Tuesday, 1 April 2014

"Only one of my five children has ever had a banana"

Abbie Traylerr-Smith/Oxfam
“Since the snows melted last month Yazmik Josephyan has made a daily two hour trek into the mountains to go foraging for Mandak.”

In 2012, the NFWI launched a programme of work on food security, the WI Great Food Debate, with the aim of opening up a public conversation on how to feed an ever increasing population with finite land and resources. Since that time, federations and WIs up and down the country have held debates exploring the issue and investigating solutions. This year, we at Norfolk Federation decided to base our annual International Women's Day celebration on the theme of ‘Shared Earth, Common Ground’ to scrutinise some of these issues further. Norfolk is the home to many experts on this topic, so we were not short of specialist input, and we had plenty to talk about. Were the answers Global or Local? Organic or GM? We needed a conversation.

Wendy Harwood of The John Innes Centre (JIC), an independent international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology, started the debate. She questioned whether, in light of technological advances in genetic modification (GM), we should be reconsidering the way we approach the production and regulation of GM foods. Peter Melchett, Policy Director at the Soil Association and Norfolk organic farmer, made it clear to us what our choices are as individuals in a world that already has enough food to feed a growing population, but not always in the right place. He explained that we all need to change our diet, and reduce the level of empty calories and cheap, intensively reared meat that we all consume. He highlighted the benefits of organic farming that include the potential of a lower carbon footprint and a closed system in which farmers, particularly in the less developed world, are not reliant on outside forces to produce their food.

We continued the conversation in workshop sessions, which allowed us to explore a number of different perspectives. Should we eat seasonally and avoid vegetables being flown in from Kenya, freeing Kenyan women to grow food for their own families? Or do Kenyan women want jobs to earn money, send their children to school, move to the towns and shop at their convenience in the local supermarket? It was good to hear the debate between Norfolk organic gardeners and those who had travelled to East Africa and had spoken to the women in question. Another discussion was the management of overseas aid. Was it right that money for food aid given to Egypt may have been used to irrigate the desert so that we in the western world could buy new potatoes at Christmas? Once again, global food issues are inextricably linked with local consumption.

Alejandro Chaskielberg/Oxfam
Oxfam beneficiary Tioko Korima, 20, waters the vegetables she is growing in her kitchen garden

Later Martyn Davey from Easton & Otley College explained why “Horticulture Matters” and Grant Habershon, Project Manager with Norwich Food Bank, described how many families in Norwich end up going hungry when a sudden crisis such as bereavement, redundancy or illness, leaves them unable to feed themselves or their families. Benefit delay was highlighted as a particular problem, and even families who are coping well can find themselves struggling in August, when free school meals are not available. Food banks are increasingly plugging the gaps and Norwich Food Bank is no exception; it expects to feed more than 7,000 people this year and launched its first Lunch Club in August 2013. There was an opportunity to catch up on a Channel 4 documentary featuring some of the children it has helped.

For our final panel session, the speakers were joined by Christine Hill from the NFU and Young Farmers Club, and Simon Wright MP. The discussion was wide ranging, but it proved hard to come up with conclusive answers. Could GM co-exist with organic principles? Should the debate be so polarised? The rise in obesity goes hand in hand with economic development, but what causes famine? Is it the force of nature, or economic, or political? The management of soil and water is critical, but not always under the full control of the local farmers. The conversation is clearly a complicated one, and this was reflected in the ensuing discussion. As one member said, “Action? The problem is where to start. Probably reviewing the compost and looking at the politics behind issues of distribution though we'll see lots of food for thought”.

But it did become clear that many participants left with ideas that they felt they could pursue locally. The last words go to them:

“I thought the day was very good, interesting and thought provoking, I have never been moved to tears before but those two children on the food bank video started my tears and I shall now try to encourage my WI and others to collect and help in the Swaffham area.”

In fact many of those who thought they would take action wanted to “spread the word regarding excellent work of food banks and Lunch Clubs”.

In general, several members said that they “Will share with our local WI” and “Hopefully my WI will become more informed and then action to follow. Perhaps set up our own food collection point for the local food bank”.

Others said they would “find out more about the debate concerning organic and GM”… “Eat less meat” … “Grow more of my own food” … “Will waste less, compost more and consider an allotment. Will spread the word” … “Take more interest in sustainable food, seasonal food and the wonder of nature's bounty.”

Are the answers Global or Local? Organic or GM? We needed to start the conversation.

Supplied by Norwich City Council

This post has been written by Mary Dorrell from Barford, Wramplingham & District WI in Norfolk Federation. Mary sits on the NFWI Public Affairs Committee as a Federation Representative.

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