A food odyssey

Categories: Features, Reflections and opinions

Notable names from the food world tell us how they’d like to see our food system change in the next 21 years

Interviews: Ellie Costigan
Portraits: Orlando Gili and Christopher L Proctor

“We need cooking to be embedded into education”—Sheila Dillon, investigative journalist and presenter of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4
My biggest hope is that we have a society where people have enough money to buy food. We recently did a programme about ‘holiday hunger’—the thousands of children who don’t have enough food during school holidays. How have we got into a position like that? How is it that families have to make a choice between paying the electricity bill or buying food, between being warm or being able to eat? I hope that food banks will no longer be considered normal. If people had enough money, if they were paid properly, they could buy their own food.

I’d also like everyone from the age of four to learn the basics of cooking. It’s an essential life skill. I’d like it to be deeply embedded into education, so that everyone, regardless of their background, feels at ease with ingredients. Currently, we have a society where people are nervous about food. I don’t see how we can save ourselves from our afflictions—the reliance on super-processed foods and takeaways—unless food becomes a central part of all of our lives. We can see that starting to happen in some schools—various charities now are providing growing and cooking programmes for schools; some schools are doing it themselves. I’ve been in schools where very young kids are working with plastic knives and learning to make food, and it’s a delight to see what pleasure they take from it. I really do believe that if we introduced learning about food into all schools, it would eventually change the entire country’s attitude towards food.

“We need to work with people who feel excluded from good food”—Shane Holland, executive chair of Slow Food UK
On the one hand, never before have people in this country had access to such high quality food. Thanks to the likes of Borough Market, many of us across the UK can buy the very finest Italian olive oil, French charcuterie, and regional cheeses of a far better quality than anyone would have been able to find 40 years ago. But at the same time we have supermarkets selling food at ever more discounted prices. And the only way that large profits can be generated within that system is for the food to be of ever lower quality. If we continue in the current direction of travel, we’ll see even fewer real ingredients being sold in supermarkets and more processed food—bulking things out with water, fat and other cheap fillers is how they will make their margins.

At Slow Food, our goal is to work with people who feel excluded from good food, or who self-exclude from even thinking about it. We want the high quality artisanal foods that are now more readily available to be accessible to a far wider spectrum of people. Our ideal is that everyone in this country will come to understand that food is more than just calories: it is about culture; it is about love; and it is about a sense of place, because what we eat affects our landscape. Our beautiful countryside looks like it does because of food and farming—it will not continue to look that way if we make all our food in factories.

Asma Khan

“We need to make sure that the mental and physical wellbeing of all workers is being looked after”—Asma Khan, owner and head chef of Darjeeling Express
The first thing I want to see is fair wages being paid to people in hospitality, but also a change in the attitude of managers and owners towards the teams that work for them. There is still a lot of bullying, racism and sexism in kitchens, which is excused as being inevitable in such fundamentally stressful places. But it doesn’t have to be that way—that is such a poor excuse for having a poorly structured workplace. I think we need an industry-wide trade union and a strong code of practise. We need to make sure that the mental and physical wellbeing of all workers is being looked after. Afterall, this is about service; it’s about the joy of feeding someone. It should not involve the slightest exploitation.

There should also be flexible working. The idea that you leave home at dawn and come back late at night—the 16-hour shift that so many people do in hospitality—there’s no space for that anymore. The system is set up to exclude women, in many ways, but also men who want a life balance. Restaurants are desperately looking to fill spaces, but a whole raft of highly motivated, talented people are not valued because they don’t fit with the structure. Make the role part time, look to employ more incredible women, and you’ll transform your kitchen: they multitask, they’re motivated, they’re passionate, and they’re so grateful for the opportunity. I can absolutely see this happening, but the problem is we do not have enough female owners, we don’t have enough female head chefs. If you give women support and a sense of belonging in the workplace, the kind of commitment you get in return is incredible. It’s a loyalty you cannot buy. My restaurant is living proof that it works.

“We need the food system to change, or we’ll be in serious trouble”—Tim Lang, academic and founder of the Centre for Food Policy at City University
The food system in 21 years’ time will be very different indeed. If not, we’ll be in serious trouble. It should be a low-carbon, water-saving food economy, with vastly reduced calorie wastage. There’ll be less over-eating, more recycling and, ideally, more biodiversity. There’ll be shorter supply chains, with more of the money the consumer spends going directly to the primary producer. Consumers and producers will eat and produce in a way that brings food, health and ecosystems into better alignment.

Is this possible? Yes it is, but we should not be altogether surprised if there are failings too. There are powerful forces pulling in the other direction. A lot depends on how we negotiate between the nightmare and the utopia, and how seriously the consuming public take food’s environmental and public health crises.

The Market continues to champion moves towards the optimistic vision and to work against the nightmare scenario. But the Market cannot tackle one dominant factor that is shaping the food system the world over: maldistribution of incomes. While it cannot resolve this wider society fissure, the Market will continue to be shaped by it. That’s why it must be a thinking market. It has to adapt, listen to evidence, champion the good and keep out the bad. It has to articulate a more comprehensive and complex understanding of food, based around pleasure, health, environment and trade.

Striving to build the good can be hard work. But food should always be enjoyable and utilitarian. That’s what’s lovely about markets—we have eye contact, social engagement. It’s a pleasurable place to come. People get to know people, you can sit and think, and you can see humanity here. What I fondly call the ‘messiness’ of Borough Market is what will continue to make it so special.

Patrick Holden

“We need a system that rewards sustainable farming”—Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust
Unless we have a fundamental transformation of our food system, we will find ourselves in a situation where we have irreversible climate change and biodiversity loss. The combination of the two constitutes an ecological catastrophe, but also a crisis for humanity. That begs the question: can we act in time? And what should our future food system look like?

The answer to the former is yes, we can. But it will require an unprecedented collective effort. We need action from the top down and from the bottom up.

What will the new food system need to look like? We’ll have a return to mixed farming and a shift from chemical to biologically-based agriculture, because the chemical era has polluted the atmosphere and is quite literally unsustainable. The only way we can rebuild the natural capital we’ve lost—particularly soil carbon—will be to return to a farming system based on crop rotation to build fertility. The public will need to align their diets with the output of this reformed farming industry. In the UK, there will need to be a big reduction in grain production. Because half the grains grown here are currently fed to intensively farmed pigs, chickens and dairy cows, we won’t have such cheap chicken, pork and dairy products. We will need to align our diets to grass-fed meat and dairy products, which are better suited to a country that is two-thirds grass.

As we speak, there’s been a 15 per cent decline in meat consumption in the UK in the past year—that’s meant livestock farmers are struggling to cover the costs of production. I think it’s wonderful that young people in particular are prepared to change their diets to address the climate crisis, but we need governments to transform the system so that farmers are supported through that change. We need a system that rewards sustainable farming and makes the polluters pay.

“We need to build a connection between consumers and producers”—David Matchett, head of food policy development at Borough Market
While it’s difficult to make any kind of confident prediction—we’re in such a state of stasis in the UK at the moment—it would be nice to think that the market models that are being promoted in the EU, where the focus is increasingly on the producer rather than the product, will continue to gain traction. It’s a key distinction and one of the principles that Borough Market is founded upon: if it isn’t the producer who directly sells you the food here, it will be somebody who has a one-to-one relationship with that producer. One of the big issues that we have within the food system at the moment is a lack of trust and I think that’s because the food system has lost any real connection between the consumer and the producer.

If anything needs to change, it’s that sense of disengagement. Markets have the power to make that change, because they are based entirely on those interpersonal relationships. That is the role they are starting to play. It’s a model that will unite the markets within the metropolis and all of the other smaller markets, be they village markets, farmers’ markets or farm shops.