A Food Systems Study Tour of Europe

This summer, I used my STEP grant to help fund a trip to three different European countries: France, England, and Denmark. In each of these countries, I visited farms and businesses of all sizes and models with the goal of learning everything I could about the national food systems. Overall, I hoped to walk away from my trip with a broader understanding of the ways Europeans think about, produce, distribute and consume their food, in the hopes that I could use my findings to propose improvements to our food system here in the United States

My trip was incredibly valuable in that is taught me that there is no one correct food system model. The communities I visited throughout my trip were all so different in their assets, needs, and desires that I experienced so many different food system characteristics. I realized that there is no one-size-fits-all way to produce, distribute, and consume food. Rather, it is up to each community to discover the methods and processes that best provide for the unique needs of its people.

The first portion of my trip took place at La Ferme de Cagnolle, a small farm located just southeast of Bordeaux, France. Here I worked as a volunteer for a young couple who have dedicated their lives to the practice of permaculture. Permaculture is a type of farming that focuses on supporting biodiversity by growing a wide range of crops with the use of animal fertilization. Using this technique, the farm is able to produce a wide range of organic fruits and vegetables. Although the scale of the farm’s production is not large enough to turn a profit, the owners are happy with their ability to sustain their own livelihoods in a way that is harmonious with the natural surroundings of the French landscape. This experience taught me how fulfilling it can be to grow and harvest one’s own food. However, it also made me realize that while this is a viable option for some people, many do not have the means to produce their own food. Therefore they must depend on other ways to access nourishment.

After spending two weeks in France, I departed for a week-long tour of Totnes, England, a small, mostly rural community with a reputation for sustainability. I learned that Totnes is dubbed a “transition town,” as it has embraced the challenges of creating a more resilient community through sustainable initiatives. One of the main goals of this transition is to create an almost entirely local food system, where one person’s expense is another person’s income. Due to this priority, Totnes has a strong network of small business owners and farmers that work together to provide for the needs of the community. Experiencing this food system model was fascinating in that it showed the benefits that can be reaped from building strong local relationships, however, this model also has its limitations. While it is possible for an agrarian town like Totnes to provide for its own food needs, it would be much harder for a city like New York to rely solely on local producers and businesses.

The last leg of my trip brought me to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. Here I was able to experience the strong national food movement that is focused on alternative agriculture and innovative, sustainable business models. As far as agriculture goes, the country has declared it a goal to eventually grow all of its food using organic methods. This goal is back by national subsidies that will help farmers adjust their practices. Within the city, I got a taste of the vibrant and innovative food retail scene. I visited restaurants that recycle food scraps in recipes so as to avoid food waste, and rooftop gardens that sell produce to neighborhood customers. It was amazing to see how much food sustainability is engrained in every asset of the Danish culture. But while these alternative food models have been embraced in Denmark, the story would most likely be different in the U.S. Here we have a significantly larger population to feed and I would guess a significantly more stubborn population when it comes to adopting alternative food practices.

After traveling for a month or so, I realized I was searching for a panacea for the problems in the U.S. food system. But the problems we face cannot be solved with one food system model! The experiences I had this summer opened my eyes to the fact that we don’t have to decide between conventional farming and urban agriculture. We don’t have to decide between big business and small entrepreneurial pursuits. Rather, we can depend on a diverse mix of models to supplement our food needs. As I walk into my future career in food system work, I will do my best to keep this mind.