Stevie WilliamsComment

Planting the seeds of knowledge

Stevie WilliamsComment
Planting the seeds of knowledge

Monday 9th October


Definitions of ‘local’: indigenous food culture


When climate change is threatening agriculture but agriculture is also contributing to climate change, how can we find a system with which to continue farming that does not jeopardise the future of the planet?


Observing indigenous communities and their agricultural methods could provide some answers. Indigenous peoples tailor their methods to the environment out of necessity, as any damage they do to their surroundings threatens access to food and resources. This is where traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) can help us come up with sustainable forms of agriculture in the developed world. TEK is the understanding by native communities of the world around them. This knowledge is passed on through the generations and adapts over the years to any changes in their environment. It is an inherent awareness of the surrounding land. TEK involves scientific intelligence, but differs from Western science as it is knowledge acquired through a working relationship with the local environment and a spiritual connection with the land. The study of TEK can complement Western scientific education to provide solutions to current ecological issues and can also be an important way to learn about indigenous cultures.


Scottish food is marketed as being a ‘clean’ brand, with its mountainous landscapes, fresh air and lochs. As food and drink is Scotland’s second largest industry, it is important to farm sustainably in order to retain this image. Using TEK may be the way forward, and crofters could be the people to provide this knowledge. A croft is a smallholding, traditionally located in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. There is a strong sense of community between crofters, particularly as most don’t make a living from crofting but do it for the love of the land. According to the UN, the UK has no indigenous peoples, however the traditional language of crofters, Gaelic, has been recognised as an indigenous language.


Much of the Highlands was more populous before the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, thousands of people were moved to the coastlands and allocated small plots of rough land for farming. The areas they had been moved from became prime land for sheep grazing, as the price of wool had risen dramatically. At this time, crofters were renting the land and lived under the constant threat that they may be moved on. However, in 1886, the Crofters’ Act came into effect, stating that crofters had the right to rent continuously and pass the croft on to their children. Today, the Scottish Crofting Federation recognises the value of crofting in Scotland and is standing up for the rights of the crofting community.


In the afternoon, we were joined by Dr Iain MacKinnon, Research Fellow on the Governance of Land and Natural Resources at Coventry University, and Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF).


Iain spoke passionately about growing up on a croft on the Isle of Skye, which he referred to not as where he is from, but where he belongs. He said this is a common way, particularly for the older generation, to express where you are from, and spoke of a sense of longing as well as belonging (buinidh in Gaelic). He told us about standing on the shore with his gran at the age of four or five, feeling at home in his environment and part of the place in which he was growing up. Despite this, Iain was not taught Gaelic. His grandpa told his dad, “Forget about Gaelic. It won’t get you off the island”, which at that time was seen to be the way to get on in the world. Now, as Iain said, many people actually want to “get off” and return to the land.


Patrick then spoke to us about crofting communities today, and how the SCF is trying to help them continue farming. Viability was a big talking point as it is important for crofters not to be losing money, even if they are not making money. Often they have other jobs to bring in some form of income. The SCF is keen to make 10,000 more crofts available, as there is a huge demand from younger people to become part of this community. However, there are also several crofts owned by an aging population without children, who aren’t sure what to do with their piece of land. The SCF are now teaming older and younger generations, to provide enthusiastic people to inherit these crofts. In this way, the younger generation are still learning TEK through hands-on methods and by word-of-mouth, so that they in turn can pass this knowledge on to future crofting generations.


Monday lunch:


Tuesday 10th October


Processing and Manufacture


Tuesday was all about potatoes. We visited SASA (Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture) to find out about the mind-boggling world of seed potatoes. We were lucky to be shown around several different departments within the building, to see the testing processes that potatoes go under when being chosen and used as seed potatoes. A seed potato is one that has been grown to be replanted in order to produce a potato crop. Many seed potatoes are grown in Scotland, as the cold climate means there is a lower risk of viruses, and all seed potatoes must be free of disease. All potatoes for commercial use in Scotland have to be registered at SASA, who now have a database of around 3000 varieties.




The soil is tested for nematodes, which are pests that feed on the roots of the potato plant. Under European law, potatoes can only be planted in soil that is free from nematodes. In order to test this soil, samples from the fields are dried, before going through a sieving and flotation process.




SASA use a system of DNA fingerprinting to test for bacteria, viruses and fungal infections in the potatoes. They also test for pesticides in a variety of foodstuffs from, for example, supermarkets and farms. Last year, SASA tested 552 samples for 400 different pesticides, and if the maximum residue level is exceeded, this can be investigated further. For any items tested that could be a risk to health, there is a rapid report system and the EU are alerted so that further testing can be carried out. Perhaps surprisingly, this information is all made public, so you can check on the Health and Safety Executive website which pesticides have been found in which foods at which supermarkets. You can also find out the products that have gone through the rapid alert system at the RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) website.


The 1918 Gastro pea!

The 1918 Gastro pea!


We then found out about the DUS (Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability) tests for new varieties of crop. According to the SASA website, “DUS testing is a way of determining whether a newly bred variety differs from existing varieties within the same species (the Distinctness part), whether the characteristics used to establish Distinctness are expressed uniformly (the Uniformity part) and that these characteristics do not change over subsequent generations (the Stability part).” The tests take place over two years, and in the UK, around ten new candidates per year come to SASA for testing.


Cute knitted veggies to demonstrate what SASA are looking for when they do the DUS tests

Cute knitted veggies to demonstrate what SASA are looking for when they do the DUS tests


The potato that is grown the most is the Hermes variety, although you won’t have seen this in the shops as it is used for making crisps. We were told, rather enthusiastically, about the cooking tests that happen roughly once per year, which involves steaming, crisping and deep-frying the potatoes. Disappointingly, flavour isn’t top priority when choosing a variety for crisps or chips. Consumers often buy with their eyes, so evenness of colour is most important.


This just scratches the surface of what we found out about during our day at SASA, and we only saw a small part of the huge operation that is going on there every day. Who knew there was so much to know about potatoes? I know for sure I’ll have a lot more respect for the work that goes into potato production next time I pick up a bag of Maris Pipers.