Transforming the Food System: Bioregionalism, Food Sovereignty, and Scaling Deep

Transforming the Food System: Bioregionalism, Food Sovereignty, and Scaling Deep

Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

Transforming the Food System: Bioregionalism, Food Sovereignty, and Scaling Deep

Part Two of ‘Building the Foundations of a New Paradigm’

Setting Up a Food Partnership

3rd Space: Welcome to 3rd Space, Jenny. Could you tell us what you’re trying to achieve with your work in transforming the food system in the UK; how you got into it, and what your vision is?

Jenny Rouquette: Well, I’m an ecologist by background and I’ve spent most of my life working in International Development and Environment and Sustainable Livelihoods, with a focus on agro-ecological farming and food sovereignty.

I came back to live in the UK at the start of the 2020 and all the Covid chaos, because I felt that I wanted to work on food systems here, where I have a mandate to act, and there is a lot to be done. I wanted to find out how could I apply everything I’d learned in different parts of the world, to looking at the food system in the UK.

So, I set up a food partnership here in Shropshire on the English/Welsh border, that’s affiliated to sustainable food places. Our particular food partnership is quite unique in our focus on the food system and its rural aspects. Other food partnerships work more around food poverty and urban issues.

Jenny Rouquette

The aim of setting up the food partnership was to provide a vehicle to bring people together and to be able to access resources. And it’s grown from there. I think it’s really important to have a systems-wide approach, which is more integrated and holistic. So, that means looking at food in terms of access to nutritious healthy food, how food can be used to grow community—the social aspects of the food economy and its livelihood opportunities—and food as part of a shift to net zero and environmental regeneration.

A Theory of Change  

Out of the experience of exploring this for a couple of years, we are now developing what I call a theory of change. This means looking at the question of scale in particular, how you can scale out, scale up, and scale deep. By scaling out, I mean connecting people. What we’ve found is that there are a lot of great people doing wonderful things, but they’re often doing it on their own or in a bubble. So, how can we share and make visible what’s happening in the field and connect these together.

I see my role as a kind of bioregional weaver. That means looking at what’s happening on a very hyperlocal level, what’s happening at a county-wide level, and what can best be addressed from a bioregional perspective, because that’s how I believe the ecosystem actually works. And then, what are the implications of this nationally and globally?

Peoples’ Assembly at the Marches Real Food and Farming Conference, September 2023

So, I see scaling out as being around connecting, weaving, and replicating. Scaling up is about influencing policy, identifying the key levers that can create an enabling environment and incentivise positive change. And scaling deep, which is actually the piece I’m most interested in, which is about mindsets and beliefs, and how you can change them.

My work comes from an understanding of what I feel is mine to do in the world. So, in that sense it’s a soul-led mission, aligned with connecting to the land and the web of life. It’s a deep listening and co-creative process, which more and more informs what I do and how I speak about it. I think this is fundamental to the other shifts that need to happen in society. So, I’m exploring how to create spaces for those conversations.

Food Sovereignty

3rd Space: What does food sovereignty mean to you?

Jenny: It’s about being able to take ownership of, or responsibility for, what we are putting into our bodies. That means being able to access nutrient dense, good, healthy food that is going to support us on all levels, from the physical body to the energetic. And I think that this is going to require everybody being more involved in growing at least some of what they eat. Because I really believe that the agri-industrial food system, as it’s constituted at the moment, could collapse in 10 or 20 years’ time.

I see food as a fundamental driver of the wider shift that needs to happen in society, because it’s something that engages us all, and which we can all make changes around relatively easily. We have more agency over the food we eat than other aspects of life. So, food system change is a critical starting point for the wider shift to a more regenerative and resilient society.

Community and Localisation

“At the heart of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century there was an almost miraculous improvement in the tools of production, which was accompanied by a catastrophic dislocation of the lives of common people.” Karl Polanyi

3rd Space: The current system has had a massive impact on communities. So, how is rebuilding local community part of your work?

Jenny: It’s one of the four pillars of the food partnership work. Those are health, social well-being and community, livelihoods, and the economy and the environment. Food brings people together and this is fundamental to building a diverse and resilient local food system. This is why the re-localisation movement is key. We need place-based communities to be able to source as many of our needs as possible from the bioregion where we live. We’re going to be far more resilient in the future, and we have to create this in community. We can’t do it on an individual level. So, yes, food partnership work is about building communities of place.

3rd Space: Talking to people in other projects, it’s clear that resilience born of community is critical if we’re going to survive the next decades, given how individualised our society has become.

Jenny: Yes. We need an integrated holistic approach, that is based on a regenerative culture, economies and agriculture.

My vision for the future is a much more ‘lived in’ landscape, where it’s all about finding a right and harmonious relationship between people and planet, and being a good keystone species. An important aspect of how we’re approaching this, is building relationships with farms, and supporting more links between farms and their wider community. The thinking around food and land is very polarised at the moment in this country. There are those who advocate for ‘land sharing’, which means integrating nature with growing food on the land. And then there is the ‘land sparing’ approach, which looks at agricultural intensification as well as industrially processed protein, freeing up more land for rewilding. Personally, I believe in farming with nature.

3rd Space: How are you getting on with building relationships with local farmers and trying to change their thinking; especially with farmers that may have a different perspective and are perhaps more embedded in a traditional approach?

Jenny: We start with the farmers who are most open. There are actually a lot of farmers around us that are into agro-ecological approaches, and trying to sell produce directly to the public. So, it’s about how can we make this process easier for them and enable coordination and collaboration along the supply chain.

Last year we piloted a ‘Good Food Trail’ in the summer. We are doing this on a larger scale this year. We talk a lot about Shropshire’s abundance and telling the ‘good food’ story. We’re always trying to widen the scope of the number of farmers that are engaged.

The Shropshire Food Trail

We had a big conference last September on real food and farming in the Marches. That was an opportunity to bring people together around this vision. We had speakers such as Chris Smaje (A Small Farm Future), Josiah Meldrum (Hodmedod’s), and Niels Corfield (soil health expert), a collaboration hub, a mini people’s assembly, and offered practical help. It’s about extending the reach and working with the different farmer groups. Farmer cluster organisations are really important because they are place-based, and they have a mix of farmers.

We asked the participants, ‘who out of the people that you heard speak, really resonated with your group members?’. Then we did specific workshops on farming practices that were relevant to them, such as how to get routes to market for regenerative produce, and how to aggregate the supply power of those who are doing this. In other words, how can you have collective approaches to marketing and distribution. That’s often a good entry point for farmers that otherwise just have their heads down trying to make ends meet.

This year we are continuing the engagement through a Convergence in October all about our local future. How can we create a resilient and regenerative food system here in the Marches? Check out our latest information and come and join us, if you are interested in how to do this work.

Bioregionalism

“We humans do not see ourselves as separate actors in this way of life in the bioregion. As guardians of the landscape and the region, we can become its conscious expression. The region lives through us.” Daniel Christian Wahl

3rd Space: It sounds like you are making some real penetration with the conference, bio-regionally especially.

Jenny: Yes, it’s interesting, because we organised that conference covering Herefordshire, Shropshire, Powys and Monmouthshire. But since then, there’s growing interest in engaging bio-regionally. So those same councils have come together now to create a Marches Forward Partnership, to try and get investment and overcome this big divide between England and Wales. Environmentally, it’s a very similar landscape that we share. So, I’m connecting with other people to explore working bio-regionally, because it seems like a scale of action that there is increasing interest in.

3rd Space: Can you tell us more about the significance of bioregionalism?

Jenny: It comes from having a relationship to the landscape as a living eco-system. So, for us here, that means looking at the catchments of the Severn and Wye as a natural landscape of rivers and uplands that works as an integral unit. How we live in right relationship with that landscape, is all about how we farm and get food, linking everything from biodiversity to flood management. That is the natural unit, and yet, as it is, it’s divided into counties, which are just lines drawn on the map. And we’ve got this line drawn right down the middle between England and Wales that results in very different policy contexts for their farmers. An outcome of that is that organisations also establish regional groups and this limits the opportunity for exchange.

The Shropshire Marches

I am trying to find ways of bringing people together in a way that fits with the landscape. Regional land use frameworks have been talked about at a government level, but there is not yet clarity on implementation that would enable decision-making based on the principle of subsidiarity, where the decision is taken at the lowest possible unit, where it makes most sense.

Effective action at the most appropriate scale with dynamic connections between levels and across geographies is key to systems change. Right now we’re building the new systems, but we are still working within the old structures. We are trying to nurture these new systems when the whole environment is not an enabling one. But ultimately these are the models that are going to take us forward.

3rd Space: In a way bioregionalism seems like a good metaphor for the whole shift in thinking that you are talking about.

Jenny: I came across the expression recently that bioregionalism is a ‘terrain of consciousness’. For example, if you’re coming out west from Birmingham into Shropshire, you go past Telford, then you go up a rise, and suddenly you see the hills laid out before you. You experience and feel the actual shift in the landscape. These are subtle ways of relating that need to become and are becoming, more explicit.

The Experience of Working Internationally

Jenny: There’s a lot we can learn from other places, whether it’s the sort of resilience that you were talking about in India, or very practical ways of doing things when we can’t rely on the infrastructure that we’ve got used to. I think this country and the rest of the Western world are going to be much harder hit when we come to these tipping points, because we have lost a lot of community, which is a large part of the foundation of that resilience. There’s a lot more resilience in the Global South and in indigenous nations, because it’s been critical to their survival for so long. So the bonds are much stronger. Whereas in this country, we have become very individualised, so we need to rebuild community.

3rd Space: I’m curious what working in other cultures has given you in terms of your perspective on what’s happening in the UK and what needs to change. Because a lot of us have never had the opportunity to live and work in another culture that is different from our own, like Africa and India, and therefore understand that they often relate to things in a very different way than we do. I imagine that must have been quite a powerful inspiration for your own work. Seeing how other civilisations function and operate, how they relate to land, how they relate to food, etc.

Jenny: Yes, this comes down to the point I made about scaling deep, where it’s more around mindset and beliefs, and where people see their place in the world in relation to each other, the land and nature. Scaling deep enables, I think, an authentic place to act from, which brings both resilience but also often joy in being more connected to each other, and to the natural world.

In another sense, because the infrastructure is different in other countries, people have had to be more innovative on a grassroots level. But in terms of systems around democracy and policies, you often see the disconnect in many countries between how power is held locally and how it is held nationally; often trying to copy Western models, and bringing in the same challenges.

The Local Versus the Global

3rd Space: Some people say that the local is not really relevant anymore because we live in such a globally entangled world. That if you start thinking about things locally, then you’re just going back to the past. What would be your response to that?

Jenny: To me, it’s both. We need to be very rooted locally. I mean, talking about food sovereignty, it’s our own self-sourcing sovereignty that comes from being rooted to a place. We have to embody that and act from there. The communities of place that enable us to live, survive, thrive in a particular place is going to become increasingly important. And alongside that, how do we reach out to other places and co-create an interconnected global future?

We are increasingly hearing the term ‘glocalisation’ as this potential to hold both is recognised. It’s interesting to look at this from the perspective of food and land. Food is such a fundamental part of who we are, it provides a way of engaging with some of the more profound changes that need to take place, to see a shift in society and consciousness.

Scaling Deep: A Shift in Consciousness

3rd Space: When you were talking about scaling deep, is this what you were referring to? You’re talking about a shift in consciousness, right? Could you say more about that?

Jenny: Yes, completely. We need to be aware of who we truly are. I think through connecting to the land and the spirit of place and the web of life, and everybody having a practice of asking ‘what is mine to do in the world?’ is actually the way through the current challenges that society is facing. For me, it’s bringing that practice into, for example, working with farmers who often have a close connection to the land, but might not have the words to describe how they work with their animals and the land; or they might have their own words for this, but they may not be comfortable to talk about it with others.

So, some of what I’m doing is exploring how to create spaces, just for listening to the land and sharing that experience. I’m looking at setting up a small group to work with over the seasonal cycles to do this, and see what kind of vocabulary we can use to communicate our experiences that is accessible, and not seen as ‘woo woo’.

The last few years I have been going to the Oxford Real Farming Conference. They have a whole series of talks in one of their spaces about land-based wisdom. And those rooms are overflowing. You can’t get into them. I was amazed and excited to see that. The conference is a national event. But when I tried to start a huddle on land-based wisdom in Shropshire, I didn’t get many responses. But we’re having a convergence this October, which is a follow on from last year’s conference. This time it’s more of an ‘unconference’. We will have some speakers, but there’ll also be open circles, open forums with a couple of provocations and real discussion. So, I’m going to launch the huddles from there!

This is the edge place for me at the moment. How to explore having more open dialogue. How does this shift in consciousness relate to the food/farming space and/or bioregional systems transformation? I see my role as convening and weaving these questions and connections. It’s significant when you bring people together and they say they really value having discussions that they have not been able to have anywhere else. This could range from climate anxiety to listening to the land.

Open Plenary Performance at the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2024

How do you counter the powerlessness that many people face? Because the wider consensus reality is a very disempowering place. Yet, if you just switch the dial and put your attention on your own self-sourcing sovereignty, it’s then a very powerful process of inter-becoming. To me it’s about how we build a bridge from people’s personal experiences, to thinking and acting more collectively. And how do we create the pathways for this that work in the current world?

Recently, I got some pilot funding from the A Team Foundation, that is centred on this conscious engagement and land-based wisdom in bioregional food system transformation. So, there are funders out there, and there’s quite a rapid change going on in terms of people speaking to this.

We need action at all levels, from activism to hospicing the dysfunctional structures and processes, creating the new systems we need, and bringing in a shift in consciousness. It’s important how we bring these together into our working with each other and with the earth at this time. This isn’t about love and light, it’s not philosophy, it’s a kind of embodied sense of purpose.

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Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

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