Borough Talks: reducing the impact of food production

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Borough Talks, a series of public debates presented by Borough Market, explores some of the most interesting and important issues relevant to today’s food world. In this year’s final talk, our expert panelists explore the viability of less damaging systems of food production

Words: Viel Richardson
Images: Adrian Pope

Tim Lang: Professor of food policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, trustee of Borough Market, and writer of numerous articles, reports and books on the politics of food production.

Robin Gill: Chef proprietor of The Dairy, The Manor, Counter Culture and Paradise Garage, all of which are notable for their sustainable approach to food supply. The Good Food Guide’s Chef of the Year 2016.

Patrick Holden: Founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, which promotes the development of more sustainable food systems around the world, and owner of the longest certified organic dairy farm in Wales. Awarded a CBE in 2005.

Donald Hyslop: Head of regeneration and community partnerships at Tate Modern and chair of the trustees of Borough Market. A strong advocate for the role that markets can play in reshaping cities and communities.

Carolyn Steel: A leading thinker on food and cities who has taught at Cambridge University, London Metropolitan University and the London School of Economics. Author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives.

Dr Richard Swannell: Development director of WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) which helps governments and businesses work more sustainably and achieve greater resource efficiency. Reducing food waste is a major focus for the charity.

Tim Lang

The evening started with moderator Tim Lang setting out the parameters of the debate “I have asked our distinguished panellists to answer three questions: what do they mean by sustainable sustenance? What is wrong with where we are, and what does a sustainable sustenance food system look like?”

The first to respond was Robin Gill, who said that the word that summed up the core of a sustainable sustenance system was ‘living’. “We all need to live on this planet and everything we do has an impact. I became aware of our wastefulness through the amount of unused food and unnecessary packaging my industry generates. People need to earn a living but for the future of our children, we need to be more responsible while doing so.”

For Richard Swannell, the food system is in a state of crisis. “It is a key driver of species loss. It’s responsible for about 20 per cent of global carbon emissions. It consumes 70 per cent of fresh water,” he said. “The system itself is causing problems, then we throw away one third of the food we produce globally. I think creating a sustainable food system is about taking it from being part of the problem, to being part of the solution.”

Carolyn Steel noted that the problem lies with the lifestyle people have been encouraged to aspire to for generations. “For me, a sustainable food system is one that sustains a good life. This means defining what a ‘good life’ really is. Put it in the context of global urbanisation, population increase, and resource depletion and we need a completely different conception of what a good life looks like—and food must be central to a new vision.”

Carolyn Steel

The poverty gap
For Donald Hyslop, universality is key. “In living memory children with rickets could be found in the streets surrounding this market. The system is increasingly failing some in society—the poverty gap continues to rise. Any sustainable sustenance system needs creative thinking,” he said. “Markets like this one can be brilliant innovators, but we will only move forward if we involve the whole ecosystem in the dialogue: producers, consumers, and even the dreaded supermarkets.”

Patrick Holden’s approach has evolved in his years of experience as a farmer. “I think we have to align our future diet with the productive capacity of the environment—which is a great deal if managed properly,” he explained. “It is possible to farm in a sustainable way—increase instead of decrease soil fertility, minimise the need for non-renewables and still produce delicious and healthy food in good quantities. It would involve changing some of the staples of our diet, but to nothing that we haven’t eaten before.”

Tim pointed out that all the speakers agreed that some major changes were needed, before opening the floor to the audience.  A series of questions followed, including whether the panel believed eating insects was the solution to the protein problem; the role education could play in directing habits and attitudes towards more sustainable behaviour; how any changes would affect those on a low income; and finally, just how food waste could be tackled.

“In the UK, 10 million tonnes of food is wasted annually and seven million tonnes of that happens in the home,” Richard explained. “There is wastage by the producers, what we call ‘farm gate waste’, but it is in the home where the real challenge lies. I think a disconnect between people and their food has arisen because we don’t live in sight of the places where our food is grown, so we don’t see the effort that goes into producing it. I believe part of the problem is many simply don’t care about throwing away food waste.”

Robin Gill

Producer and consumer disconnect
According to Robin, this disconnect between producer and consumer is hardwired into the distribution network. He told the audience that when he opened his restaurant in London, prospective suppliers told him they could supply whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it, from anywhere in the world. “That is completely wrong. I was out there trying to find farmers and fishermen to lead the conversation, to be telling me what they had and when it was at its best. You would not believe how difficult that was,” he said. “In the end, I had to take six months off to find these people for myself.”

Tim then posed a question to Donald: “In your day job at the Tate Modern you are in the business of reinvigorating British culture. Do you look upon food as a cultural messenger?”

“Absolutely,” Donald replied. “Culture and food have been drivers of change in this area of the city. I think the big debates about food in the 21st century will be about the place of meat in the diet, vegetarianism, and the role of food corporations. We can’t just dismiss them as the bad guys: not only are they are not going away but with their infrastructure, they can have something positive to offer. Conversation, legislation and education are fundamental to any progress.”

Carolyn pointed out that a major part of the problem is that as a society, we have been promised cheap, plentiful food. “Cheap food as it is sold to us doesn't exist, yet that's what industrialisation claims to have produced and that is the problem. You will always pay the true price somewhere, be it financially, medically or environmentally. We have gone down this road of the capitalist vision of a good life and this is where we have arrived. We are running out of planet and it's not making us happy.

Patrick Holden

Models of social organisation
“The difficulty is that the steps it would take to fix things is so scary, that no one’s really talking about it. As I learn more, I get more radical. We need to look again at models of social organisation; at ways of re-integrating the urban and rural landscapes. The way we feed ourselves has to be central to any answer.”

“I would like to say something on the protein issue Robin mentioned,” Patrick interjected. “The livestock debate has gone down the wrong path by not differentiating between the intensively managed livestock production which needs to go, and the sustainably managed livestock without which I don’t believe we will be able to have a sustainable food system. Ruminants are the only animals that can turn cellulose into something we can eat. To do this, we have to go back to mixed farming which uses a field rotation system. This has the benefit of increasing soil fertility, and produces meat free from artificial chemicals, which we can eat with a clear conscience.”

However, ensuring consumers buy the produce is a crucial step—it is what allows farmers who wish to shift towards sustainable ways of production to do so. At the moment, it is more economically viable to farm in ways that are damaging to both the planet and public health.

“At the end of my book, Hungry City, I invented the word ‘citopia’, because it upset me that we didn’t have a word which expressed the city’s place in the food landscape,” added Carolyn. “Citopia means ‘food place’ and it is a way of looking at the world through the lens of food—of capturing the fact that what we are actually talking about is not just food, but everything; it is life.

Sybil Kapoor in the audience

Citopean economics
“I believe we need a move towards what I call ‘citopean economics’, which questions everything about how we feed the world’s cities. Present economics work the wrong way round: the tail is wagging the dog. We have a system where we create food that trashes the planet so that poor people can eat. We need a society where there are not people who are so poor that they cannot afford to eat healthy food, and we have more than enough wealth to do so.”

While the challenges are great, Richard believes there is some cause for optimism. “It is easy to walk away from this discussion saying there is nothing I can do, it is all just so complicated. But that’s not the case,” he told the audience. “Start by wasting less food in your own home. It does not take much effort, saves you money and reduces our environmental impact. Making a dent in that seven million tonnes of waste a year would make a huge difference—both in the amount of food the land has to supply, and the environmental impact of that food once we have produced it.”

Tim wrapped up the evening by asking the panelists one more question: “If you had three minutes with the prime minister, what would you say to her?”

Richard replied: “My message to any prime minister would be to think systematically. Don’t think about the issues as being separate, unconnected problems: we need to approach the task of finding a solution as a unified whole.”

Horn OK Please dishing up food at latest Borough Talk

Ministry of food
“I would tell the prime minister to set up a ministry of food,” Carolyn said. “A central body with links to all the other ministries, with the power to shape their policy where necessary. Politicians are terrified of food and for good reason. Many emperors have been deposed for being held responsible for feeding people and being perceived to have got it wrong. Politicians will run a hundred miles away from food if they can and we mustn’t let them. It is the most important issue they face.”

Restaurateur Robin believes that a ‘back to basics’ approach is needed. “We need to re-examine some of the assumptions that we have fallen into making about food. There is so much waste in the system. My message would be to use her position to promote a wider cultural understanding about our relationship with food on all sides.”

Patrick said he’d emphasise that there is no time to waste. “I would say that the future health and prosperity of this nation and its environment depends on the government leading the fundamental transformation of our food system, starting immediately. Food and farming is going to become a political issue, much sooner than is widely realised—I think we are on the cusp of that happening. So I’d beg the government to take action: I think it is in their political interests to do to.”

The last word went to Borough Market chairman Donald, who emphasised the need for a collective approach. “We need to learn from the past and engage with the future. I would tell the prime minister to be brave enough to instigate a national conversation; to have the courage to legislate where necessary and to ensure that everyone is involved in the dialogue around food, the future of food and the issue of sustainability.”