Virtuous circles: sustainable alternatives

Categories: Behind the stalls

Fortnum & Mason food writer of the year Clare Finney on how Borough Market and its traders are taking a holistic approach to environmental sustainability. This time: providing sustainable alternatives to mass produced staples

Another day, another of your favourite foods joining the growing list of items whose production entails unethical or unsustainable practices. This week, it’s soya beans—or rather, meat from animals that are fed soya beans, after an investigation revealed that many of the UK farmers who supply supermarkets use feed that is likely to contain soya from Argentina, where its growth is fuelling rapid deforestation. Last week it was North Sea cod, which has been put back on the Marine Stewardship Council’s ‘fish to avoid’ register. Next week, who knows? Yet while shopping with a view to sustainability can seem like a minefield wrapped in a moral maze shrouded in mystery, Borough Market is not short of producers and retailers offering sustainable, ethical alternatives to products that can often be problematic when produced en masse.

Nut butters
First up is Butter Nut of London: the brainchild of Zoe Roberts, who loved peanut butter but could no longer bring herself to buy commercial brands. “If you think of the peanut butter brands of your childhood, they have a smooth, thick texture which is easily spreadable.” That texture isn’t created by the nut blend itself, Zoe continues, but by the addition of palm oil, which “also extends the shelf life and brings down the cost”. Of course, there is nothing wrong with palm oil per se: it has played a fundamental role in the cuisine of large swathes of Africa since time immemorial, and sustainable, small-scale production is both possible and—particularly in those traditional heartlands, where it remains an everyday staple—prevalent. The problem comes from industrial-scale producers, many of them based in southeast Asia, which are seeking to meet the demands of western food giants by clearing virgin forest to plant oil palms. “That has huge environmental and social impacts,” says Zoe. “It only really grows in a tropical environment, so to be able to meet this growing demand there is deforestation on a large scale in places like Borneo and Sumatra.”

Then there’s the issue of sourcing the nuts. In Vietnam, the world’s leading exporter of cashew kernels, nuts are processed by workers in poor conditions with few or no employment rights, and where peanut contamination—a major allergen—can also be a problem. Finding nuts that have been produced organically and sustainably, from suppliers who paid and treated growers fairly, is no easy task. “I’ve always tried to make ethically-conscious decisions about what I buy, so my business was always going to take that path—but it did prove complicated,” Zoe acknowledges. Nevertheless, her cashew, maple and turmeric butter, ABC (that’s simple, smooth peanut butter), and hazelnut and cacao butters will all have you eating straight from the jar with a clear conscience.

Tea, coffee and hot chocolate
Of course, not everyone considers peanut butter a staple. Tea and coffee, however, are a different matter entirely. Without them, the nation would grind to a halt—yet even something as simple as your morning cuppa can be fraught with ethical compromise. “Coffee is one of the world’s most volatile commodities. It’s second only to oil—but the volatility of oil is pushed onto consumers,” says Eduardo of The Colombian Coffee Company. When we arrive at a petrol station, we pay the price it gives us on the day. The volatility of coffee, however, is forced upon the growers. “They receive the day’s prices, which are determined by the futures market. At the moment, the price farmers are being paid for their coffee is the same as 1983.” Even fair trade schemes, while great in their way, “only offer a premium on top of the original price. The market price can still go down”.

Eduardo’s aim is to go beyond fair trade: paying above market price, and teaching farmers the necessary skills to get the best price for their coffee when approaching potential buyers. “I teach them English business language and the language of coffee tasting and valuation, so they can describe their coffee to potential buyers overseas. Because they have no idea!” he exclaims. “They are used to just taking the coffee down the mountain on market day and finding a quick sale.” He’s also pioneering a return to a more sustainable system, whereby “the farmers grow arabica coffee trees that need shade, so they also grow bananas, guanabanas, oranges, mandarins, avocados and so on. On Sundays, farmers go down to the nearest village to sell their produce. As they bring a variety of products, they are less exposed to the volatility of coffee market prices, thus they can participate more broadly in the economy.”

If tea is more your bag, Organic Life sells teas grown in Sri Lanka on an organic estate designed to avoid the problems caused by large-scale monocultures. A blend of bushes, rocky outcrops and tall trees help retain moisture in the soil and increase biodiversity. “Our skilled farmers let nature set the pace and help her out where they can through reforestation projects and natural composting,” they explain. It’s better for the environment, it’s better for the tea, and it helps to engender a sense of pride and identity among the farmers—the people whom larger, more anonymous plantations often take for granted. The same can be said of the chocolate served at Rabot 1745, which is sourced directly from the Rabot Estate in St Lucia. There, the company’s Engaged Ethics programme sets out to create a sustainable market for cocoa, transfer knowledge, practical advice and a secure income to the growers, and bypass the middlemen to whom they have historically lost out.

One of the many issues with industrial-scale beef farming is its reliance upon vast fields dedicated to the growth of maize and soya for cattle feed, at great cost to the environment in terms of soil degradation, water pollution and the loss of biodiversity. This, together with the interlinked issue of animal welfare, was something that Richard Vines of Wild Beef was determined to address when he and his wife established their herd in Devon.

Richard had seen industrial farms: “Large units, sometimes 1,000 heads of cattle, who never go outdoors. They have cubicles and loafing areas, and their food is high energy and high protein, so they live a very artificial lifestyle, totally alien to their natures.” Allowing his cattle to graze out on the moors alongside sheep and ramblers, however, allows them to “express their natures in as natural a way as possible”. They live in herds, they have freedom to move around, they graze on Dartmoor’s nutrient-dense perennial grasses, and their manure restores structure and microbial activity to the soil. For the consumer, this means nutritious, deeply flavoursome meat that’s also free from antibiotics: keeping cattle in close proximity creates a breeding ground for bacteria, so to avoid an epidemic, industrialised farms mix antibiotics into their feed.

By gradually pruning certain flora and breaking up the ground with their hooves, which enables reseeding, the cattle help to sustain the delicate balance of plants, insects and birds which are unique to Devon and Dartmoor. They fertilise the land while the sheep eat the rough grasses and process the worms the cows cannot deal with, working in symbiosis with their fellow mammals.

Don’t forget, you can continue your pursuit of sustainable, ethical alternatives when it comes to packing your food, too, by stashing your purchases in your own canvas bag or one of Borough Markets fully biodegradable alternatives to plastic bags: GM-free cornstarch bags, which are strong enough to be reused multiple times and can be disposed of with a clear conscience in your food waste bin or compost heap.