Updated: Jan 4
Sidharth Sharma is a life-long food lover, activist and social entrepreneur. He was awarded a BBC Food and Farming award for his innovative sustainable food practices at his chain of restaurants. In 2016 he was also given the title of Sustainable Food Champion by The city of Bristol. He sat on the Bristol Food Policy committee for 3 years. He is trustee of FareShare South West and is a Director of Bristol Food Network who are coordinating Bristol Going For Gold in partnership with Sustainable Food Cities. He is Creative Director of Shambala Festival and a member of the Earthly collective.
Pictured: Anna & Sid
What A Bird's Eye Perspective Can Give You
“Dad, what would your superpower be?” came the now commonly asked question around the breakfast table by my six and eight-year-old. I say the ability to fly. The eight-year-old wants to be Spider-Monkey Boy, able to climb up anything, and the six-year-old is Flower Girl, able to shoot fountains of flowers from her eyes.
And fly I did - but sadly not under my own physical prowess. I got on a plane to Italy. Being stuck with the kids on the same street for more or less twenty four hours a day for four months during lockdown led me to make this very bad environmental decision, I was weak – COVID-19 made me do it!
What I saw from this bird’s eye view 35,000 feet in the sky was the never ending criss-cross patchwork of squares and rectangles in shades of greens and browns, faintly truncated by thin green-grey outlines of hedgerow and trackways, and the clusters of towns and cities interconnected by the spiderweb arteries and veins of transport and logistic routes, all the way to our final destination.
I was reminded how little space is left for nature, for wildlife, and for all the other fellow species of the world apart from those preordained for our dinner plates - cows, pigs, sheep or chickens, wheat, barley or oats.
The State Of Nature
Humans have totally transformed the landscape for their own use, and we have been doing so for millennia. The transition from small bands of hunter-gatherers to agrarian based societies was an early precursor of things to come. But here in the UK it was WW2 and ‘The Dig for Victory’ campaign which sent our land use transformation into turbo drive, in a drive towards more productive farmland. Landowners were offered sixty pounds per tree to fell mature trees centuries old, smaller fields were merged into ever larger and larger ones, decimating hedgerow ecosystems, scrubland, woods and forests. By the end of the war, in just five years, arable land in the UK had doubled.
Farmland now covers 70% of the UK. Since the 1970s, farming has industrialised and intensified, providing less and less habitat for native wildlife. While the rate of such habitat loss has slowed in recent times, the situation is still getting worse. A third of agricultural land is used to grow crops, many of which are fed to animals.
The UK is now one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. More than one in seven native species face extinction and more than half are in decline.
Our literature tells of a place unlike Britain today: the land of Robin Hood hiding from the evil Sheriff amongst impenetrable forests of Nottingham; Tales of Beatrix Potter filled to the brim with furry native animals. But our landscapes do not marry our literature anymore - only 2.4% of the UK’s landmass is made up of our ancient woodlands, and many of the animals in Beatrix’s books are now on the endangered list: one in four mammals and 30% of UK birds are at risk of disappearing forever. The main reason is the way we grow and consume our food.
This story of land (mis)management is by no means unique to Britain. Globally, industrial agriculture accounts for around 35% of all the greenhouse gasses we produce and is a primary driver for the loss of so much natural habitat and biodiversity due to the land-grabbing of virgin land and forest, and the use of pesticides that poison the soil.
Losing our natural landscapes also translates into a loss of culture, heritage and knowledge. We have in essence dumbed down ourselves. Lost, amidst the biodiversity, is not only the flora and fauna, but the indigenous cultures that hold the secret to many cures, ancient wisdom and practical understanding of how to live in balance with nature.
Indigenous peoples, who make up only 4% of the global population, are directly responsible for or oversee more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Where indigenous people steward land, we find evidence of richer biodiversity and healthier ecosystems. These benefits are often manifested in indigenous communities by a deeper appreciation and respect for the needs of other species, which then further contributes to the positive feedback loop.
We have also dumbed ourselves down by letting the most powerful British food retailers dictate how and what we eat. For example, we used to grow thousands of different apple varieties here in the UK, but instead we are satisfied by the five or so varieties we now get at supermarkets, most of which are imported from New Zealand. The UK only produces 61% of the food its people consume (NFU, 2019). Hidden in that statistic, the UK imports some 60% of the vegetables we eat, and up to 90% of the fruit.
We need complexity in our world
There is now a growing consensus in the scientific world that the causes of coronavirus pandemics are due to the loss of biodiversity. Humanity’s destruction of the natural environment creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as COVID-19, with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.
In Britain, we are surrounded by domesticated animals such as cows, pigs, sheep and cats and dogs, but may never behold the sight of native wild boar, lynxes and wolves. We have seriously meddled with complex and delicate systems that have taken thousands of millennia to balance - and replaced them with binary systems.
Intersectionality in relation to food
COVID-19 has not only exposed the fragilities and inherent problems of our food system but also the vast inequality of our society. We have all lost out in this pandemic, but as always, some have lost out more than others.
I myself admit to speaking from a position of privilege, having been on the furlough scheme and with some level of financial security. At first, I enjoyed the collective pause of the world and all its noise and activity; the ability to slow down and spend quality time with my children, lovingly prepare meals and pretend to be a schoolteacher for a few months.
But of course, I know that this wasn’t the reality for everyone, especially those who were already ensnared in the poverty trap. As strict lockdown measures were enforced, millions of people in the UK were unable to feed themselves.
FareShare, the charitable food redistributor, and other food charity organisations were buckling under the pressure to provide emergency food to those that needed it. At FareShare, we delivered the same amount of food in the two months of April and May as we did for the whole of the previous year - a truly staggering amount, considering in 2018-2019 they provided the equivalent of over 46 million meals to vulnerable people.
Fareshare became an emergency service, supporting Bristol City Council. They expanded their operations, increased staff and took over Ashton Gate football warehouse to deliver to Devon and Cornwall. The efforts were incredible, but the fact there’s so many hungry people is nothing to celebrate. We’re a wealthy country that’s part of the G7, yet so many people are not able to feed themselves.
Faced with COVID, Bristol’s vibrant grassroots food community mobilised. Its food activists and creative people stepped up where the government couldn’t.
When chef and restauranteur Josh Eggleton’s string of restaurants - Pony and Trap, Root and The Kensington Arms among others - were forced to shut, he opened up the kitchens to cook food for NHS workers and vulnerable people, in collaboration with Shona Graham of Emmeline, under the name of Caring in Bristol.
When Bristol’s legendary anti-fascist pub The Plough closed for lockdown, they turned attention to getting veg boxes to the needy. Funded by the local community, they used their logistics and staff with connections at the fruit wholesalers and made veg-boxes for people in Easton and around.
And, Cornwall-based Farms to Feed Us set up a database to help people buy fresh produce directly from farmers, when supermarket shelves were bare. Many farmers who would usually supply restaurants had lost their route to market overnight, and this initiative was the difference between ruin and survival for those food producers.
Back to our leaders...
The government has finally realised that we need some kind of food strategy - but they aren’t listening to the people who have been talking about this for years. Still, they have now commissioned the first National Food Strategy in 75 years - from Henry Dimbleby (son of Newsnight legend Jonathan and founder of Leon Restaurant chain).
In the newly-published report, one of his main recommendations is to ensure that disadvantaged children have access to healthy and nutritious food. Dimbleby recognises that “eating well in childhood is the very foundation stone of equality of opportunity. It is essential for both physical and mental growth”, and he goes on to say, “a Government that is serious about “levelling up” must ensure that all children get access to the nutrition they need. “
Access to good fresh food will not only save the NHS billions of pounds - it will help us on a journey to a more equitable, equal and resilient society.
What’s your superpower?
So, what superpower will we need to help fix our food system? My world-saving alter-ego will be Reversa-Man, a superhero with the ability to reverse the ecologically disastrous effects of modern-day farming and consumer culture: returning swathes of land back to nature, bringing back regenerative farming methods to help make soil fertile again, and allowing everyone access to affordable and healthy food, no matter what income we are on or where we live. In his spare time, Reversa-Man will insist that we all take the time to sit at a table everyday with family and friends, and break bread as we share our worries, hopes, dreams and laughter.
Cover image by Scott Grummett