A dazzlingly delicious taste of the future in Liége
Something really amazing is happening in Liége in Belgium. I was last there 4 years ago, where I gave talks and did meetings in support of Liege en Transition, and to attend a meeting to promote a project they had just launched called ‘Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liégeoise’ (‘The Liége Food Belt’). When I was there, their event brought together academics, politicians, farmers, and many other people with an interest in food, to explore the practicalities of a co-ordinated relocalisation of the food system. That was four years ago. Now I’ve been back after four years and, as I said, something really amazing is happening in Liége…
I had been invited by Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liégeoise (CATL) to be the Patron of their ‘Nourrir Liége’ festival, a 10 day event designed to raise the profile of their work. When I last visited, a cooperative vineyard, Vin de Liége (of which more later), had just raised €2 million in shares, much to everyone’s surprise and delight. That was the first one, which gave CATL the confidence that this was possible.
Now, in 2018, 14 cooperatives exist under the CATL banner, 10 of which have been created after the official launch of the CATL in Nov. 2013. These include Les Petits Producteurs (two shops), Fungi up, a co-op growing mushrooms on coffee waste, Rayon 9, another using bicycles to distribute goods around the city, Cycle en Terre, a seed saving coop, Les Compagnons de la Terre, a farm growing a wide diversity of produce, La Brasserie Coopérative Liègeoise, a co-operative brewery, Vin du Pays de Herve, a second vineyard in the same model as Vin de Liège, ADM Bio, tranforming the vegetables of seven local farmer to reach collectivities kitchens, Marguerite Happy Cow, a local fair trade milk transformation project, plus three distribution coops, Point Ferme, La Coopérative Ardente et Le Temps des Cerises, which are forming, together with Les Petits producteurs, a network of local food distribution. And running like a thread through all of these is Le Val’Heureux, the region’s local currency.
So what I want to explore in this post is what this ecosystem of co-operatives looks like, to introduce you to some of the key players, to how the imagination runs through this and to how this looks to be scaling up.
To kick us off, I sat down one evening with Christian Jonet, one of the people who has been constant in CATL since the beginning, and who now co-ordinates this network of coops, producers, researchers, institutions and associations (my full conversation with him is below). He told me that when Liege en Transition started there were lots of working groups, but the ones that lasted were the money and the food groups.
It became clear that they were not going to Transition the city just with volunteers, and that what they needed was to change the scale and, as he put it, “professionalise the movement”. Belgium has lost 100,000 agricultural jobs since 1990, and some new thinking was clearly needed.
They started with an event in November 2013 where they hired a big venue, invited everyone in the city with an interest in food, and asked them the question “what if within one generation the majority of food consumed in Liège was grown locally in the best ecological and social conditions?” Good question. One after another people took the mike and identified elements of what needed to happen access to land, finance, seeds, know-how, etc. The first co-op to get running was Compagnons de la Terre, and then the brewery and the others started to follow.