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Could Brexit provide an opportunity to re-imagine our food sytems?

There are still many uncertainties about what the post-Brexit landscape will look like however we can be sure we will all notice the changes on our plates.

But could leaving the European Union catalyse a dramatic re-design of many of the existing, entrenched systems of sourcing and distribution of food? Could it be an opportunity for positive change?

Schumacher College has decided that rather than waiting for government policy, education can signpost an alternative future and is preparing to launch a new course to equip people wanting to work in the food industry – and wanting to make a difference from the grassroots up.

The College, which is part of the 1,200 acre Dartington Hall Estate, already runs masters programmes and short courses in ecology related subjects as well as a 6-month sustainable horticulture certificate. Founded by Satish Kumar, in 1991, it has an underpinning ethos of spirituality and sustainability and also grows much of the food on site that is eaten by staff and students.

Caroline Aitken, of Whitefield Permaculture, who has been leading the development of the course, believes it will be the first course of its kind in the UK to take a holistic view of the food system and equip students with the skills to innovate in food and farming business in an ethical and sustainable way, said she felt it was an important way to offer a positive solution.

We’re trying to shift the system of food and farming literally from the ground up without waiting for legislative policy, government grants or worrying about Brexit." Caroline Aitken

“There’s a really good news story in food and farming. It involves environmental regeneration, reviving the rural economy, public health and biodiversity. This is about taking a positive view of food systems as whole. “The question shouldn’t be by ‘why is good food so expensive’ the real question should be ‘why is bad food so cheap?’ The fact that people cannot afford good food is a key social issue.”

The damage caused by food waste and mass-produced low-quality food is significant. According to research by the Sustainable Food Trust for every £1 spent on poor quality food another pound is spent in loss to biodiversity and pollution and damage to public health. In addition, a report by the Inter Academy Partnership, a network of science institutions looking at international health policy, concluded that the existing system of global food production has to change radically.

It is currently responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all emissions from transport, heating, lighting and air conditioning combined.

And yet this comes at a time when the United Nations calculates that in the UK alone, 8.4m people are struggling to afford a meal. The idea for a new course came about as a result of Food Cultures research carried out by Caroline for the College two years ago. She was convinced it was possible for education to help lead the transition to a more sustainable food system.

After consulting a variety of people across the sustainable food industry, common themes emerged such as a lack of business skills from new-starters, as well as a lack of overall understanding how of the industry works, partly as a result of career changers who didn’t have a background in the industry.

Patrick Holden set up the Sustainable Food Trust because he felt more needed to be done to address challenges within existing systems but he admitted when he began his career in agriculture, it was a very steep learning curve: “When I entered farming, I had no background in it at all, I was from London and came to it fresh.

"What I was looking for was not just the practical, agricultural stuff but also the cultural and social aspect.   Change can either come from the bottom up or the top down. We need to get people who are serious about running sustainable businesses, or making their existing businesses more sustainable.” Patrick Holden.

However it seems where new entrants are succeeding in spite of the challenges, they are also pioneering new business models and methodologies which are paving the way for future generations. Engaging with local communities for veg box schemes, adding value to farm produce producing items such as ice cream and cheese or sharing processing facilities to keep costs down are just some of the strategies which are emerging from the ground-swell of small-scale sustainable food production in the UK. Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, a charity representing over 100 different organisations advocating for better food and farming, feels that as food is such a universal concern it can be an ideal focus for sustainability.

“It’s something tangible and effects everyone, so it can be a great motivator for change. When we’re thinking about the future of food we have to look at where our future farmers are going to be coming from. “It’s time to start rolling out the practical solutions and informing people about how they do this. We need to learn from the pioneers who are finding ways and making it work.”