Todmordern is a pretty, hilly village in the North of England. If you Google it, you’ll be most likely to find two contrasting attitudes towards food:

  1. It nests the site of horror: a supposed horsemeat slaughter-house that supplied tranquillised horses as beef to supermarkets.
  2. It’s the home of Incredible Edible, which uses urban farming to revive the city’s economy through sensible activism.

Meat, animal production and urban animals is a global issue and the research for this has taken me around the globe in the past few months. I was surprised to find myself back in Yorkshire, where I went to high school. I first met Incredible Edibles when Pam gave an epic talk in Spring 2012 at TEDSalon. After a couple of hours of brain-boggling technology leaders,  politicians and writers, I was totally sucked into Pam’s journey on farming in municipal spaces for public use, reminding us that municipal is in fact public. Incredible Edible’s method of taking individual control “perfectly illegally” (until Prince Charles decides to visit them) is a bold statement that we are ‘allowed’ to be active citizens rather than passively be told by (often) clueless officials.

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But I only first came to Todmordern in the height of the horse meat scandal this year. After writing about the dilemma between outraged citizens vs. protein-demanding consumers, I was slightly gleeful to be in the middle of such political drama about this topic back at home. The butchers here had just received a huge increase in popularity as residents lost their trust in the supermarkets. It seems that suddenly, everyone wanted to personally experience the treatment of meat and connect to their source of meats.

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Incredible Edibles uses urban farming to activate the local residents of Todmorden to become more involved. It goes beyond farming, it’s sheer persistent presence (with kitsch streets named after farming terminologies) brings down the severe brow of politics to encourage voices from people normally in a different spectrum. On this frosty morning, Estelle,  their communications lead, showed me around their some of their invisible sprouts along the Todmorden canals lined with veg pads, at plant pots police station, car parks decorated with herbalists treats…

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As we strolled through the town passing through each stop point, I began to piece together their step-to-step account of using productive activism to earn a place as a political player. There are downsides too, the system can be endangered with internal disputes of the integrity of organic, vernacular and educationally funded farming. There are ‘copycats’ and franchises, sister companies each with their share in this political market. The council (and hopefully the city) that enjoys the boom of these competitors.

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Estelle the adamant vegan – was happy to take me through the market, where butchers busily chopped flesh from the limbs. She even devised a little meat tour for me, stopping at the dairy-makers, the butchers and sell sellers. The first butcher was used to her parades and stopped to add to her talk. He seemed like a rather intimidating fellow and got straight to the point with probing my research methods. I felt somewhat reassured, it’s good to have a butcher who was serious about his job. Before I could even find a subtle was of phrasing the question he directed me to the horse meat details. “There’s nothing wrong with horse meat, as long as people know they are buying horse meat.”

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With Downton Abbey-level diplomacy, Estelle quickly shows me the physical butcher’s blog of recent photographs of the animals. It suddenly made the eggs feel home-grown, organic, in opposition to what the plastic boxes suggests. The butcher understands the changing attitudes well and was unsurprised about his recent popularity brought from the horse meat scandal.

“People want meat from people they trust.”

It seemed obvious to me too but it seems that our increased demands for a cheap mass supply seems to muddle the waters. How would large mechanised battery farms take the time to photograph the process even if it wasn’t too off-putting? How would consumers believe the link between these images and the actual production environment?

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Estelle became a vegan after she had to take her own pigs to slaughter. I was fascinated that a pig farmer who was so practical about maintaining and reproducing the animals began to question her role in the production process. She then recounted her horror at one of the Incredible Edible sessions:

During one of the farm-kitchen sessions when the visitors are fed the Todmorden foods, Pam requested to have the non-meats option. Behind her, a little boy shouted,

“Pork isn’t meat (because) mummy buys them from Tesco.”

This thought really haunted Estelle, who’d much rather that children chide her for missing out the vitamin B and protein benefits of consuming meat than not realising the animal links from supermarket packaged cuts of meat.

When agriculture is specialised to the fringes of our populations, we detach from their value and growing process.

Incredible Edibles presents an opposition our system of hidden food – where food growth and preparation is absent from public view until they are supposedly sanitized in a plastic-sealed package in the refrigerated section of a supermarket. These vegetables are in public spaces, replacing neutral, voiceless municipal ‘shrubbery’ with edible ingredients that we can relate to. “Can urban animals become as positive as urban vegetables?”

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Written by Lisa Ma

Lisa Ma socializes activism. Combining ethnographic research and speculative design, Lisa creates platforms of engagement from surprising insights and processes that deeply resonate with the global technological community. The emergence of clicktivism – to protest at the click of a mouse – is trivializing activism. Lisa argues that although activism doesn’t necessarily benefit from technology, we need to evolve how activism contributes to technological societies. To illustrate this, she designs dilemmas and creates social events that are perceived as activism but function as services.

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