Writer and artist Sean Roy Parker publishes on substack as Fermental Health. By living and working within off-grid and experimental communities he is part of a movement seeking new connections between food, production and digestion. Here he proposes a new “diet degrowth” discourse based on recalibrating interspecies relationships.
In my experience of living in England since birth, I can claim with some confidence that as a culture we take the food we eat – and the material lifecycles that play out – almost completely for granted. There is a disconnect between consumers and the ingredients, their provenance, the energy and water required to produce them, as well as the abundances and surpluses we have access to. It’s also my opinion that by design we cannot see how or by whom ingredients are grown or produced, packed, transported, stored, processed, preserved, cooked, served, saved (or indeed discarded), and this prevents us from digesting our position in the anthropogenic climate emergency.
Take the ubiquity of supermarkets in our daily lives, which as an institution obfuscates all the aforementioned unless absolutely necessary to its image. The UK’s ‘big four’ of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons share 64.2 per cent of the market according to this current Kantar data, creating an oligopoly that is societally perceived as neutral, apolitical and ahistorical, while trapping citizens in a wasteful trifecta of convenience, choice and luxury. In our inherent obligation as consumers, we are severely debased from things we put in our bodies to stay alive – let alone for enjoyment.
Furthermore with a majority urban population, and (as researcher Guy Shrubsole details in his project Who Owns England) half of all land belonging to just one per cent of the population, most UK citizens have very little access to land on which to grow food for their own families and beyond.
At the turn of the year, I was invited to Cornwall, a county on the southwesternmost peninsula of England, by artist Georgia Gendall to take up residency in her hand-built cabin at Allotment Club, near Penryn and research for this article. The plot is nestled in an off-grid community allotment association, triangulated by two main roads and a railway line. Using it as basecamp (and refuge from Storm Antoni), I spent two weeks hiking, cycling and snacking my way around the bioregion to better taste the collectivised feeling of landlessness on a land of plenty.
Cornwall is facing a land squeeze even more acutely than other regions, helped by unregulated career landlords, irresponsible land management and blatant council greenwash. A recent study revealed that eight per cent of property stock in the region are second homes or holiday lets, with some wards carrying up to 71 per cent. Ultimately, this sees impoverished communities priced/pushed out of breath-taking and food-bearing coastal areas, towards barren and post-industrial inland areas, without access to land for food production.
Agricultural businesses and the state are resistant to relinquishing surplus land or their private rights to the commons, yet opportunities are being eaten up by non-farmer buyers whose principal motivations are dodging capital gains tax and abrogating responsibility through so-called “environmental offsetting”.
The fight for food sovereignty – how communities are primary stakeholders in the production, consumption and distribution of their food – is the fight for the right to land, and against destructive corporate monopoly. As the artist Rudy Loewe recently said to me, the first country to be colonised by Britain was Britain, so the encroachment on Cornwall – a self-determined sovereign nation – to escape the entrapment and eager landlords indeed essentialises this trend. How to escape the entrapment of supermarkets and their ultra-processed foods that make humans, the soil and the atmosphere sick? How to reclaim land while landless and under the duress of Capitalism? I want to argue here that conspiring against individualism and recalibrating interspecies relationships can be a potent starting point for diet degrowth discourse.
On a personal level, after enduring spells of heavy eco-depression partly relating to diet detachment, I realised that I could not fix the broken system alone and committed to changing my own relationship with food and its producers. For the past six years, food has become the main focus of my material arts practice which has led me to self-educate on foraging, fermentation and folk medicine, and connect with small farms, community kitchens, urban gardens, plus all their invaluable landworkers, cooks, volunteers, worms, in an open-ended co-education project.
I want to acknowledge that connecting with land-based projects and visiting rural residencies, both in the UK and Europe, has increased my access to ecological territories with various embedded traditions and characteristic food production informed by unique geological circumstances. It has also supported praxis opportunities with strangers towards collectivised modes of living in the fertile rubble of soon-to-be-post capitalism. However, these opportunities rarely reveal much beyond a superficial seasonal experience, and the broader socio-cultural reality of off-season struggle can go unchecked. As an artist, I may have blunt apparatus for the job but my responsibility lies in communicating within context.
The most straightforward way I research local food sovereignty networks when on a residency is by avoiding ubiquitous pathways and creatively living with the consequences; that means going the long way round (often quite literally) to sustain myself. That means no recognised supermarkets or fast food chains; that means reorganising my practice to investigate how to feed myself in a post-capitalist way. Therefore growing, scavenging, gleaning, preserving, swapping, cleaning, cooking, eating, sharing and composting have all become indistinguishable tenets of my materials research and public project outcomes.
Having wedded myself to a low-consumption lifestyle, I’m compelled to eat adaptively, to be a bad consumer who does not move towards food but waits for it to reveal itself. It’s usually right in front of me – emerging greens, fallen fruits, kitchen scraps, commercial slippages – I just have to be ready to catch them on their way towards decomposition. Saving these potential ingredients allows me to forgo making whimsical choices and extend their lifespans with simple culinary processes strung together.
Arriving in Penryn for my residency at the height of summer gave me an inkling of what I might find: bursting flowers and shrubby herbs, early berries, some rogue wild vegetables and (if I could get down there) beach greens. After the storm, I even found one lane covered with cobnuts and plums, which I scrambled for, as well as the abundant and highly perfumed alexander seeds which remained attached to erect stems in the hedgerows.
Gendall, a Cornwall native whose encyclopaedic knowledge of organic farms, roadside shacks, fruit-bearing trees and proper pasties is only surpassed by her relationships with those who run them. This deep knowledge, like most traditions, peters out when unused, and can be hard to reclaim. Gendall and her co-conspirators facilitate the free-flow of ingredients, recipes and dinner invites around the region which continues year-round and includes itinerants like myself. For example, she collected 75 split hispi cabbages that Roseland Market Garden was unable to sell and graciously donated, which we transformed into a community sauerkraut in a workshop I led from the cabin, that will undoubtedly be bartered around the peninsula this autumn in some sort of real-life fermentation dark web.
Georgia arranged for me to go seaweeding off the coast of Coverack with the Cornish Seaweed Company. After lowering the motorised plastic dinghy into the harbour, we put our wet gear on and launched away from The Lizard peninsula. We timed it so the tide was receding and aimed for a rocky outcropping just up the coast. Carrying huge yellow trugs and textile shears, we clambered around collecting feathery dulse and rubbery kelp. Considering they grow so rampantly on our shores and are seen as a “superfood” due to their vitamin and mineral density, it’s shocking to me that I was working with the only licensed harvesting operation in the country, and so few are taking advantage of the proven health benefits.
I ate extremely well while at the Allotment Club. In addition to all the foraged food, I bought essentials through the Falmouth Food Coop. I packed my own wild seasonings, including umami dusts, burnt barbeque salt and powdered lemon rind sugar. I was invited to two dinners in a wind-powered cottage on a hill. After a long cycle around Stithians Reservoir, and up to a nearby standing stone circle, I treated myself to fish and chips in a pub with a pint of ale. I received unexpected gifts of herbs and tomatoes from other allotmenteers. My gut became populated with wild Cornish yeasts, the most resilient local microbes, and food that had been grown by locals with a lot of care and attention.
Despite the utopian imagery and proactive host, feeding art producers is rarely prioritised in the economic and energetic scaffolding around art production, which more often than not defaults to wasteful and expensive hyper-individualisation. Simply put, artists need good food and good company to function well and cohesively, and often they are left to fend for themselves in the dystopic landscape of (invisible) dominant culture.
Artist residencies, especially rural iterations like Allotment Club, occupy a rare space where the pressures of precarious existence are temporarily allayed and responsibilities can be absorbed by organised frameworks. Despite a dislike of the term, I would say they can be liminal in the sense of creating vacuums in which to sleep, eat and dream more daringly.
Another good example of an institution infrastructuring with food, in the sense that Dr Susannah Haslam explores in her book of the same name, is PAF (Performing Arts Forum) in St. Erme, France, which grows its own herbs, fruits and flowers, invites visitors to coordinate nightly cooking and cleaning teams, and arranges weekly fresh produce purchases from neighbourhood farmers. With communal meals and groceries intentionally baked into the organisation’s framework, teamwork and resource pooling increases social cohesion and frees-up more time for work, leisure or rest. The kitchen, frequently a point of high traffic and tension in shared buildings, is handed to the commons as a means of democratising roles and recalibrating power dynamics to support multi-directional care.
Meanwhile in Derbyshire, an experimental co-living project called The Field collects donations from short-term guests to buy bulk basics for the communal pantry, like grains, pasta, oats and flour, oil, vinegar, tinned foods and spices. This ensures that when residents or visitors are struggling with health, finances or time pressure, there is always enough food to sustain them, and plenty of people to cook an extra portion. The project also has a casual agreement with a local organic farm to glean surplus or blemished produce each week in exchange for a few hours of labour, cleaning their shop and storeroom. The regular glut of fruit and vegetables, and occasional baked goods, leads to an increase in shared house meals, pickling sessions and natural dyeing workshops, bolstering time spent socialising and collaborating.
In these instances of active and joyful co-nourishment, two key things surface. The first is the dynamic reframing of food as commons, more visible than ever in the home space, which does not negate personal ownership or preferences but provides specific tools for social lubrication and safety nets to centre interpersonal wellbeing. Then there is the crux of the situation: where we feed ourselves, with whom, and how this contributes towards our relationship and memory of digestion with place.
Outside the home, I disregard the false linearity of time and observe wild foods which demonstrate the circularity of seasons and incessant mêlée of decay. Tiny green blackberries, maggot-infested plums and fallen apples rotting – all inedible items for discerning consumers – merely illustrate different stages of complex lifecycles that operate within a balanced ecology. The health and productivity of any bioregion with fruiting trees rely on the succession of more-than-humans fulfilling their innate roles in choreographed succession. Airbourne pollinators, egg-laying predators and microbial detritivores are responsible for causal events that determine healthy aggregates, which provide immediate nutrition, carbohydrate stores and building materials for others to overwinter. The birth, life and death within each ecosystem is a yearly promise.
Similarly, my body is permanently in digestion. It is constantly shedding hair, liquids and skin cells wherever I go, creating a breadcrumb trail that decomposes or gets swept away. External replenishment comes from inside the body, a miracle that I can’t think too hard about. Paradoxically, our gut bacteria can regenerate itself and conglomerate with external communities. Living foods change the biodiversification of our digestion through (al)chemical and (oc)cultural contamination, ingesting oral and material histories.
During my time in Cornwall, I hoovered up microbiota by simply breathing and snagged fibres on hedgerows while picking berries, I unwittingly compromised my bodily boundaries. I accidentally archived yeasts floating in the breeze, moreover on the hands of the landworkers, in the crease of the cheesemaker’s apron, in the crease of a carrot’s skin, in a kiss from a nettle, a sniff of a sweetpea or a stroke of an oak. Every attempt to divest myself of sterility leads to ingesting more morsels that hold imperceptible data of the soil. As I move into new territory, I experience new terroir through the eyes, on the tongue and, most unlikely of all, in the stomach. Here is where the body holds memory. Here is where diet degrowth begins.
Sean Roy Parker is a writer, food researcher, permacultural gardener and visual artist based at The Field, an experimental rural arts residency and co-living project near Ilkeston, Derbyshire. He practises slow, low-tech crafts and food preservation with consumer waste and natural abundances, and shares extensively through labour exchange, favours and artswaps. In his ongoing project Fermental Health he writes about and leads workshops on the lifecycle of materials, complexities of interspecies responsibility, and collaborative problem-solving through the lens of food justice. He is patiently anticipating the post-capitalist transition.
Roy’s writing has been published in WeedsFeed by Sandra Kosorotova for Publics, Helsinki (Finland), Tender Order by Jade Monserrat for TOMA, Southend (UK), and Worry, Collect, Fold (translated by Max Weinland) for Kunstverein Luneburg (Germany). He is a Wysing Arts Centre Resident 2023-24, and is working towards his first poetry collection, due out in spring 2024 with Monitor Books.
Title image: Georgia Gendall’s hand-built cabin at Allotment Club, near Penryn, Cornwall. Photo © Sean Roy Parker