This month we have dived into all things farming, which is an interesting topic for it opens up discussion on our personal choices as well as our wider interdependence on a variety of social, political, cultural and economic but also ecological systems. These topics are posed at a high level, but you are welcome to read and adapt to suit your child.
Farming is inevitably more to do with the production of food than it is its consumption, however through grow-your-own movements, local food networks, the popularisation of alternative narratives and technological advances, how we view farming is increasingly challenged. Whilst the physicality of food production through issues of water use, chemical inputs, disease management, growth rates, nutrition and health are more obvious to talk about, we have also included some “rabbit holes” you might like to jump into too. These topics are not designed to be black and white, but instead cause you to question the current norms and become critical thinkers. Do let us know if you explore any of them!
Did you know that in the UK 70% of our land is farmed?
Did you know that about 30% of global GHG emissions are related to food systems?
Did you know that ⅓ of all food that is produced is wasted?
Did you know that the UK roughly imports 46% of the food it consumes?
Areas of wider learning you could explore with this theme
UK farming vs global farming methods
What types of farming exist in this country? What is our predominant means of food production? How do they differ? Why do they differ?
The changing methods of farming - a historical perspective
How have practices changed over the years? You could look at a more generalised overview at how we have determined to feed ourselves over the development of the human species or look at the last couple hundred years with the industrial and agricultural revolutions in the UK. Has this change been echoed elsewhere in the world? Question why this could be and if you have an opinion on if this is a good or a bad thing? You could look at land tenure, enclosure, the commons as means of resource sharing, power and hierarchy as well as a way of life.
A socio-cultural geographical study on a community's ties to its land over time. Are they distinctive? Do they still exist? What might they look like? What implications may this have on family life or how a farm exists. Consider generational employment and wealth.
Farms often need to earn revenue from multiple sources but how do they do this? Why do they need to do this? Do they receive financial support now or in the past? Why has this changed? Some farms choose to diversify through livery, holidaying experiences and even energy production such as solar panel installations or biofuel farming. What do you think the consequences (positive and negative) of using land meant for food production on biofuel could be?
Seasonal migrant workforces (pick your own farms especially)
Is this ethical? What impact do changing employment laws, leaving the EU have on fruit farm production? How does this compare to fairtrade?
What sort of practices does this include? Could regenerative farming models exist more widely in the future? How? What questions do you still have after researching this type of farming? What other practices exist which would be more environmentally friendly and why aren’t they being implemented more widely?
The ethics of animal farming
You could explore veganism, what it is and how it may vary? Why do people choose this approach? Compare and contrast different diets/choices. What market growth has veganism experienced in recent years? What environmental impact does animal farming have? What impact does soy/almond/coconut alternatives have? Do welfare concerns come above all environmental questions or are they synonymous?
What about the use of antibiotics in farming? What can you discover about practices in different industries and what do you think about this? We have moral responsibilities to other living things that we care for, but what are the impacts of antibiotic use in the food chain? Similarly, what are the cumulative impacts of using chemical inputs? What are the long term impacts of pesticides on soil health and fertilisers on our water courses? Realistically small actions have greater effects and yet these effects are often hidden from view or denied plausibility. Why is this? What does an ideal food future look like to you?
Local food networks
What does it mean for food to be deemed local? How does this sit alongside fairtrade schemes? Is it more important for food to be local or organic? Aside from the environmental impact (lessening of food miles, chemical growing and plastic use designed to keep food fresher for longer), local food schemes can bring about community, awareness and a connection to the food that you eat but some may also question if they can be exclusionary. What is a fair cost for food? Could everyone be supported by local food schemes?
Monoculture vs polyculture
Large scale farming often tries to maximise output through the reduction of inputs of time and energy (human labour is expensive). This can mean one crop on mass to create universality in how a plant is treated and cared for (fertiliser application, harvest time etc). What alternative models exist that challenge this? Explore companion planting and successional planting. Look at forest gardens, permaculture and polycultures too.
Foraging and wild foods
Do you forage? What can you confidently identify? If you eat meat, is it more ethical or more sustainable to eat in this way? Do your elders agree? How has knowledge changed over generations? Is this skill empowering?
The idea of good food
For you, what does good food look like? Is it food that is as cheap as possible but satiates your hunger, is it food that is free from all animal products? Is it food that is wild foods only, food that is free from chemical inputs, food that is grain free, food that is unprocessed and how unprocessed do you mean? Are you more comfortable procuring food from a large-scale countryside farm (you’re unsure of what inputs they use) or a small, two-person grow scheme from the middle of London which has higher air pollution levels? What makes you comfortable? What informs your feelings and choices? Look at the terms natural, unprocessed or local; is there one set definition? Are these marketing terms legally controlled?
Alternative models of production
Some grow schemes are using technological and engineering advances to grow food. From soilless growing using hydroponic and aquaponic schemes, to reduced weight restrictions, food can now be grown on rooftops, indoors, vertically and even below ground-level in basements. This means we can also (very generally) bring the food production closer to the people from the rural to the urban areas and consumers can have direct access to the food they are eating, aside from farmers markets and pre-existing community supported agricultural schemes (CSA’s). Research ‘urban agriculture’ and see what curious projects, existing and conceptual, that you can find. Are these the farms of the future?
To get started you could also explore the following projects which have come to fruition over the last decade: B&Q tower with Edible Green wall wins RHS gold medal, 2011 - Biotecture
Thammasat Rooftop Farm, Bangkok
Alternative models of consumption
Whereas farming often requires reliance of the consumer (us) upon the producer (the farmer) to make food available to the system for purchase, some schemes challenge this by looking at ‘the role of the expert’, responsibility sharing, scaling down, alternative approaches and rebuilding the producer/consumer disconnect.
Food waste and the loss of skills to preserve, innovate or live with the seasons to prevent food waste is an issue. Have a look at food standards and make yourselves aware of what wonky food would not be accepted by the supermarkets - it is bizarre! Whether food waste occurs from the loss of grown crops before distribution of after for food that has been produced industrially (e.g. over production of bread for large supply chains) this is an undeniable issue prevalent in the UKs food system, especially when many people struggle to attain these foods. This also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions too.
Food poverty, food security and food deserts
Discussions on farming naturally lead to ‘food poverty and food insecurity’ . Have a look at the definition of these terms and how they differ from one another. Food deserts is a description denoted localities where fresh, healthy and low cost food are deemed to be inaccessible. If farms were not bounded to the peripheries of larger settlements, would this be so much of an issue? Would we also then know more of what happens to our food in its production and be naturally more aware of associated environmental impact if it were not so hidden from view for many?
Activism and food as a good
If you can feed yourself, without the need for money, then some may call growing-your-own a form of activism. It is a reclaiming of lost skills and autonomy. It is an act for environmental good, designed for a reconnection with nature and one's own health too. If food is a basic need then should it not be freely accessible rather than a commodity? Community gardens, street orchards, guerilla gardening, access to public land for foraging and a focus on edible architecture all begin to challenge this, making free food visible and more accessible beyond the simple blackberry.
The concept of the rural idyll
We conjure up images of rolling hills, big red tractors on wheat fields but in reality this may look more like long hours of hard graft, financial uncertainty and emotional toil for a farmer on land which they do not own, for very little money in monoculture fields using machinery which compacts the soil. In short, growing food in this way does not mean it is innately good or the best approach; this should instead be on individual merit of the farm.
The seasonal debate
Seasonality often comes hand in hand with locality and is a way to lower your environmental impact. However where a crop is not truly in season, like tomatoes for instance, it is better to eat in season from another warmer country than to use local hot houses due to the energy demands involved. Despite the seasonal disconnect many of us experience, we still celebrate Harvest as a cultural event to mark abundance of food too.
Environment and Climate change
Whilst no path is straight forward it is interesting to try and disentangle greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food system. There are of course other environmental issues which need monitoring and aversion too such as leaching of chemicals, widespread pesticide use, soil compaction and soil loss, genetic modification, water use, reduced diversity, loss of wildlife and disjointed ecological corridors.
With climate change already impacting the frequency and intensity of more extreme weather patterns, researchers have begun to analyse and predict how we may need to adapt to ensure food security. Could these urban agricultural models be the way forward? Will we need more drought-resistant species to cope with increased temperatures and reduced water availability? Will fungal disease and viruses be more likely to affect crops or perhaps different insects now able to make the UK their home, becoming pests in their own right..
Gendered roles within food production
We have challenged the role of an “expert” in feeding us (large scale agriculture is not the only way) and so you could now look at gendered roles within food production too. This has changed over time too - think of land girls during the war. Where are we culturally with this expectation?
Lettuces, spring onions, pak choi, turnip, spinach and chard seeds can still be sown in August for later harvests. Try your hand - they’ll be nutritious and tasty!
Visit a pick your own farm that is near you. There could be courgettes, raspberries,some squash and sunflowers in August.
Go foraging for wild blackberries (checking they are above animal height and free from being sprayed by pesticides). Take what you need and leave some for others and the wildlife but, where there are plenty, you could also freeze some to extend the season. Notice the lifecycle of the blackberry from dainty pale pink flowers to the emerging green berry and juicy black fruit.
On warm days notice the activity of wild bees - if you can see a honey bee hive they will be at their peak production trying to build their winter stores. Note: it is wild bees that are under threat not honeybees, which are managed by beekeepers instead.
Picnic in a wildflower meadow; what insects can you see and hear? How many species can you count? This is the alternative to grazed land.