Born from the plight of illegally traded animals in the “Wet Markets” of Wuhan, Covid-19 has unleashed catastrophic economic and social consequences on the rest of the world. But from panic-buying in supermarkets to the prospect of summer food shortages as farmers and growers struggle to deal with the loss of a seasonal workforce on lockdown, there’s one thing that ties all these disparate elements together: food.
In Wales and the rest of the UK we sit at the end of a long and surprisingly delicate food chain. We import around 50% of our food supply. A recent article in the Guardian flagged up a warning by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation that protectionist measures on the part of exporting nations could disrupt food supplies and lead to food shortages. In the UK we now face a potential double-whammy; we can’t pick everything we grow, and we can’t import what is picked elsewhere either.
In response, farming leaders and land-owning interests are pushing for the formation of a “Land Army” to make up the shortfall of up to 60,000 seasonal workers. Such an army would be drawn from the rapidly growing pool of unemployed, redeployed from industries that have gone into cold storage as the crisis bites. But putting aside the practicalities for a moment, the question has to be asked, why rely on the UK government, or the farming lobby? Should a Land Army really be a creature of that bastion of the ordinary man on the street, the Country Land and Business Association?
In a Welsh context, the Land Army concept has been given a modern twist in a fairly recent Plaid document, the Greenprint for the Valleys. But what was envisaged there was just that, an organisation dedicated to relocalising food production in the Valleys. What we’re talking about here is a bit bigger; a truly national organisation covering the whole country. For my part, I have a personal interest; my Irish granny was a ‘Land Girl’ conscripted into the Land Army in it’s original incarnation during World War 2. But this is 2020 and we need an organisation for everyone.
There are those who will say that it’s just not possible to build such an organisation when we’re all on lockdown. My answer is simple; just take a look out your back garden. In Britain during World War Two, “Digging for Victory” didn’t just happen in fields and farms around the country; it happened in back yards too. And it was good for morale. And in much the same way that thousands of neighbourhood mutual aid groups are being organised via Whatsapp to maintain physical distancing, so “Sections” covering discrete geographical areas can be organised in exactly the same way.
The basic building blocks of our army are already here.
If we’re serious about food security and re-localising food supply, then we need to start as close to home as we possibly can. And lockdown presents us with a golden opportunity to make a start on our own doorstep. And that means doing gardening the way our grandparents did it. It means raised beds and greenhouses and veg patches, and even humble window boxes. We can all do our part in some small way, and who knows? Maybe families – parents and children alike – will find a new sense of purpose in that short distance between the cabbage patch and the dining room table.
Beyond lockdown, there’s one other fruitful avenue of opportunity to build our new army which observes the requirements of physical distancing; Council Estates. Council estates are littered with random green patches of land, many of which are too small for a kick-about, but still big enough to grow food. Such patches could be transformed into “micro-plots” and households could be encouraged to “adopt a plot” on a first-come-first-served basis.
Because such plots are dispersed all over estates it allows residents to retain physical distance but still co-ordinate through Whatsapp. Turning these little patches over to food production further offers the potential to generate employment and even save cash-strapped Councils money which can then be reinvested in maintenance and maybe even new build.
There are hundreds of such estates of varying sizes all over Wales.
For now, many of us are adjusting to life under lockdown. But life on the other side of lockdown promises much deeper and more long-lasting social and economic changes. Is it really good enough to simply plug gaps in a seasonal labour force and then expect things to revert back to business as usual when the dust settles? If we want to insulate ourselves from future food supply shocks then we need to re-design a system that is broken, and here in Wales we can make that much-needed change now.
In a world of spiralling climate chaos and ecological degradation, land armies could well be the armies of the 21st century. And in Wales we’ve been here before. In the 1960s a massive “army” of local volunteers cleaned up over a century of industrial devastation and reforested the lower Swansea Valley. Fast forward to 21st century China and 60,000 troops in the People’s Liberation Army were recently enlisted in an even larger tree-planting scheme; the area they planted was roughly the size of Ireland, from where my dear-departed Granny came to join the original Women’s Land Army all those years ago.
But what we need now isn’t a useful tool of government and landowners, but a genuine grassroots movement of volunteers. And the battlefield will be what it’s always been; land – who owns it and who controls it. Battles will be fought plot by plot, field by field, estate by estate. And victory will come to those prepared to dig for it.
So let’s get our hands dirty.