May 1st was potato planting day in Sweden this year; at least according to Transition Sweden (part of Transition Network). The Transition initiative Närjord (translates approximately to Local Soil) in Söderhamn, Sweden, has been working for food resilience during several years. They saw the corona crisis as the straw that might break the back of an already shaky food system. Realising that what we eat in the winter is the product of what we plant this year, there is no time to waste. They gathered in the town square on Easter Eve, introducing the Potato Appeal (Potatisuppropet). The corona crisis is unveiling the vulnerability of a society dependent on fossil-based global trade. This is something the transition movement has been pointing at for a long time, striving to build local resilience in the face of global crises. But the Potato Appeal is about something even more profound than taking a responsibility for your immediate needs.
The date for Närjords manifestation, April 11, is no coincidence. About a century ago, in 1917, a group of women started the Potato Uprising (Potatisupproret) that day. It was the First World War, and even if Sweden was not part of the war, the harvest had failed and famine was at the door. The Potato Uprising spread from Söderhamn all over the country, in ten days ¼ million people, mostly women, took to the streets demanding the authorities provide for food. Some say it is the closest Sweden has ever been to a revolution. The authorities responded, urging people to plant, even in central Stockholm, giving out free seeds and potatoes for planting.
How do you get people to plant potatoes? Well, no one wants to be boring, right? The left sign says: ”Everybody plants potatoes — except boring people!”. The right one says: ”Plant this spring, avoid starving in winter”. Communication was maybe slightly more frank in those days…
It may seem drastic to compare current situation with war. But fact is that Sweden’s level of self-sufficiency is considerably lower today than during the wars. We have gone from producing 85–90% of the food we eat, to around 50%. Remaining is a fragile food system that is dependent on import, seasonal workers from other countries, just-in-time deliveries and inputs such as diesel and fertilizers. Meaning that we can produce half of the food we eat; all other things being equal. If the input flows are interrupted, we can barely produce any food at all. The Swedish Food Agency and Board of Agriculture are aware of this situation. However so far, trade, export and globalisation have been far more important than resilience.
The restrictions on mobility that follow in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have sparked a debate about the vulnerability of the food system. Alarm bells are ringing about food shortages due to pandemic disruptions. The UN organizations FAO, WTO and WHO say in a joint statement that there is reason to worry about global food security. In Sweden we have for decades been accustomed to the fact that food is in the store. We have dismantled our emergency stocks. While Finland is capable of half a year’s self-sufficiency, Sweden may be able to manage for a week.
The response of the government so far? That we may have to prepare for rationing, since “it is not possible to build food security in a few weeks time”. The Transition movement begs to differ. In previous crises, such as the World Wars, small-scale cultivation has been absolutely invaluable. City parks were cultivated and local authorities distributed potatoes for people to plant. Allotment gardens were an important part of the supply of potatoes, vegetables and fruits. Recently, interest in small-scale food production has increased, with new forms such as CSA:s and gardening cooperatives, as well as adult education on cultivation and gardening. This development creates the foundation for a transition to a more resilient food supply. Recreational cultivation alone has the potential to produce up to 700,000 tonnes of edible crops in Sweden; more than five times as much as today. Gardening also has significant positive health effects, apart from the harvest. Growing your own food is meaningful, provides exercise and prevents stress.
Närjord thought it was important to act firmly and swiftly to prevent a situation like in 1917. They bought 12 tonnes of potatoes and sold shares of future harvest, equivalent to one years consumption of potatoes. They also give out seed potatoes for free. They met with local authorities to initiate cooperation for local food production. They made a call on radio for machinery.
Transition Network Sweden took the idea from Närjord and ran with it. Sharing the Potato Appeal with the whole movement in Sweden, the simple idea is: 1. Plant potatoes; 2. Tell the world about it; 3. Ask the local authorities what they are doing for food security. As the usual demonstration marches were cancelled due to Corona, May 1st provided an opportunity for a distributed manifestation. The response was overwhelming. People and groups all over the country, from south to north, have been sharing where they plant, how, and why. Which varieties they like, their favourite potato-growing techniques, potato songs, potato slogans. They have been placing buckets with potatoes at town squares, from small villages in the north to the City Hall and the Parliament in Stockholm.
When we plant potatoes as a movement, we find relationship and strength with each other. Hope that it is possible to change things. One potato at the time. It may seem small, or futile, to plant a few potatoes. But if you are doing it too? If we are many who think it is worthwhile? Once you have planted your first potato, seen it grow, and harvested something you can actually eat, there is no going back. You know for a fact that you can create your own conditions and care for yourself.
When we act together for food security, we aren´t just building resilience. We find a sense of agency — even if we feel we cannot do much about the overwhelming global crises, we can at least care for our own immediate needs. And when we do, we find relationship with the soil and with our place. As “gangsta gardener” Ron Finley expresses it: ”being in a garden seduces you. And gardening has taught me more about myself and this planet than I could ever learn from a book.” If there is something we need in this time of transition it is to learn about ourselves and this planet.
Potatoes in your square — or be square!