What farm-to-table got wrong

The New York Times – Saturday 17th May

Chef Dan Barber makes a plea for us to expand the sphere of what we eat. His argument is that we’re not eating as much as we could and good crops, which could help feed the world, are being wasted. The luxury of not liking our food and not wanting to try new things is a by-product of the abundance we have in the developed world. When there is so much to eat, can’t we just eat what we want? The problem is that while there’s so much to eat in the developed world, there’s really not enough to eat in the developing world, and that’s still a huge problem.

Barber makes the point that despite wide-spread interest in more sustainable eating, we are still dominated by a food system that privileges monocrops – 50% of all acres harvested in the US are devoted to corn and soy. Diets across the globe are more and more dependent on corn, as public appetite for processed food spreads. The lack of diversity in what we eat isn’t good for us and it doesn’t forward the cause of food justice, laying more at the table that we could eat. Barber champions a ‘nose-to-tail approach to the farm’, encouraging all us adventurous foodies to eat the ‘lowly’ grains and legumes that many farmers grow for fertility, known as green manures. In fact, Barber has added a ‘Rotation Risotto’ to the menu at his restaurant, including cow pea shoots and mustard greens. It’s time we stop eating what we want and start eating what we have.

Foodies unite: insects should be more than a fad

The Guardian –  Tuesday 20th May

While we’re on the subject of diversifying our food, how about a cricket? The first global conference on entomophagy – eating bugs – was recently convened, with the Nordic Food Lab serving a menu with insect hors d’oeuvres to participants.

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There is much to recommend in the eating of insects. They’re plentiful (at least until we start eating them!) full of protein and many are apparently delicious. Eating insects isn’t a specialist practice either – they are an important food source to many cultures around the world, they just haven’t quite caught on in the ‘Western’ world. Many believe that they could go a long way in improving our diets and could be a viable alternative to farmed meat. While chocolate covered meal worms may sound hard to stomach, our palates adapt to new flavours and textures. Think about the first time you ate sushi? Raw fish was once a delicacy outside of Japan, but now fish like bluefin tuna are endangered because sushi is so widely eaten.

While they might not realistically be the solution to feeding our growing global population, they certainly constitute a major food source to consider. It’s time to not be so picky.

Planting potatoes into policy: why town planners must think about local food

The Guardian – Wednesday 14th May

Ben Reynolds of Sustain argues that interest in local and sustainable food is spreading in cities. A recent government report aimed at city planners, embeds community food growing as key to creating sustainable cities. There are numerous initiatives sprouting up (so to speak!) in cities across Britain – the now widespread Sustainable Food Cities network, London’s Capital Growth programme and others are focused on encouraging small-scale growing and better access to local food. These are important initiatives not just to increase the local, sustainable food supply, but to reconnect people with their food, encouraging healthy eating and sustainable practice in food production. Feeding our cities in a local and sustainable way is the nut to crack in the 21st century, so it’s heartening to see solutions taking hold. We just need much, much more – more growing, more growers and more fresh local food in every nook and cranny of the urban landscape.

Farming divisions threaten US-EU trade deal

Farmers Weekly – Friday 16th May

The peers are up in arms, worried that the billion-pound trade deal between Europe and the US might be sinking into trouble over the devil in its details. These include faster approval of GMOs (is this behind the government’s push to fast track GM?), geographical food labels telling people where their food is coming from, and limits on the importation of American beef. Peers want to see concessions on these points, so we can open the floodgates for that billion pounds – no matter that it’s at the expense of the European public. Peers want to see government working harder to bring consumers on board.

The thing is, the introduction of GMOs into Europe is hotly debated and there is widespread opposition to it. It’s important to know where your food comes from, so that you can make informed decisions about what you buy, but that begs the question why would you want a lot of American beef to water down the value of British beef anyway? These aren’t small issues to be conceded just so we can get our hands on the big money. They are big issues that affect what we eat and more importantly the kind of food we have access to when we want it. The extent to which this deal is being developed behind close doors, when the impacts for British farming and British food security are so huge, is something we should all be paying attention to.

GM crops benefit farmers and environment, study claims

Farmers Weekly – Saturday 17th May

Yet another study generated by a consultancy with strong links to biotech has spouting the usual line about how GMOs have lowered pesticide use in farming and ‘deliver more environmentally-friendly farming practices.’ It’s a great sell for GMO and they’re going to hang onto it for as long as they can. But as Scientific American points out, this is changing with the rise of resistant weeds. Farmers are using more pesticides to combat them, and they are also ploughing more to control resistant weeds, leaving soils over-turned and releasing a lot of carbon in the process. In fact, the pesticide business is booming as a direct result of GM crop use, and it’s expected to more than double in the next decade. GMOs do not lower pesticide use. Increasing pesticide use is a growing public health threat – pesticides are in our breast milk and urine, on our hair and in our food – and GMOs, by generating resistant weeds, are a significant driver of this.

Food should be regulated like tobacco, say campaigners

BBC News – Monday 19th May

Now you’re talking! Two consumer groups – Consumers International and World Obesity Foundation – are calling for more stringent regulation of the food industry, arguing that obesity is a greater public health threat than smoking. And they’re right.

The implications of our increasingly prevalent bad eating habits are serious. We may be looking at the first generation with a shorter life span than their parents. Diabetes is a global epidemic, with China and countries in the Middle East having the highest rates of the disease – so it’s spreading fast from the developed world. It now kills 3.4 million people a year.

But this is a disease we can do something about, because like lung cancer, most type 2 diabetes is directly related to a behavioural choice. There’s a lot that we can do to mitigate and influence that choice, and regulation is critical. The CI and WOF are recommending a range of measures, stretching from restrictions on advertising and better education on healthy eating, to banning trans-fats and restricting levels of fat, sugar and salt in processed food. Key to making all this work is an agreement that measures such as these must be implemented on a global level, and that – like agreement on lowering greenhouse gas emissions – could be hard to come by.

Organic certification – inorganic bureaucracy

The Ecologist – Thursday 17th May

Julian Rose has a go at the Soil Association, which has grown and changed over the years, criticising the bureaucratic beast that is organic certification. He’s right that it has become somewhat of a box-ticking exercise, but that’s sometimes necessary as an organisation grows, and it’s always easy to say ‘it was so much better when…’. For many decades the SA has been a stalwart of organic food production and sustainable farming practice, and having an independent certification body is critical in ensuring food really is produced to organic standards. Whilst Rose is right to question the direction of ‘brand Organic,’ certification remains the only UK label that gives consumers confidence that their food is chemical-free and produced in a sustainable way. Just look at the mess with ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ cosmetics and body products, which are often far from being either organic or natural (the SA pioneered certification standards for cosmetics as well.)

Though we still know a lot of SA inspectors that are farmers, Rose is right to complain about requiring them to have an MA to do their job. Having a degree isn’t any guarantee that you understand farming from the ground up. If you get your hands dirty, you probably know a lot more about good organic practice than someone studying it in university.

But is this really what’s eroding the principles of ‘organic’? Perhaps the organic movement isn’t as radicalised as it once was and ‘big organic’ is something of an oxymoron – arguably, scale is an important component of organic principles and when it goes big, it can compromise good practice. Further, when you go big, you start having to move food and then you’re not local, and local and organic should have a symbiotic relationship. This is what’s not built into organic standards. The local is increasingly important to farmers engaged with sustainability, whilst the ‘organic’ seems to hold less sway with consumers who haven’t been convinced they should pay more for pesticide free food. So while local shouldn’t supersede organic, it should be on a par with it.

Feature image by Ken Hawkins, cricket by Mark Robinson

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  • LeafGreen

    Regarding that last article, let’s be careful to not confuse our terms. Sustainable food production is by definition going to have to be organic, but organic does not in any way guarantee sustainability, You can farm organically and still be drawing your water from depleting aquifers, you can still be using organically certified inputs that must be brought in to your system, and you can of course still be organic and producing as a monoculture – propping up the lack of biodiversity with the aforementioned inputs.
    Just thought it important to be clear when we are talking about food production that we don’t assume that because something is organic that it is either ethical or sustainable (even if it frequently is).