Earlier this month, I was at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, where I was thrilled to be immersed in lively discussion about the power of sustainable food production systems to change the world for the better. Real farming holds the promise to restore lost biodiversity to the rural landscape, preserve critically endangered breeds, sequester carbon, reduce exposure of plants and animals to antimicrobials, pesticides and antibiotics, and secure the future health and vitality of the soil.
But there was one important element missing, and for a conference all about better food production, it was particularly striking. Flavour was absent from the discussion.
The sustainable food movement’s relationship with gastronomic considerations is problematic. No one would deny that ecologically and morally reprehensible farming systems can be optimised to provide hyper-palatable, nutritionally-bereft foods whose only appeal – other than its cheapness – is to the brain’s natural proclivity for the compelling combination of salt, sugar and fat. At the other end of the economic spectrum, haute gastronomic culture, with its £1000 bottles of wine, smacks uncomfortably of elitism.
But hiding within this emotional tangle is an opportunity to re-valorise farming that is ecologically scrupulous, biodiversity-enhancing and demanding of exemplary animal welfare through a conversation about great flavour. Critically, this is a strategy to extend the attraction of these farming systems and their potential social impact far beyond the realm of already-converted eco-warriors. If we care about increasing the reach of sustainable farming, it is our moral duty to address, and ultimately bridge, this rift between the sustainable food movement and the importance of flavour.
The example of artisan cheese is a perfect case study. The vast majority of the UK’s artisan cheeses are not produced organically. While a few producers have toyed with the idea of going organic, their choice by-and-large not to adopt certification reflects a bitter truth: organic certification – and the practices that go along with it – do not make economic sense within their market. Consumers of artisan cheese make their buying decisions according to a different measure: flavour. And they are not alone. Expanding our view a bit wider, Defra and the Office of National Statistics’ Food Statistics Pocketbook 2016 reported that in 2014, organic food represented less than 2% of total household food and drink sales, down 16% from its peak in 2008. Rather than ethical or environmental considerations, price, followed by quality, were the two most important factors that determined the majority of consumers’ overall buying preferences.
Can we appeal to these other more mainstream values in order to increase sales of sustainably-produced food? The discussion about subsidies and lowering the price gap between sustainable and industrial agriculture has never been more animated, but I am deeply sceptical of models for change that demand a vast expansion of the regulatory state. As a farmhouse cheese purveyor, I am more interested in quality as a motivating factor. In our recent book, Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, Francis Percival and I set out the case for valorising the link between sustainability and flavour. The book itself explores how cutting-edge scientific technology is helping us to better understand and appreciate the elegance of the cheesemaking methods that died out with our great-grandparents – and present a vision for how they might rise again. Our research led us to ruminant nutritionists in France, professors studying changing rural landscapes and representatives from multinational genetics companies, the US Department of Agriculture, and charities working to protect threatened livestock species from extinction. We arrived at a firm conviction: that farming systems dictate the flavour potential of well-made cheese. Once the milk is in the cheese vat, the maximum quality of the finished cheese is already determined.
While differences between the flavour of milks from different farming systems exist, they are subtle; in a 2002 study in the journal Nutrition and Food Science, even trained sensory panels found no difference between the flavour of organically versus non-organically produced milk. But when milks that are farmed in different ways are made into cheese, these differences become impossible to miss. Cheese made from the milk of animals farmed within extensive, biodiverse systems looks, tastes and feels significantly different than that from systems optimised for efficiency and yield. The use of concentrates in cattle feed results in cheeses with a paler colour and brittle texture. These differences extend well beyond simply grass-fed versus grain-fed animals; the level of field biodiversity also becomes manifest in the flavour of hard cheeses as they age. The unique microbial ecosystem of each farm, from the soil to the plants to the skin of the animals, adds an extra level of individuality. Because space here is limited, those who are interested will find an overview of these mechanisms of flavour production in a piece that we wrote for Serious Eats about a Swiss mountain cheese called l’Etivaz, and an even more detailed exploration within the pages of Reinventing the Wheel.
Of course, there is a catch: if a cheese is to express the flavour of a farming system, it must be sensitively made. Too often, today’s cheeses—artisan, farmhouse, and factory alike—rely on the use of techniques ranging from pasteurisation and standardisation of the milk to the addition of commercial bacterial isolates designed to impart their own characteristic flavour profile, all of which obscure the nature of the milk itself. The moral hazard of these interventionist cheesemaking techniques is that the farming behind the milk no longer matters to the flavour. It is the cheesemaker’s ultimate challenge – indeed, the mark of a great cheesemaker – to allow the milk’s inherent potential to be revealed in the flavour of their cheese.
The work of Henry Buller at the University of Exeter shows that similar links between environmentally-sensitive farming practices and unique organoleptic attributes exist for meat. Conservation grazing by suitable breeds on marginal, species-rich grasslands yields meat that is more tender and more intensely flavoured than conventional systems.
As an industry, we must dispel the mistaken notion that sensory qualities are inherently subjective. Neither is flavour a form of revealed truth: beyond the realm of narcotic drugs and salty-sweet junk food, our brains are not hard-wired to appreciate one set of sensations over another. Rather, humanity has been creating shared value systems for centuries, and just as we can agree on the relative objective merits of a piece of music or a work of art, we can identify for ourselves, and then teach others to recognise and appreciate the meaning and value – indeed, the deliciousness – of visual, textural and flavour cues that cannot be faked with commodity milk and a packet of designer bacterial strains. In order to make laudable farming as economically irresistible as it is environmentally responsible, we must teach our farming colleagues, our wholesalers and retailers, and our customers not just to recognise the flavours of good farming, but also to understand what those flavours mean. In a world where quality is a shared value system, the flavour of sustainability is, by its very definition, the best flavour. This is the moral value of flavour: the inseparable link between deliciousness and admirable, sustainable, ethical farming.
Lest this sound rarefied, overly-conceptual or just downright impossible in practice, let’s look to an industry where this conversation and transformation has already taken place. The popularity of biodynamic and organic methods is growing rapidly within the wine industry, with biodynamic certifications up 20% in France in 2016. This trend has nothing to do with more environmental activists discovering the joys of wine. Rather, biodynamic and organic methods have been adopted as an effective way to grow grapes that better express the unique flavour of a place. Many of the most sought-after estates in the world are now certified biodynamic, though the Demeter mark seldom appears on the label. Rather, these wines rely for their value on a conversation about flavour and authenticity, and customers who are willing to spend more money to enjoy the organoleptic qualities that those farming methods impart to the wines. The growing market for expensive bottles of wine may make some within the organic food movement uncomfortable, but the farmers making those wines are ploughing that income back into a well-paid, exquisitely-skilled agricultural workforce and meticulous organic farming practices.
Before us lies a tremendous opportunity for the sustainable food movement to appeal to people traditionally outside of the conversation, and encourage many more to make buying and eating choices that support the highest levels of biodiversity and environmental stewardship. These are not issues of top-down state-imposed ethical choices, but an exciting opportunity for dynamic entrepreneurs to be rewarded for making food that people want to eat.
Sometimes to spread the word, you need to learn to speak another language.
Sign up to our Newsletter
Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news