Three cheers for ethical mob rule

We used to fear mob rule. But if the ‘mob’ is all nice people who you’d be happy to introduce to your mother, well, what’s wrong with that? Welcome to the Collaborative Economy.

I farm 20 acres, mostly woodland and orchard, with 2 acres of organic vegetable production.  I farm people – and they farm me.  They work the vegetable land and they call themselves Stonelynk Community Growers.

20 members put £50 a year into the kitty. I match fund it and pay for the Soil Association certification. Then we split the crop 50-50. I sell my half to local natural food stores, box schemes and restaurants, they eat their half. They each get £500 worth of fresh vegetables and work 100 hours a year. The farmer next door does any machinery work, like rotovating. This is just one example of how the sharing movement is gaining traction.

I was keynote speaker at the ‘Grow It Yourself’ launch in Birmingham in July. It’s an event that Mark Diacono of Otter Farm described as a ‘Gardeners’ Glastonbury.’ Allotmenteers, community gardeners, gardening journalists and publishers were all there. People who grow their own food together have a special bond. Most grow organically – who would spray insecticide on a lettuce they were going to serve a day later to their friends and family?

When people grow and share their produce their attitude to food changes. They want provenance and trust. They buy local. They insist on organic.

There are a small number of farmers with large landholdings who can’t make it pay without massive subsidies and there are large numbers of people without land who would love to get stuck in. Social farming is a lot of fun – you don’t just share the harvest, you share good times, friendship, knowledge and fun.  Hard to put a price on, but it means the cucumber you grew on a community farm is worth infinitely more than the one some Dutch hydroponics engineer grew under glass and which never touched the earth. People are reconnecting with the real physical world.

WWOOF now covers more than 50 countries, where volunteers help out on organic farms and get plugged in to the organic movement. Landshare was launched at River Cottage in 2009 and has connected more than 55,000 growers, sharers and helpers.

The peer-to-peer economy is replacing the top-down economy. Instead of owning things people increasingly are just using things and sharing tools and time. Building social capital is replacing the desire for things – we want good times, not to be surrounded by junk in social isolation.

These social transactions cut out the middle corporation and bureaucracy and provide secondary income while maximising efficient use of resources such as bedrooms, money, cars, energy and kitchens and, potentially, almost anything.

Bedrooms: Air BnB is so much nicer than hotels. They cover 192 countries, anything from a bedroom to an apartment to a house.

Money: After getting uncomprehending treatment from the banks, Dominic of Inspiral Foods went for crowdfunding. He quickly reached in his target £250,000. The investors were like-minded people who shared Inspiral’s values, people who want their investment to do good and do well. Funding Circle has loaned over £133m, Zopa £278m, matching up investors with borrowers. With an average 5.8% return and no banks or middlemen, crowdfunding pays.

Cars: Why bother to own a car when you can pick one up as easily as a Boris Bike. Or tap into a lift-sharing app to find a ride or a passenger from London to Exeter.

Energy: Why buy electricity? Generate it, keep a storage battery in the shed and feed power in and out of a smart grid in an energy-sharing network that doesn’t need a toxic nuclear plant or coal power station at the end of ugly pylons.

Kitchens: Cookening helps you eat locally with local people who host dinner in their homes.

This kind of stuff upsets the health and safety people because the rating of a service is done by the users, making bureaucrats redundant.

Schumacher wrote ‘Small is Beautiful.’ Shelley wrote “Ye are many, they are few”. Put it together and you get the Collaborative Economy. Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing  and sharing are the practical application of what we used to fear as ‘Mob Rule.’  But as long as the ‘mob’ is all nice people who you’d be happy to introduce to your mother, what’s wrong with that?  At least you know them and they aren’t spying on your emails.


By Craig Sams

Organic food pioneer and polemicist
Craig Sams is Britain’s best known natural food pioneer. He is the founder of Green & Blacks, a former Soil Association chairman and the author of The Little Food Book.