Global, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Talking about potatoes: building relationships for intentional policymaking


Glasgow-based artist Jem Milton captures the Global Dialogue conversations

“Today we’ve got these polarised views. There are these antagonistic camps of kind of vegans versus farmers, and rewilders versus farmers, and, you know, farmers feeling like everyone’s just having a go at them. We’re working with people who, especially in this area, are livestock farmers…most of them feel like they’ve been told that they’re a problem. And…you know, being told you are a problem when you’re referring to many, many, many generations of somebody’s culture and heritage is not helpful.”
Abi Mordin,South West Scotland Fork to Farm Local Dialogue Facilitator

It’s not easy to talk about food. Food is part of our identity. When we talk about food, we are talking about ourselves, and it is rarely comfortable to discuss ourselves with just anyone.

The Fork to Farm process is about building relationships of trust between farmers and local-decision makers. Worldwide, policies are being designed to make food systems more sustainable, yet food producers and local governments are rarely meaningfully involved in these conversations.

We believe that global change cannot happen without changes at the local level, and that farmers and local authorities are best placed to decide what can and cannot be done to establish participatory and democratic ways to govern their local food systems.

Fork to Farm Local Dialogues

For the past year Nourish Scotland partnered with 17 different groups in Wales, Scotland, Philippines, Peru, Nigeria, Tanzania, Mexico, Kenya, Ecuador, South-Africa, and Belgium to run Fork to Farm Local Dialogues as part of our work for COP26. Each Dialogue was run by local facilitators who brought together food producers and policy makers into a relationship-building process.

Yet, for farmers and policy makers to work together effectively, trustworthy relationships between them are needed. These are not always well-established. And can be fraught:

“Farmers have a big rejection towards, and a lack of trust in the state because of past history…they are in a constant battle with the state.”
Martina Manterola, Milpa Alta, Mexico, Local Dialogue Facilitator

To build meaningful relationships, we need to go deeper. We need to understand that, for example, when we talk about potatoes, it is not just potatoes that we are talking about.

For some, potatoes will be a crop on their farm. For others, a reminder of childhood moments spent peeling them for family dinner. For a few, potatoes will be a carbohydrate that they have a difficult relationship with. Others still, will remember how, before they migrated, they had access to potatoes in all the colours of the rainbow.

In the Fork to Farm Global Dialogue , potatoes evoked a strong sense of community and an example of sustainable farming for participants from North Uist. They were a symbol of the hard conditions endured by farmers to feed their families. For participants from Molow, Kenya, potatoes were a reminder of colonial pasts and presents. A crop which displaced a local variety and deemed one type of potato for the rich and another for the poor.

So no, it’s not: ‘just potatoes’

But it’s the histories, emotions, feelings, relationships, memories, and everything else that the potatoes come with.  All the things that are also part of our food systems.

If we want to make a policy about potato farming but we stay at a superficial level, where potatoes are just perceived as another form of nutrients, it is unlikely that our policy will be effective. We might miss that there are different ways to farm them, some sustainable and some not as much. We might miss that there are other local varieties that should be produced alongside them. We might not realise that we should not be focusing on just one crop but on the systems that this crop is part of.

To have these deeper conversations we need to get to know each other better.  We need to become better listeners, to allow ourselves to be transformed through relationships with others. When making new food policies, ultimately, what we are doing is asking people to change. And changing what we do is not simple, which is why we need to make these changes in a supportive context where everyone involved feels listened to.

Through the Fork to Farm process, people get to know each other as people. Beyond any preconceived identity categories like ‘farmer’ or ‘policymaker’. Conversations begin with people’s hopes and concerns, with their personal experiences of food and climate change, with their feelings and emotions.

“We needed to create spaces for connections, spaces for different knowledges to meet, it wasn’t just about ‘let’s sit here and talk about the water problem’, but it was, let’s sit here and get to know each other.”
 – Carolina Salazar, Fork to Farm Dialogue Facilitator, Ecuador

Farm visit as part of the South West Scotland Fork to Farm Local Dialogue

Fork to Farm Global Dialogue

In the Fork to Farm Global Dialogue, where 100 local decision-makers and farmers from across the world met, we witnessed these kinds of conversations taking place. Farmers from the Philippines sang a song about the sustainability of their indigenous food systems for farmers from Kenya. Mexican producers taught Scottish farmers a method to produce cintli[1] sustainably. Farmers and policy makers from South Africa and Brasil shared how the moon guides their food production cycles.

For me, the biggest takeaway from that day was a desire that came up across conversations: to change the way in which we think about farmers.  To rid ourselves from the narrative where ‘farming’ is seen as a thing of the past. Listening to farmers sharing the things that they were passionate about, reinforced how farmer’s wealth of expertise is critical to be able to transition to just, sustainable, and resilient food systems.

Farming is inherently contemporary and needs to be treated as such at a community and policy level.  Farmers are passionate about what they do, they care for our food systems. So how can local and national policies better support them to practice this caretaking role? The answer to this will only be found through intentional dialogue.

Members from the group from Milpa Alta, Mexico wave hello to the Global Dialogue participants
Conversations in the Global Dialogue
Global Dialogue participants dance a traditional Scottish Ceilidh led by 7 Hills Ceilidh Band















For Nourish, the Fork to Farm Dialogue process has reinforced the importance of taking things slowly, it brought to life an African proverb frequently shared by Bayo Akomolafe: “the times are urgent, let us slow down.”

We are facing many crises right now: cost of living, climate, biodiversity, health. Is a crisis, not the right moment to take the time necessary to make sure that we are responding intentionally? Often, the solutions that we find to the problems we perceive, can have the same roots that created the problems in the first place. We need to take the time to revise the roots of our own beliefs and practices.

In Scotland, we want to continue building on the work done in the Local Dialogues in the South West, The Borders, Fife, and The Highlands. To work with existing networks to continue using these dialogue methods as we develop our local and national food plans under the Good Food Nation Bill. We will be taking the time necessary to build relationships of trust between the farmers and local authorities who will be key actors in making sure that these policies are effective.

Intentional dialogue is a powerful process. Coming to the end of the project I realised that, at its core, we have been about answering the question: how do we make friends with each other? How do we hear and feel the contexts from which people come from, relate them to our own, and use this to work together?

At Nourish this question is critical, we work with actors across the food system, farmers, businesses, public bodies, local and national governments. Everyone will come with their own worries, hopes, dreams, confusions, emotions, histories, and we need to create spaces where we can weave these multi-coloured threads into just food systems.

If this whole relationship-building process resonates with you, we invite you to read more about the project on our website. We have even created a Resource Pack for you to run your own Fork to Farm Local Dialogue.

Glasgow-based artist Jem Milton captures the Global Dialogue conversations


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