Potato or tomato? Why not knowing the difference really matters

With three quarters of Europeans now living in urban areas, most European children are growing up with little or no first-hand experience of farming.

Anton Lazarus considers what this means for a food system in crisis.

In 2010 British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver tested kids on their knowledge of fruit and vegetables. In a now infamous scene, Oliver meets a classroom of American six-year-olds – none of them are able to identify a tomato.

Perhaps the situation in Europe is not yet so dire, but it’s not just kids who have forgotten, never learnt, or never even thought about how food is produced.

How many of us have picked up plastic-wrapped fruit from Spain or Italy, mushrooms from Poland, fish trawled from the sea in one country and processed in another? Europe’s current food system is built on the long-distance transportation of often highly-processed foods.

We never really see where our food comes from, we don’t understand what producing it entails.

Most people agree that serious changes are needed to our food and farming system. Celia Nyssens, who works on farming policy for the EEB says a significant reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is essential: “The CAP is a tool that could achieve so much, yet it has increased destruction of the natural world and encouraged patterns of production and consumption that are bad for our health, environment and climate.”

“What we really need is to turn this bad farm policy into a good food policy.”

One problem, Nyssens says, is that too few Europeans understand farming and the devastating impact of intensive, industrial agriculture. “Most people never see, and therefore simply don’t know anything, about what’s going on at the other end of a production chain that starts in a field and ends in our local supermarket: there’s a serious lack of connection between urban and rural life.”

Building this link is the mission of the European Federation of City Farms (EFCF) and their members.

EFCF aims to promote the interests and mutual co-operation of different types of city farms, their website is a treasure trove of information including good practice and guidance and advice on everything from food sovereignty to how to milk a cow!

A day in the life of a City Farm in London

The ECFC works to promote equal access and involvement of children, young people and adults through practical experience in a wide range of educational, environmental, recreational, social and economic activities focused around farming and within a framework of sustainable development.

Supporters of city farms argue that they don’t just improve a community’s natural environment, they also provide an opportunity for people to learn about how farming works, understand abstract concepts like ‘food sovereignty’ and to consider our current needs while anticipating those of future generations.

Nyssens agrees that the work of city farms is essential: “Their work makes it much easier for urban populations to understand what’s going wrong with EU agriculture – this is essential knowledge as we make decisions about the future of farming in Europe.”

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is currently being reviewed and the EEB is calling for an ambitious overhaul so that the biggest and most polluting farms are no longer rewarded.

This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of META, the EEB’s magazine. EEB members receive a printed copy four times a year. A PDF version is available to download.