A wartime crisis of supply led to a rapid transition in awareness and mobilisation around food.

Regenerative Thinking: Crisis can ignite change

In the UK’s Dig for Victory campaign and Cuba’s transition to agroecological farming, we saw examples of how crisis can kickstart a sustainable transition, writes Nathan Einbinder in a new regular column.

Regenerative thinking is a new regular column for Wicked Leeks by Nathan Einbinder, programme lead at Schumacher College, on food, farming and social change.

Is crisis upon us? This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially reflecting on this past summer, with temperatures exceeding the gravest predictions of warming, and the so-called natural disasters to follow.

Then there’s the looming (or actual) breakdown of many of our planetary systems – not just ecological, but economic and political. This has already begun to impact our livelihoods and survival in the cost-of-living crisis and cannot be separated from our dependency on cheap and abundant fossil fuels.

But there’s another side to the story, and that’s the potential for crisis to ignite change, often at rapid speed. Faced with a sense of emergency and scarcity, crisis forces us to rethink what is truly necessary to survive and prosper; it shakes up our values and pushes us towards self-sufficiency and collective action. 

There are some classic examples. In food and agriculture, we often turn to Cuba, whose agricultural economy was forced to transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its primary importer and supplier of agrochemicals. Without a choice and confronting mass starvation, Cuba embraced low-input, essentially carbon net zero agriculture – the opposite of its formerly industrial and export-oriented model – and achieved by a fresh cadre of small-scale producers and shift towards local production and food sovereignty.

Crisis forces us to rethink what is truly necessary to survive and prosper; it shakes up our values and pushes us towards self-sufficiency and collective action.

In the UK, we find a similar story in the Dig for Victory movement during WWII, when millions of citizens, including the youth, participated in a national food growing and provisioning campaign amidst Nazi blockades and what was then the country’s lowest point of food self-sufficiency in history.

Of course, it’s easy to romanticise these events and in no way would I claim that they were perfect. We should also be weary of sentimentalising any crisis, as their impacts are unequal and generally inflict the most harm on those who least deserve it.

Something I find intriguing from both cases is how crisis forged such a rapid shift in values and attitudes around food and farming – and farmers. Food was suddenly taken out of the commodity realm and placed where it should be: at the core of our sustenance and health, and wellbeing. Government support and leadership was crucial. But equally important was the level of organisation among citizens.

In Cuba, for example, agroecological practices were ultimately spread through social movements that flipped the usual pedagogy of top-down agricultural extension to empowerment and revaluing peasant knowledge – a method now known as campesino a campesino, or farmer-to-farmer.  

It’s interesting to think how these local food and farming movements were not just about adapting to new conditions of scarcity. Rather, they offered a way to mitigate the problems of fossil fuel dependence and climate change by localising supply chains and growing food in a way that is harmonious with nature and biodiversity.

The time is now to set a new precedent and act preventatively, as communities and engaged citizens.

With such unfavorable political and social conditions, it’s hard to imagine that such drastic changes might occur today. Yet, the momentum is building. We see this in the explosion of new farmers’ groups and gatherings, often attended by the hundreds, seeking out alternatives to artificial fertilisers by encouraging life in the soil. Everywhere – in towns, cities, and in the countryside – movements surrounding the importance of food and how we grow it are surfacing.

And while the sharp rise in energy costs is nothing to celebrate, it will inevitably force us to rethink the true meaning of conservation and ‘the good life’ in a post-carbon world.

It may be that we haven’t entered the kind of wartime mentality necessary to ignite rapid change – and in no way is our government in the mindset to lead us towards self-sufficiency.

What’s certain is that our window of opportunity is closing. The time is now to set a new precedent and act preventatively, as communities and engaged citizens. Food and farming must be at the heart of the movement.


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