On the Future of Food in Scotland: Interview with Pete Ritchie of Whitmuir Organics Part 1

I’m sitting across the table from my dad in what must be the fifth attempt to conduct this interview. He’s drinking coffee from a mug little cup that someone must have bought us when they heard he was becoming a farmer, and I’m trying to delete enough space on the Dictaphone to give him a fair hearing. Pete Ritchie is, alongside Heather Anderson (my mother) one of the emerging voices on the organic scene, whose farm provides for local consumers with food either produced onsite or from organic producers as close by as possible. The farm operates on an almost fully integrated system, making good use of the hilly and landscape for grazing, while at same time operating a restaurant and a shop that retails their produce. We’re on 5th scheduled interview because, frankly, it’s hard to get farmers to sit down for long, particularly in Spring.

I’m here because, despite the firebrand texts of the organic movement’s forefathers and a welt of food and farming related literature that is currently being published, I feel like there is a generational disconnect on the subject of farming. While ‘going back to the land’ used to be the hallmark of ecological commitment in bygone days, I’m now more accustomed to my environmentally motivated friends reading the Monkey Wrench Gang alongside Derrick Jensen, stocking up on canned food for extended treesits, or lapsing into a nihilist contrarianism that is sometimes called ‘primitivism’. I don’t have a problem with any of these approaches, and they are all coming from good places; it’s just that someone’s going to have to cater for smashing of civilization, and you can’t yet live on beads. Therefore, we’re here to talk about the future of food in Scotland.

Unlike the “industrial organic” model seen elsewhere, our farm is more about localism and scale than chemistry and regulations, although strict organic standards are maintained. Locally grown, sustainably farmed food is important, in Pete’s view, for several reasons. Firstly, there is the importance of a national food culture in providing good health. The Scottish still have relatively poor diets and a high prevalence of health related diseases. Pete sees the problem like this:

“It’s not about lentil soup and vegetables, but the more you built an indigenous food culture the more likely it is that people will eat better food as part of how we do things as opposed to because they’re told to by do-gooders and health visitors…. The is a real challenge is to create a food economy that is based much more on raw ingredients, primary processing, more cooking at home, less nutritional loss in the food chain.”

This is a point worth bearing out. Processed food is the result of the process of adding value to raw food materials by turning, for example, a few pence worth of wheat into a highly sweetened breakfast cereal to be sold for £2.50. It’s an understandable response from profit-hungry multinationals with access to cheap commodities, but the food they produce is often devoid of nutritional value and overpriced in relation to it’s primary ingredients. We don’t have much experience in reversing these trends, but it seems possible that be connecting people to ingredients that our locally grown, among other things, could help.

Then there is the importance of biodiversity. As Pete says: “There are diets that are better for our health, better for the planet and better for biodiversity.” As he notes, the rest of Britain and the rest of Europe are all experiencing biodiversity crisis’, with industrial farming’s creation of vast lagoons of manure, hyper-intensive use of chemicals, and use of all available land contributing to these problems. Food production also drives climate change, with recent research indicating that it contributes about 19% of total UK emissions.[1] While much research remains to be done, evidence suggests that organic methods can help alleviate some of these problems. For example, a report published in 2007 by the International Trade Centre, a technical cooperation agency for the WTO and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that, as well as being more adaptive to climate change, organic agriculture produces less greenhouse gas emissions, degrades and erodes soil less, sequesters more carbon and has better environmental impact than conventional methods.[2]

Finally, local food production, when done at a human scale, make it easier to connect with the land. “Despite having a small population and a large land area, we see the land very much in terms of recreation rather than engagement” Pete says, maintaining that: “I think a strong local food sector also generates more employment and spreads it out across rural areas and I think, at some level, good for our collective mental health that more of us have an attachment to the land and human or small scale agriculture. I think it’s an important part of social fabric…healthy societies probably have stronger connections to the land than we do.”

As well as emphasizing the importance of local food systems in terms of health, environmentalism and general wellbeing, Pete is keen to emphasize the importance of acting locally, thinking politically. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the radical genesis of the organic movement. As Michael Pollen writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma about the early years:

“…much more was at stake than a method of farming. Acting on the ecological premise that everything’s connected to everything else, the early organic movement sought to establish not just an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms), but an alternative mode of distribution (the anticapitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumptions (the ‘countercuisine”). These were the three struts on which organic’s revolutionary program stood; since ecology taught “you can never do only one thing.” What you ate was inseparable from how it was grown and how it reached your table.”[3]

In Scotland, part of the political movement needed to change farming involves our inherited pattern of land distribution.  As author Andy Wightman has noted, Scotland has the most concentrated land ownership system in Western Europe, with vast swathes being held by a tiny elite of Aristocrats.[4] Today, this model, still based on what Pete calls “essentially a colonial or third world system wherein Scotland was a food exporting colony or subset of the United Kingdom”, is part of the problem. As he says: “I think the pattern of land ownership gets in the way of a move to small or medium sized farms because in large parts of Scotland people simply can’t get access to land and so there is no land to rent even if they can afford it.”

This, in turn, gives rise to one of Pete’s three proposals for going forward with food policy in Scotland, the other two of which can be found in the second part of this interview. Proposal one is the ‘Community Right to Grow’:

“The idea is simply that the community has the right to grow on that land while it was empty and not used as long as it wasn’t damaged. If you have that presumption it does two things: encouraging more food growth –with supporting education, obviously – and secondly changing people’s relationship with land and allowing them to see that they can have land if they use it but not simply prevent others from using it.”

What’s more, this isn’t a utopian political project; very real examples are currently underway in Brazil where the MST, or landless people’s movement, regularly squat unused land to grow food on, or in Venezuela where the Chavez government have created a system which permits peasant to acquire idle land on which to grow. Under the 2001 Land Law, land being used unproductively or with uncertain title was to be confiscated by the government, and distributed to campesinos. As one commentator has noted:

“In 1999, large rural estates covered six million hectares in Venezuela. Two million hectares have been confiscated by the government, which handed over 60 percent of that to more than 100,000 rural families, according to official figures….Furthermore, 98,500 farms that cover 4.3 million hectares have been regularised through the agrarian charter, which grants possession, but not ownership, of the land, which belongs to the government.”[5]

While what’s being proposed here is not quite so top-down or extreme, being only operated on a principle of usufruct (i.e. the use of things without their permanent alteration or damage) as opposed to transfer of ownership. the Venezuelian case shows that these measures are not impossible, despite their unpopularity with large landowners.


[1] Garnett, Tara Cooking Up a Storm: Food, greenhouse gas emission and our changing climate (2008) Food Climate Research Network http://www.fcrn.org.uk/fcrn/publications/cooking-up-a-storm

[3] Pollen, Michael The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (2006) Penguin, pp. 143

[4] See Wightman, Andy The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (and How They Got It) 2010 Birlinn Ltd.

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