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The Fife Diet at 15: How a Local Food Movement Inspired Healthy and Sustainable Lifestyles

©Courtesy of Mike Small
©Courtesy of Mike Small

This is the story of how a fifteen-year-old conversation around a Scottish kitchen table about some perplexing information on a packet of shrimp came to grab the attention of world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), held in Glasgow last year.

In 2007, Mike Small and his wife, Karen, wondered why the Scottish prawns they were eating for dinner had travelled to Taiwan to be processed and then returned to their country to be consumed—a round trip of over 12,000 miles. Concerned about environmental costs associated with globetrotting Scottish shrimp, the Small family resolved to eat only locally sourced food for a year, defining “local” as the boundaries of the region of Fife where they lived.

Mike Small   ©Courtesy of Mike Small
Mike Small ©Courtesy of Mike Small

When the Smalls’ friends and neighbors in the small Scottish seaside resort of Burntisland heard what they were undertaking, they, too, started eating only local produce, and so the Fife Diet was born.

The grassroots initiative grew to a membership of almost 6,000 in what became Europe’s largest food project, supporting people to eat local food or grow their own to reduce their carbon footprint. The environmental savings from such a small group of participants showed the incredible difference the actions of an individual can make: Simple acts, such as eating locally, saved over 1,400 tons of greenhouse gases, while composting food waste saved 20,000 bags of household waste. Growing their own vegetables saved a further 28 tons of carbon dioxide, amongst a myriad of other savings.

Mr. Small said that when they began their local food odyssey, one of the biggest problems was overcoming people’s misconceptions about what could be grown within their country, which is famous for its supposedly dark, damp, and unfriendly-to-farmers climate. One apple juice producer, who imported his ingredients, told Mr. Small that he couldn’t grow his apples in Scotland (even though this northern country is actually Europe’s largest exporter of far-more-difficult-to-grow soft fruit).

“At the time, we were told it would be impossible—how could you source your food in Scotland in February?” Mr. Small said.

In fairness, when it comes to food, Scotland has been an international conundrum. It is equally famous for its amazing products—Scottish salmon, lobster, and beef are exported all over the world and grace the tables of expensive restaurants—and the idea that the Scottish people are some of the unhealthiest in Europe; the joke is that everything in Scotland is deep fried in oil before eating, be it savory or sweet.

The Fife Diet helped chip away at the latter preconception by encouraging consumers to eat healthier diets while urging them to tap into the incredible larder Scotland has to offer. “Scottish self-awareness and beliefs have changed in the short space of time between then and now,” Mr. Small said.

He added that there is now a Scottish orchards’ collective, promoting the growth of apples and other fruits across the nation. Artisan bakeries have also sprung up to make bread from Scottish grains rather than imported ones, which was was not happening a decade and a half ago.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, a Locavore grocery store might not look like a driver for revolutionary change, but the store, with its green and yellow decor, mellow music, and relaxed vibes, is part of a movement towards reducing how far food travels.

A Locavore grocery.   ©Courtesy of Reuben Chesters / Locavore
A Locavore grocery. ©Courtesy of Reuben Chesters / Locavore

At Locavore, shoppers can find eye-catching mounds of greens on display: mizuna, a Japanese leafy vegetable, is grown just a few miles away on the business’s own eight-hectare farm, which also supplies kale, chard, and claytonia. Spinach is sourced from another farm not far away in Balerno, Edinburgh.

Founder of the company, Reuben

Chesters, said the Fife Diet was an

inspiration for Locavore, which

currently has five stores in central

Scotland, as well as a kitchen and

thriving veg box delivery service;

there are plans to double the number of stores over the next few years.

While sharing the Fife Diet’s environmental concerns, Mr. Chesters also looked at the positive economic benefit of eating locally sourced food. “Eating locally cuts across everything. My initial drive was the environment, but there’s also a massive economic argument,” he said. “The local multiplier effect means the money made here stays in the local economy. Eating local organic food brings health benefits as well as building resilience into the system.”

By way of illustration, Mr. Chesters explained how local organic producers have avoided the recent twin shocks to the market—the war in Ukraine, and the rise in gas prices that has limited the supply of fertilizer and caused its price to quadruple. By using their own chickens’ manure, the producers and their resilient local food network has been unaffected.

Locavore’s nearby eight-hectare farm.   ©Courtesy of Reuben Chesters / Locavore
Locavore’s nearby eight-hectare farm. ©Courtesy of Reuben Chesters / Locavore

Similarly, it was the financial crisis of 2008 and its food-price spikes that inspired Pete Ritchie, who had been involved in the Fife Diet, to help create Nourish Scotland.

Mr. Ritchie, the campaign group’s executive director, is convinced the recent COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to think again about the source of their food.

A common theme of the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP 26) was how at-risk people’s food supplies were to global shocks. Strict lockdown rules due to COVID-19 meant producers found it difficult to maintain production, and countries that relied on imports for basic food grappled with serious shortages.

“We worked with people from cities and countries in different parts of the world in the run-up to COP 26, and [food production was] a really common theme,” Mr. Ritchie said. “Whether you are in Indonesia, whether you are in São Paulo, whether you are in Ecuador, whether you are in Johannesburg, people just realized during COVID-19 that none of the food their city was relying on came from anywhere near that city.”

“We are all dependent upon these global supply chains wherever we live,” Mr. Ritchie added.

The Fife Diet project, which was highlighted at COP 26, has come to a natural conclusion, but the need for similar actions continues.

Food production creates a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, so “the driving idea behind the Fife Diet is still the same,” said Mr. Small. “We can’t begin to change the climate crisis without changing the way we do food. That’s the bottom line.”

Looking back on the fifteen years since the creation of the Fife Diet, Mr. Small added, “Eating locally was the hook, but the longer-term goal was to explore the food system. The tagline was there is something fundamentally wrong with our food system, but there is something we can do about it.”


*Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.


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