by Theresa O’Donohoe, An Taisce Climate Committee

Sustainable community development and local resilience are vital for coping with a crisis. An encouraging aspect of Ireland’s response to the Covid19 emergency has been the way in which cohesive communities with active and collaborating groups have been quick to respond and deliver solutions. There is no doubt that when good communications exist in an area, the potential exists to make whatever response is needed. Knowing your community is responsive and capable gives great peace of mind and a sense of security. The Public Participation Networks (PPNs) representing community groups throughout the country, have been playing a major role in facilitating the community response during the current pandemic. This coordinated response ensures better care for people and help with the emotional and psychological impact they have to face.

The practical needs of a community are another aspect. Basic human needs are water, food and shelter. Different events trigger different responses. For example, extreme weather events may cause food supplies to become a worry if deliveries can’t be made. Shelter will be needed if there are homeless people in the area, especially during cold spells. If pipes burst, water becomes an issue. Our “just in time” food supply system leaves us very susceptible to supply chain disruption which could result in food shortages. Severe weather in the past few years has already demonstrated its ability to cause food shortages. Recently, many countries that supply large quantities of crops have decided, because of the pandemic, to limit their exports to ensure they have enough for their own population. Crops usually dependent upon migrant workers are also under threat if labour cannot be found while populations are on lockdown. Transporting workers to remote areas with travel restrictions in place is also a challenge and it is inevitable that some degree of supply chain disruption is inevitable within the coming year.

How can Ireland best prepare for global food shortages? Unless we have exported everything before shortages emerge, we will have adequate beef and dairy to feed our population for 6 to 9 months. However not everyone wants beef and dairy all day, every day. It would seem sensible to grow a greater range of crops to supply greater food options to feed our own population.

If our agricultural sector diversified to some degree, with every farmer converting at least one hectare to grow something that we usually import, it would be a start. A community supported farm that grows what the local community needs is an even better option. That would offer a certain amount of local food security and peace of mind. It also maintains skills and local economic activity. Besides, cattle farming is principally responsible for the rise in our national Methane and Nitrous Oxide emissions. There are many very good reasons to change our land use now.

At community level there are plenty of ways to build resilience. The Transition movement has been inspiring community-led resilience building for over 14 years. Tidy Towns have been incorporating more and more sustainable projects. Community gardens have sprung up all over the place with many concentrating on food growing. Community farms are designed in conjunction with a local community to provide food for the area. All of these initiatives bring people together, building community cohesion and resilience.

While we are at home during this pandemic we could start growing our own food. Consider converting a little bit of lawn, a corner of the garden or even a pot on the kitchen window. The most important thing is to grow something you eat. Depending on how much you grow it may also help keep your food bill down during the coming recession. Now is the ideal time to sow some seeds or transplant some young plants. Check out Grow It Yourself Ireland for tips on how to get started.

For a peek inside a transition vision here is my vision for a Transition Town in 2025:

I live in a town with two bakeries, a brewery, a dairy co-op, flour mill, a butcher, soap maker, technology company and numerous other businesses. We have a community farm out by the allotments. I work 4 days at CESC, the Community, Enterprise and Social Centre, so I don’t have time to grow enough food for home. I pay a set price to the dairy farm every week then I email an order for fresh eggs, cheese, yogurt and butter. I pick up my vegetables whenever I need them from the farm or in their stall at the shop. I usually get to the market in town each week. With so many people working from home, or on 4 day weeks, there’s a good buzz there on Friday.

The town is powered by the solar panels on all the roofs, 3 hydro systems on the waterways, anaerobic digesters at each farm and the wind turbine behind the GAA pitches. Due to the growing export market the towns energy co-op is looking for 2 more engineers and a project manager to assess our capacity for expansion. My daughter hopes to get a job there now that she’s qualified. My youngest is an apprentice at the joinery and my eldest son works in the community bank. I hear all the news from the primary school as my eldest daughter teaches 3rd class. The children learn in a way that suits them best so this term maths is being taught through football. Age Action meet them at the community garden once a week to share skills and stories.

The repair cafe is usually hosted by the Men’s Shed and the whole community gathers with their fixer uppers for a cup of tea. We got my radio working last week and fixed 2 bicycles for the youth club. When the pandemic struck 5 years ago we learned a lot. We found out how much we relied on imports for most of our food and energy. We realised we were more productive working for less hours and lots of our work could be done at home. We learned that we can’t live without the arts. We learned that privatising essential services doesn’t work. Being at home and caring for others all day isn’t as easy as many people think. The people we relied on most during that time had been taken for granted for years. We realised that we had lost our way and made sure not to return to business as usual. Our communities have become stronger and more resilient since.

Our response to Covid-19 can help us imagine and create a better society, one built on principles of community resilience and public participation. These are principles close to the heart of what An Taisce is about.