Championing healthy, sustainable
food & farming in Somerset
An alliance for change
Sustainable Food Somerset is an alliance of individuals and organisations who are passionate about making healthy, sustainably grown food accessible to all. We believe that farming regeneratively, building the market for good local food, and encouraging home and community growing is crucial to curbing carbon emissions, boosting biodiversity and building our longterm food security.
The current food system is unsustainable: a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss that is failing to nourish too many of us, but also hugely wasteful. Yet farming in Somerset could be the very opposite: farmland can be a vast store for carbon, a sanctuary for nature, a source of local economic prosperity and an educational and therapeutic resource like no other.
Our vision is for a vibrant, varied and thriving food culture in Somerset where farming according to agroecological principles is the norm – restoring wildlife, attracting visitors, boosting the local economy, enhancing health and wellbeing. We hope you'll want to be part of our growing movement demanding a better, more resilient and nature-friendly food system.
“The actions that we take in the next ten years are critical to recover and regenerate nature; and to restore health and wellbeing to both people and planet.”
Our Future In The Land: A report by the Food Farming and Countryside Commission and the RSA 2019
Six ways to future-proof our
local food system
Mainstream agroecology & regenerative farming
A rapid transition to agroecology and regenerative farming is our best bet for building longterm food security, restoring biodiversity and reaching targets for net zero.
Clearer definitions and metrics, better training, routes to market, incentives and marketing support are essential to accelerate the transition. Investment in these and year-round communications programmes to build public support will be key.
Stimulate demand for good local food
Generic 'buy local' campaigns can help communicate the benefits of local sustainable food and build support for Agroecological farming in general, helping expand the market for sustainable food businesses locally and beyond Somerset. This in turn can boost the visitor economy.
Relocalise & decarbonise food supply chains
A shift to agroecological practices means more organic matter in soils, and more diverse habitat and biomass above ground, so farmland sequesters much more C02 and biodiversity bounces back. It also means a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel-derived agrochemicals, less pollution and better crop nutritional quality. If coupled with a re-localised food supply chain and better, more seasonal eating, with less waste, we can dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of Somerset's food sector.
Change how, what and where we farm
How do we get more food from the same or less land whilst cutting emissions and restoring biodiversity AND dealing with the new weather extremes that climate change will bring? To do that we will need to adapt and diversify our diets and what and where we farm.
Rebuild local food infrastructure
Infrastructure such as abattoirs should be protected to support smaller-scale farms, while markets, food hubs, food co-ops and independent local food outlets should be incentivised and more actively promoted. Dynamic, 'local first' procurement targets should be promoted across all public sector institutions, especially schools, backed by training of catering staff in sourcing and serving sustainable food, with moves made to persuade the private sector to follow suit.
Expand home and community growing
We need to devote a higher proportion of land to home and community food growing and processing: allotments, food forests, community orchards, growing for wellbeing projects, school veg plots, community fridges and meals - supported by education and skills development programmes.
What is agroecology?
Agroecology is the name given to a range of nature-friendly farming techniques that can be used to regenerate soils and rebuild biodiversity in the productive landscape: replenishing rather than exhausting 'natural capital'. The principle behind it is to work in harmony with nature, capitalising on the positive interconnections between all forms of life in an ecosystem to grow food that has optimal nutritional content without the negative environmental impacts of conventional farming. The focus is on building organic life and natural fertility in soils by minimising soil disturbance, and using things like mob-grazing, organic manures and compost, complimentary planting, cover crops and rotations - in place of nitrogen fertiliser and artificial pesticides.
Reduced dependence on expensive inputs, and a market premium for better quality produce (especially if sold direct to consumers) mean practicing farms can be more profitable, so, transitioning to agroecology can be an effective strategy for improving the business performance of farms.
Agroecological farming encompasses organic, regenerative, permaculture and biodynamic farming, but is informal and doesn't require certification and inspection - although various toolkits for implementing it and measuring its impacts are available, such as the UN's TAPE toolkit, currently being piloted in farms around Glastonbury as part of the 5FF 'Avalon Agroecological Area'.
Sustainable approaches to agriculture such as agroecology and regenerative farming are our best bet in the race to future-proof our food system from biodiversity decline and the worst impacts of climate change - as Andy Cato explains below.
Agroecological farming offers new hope to farmers in tough times: a chance to cut emissions, break free from spiralling chemical input costs, access new markets, improve animal welfare, and play a pivotal role rejuvenating depleted soils and restoring lost wildlife to local landscapes - a legacy for future generations.
My farming story: Andy Cato
Here, musician turned farmer and founder of Wildfarmed, Andy Cato explains why a rapid shift to agroecological or regenerative farming is so essential. Importantly, even though he's a vegetarian, he sees livestock as playing a crucial role in the mix.
it's the HOW
Agroecological farming should be something we all get behind, and the 'Sustainable Farming Incentive' is a step in the right direction, but there is still some way to go in 'winning the narrative' both within the farming community, and among the general public.
A properly funded, on-going promotional campaign for sustainable food in Somerset would go a long way to addressing this - a key reason we founded the Somerset Food Trail Festival, a countywide farm to fork showcase and new visitor attraction for Somerset.
The festival connects farms and food outlets with new customers and provides a platform to raise awareness about the benefits of a more nature-friendly food system, with a strong 'buy local/sustainable' message.
The festival returns this year on 14-30 July 2023 with a series of 'Thirty-Mile Feasts', open farms, artisan masterclasses, tastings and other foodie events
Above: 'The Future of Food,' an evening of talks by experts in regenerative farming and nutrition co-hosted by Ebenezer Presents to launch the Somerset Food Trail 2022.
The map created for the Somerset Food Trall 2022 by Somerset artist Annabel Tempest.
We want to build the market for locally produced, nature-friendly food and bring regenerative farming into the mainstream in Somerset.
The Somerset Food Trail
Our flagship project is the annual Somerset Food Trail Festival, a countywide farm-to-fork showcase in July, which last year involved 198 farms and food enterprises, promoting local, sustainable food through talks, farm tours, tastings, film showings and performances. Around 8,500 visitors took part. Visit our Somerset Food Trail website: www.somersetfoodtrail.org
“Biodiversity is in freefall. The UK is among the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with only 53% of its biodiversity left. Yet nature is the very basis of our food supply chain; our natural life-support system. Nothing short of a total re-think of our food system is required.”
Stewart Crocker, Chair of Sustainable Food Somerset
Voting with our wallets
A more diverse diet, with plenty of vegetables, grown without chemical inputs is better for us nutritionally. And, if it's grown locally, chances are it's fresher, with fewer 'food miles' too. Find out about eating sustainably on a budget HERE.
For a list of nature-friendly food suppliers near you, visit our Somerset Food Trail website and search by area, outlet type or food. Or 'like' us on Facebook or Instagram to follow the latest sustainable food and farming news in Somerset.
One of the key messages of the Food Trail is that we can all play a part in rebuilding nature by being more conscious of the impact of our everyday food choices:
favouring food from local,
'food miles' down.
To speed up the transition to a regenerative food and farming system in Somerset, we need to build a movement.
We're working closely with key local stakeholders: community representatives and policy makers across all domains, from public health and economic development to tourism, education, nature recovery, climate change mitigation and planning.
Farmers, food businesses, environmental organisations, food charities, media, local government, academics and citizens; all have a stake in the food system and all must have a say. We are working on plans for an annual Sustainable Food Conference (next February) to bring these diverse groups together, as a forum for ideas and catalyst for change.
Many Somerset farmers are already working hard to cut carbon, regenerate soils and optimise habitat for nature within the productive landscape, but we need more than a few pioneers. We need to turn the tide: a transition, at scale, to regenerative or agroecological farming.
To do that, we need to stimulate demand for local produce, to reward our most nature-friendly farmers for their investment in nature. This includes looking at ways to encourage local institutions and businesses to adopt 'local first' food procurement policies that favour more sustainable producers.
Protecting smaller farms
Limited routes to market and inadequate local processing infrastructure such as abattoirs inhibit smaller-scale farmers, yet their success is pivotal to a relocalised and regenerated food system.
Bigger farms benefit from economies of scale, subsidies, tax breaks and more reliable routes to market, but, on average, smaller farms produce "higher yields and harbour greater crop and non-crop biodiversity at the farm and landscape scales than do larger farms" [Nature, 2021 LINK]. They also provide a crucial buffer against the trend towards landscape homogenisation, and bring cultural, social, educational, economic and health benefits to local communities.
Turning ideas into action
Our aim is to work with policy makers and key stakeholders to develop a Sustainable Food Action Plan for Somerset that takes a long-term view of the county's food security and prioritises action that cuts greenhouse gas emissions, and builds resilience across the supply chain from the 'grass roots' up – with a transition to agroecological and regenerative farming at its core.
The buy-in and success of smaller-scale farmers and growers is pivotal to the regeneration of our local food system.
Boosting the local economy
Direct-selling initiatives such as farmers' markets, food hubs and co-ops provide economic opportunities for local food and farming businesses that contribute to 'the local multiplier effect'. Similarly, 'Local first' procurement policies can be transformative to the local economy, as a recent report by Exeter University has highlighted.
Dynamic Procurement has the potential to give smaller-scale local producers a fairer return, creating jobs and contributing to income growth across the county whilst cutting food miles and boosting the nutritional content of institutional food.
Add to this the benefits to the visitor economy of making Somerset's food and landscape synonymous with sustainability, and small farms start to underpin what could be a boom for Somerset's food and hospitality sectors.
“Increasing public awareness and understanding of the connections between food, farming and the environment is absolutely crucial if we want to achieve the kind of long-lasting sustainable change we so desperately need in our food and farming systems.”
Jyoti Fernandes, the Landworkers’ Alliance.
Changing what and how we farm
About half of food consumed in the UK is produced in the UK. As the pandemic showed, this leaves us woefully vulnerable to supply chain failure. It also undermines our own farming economy and our cultural connection to food production.
We know that shortening supply chains is generally desirable from an emissions and resilience perspective, but this raises questions about HOW land is currently being used, WHAT is in production, and how that could change?
Does it make sense that half of all wheat produced, according to WWF research, is used for livestock feed? Can we boost productivity and food security through agroforestry, perennial crops and mixed farming? Should we devote more land to horticulture? And how can we better incentivise these alternatives and prioritise them over other land uses, if indeed we should? These are all urgent questions that need addressing at a local, countywide, systemic level.
Agroforestry – integrating trees alongside crops (silvoarable) or pasture (silvopasture), especially productive fruit and nut trees – is seen as a key way to build biodiversity, sequester carbon and boost productivity of existing farmland.
'Feeding Britain from the Ground Up' by the Sustainable Food Trust, explores in detail, the potential impacts on land use, food production and individual diets of a UK-wide transition to sustainable farming.
Holistic land use planning
How local planners and policy makers manage the trade-offs between competing land uses - housing, roads, energy, agriculture - is perhaps their greatest challenge over the next decade.
The countryside charity CPRE and others are calling for a Land Use Framework that 'prioritises a ‘brownfield first’ approach to housebuilding to reduce the pressure of development on our green fields, with a firm presumption against development on our best agricultural land. This makes sense to protect our longterm food security. At the very least, all land will need to deliver multiple benefits.
Sea level rises and more regular coastal and inland flooding are likely to add extra pressure on the available productive land - just as climate change related weather extremes start to result in more frequent crop failures.
For key points from the Government's UK Food Security Report (2021):
“Now is the time to transform the food system, ensuring diets sit within planetary boundaries whilst farmers receive a fair market return for the food they produce and reward for the public goods delivered. The prize for this transformation is healthier people, resilient farming livelihoods, prosperous rural communities, thriving wildlife, and a stable climate.”
The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission's 'Field Guide for the Future'
One obvious way of increasing the amount of land devoted to food growing sustainably in Somerset is to encourage more home and community growing.
As well as making good nutritious food more readily accessible to people on low incomes, community growing encourages physical activity, provides dietary and mental health benefits and can improve a community's sense of agency and connection. It can also stimulate entrepreneurial activity and help develop marketable growing skills.
Community food projects can help supplement stocks of emergency food aid.
Above: The Skool Beans, a children's gardening club started in Lockdown in Chilthorne Dormer is a potential model.
Food skills & education
Somerset Community Food is doing great work developing cooking and growing skills in the community, including some work in schools. Research suggests children involved in growing food tend to be more adventurous eaters and have more interest in nature, with lifelong positive impacts on dietary choices.
The academic, social and wellbeing benefits of running school food growing programmes are well rehearsed and there are plenty of educational resources to support such activities. So the question is: how can we make more school growing projects happen? And how can we ensure agroecology and sustainability are the focus?
Given labour shortages in agriculture, activities that develop land skills should surely be prioritised? Equally, school farm visits can be enjoyable learning experiences at all age levels and can provide extra income for farms, but the funding is not well publicised.
Towards a shared vision of the future of food
By working together to promote a more sustainable food and farming system in the county, we have the potential to help deliver Somerset Council’s Climate Emergency Strategy (2020), and multiple interrelated policy goals (climate, health, nature and the economy are all interlinked).
To do this we are reaching out to local government, and to the many local like-minded organisations already engaged with promoting local food and farming in Somerset to celebrate and amplify what they are doing, work to find the common ground and move forward together.
We are also liaising closely with national organisations with similar agendas, who can influence their regional networks and combine with us to influence national policy. It's all about 'joining up the dots' across our community and across the food system so that we work as one. We all have a stake, and can all play a part, however small. And we must start now.
Joining up the food system dots
We are part of the Sustainable Food Places (SFP) network, backed by a partnership of Sustain, the Soil Association and Food Matters. This gives us access to shared resources, guidance and best practice from over 80 regional 'food partnerships', each working to make the food system in their city or region more sustainable. Among other collaborative projects, we are working with a sub-group within SFP called 'the Counties Network', bringing together members who, like ourselves, represent large rural areas where agriculture predominates, with some different challenges to purely urban food systems.