set up.
The Picade also has a little amp to drive speakers. We put a couple of 3 inch speakers behind the front panel. Wire more than one in series not parallel – ie wire from speaker + on the picade, to + on 1st speaker, the – of 1st speaker goes to + of 2nd speaker, and the – from 2nd speaker back to the – speaker terminal on the Picade. This stops it overloading the amp. Holes for the joystick and buttons were drilled in the lower flat shelf. The buttons are 27mm across, which isn’t an easy size to find a drill bit for, but using a smaller bit and a rasp opened the holes until the buttons fitted. Utility buttons went into the front panel as these aren’t pressed as often or as frantically during a game.
Connecting it up
The joystick also came from Pimoroni. Joysticks can be digital or analog – analog ones show how hard the joystick is pressed, but need more work to interpret, so digital ones are easier to use. The joystick has 4 switches, 1 for each direction, activated when it is pushed. Each switch has 2 terminals, 1 connects to the Picade, and the 2nd one of each (doesn’t matter which is which) are joined together and connected to ground on the Picade. Similarly the button terminals connect to the Picade and a shared ground.
The Pi and Picade sat under the shelf between the joystick and buttons. The screen was connected via a VGA to HDMI adaptor (only needed if your screen doesn’t have HDMI) and all was held in place with small screws. The Pi is now powered via the micro USB power connector on the Picade, but be warned, it won’t boot until you have the power switch wired up. If you haven’t got the ’NOOBS’ operating system with your Pi, you can download it from raspberrypi.org/downloads/raspbian & write it onto a microSD card. The alternative is to download RetroPie, which just does old arcade games, but misses out on Scratch and being able to do other things with your Pi.
The Picade’s main job is to take button presses and mimic keyboard key presses, as this makes it much easier to access these in software, and you can still test a game with a normal keyboard. The joystick maps onto the up / down / left / right arrows, but the other buttons mimic some less helpful keys like LEFT CONTROL and LEFT SHIFT, which software like Scratch can’t access. Connecting the buttons to inputs 6, ’coin’, 3 and 5 mimics pressing ’x’, ’c’, ’space’ and ’z’ which are easier to code within games. The ’coin’ button is marked ’1/4’ and is in the utility section. You can remap the buttons via the Picade but it’s not straightforward.
Turning it on
It took a weekend of tinkering, drilling and painting to get to this stage. You should now have power connected to the screen and Picade, the screen and Pi connected, and buttons, joystick and speakers connected to the Picade. Press the power button to turn the Pi on. If nothing happens, double check the wiring, take off the Picade hat, connect power directly to the Pi & check that works, and look at the Picade help. All being well, you will boot to the desktop.
You should then be able to load up, for example, Scratch 2, which will respond to the joystick and buttons as though the arrow or x / c / space / z keys had been pressed. Python and Processing run games faster, and there are lots available to download and hack yourself at inventwithpython.com and openprocessing.org.
If any of this needs a bit more explaining, pop a comment below.