Ele Saltmarsh (pronounced Ellie) doesn’t mind being the youngest
member of the coordination group of Food Sovereignty UK, or being
the international campaign’s manager and heading up the youth group of the newly formed English branch of La Via Campesina. She doesn’t mind at all; in fact she loves every moment of it. Over a cup of tea at home on Fivepenny Farm, Ele explained to Franny Owen why she’s devoting as much time to campaigning as she possibly can.
Photographs by Robert Golden.
In September 2012 Ele arranged funding through War on Want for delegates from Food Sovereignty UK to take part in The Good Food March to Brussels. ‘By an amazing twist of fate the march into Brussels happened on my sixteenth birthday on 19 September. People started marching from Munich and all over Europe on 25 August—some people cycled from Calais—but obviously I couldn’t get that much time off school at the start of the year, so we took a coach in and camped on the outskirts of Brussels and then all marched in to the city for the big conference on reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy.’
Ele’s pretty deft at juggling her campaigning and schoolwork alongside her current project on Fivepenny Farm, where her mum and dad—Jyoti Fernandes and David Saltmarsh—have been putting their commitment to small-scale sustainable farming into practice for almost 10 years. ‘My sister Ari and I look after the goats. I go through phases on the farm, looking after different things. I started off with flowers, selling them at the market; went on to chickens, raising them with an incubator; then geese, raising them and selling them for meat, but then I became a vegetarian. I really did like the geese but then we looked after a baby goat that was really sick and we were given Doris, its mum, and now we’ve got nine. We milked Doris and made cheese, but all the goats are pregnant now, so we’ll milk them again when they’ve had their kids.’
It’s lucky that Jyoti will be happy to milk the goats in the morning, leaving the girls to do the afternoon milking when they get home from school. It’s lucky too that Ele has what she describes as ‘an annoying talent for not having to work too hard at school’, and that her school, The Woodroffe in Lyme Regis, is very supportive of her campaigning activities. GCSEs may be coming up in June, but Ele’s absolutely clear that campaigning to make sure the planet has a viable future is at the very top of her agenda.
‘I just love it. I’ve been going to campaigns with Mum since I was tiny and I’ve always believed what we were doing is right, but I remember a particular GM protest a couple of years ago. I was listening really carefully that day and it made me think if I want to change these things when I’m older, why not start now?’
Ele’s very aware that time is of the essence. ‘That’s why I started as soon as I could. Obviously time’s running out for the whole world and we’re getting close to a critical point where it won’t be possible to turn things around. But if people really want to change I think there’s still time to make that happen. I went to a youth group recently in Budapest with Via Campesina and they asked us a question about reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). “How many of you think we’re going to be able to reform the CAP, to get them to change their minds this time around?” Everyone else went to the ‘no’ side and I was left all alone on the ‘yes’ side. I’m definitely an optimist!”
At that meeting in Budapest Ele became a signed up member of the European coordination, Youth Group of La Via Campesina. Founded in 1993 to campaign for the rights of small-scale food producers, today La Via Campesina (The Peasants’ Way) represents more than 200 million farmers, growers, pastoralists and fishermen, making it a hugely significant, transnational social movement, with a big voice in food and agricultural debates.
At the World Food Summit in 1996 La Via Campesina launched the concept of food sovereignty. The initial impetus, which came from farmers’ networks in Latin America—food sovereignty is a direct translation of ‘soberania alimentaria’, which in Spanish emphasizes the decision making power of the people—was based on the conviction that the small farmers are capable of producing food for their communities and feeding the world in a sustainable and healthy way.
At the Nyeleni World Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali in 2007 a call was made for a radical restructuring of the global food and agriculture system. Food sovereignty advocates for the rights of consumers to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced using sustainable methods, and the rights of local and national food systems to be self-determining for the benefit of their communities and environments. Food sovereignty puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of the people who actually produce, distribute and consume food—rather than the demands of markets and transnational corporations—at the heart of food systems and policies.
The forum in Mali also set out six pillars of food sovereignty to guide future work: valuing food providers; localizing food systems; local control by local food providers of local resources; building knowledge and skills; and working with nature. European groups at Nyeleni committed to a forum to build food sovereignty in Europe, which took place in Austria in 2011, and in July 2012 Food Sovereignty UK was officially launched at a gathering of farmers, community gardeners, co-op workers, campaigners and activists from across the country, hosted by Organiclea in Chingford.
Ele was there to became the youngest member of the coordination group and she was there again in November 2012 at the Food Sovereignty UK meeting in Bristol where she put her name forward to constitute La Via Campesina UK. Going by the name of the UK Landworkers Alliance the group held its inaugural AGM in March 2013; Ele was there for that one too!
I asked Ele what she loves about campaigning: ‘I really, really love the colour green. Plants in polytunnels, grass, trees, everything; it’s so awesome. It’s magical seeing the energy of it all. I have this real passion for energy, I don’t even know where it came from, and I just love seeing energy, learning about energy, thinking about the energy behind things. I think it’s really special. I love the sun. I just want to protect all of it really.’
When we met to chat about all of this, Ele was buzzing with energy and excitement about a very recent campaign victory for honeybees with the European ban on bee killing pesticides. ‘I’m terrible at Facebook, but Avaaz and 38 Degrees were brilliant for this campaign. I wrote loads of letters, signed petitions and got other people to sign petitions as well and last night I got an email telling me we’d won the battle with a vote by the appeals committee of the European Commission. They’ve voted for a two-year ban across the whole of Europe on the use of these pesticides on crops that attract bees. It’s a teeny-teeny step forward but I’m really chuffed.’
Honeybees pollinate more than two thirds of all crops worldwide so the decline in honeybee populations is a big threat to food security. There’s heated debate about what is responsible for bee deaths on such a large scale and experts believe that along with parasitic mites, viruses and the loss of habitats, neonicotinoid chemicals in widely used systemic pesticides are a key factor.
More than thirty scientific studies have linked neonicotinoid chemicals with damage to bees, but Ele thinks the ban is above all a victory for common sense. Even without irrefutable proof that neonicotinoids are definitely fatal to bees, it’s more than likely they’re a very significant part of the problem, so why take the risk when bees are vital to the ecosystems that other insects, plants, animals and humans all depend on?
Ele seems to have a better grasp than Owen Patterson (MP and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) on the precautionary principle that’s supposed to underlie environmental regulation and she’s pretty certain that other influences were also in play with his opposition to the ban. She points out that thousands of ‘ordinary’ kids who watched Bee Movie—a comedy about the dire consequences of bees deciding to stop making honey for humans—were switched on enough to make the connection and realize that a world without bees would not in reality be funny at all. ‘Surely someone as high up as Owen Patterson should be clever enough to realize what would happen without bees, so it does suggest that he had some other motive for voting against the ban’.
Chemical companies and pesticide manufactures, including Swiss global giant Syngenta, which has a big presence in the UK, lobbied ferociously against the ban, claiming it would damage food production and put famers’ livelihoods at risk. Ele thinks this lobbying had much more to do with protecting corporate revenues than protecting producers and food sources. ‘To be honest we don’t really like Owen Patterson and we get the feeling that most of the politicians are under the thumb of the big corporations.’ On this occasion, common sense and campaigning have won the day for the honeybees and the UK can’t opt out of the two-year moratorium that starts on 1st December.
But there wasn’t much time to kick back and bask in the victory because hard on its heels another vote in the European Commission—the Plant Reproductive Material Law—was threatening dire restrictions on seed availability with a proposal that all vegetables, fruit and trees should be officially registered with a central Plant Variety Agency—for a fee that will be prohibitive for anyone except the really big players—before they can be reproduced or distributed.
Ele reckoned that Europe was ‘pushing everything right now because they think all the farmers are too busy to do anything about it’, but the campaign networks had swung into action with the result that when the law was put to the vote on 6th May there had been some important last minute changes.
Home gardeners will now be allowed to save and swap unregistered seed without breaking the law and small organisations with less than 10 employees will be permitted to grow and supply unregistered vegetable seed. Seedbanks will also be able to grow unregistered seed, but they’ll be prohibited from giving unregistered seed to the public. And there’s some fuzzy stuff about easier rules, perhaps, for large producers of seeds suitable for organic agriculture, in some unspecified future legislation—maybe.
These are the good bits; amendments secured by determined campaigning to a very bad law that basically creates new powers to classify and regulate all plant life anywhere in Europe. Ele explained that there had been a lot of pressure from the big seed companies and officially the law is supposed to ‘increase consumer protection’ but in reality it’s more about protecting the interests of the globalized agribusiness seed industry by creating a register of ‘their’ varieties—or genes—so they can sell them in huge quantities to industrial farmers and stop smaller farmers from saving seed, and selling or using it themselves without paying a royalty fee.
None of the big companies are advocating for heritage varieties so if registration became mandatory heritage varieties would ‘just be wiped off the map’. The law is in draft form at the moment so there’s no guarantee that the amendments, or further concessions that campaigners manage to win, will make it into the final law when it’s put before the European Parliament. There are also clauses in the law that mean any concessions could be removed at any time in the future without a vote.
Campaigners know the battle hasn’t been won and they need to be vigilant and keep up the pressure. They think that the law is completely back to front and are calling for testing and registration to be voluntary so that the sort of growers—massive industrial farmers for instance—who want seed that’s passed certain tests could choose to use ‘officially registered’ seed, and everyone else would be free to choose non-GMO, non-patented, non-hybrid seed to grow food for people that actually contributes to biodiversity, protects heritage varieties and may well make all the difference when, rather than if, food security becomes an even bigger problem than it is already.
After her GCSEs Ele’s hoping to do an internship in the summer with Greenpeace. Then it’s back to The Woodroffe and she’s hoping to persuade her teachers to let her do some ‘extra’ subjects for As and A levels. Mainly science and environmental subjects and Maths of course—‘because you’ve got to take Maths’. Ele’s also planning to start her own campaign to encourage farmers to plant Lucerne on their farms.
At the moment the main protein in animal feed comes from soya, ‘which is grown in the rainforest and then imported all the way over here, but there’s this really simple alternative of growing Lucerne, which is good for the animals and can replace the soya and also fixes nitrogen, so it’s good for the soil. We’re going to test out a bit, it should be fine and the only problem I can think of is buying the seed and persuading the farmers to make space to grow it.’
Ele’s impressed that Latin America is getting pretty good at this kind of thing. ‘Of course they’ve got the rain forest right next to them so everything is a lot more imminent there and they’re generally better at everything. And also their governments … well quite a lot of terrible stuff happens so I find the people are more resilient, looking to make their own way instead of relying on subsidies and all these laws and things, some of which are good, obviously; I mean we don’t get people disappearing in the night.’
Ele’s planning to work her Lucerne campaign into her A level extended project qualification, ‘to save time both ways’. She quite likes the ‘boring politics side of things—although it’s not everyone’s thing’—and since this campaign is going to be targeted at farmers, rather than consumers, she’s going to be working on all the facts and figures so she can field questions about the disadvantages and make a really smooth presentation.
She thinks education definitely has to be the way to get people to think about changes that need to be made, but that sometimes makes her angry too, ‘We’ve been doing GM crops and GM engineering in our Science and looking through all the revision books there are loads of pros about how it could feed the world and produce insulin and cure cancer some day, and in the cons just “some people think GMOs may be harmful, but this has not been proved”, and that really bugs me because the students will see that and they’ll think these scientists are out there developing GM and it’s good and nothing needs to be done.’
Ele recognizes that coming from her background she’s always been at an advantage and thinks that awareness events can be a really good way of getting the message across to other young people. ‘It depends on what you’re trying to influence people about. Shopping with multi-nationals is a really big thing and last year we set up a Farmers’ Market in Tesco’s car park that grabbed a load of people’s attention. We handed out flyers and once they saw what was going on, they actually read the flyers and they were like “Really?”
‘Things like that are fantastic, it’s definitely got to be fun, daring, exciting—because you really can’t frighten people with the prospect of a horrible future when they’re living the now. You’ve got to get people doing stuff, show them what they can do and that it’s awesome at the same time, and get the old world out into the new world—like letting piglets out in the street. We brought some of our lambs out and everyone went, “Aahh lambs, they’re amazing”. You can get all the girls that way; it works a treat.’
In June, Ele hopes to squeeze in a trip to Indonesia, for a Via Campesina international conference, between her GCSE exams. ‘I definitely want to get a whole lot more involved in the international side of things so I can help boost it up in the UK.’ In the ‘long future’, she’s hoping for Oxford. ‘Everyone says I should be aiming for Oxford and I’d like to do Biological Sciences or something like that and then go on doing this, but start getting paid! I’ve always got room to change my mind, but I’m just thinking I might as well do this, it’s what I like. It’s fantastic.’
Along with the campaigning, the goats and the schoolwork, Ele’s also making her own dress for her prom on 4th July. ‘It’s a butterfly theme and I thought of making it green’, but in the end Ele decided to base her lovely, floaty creation of net and hand painted gauze on the colours and markings of the Monarch butterfly. Getting into her finery and spreading her wings on American Independence day seems wholly appropriate for this beautiful, bright and exceptionally self-possessed young woman. We—and the planet—are lucky to have her, and I hope she has a fabulous party. In the future she’s so determined to protect, we’ll be hearing more from Ele Saltmarsh. I’m sure of that; ‘definitely!’