Sinéad Moran and Nathalie Markiefka are the founders of Foodture, a new online platform that aims to connect people across Ireland to local organic produce. In a world where there are hundreds of different eco accreditations available to producers and consumers, they aim to bring it together on a single platform, to cut through the noise and make it easier to source properly, fairly produced foods. Locavore spoke with Sinéad and Nathalie about Foodture, organic farming in Ireland, and the need for clarity in the food world.
How did Foodture come about?
Sinéad is a TCD Natural Science graduate with a varied background including spending some time working in research and the NGO sector. She has a keen interest in how farmers can farm in harmony with the landscape, how ethical livestock production can play a role in that, and ways in which we can reconnect to each other through food and farming.
Nathalie has a background in economics, marketing, and landscape design, and is involved in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group in Dublin. She is active in the international CSA movement, and has a keen interest in the social and healing aspects of horticulture and nature.
Motivated by previous volunteer work in different organizations like An Taisce (The Irish National Trust) and Eco-Unesco, both returned to university as mature students. The two met whilst studying for their Masters in Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security, in Galway, Ireland. Dismayed at the extent of issues facing the food system, the hypocrisy that often surrounds Ireland’s green farming image, and statistics that a mere 2% of agri-land in Ireland is organic and that only 1% of land is used to grow vegetables, they were driven to work together on the issues they were both passionate about. In early 2017, Foodture was born.
Our background has taught us to look at how food is both produced and consumed, whilst assessing its environmental footprint, and social and economic impacts. “To eat is an agricultural act”, says Wendell Berry. To truly know what you are consuming you need to know how it was produced. Foodture’s objective is to awaken the food citizen in us (see here and here for some definitions). We want people to recognise we are more than mere consumers. Food citizens make value-based food purchases. They make food choices that support the world they wish to live in.
So how can we grow and spread a culture of food citizenship and the idea that we all need to concern ourselves with the production of our food? And, how do we translate that into support for ecological farmers? Foodture’s objective is to create an active, engaging fact finding and storytelling platform. To build a space for people to interact with, and think about, the production of their food. However, once we have begun to raise awareness around the production of food, we want to offer a solution. Through our map, people can identify the ecological farmers in their region. Foodture will showcase ecological farmers, what they produce, and how they produce food. In doing so we hope to instil trust in the fact that Fair Food farmers are the foundation of a new, fairer food system for us all, and we therefore need to support them.
Together with farmers, and all on one platform, Foodture aims to generate public appeal and build strong community support for ecological farmers and the food they produce. As such we use the term Fair Food, defined as fulfilling our need for nutritious, ethical, affordable food, without compromising the health of our planet or the livelihood of farmers, ensuring that future generations will be able to feed themselves in the same way.
The term Fair Food helps to differentiate from common labels like ‘local’, ‘Irish’, and ‘sustainable’ – we want to strip the labels back, turn down the volume in the noisy space that surrounds food and simply ask “is the food I’ve purchased fair to animals, people, and place?”
How does the platform work?
Our platform has three main areas. The first is the homepage where we share content about fair farmers and fair eating. We produce visual media like videos, podcasts, and write articles. The second area is the fair food finder, which is an easy to use tool that helps citizens find fair farmers, read their stories, and find out where to buy their produce. The third area is an online forum where our members can support, exchange ideas, and learn from each. We believe that by bringing citizens and farmers together, on one platform, we can have honest dialogues about the future of our food system. And encourage everyone to be part of the much needed change and transition to a fairer food system.
Organic farming expanded rapidly in Ireland in the 1990s, and continues to do so. What has driven this expansion? And do you think it will continue?
Ireland has benefitted from the influence of other strong European organic movements like in Germany at an EU CAP level. However, only 2% of all agricultural land is under organic production, this is not exactly a rapid expansion. What has expanded is the demand for organic produce. Currently, 75% of that demand is met by imports. That demand is set to continue as citizens are more informed and aware of the benefits associated with organic eating. There is a need for supportive policies and funding schemes to help farmers to convert to organic or to set up new organic farms.
There also seem to be a lot of people coming into food production later in life, after careers in other areas. What do you think drives this?
Nathalie: Many of those who come to, or return to, farming later in life perhaps have had a change of mind about how they live after becoming parents. Some are driven to ensure they can provide the best food for their children. The lack of fresh produce nearby has perhaps motivated some into growing food.
Sinéad: There seems to be an emerging feeling or perhaps longing for a simpler, more down to earth lifestyle these days. We can’t speak for everyone but that’s the impression we get from people we’ve met who have ‘returned’ to the land.
Nathalie: Perhaps we are transitioning in response to a realisation that high-paying (many low-paying!), stressful jobs come with many externalities. Negatively impacting our health, relationships, and environment.
Sinéad: Perhaps more people are asking the classic “is the juice worth the squeeze?” Particularly in light of how expensive it is to live in, say, Dublin or Galway now.
How many producers do you currently work with? And what are the aspects you look at when deciding who to work with?
Nathalie: At the moment we have 10 members on our map, a good start since our launch in late January 2018! For farmers to join there’s an application form to fill out, where they need to tell us their ethos and methods to producing food. If they are certified by any official organic body, even though this is not a requirement. Their approach to soil health and biodiversity on the farm. For those in livestock, for ruminants we seek out the 100% grass-fed farmers, and the free-range pork and chicken farmers. Asking these questions helps us assess if the applicant is a Fair Food Producer.
Sinéad – you also farm yourself. Can you tell us some more about what you do?
My partner and I ventured back to the land two years ago. We were lucky enough to inherit a farm that had never been farmed intensively. We still have a species grass, grass-herb and wildflower meadows, native trees, stonewalls, and hedgerows (you can watch a Foodture video on our farm here).
We farm organically but are not yet certified. The land we farm is often referred to as HNV (High Nature Value) Farmland. Livestock have an important role to play in the conservation of this landscape, so we stock a small mixed herd of shorthorns, Angus crosses, and Herefords crosses. We farm under the stocking density and last year ran a mob grazing system, and our cows are 100% grass-fed. In short, we move the herd everyday to a small but fresh pasture patch. The cows graze (ideally only) the top third of the grass, and trample the rest, encouraging a build up of organic matter to the soil and faster growth return on the grass.
We are still learning as we go and really, it depends on the field. We have a small farm of 30 acres yet no one field maintains the same profile. My partner has spoken to his family to learn the history of the land that once fed a large family of 13. One particular field, for example, was always used to feed the milking cows because they always produced a rich golden yellow butter when grazing it. Other fields were used to grow oats, vegetables, and potatoes. There is also a small old orchard that still produces apples, that we have to fight our cows for when they fall!
Going forward, we would like the farm to support us both and afford us an opportunity to be farming everyday. We’re not there yet, but perhaps in the near future. Beyond that, my folks used to run a small organic vegetable farm and free range pigs. I tried last year to work the tunnels and love getting my hands dirty in the soil. I think however the carrots I’ve grown tell a whole other story. The green thumbs haven’t been passed on to me!
How do you think Brexit will impact the food and farming of the Republic of Ireland?
Nathalie: With Brexit and a weakened Sterling, Ireland saw increased pressures on our agri-exports to the UK.
Sinéad: Our agri-sector is very export orientated, and most of that goes to the UK. We could find ourselves competing with cheaper beef imports into the UK, for example, and although it’s not likely, we fear that this could see a push for a “lighter-touch” approach to environmental regulations here. The big fear is a drop in prices and the impact that will have on the economy here, particularly if WTO rules were to be imposed in the absence of a Brexit deal. There is of course the border issue. Many a farmer straddles the border with land partly in the Republic and partly in Northern Ireland. Concerns include CAP payments, cross-compliance, trade, processing, and simply moving cattle from one field to the next.
Nathalie: However, every cloud has a silver lining and perhaps this could be an opportunity for Ireland to decentralise and re-localise supply chains, and begin to feed itself. It’s also an opportunity to avoid that “race to the bottom” and instead re-focus on ethical, environmentally good, quality dairy and beef, for example beef from HNV farmland.
What are your plans for the future of Foodture?
Nathalie: Our short-term goal is to grow awareness about our initiative, and to meet as many farmers and citizens as possible in person. We will speak at different events around the country this year and hope this will help to increase our supporter base. As a long-term goal we would like to create a strong network of Fair Farmers in Ireland and to use the power of that movement to shape better policies for small-scale, truly sustainable farming in Ireland. Helping as many people as possible awaken the food citizen in them, ensuring access to nutritious food directly from Fair Farmers into the future.
What are your hopes, and fears, for food and farming over the coming years?
Nathalie: One of the biggest threats is that countries will be unable to bring about change to the food system in a timely manner. Creating widespread food insecurity issues while also facing climate change related weather events. Last year we witnessed a harbinger of things to come with rising prices of vegetables due to the extreme weather events in Spain. We need to be prepared to face future challenges and build resilience to shocks. The hope is that all those small initiatives that we can see around the world will scale up and help to build this resilience. There are great examples from around the world of organisations that are already playing an important role, not only for food security and environmental protection but for community building around food.
Sinéad: For me, on a personal level, I fear that the West Coast of Ireland will become an environmentally and socially negative carbon sink to off-set large dairy farms in the South and East of the country. I worry about the continued decline of farmers; who will produce our food in the future if we cant keep our generation in it now? If our generation can’t make a livelihood from farming, why would the next generation try? Like many an environmental crisis, whether it’s climate change, plastics in the ocean, or antibiotic resistance, we are the last generation that can make a big enough difference to begin to protect, conserve, regenerate, and shape a fairer world for us and those to come.
Do you eat out? Do you have any favourite restaurants, both in Ireland and further afield?
Momo restaurant in Waterford is one of our members and a fantastic restaurant. They have a flavourful, seasonal menu, and source most of their produce locally. Kamila is such an inspiring restaurateur! Her approach to sourcing food is excellent!
Finally, why do you do what you do?
It can be difficult to find nutritious, ethically reared food locally in Ireland, despite the fact that agriculture dominates our economy, and despite the thousands of farms we have. We could follow a few hundred farmers online and still only see the content of a few who pay for advertising or beat the algorithms. There is no one place to search out farmers, and even when you find a list of, say, organic growers, it doesn’t really answer some of the questions we might have on how the food was produced.
We also have been to so many events over the years on food sovereignty, local food, food co-ops, farming supports etc, and so many great ideas were mentioned but nothing ever came about. It’s hard to be a farmer, business person, marketer, and activist. We had thought about how great it would be to discover all the great farmers out there that produce food we’d consider fair, and how great it would be hear more about them. So, we felt drawn to start something ourselves. Foodture is constantly evolving and adapting to what we hear and see is necessary to bring about change in our food system. We work to bring about a food-systems change, and as long as we see the need for us to be there, we’ll continue to work towards that.
For the Foodture website, click here.
Find them on Twitter here.