Supermarkets: end of an empire?


“Listing all the potentially destructive or unethical features of this dominant food retail model would be a lengthy process. But in brief, supermarkets created a food monoculture in which most people buy and eat the same food across Britain. With their global, long-chain sourcing model, they undermined the age-old cycle of seasonal eating. They were the midwives of the ‘no-time-to-cook’ processed food revolution, which now looks to be a key driver of ill health and obesity. The supermarket business model works on a juggernaut of food miles, and has escalated food and packaging wastage to previously unthinkable levels. Supermarkets also denuded urban landscapes, blighted traditional high streets, put independents out of business all over the country, and bullied their way into communities while creating food deserts.”

Extract from Sustainable Food Trust article, found here.


Schools supporting local food


Interesting stuff – originally published here.

Obesity and diet-related diseases are on the rise, so it’s more important than ever that children are educated about where their food comes from and the importance of eating well. Jamie Oliver is championing this in Britain with the launch of Food Revolution Day, a campaign fighting to put compulsory, practical food education on the school curriculum.

Another way of engaging children in food issues is through farm-to-school (FTS) programmes. Using Food Hubs to Create Sustainable Farm-to-School Programs is a new guide from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM), which is designed to increase the role of food hubs in the programmes.

The VAAFM facilitates and supports the growth and viability of agriculture in Vermont while also protecting the environment and the health of its people. As part of this commitment, it encourages the expansion of regional food hubs, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as “a business or organisation that is actively coordinating the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified locally or regionally grown food products from primarily small to mid-sized producers.”

The Using Food Hubs to Create Sustainable Farm to School Programsguide was born out of a project that aimed to:

  • strengthen the regional support structure for farmers and food service staff to provide locally-grown food in schools;
  • create a community of practice among regional food hubs focused on school food procurement; and
  • demonstrate models of how regional food hubs support FTS programmes and increase purchasing of local foods by schools.

Following 18 months of collaboration with schools, VAAFM found that those engaging with a local food hub increased purchases of local food by 58%. Following the success of this scheme, the agency used the data to put together its guide for schools and food hubs across the nation: by demonstrating the many successes of hub and school partnerships in Vermont it hopes to encourage other states to follow suit.

The guide offers four case studies designed to help both food hubs and FTS programmes strengthen partnerships, increase local food procurement and engage students and community members in FTS activities. It also contains information on increasing local food sales, developing local food products and devising new recipes for schools.

Access Using Food Hubs to Create Sustainable Farm to School Programs here.

The extraordinary stories behind our ordinary foods


Originally published here and written by Rebecca Roberts

 London’s Borough Market is the perfect place to learn the stories behind our foods as it entices hungry consumers with gastronomic delights ranging from ethically sourced potted pigeon and fresh oysters to artisan chocolates and natural wines. The popularity of the market indicates that our premium food choices are increasingly determined not just by price but also by quality, locality, health and environmental impact.

But what about our everyday staples? Do we apply the same demand for quality, ethics and provenance to these ‘ordinary’ foods?

TOAST, a food events company, is aiming to change the way people think about food’. It chose Borough Market as the location for its three-part event in March called ‘Milk Tea Bread’. The event celebrated the science, politics and history behind our staple foods. Over three weeks, TOAST invited farmers, bakers, entrepreneurs, journalists, campaign directors and historians to reflect on our attitudes towards our ordinary cuppa, daily loaf and carton of milk.

Legacy of celebration and controversy

Bee Wilson, author of Consider The Fork, opened the milk debate with the comment: “I can think of few other foods that most of us consume every day that are the subject of such huge oppositions and controversies.”

These controversies often have a long history. There are startling connections between theswill milk scandal of the 1850s – when dairy cows were fed residual swill from distilleries, resulting in the deaths of 8,000 children – and current debates over health and welfare crises in our modern, intensive dairy farming system. Reflecting on the recent dairy crisis, Steve Hook from Hook & Son questioned why raw, unpasteurised milk costs eight to ten times more than bottled, supermarket milk, priced as low as 20p a litre. This discrepancy is due to milk commodity prices being undermined by global dairy market volatility, quota regulations and supermarket competition; all resulting in a price that does not truly reflect the value and diversity of the practices, people, environments and knowledge required to produce this nutritious staple.

Now, let us brew over tea. We drink 175 million cups of it every day in Britain. It is the most consumed drink next to water. Yet, when considering tea, the question we predominantly ask is ‘How do you take yours?’ Jane Pettigrew, historian and author of 15 books on tea, helped us to think a little further than our teabags and discover a rich history of how tea fundamentally changed the dynamics of slavery and rural labour, and was the foundation ofpolitical protests against taxation. Again, the past intersects with the present: Sarah Roberts of the Ethical Tea Partnership spoke of the importance of sustainable tea production in relation to worker’s rights and wages, trade, climate change, gender equality and ethics.

Old habits die hard

When it comes to the production and consumption of milk, tea and bread, we can get locked into powerful narratives that influence our policies, research and consumer habits. A particularly important one is the increasingly visible disparity between the ‘wholesome’ and ‘pure’ image of our staple foods and the darker reality of their production.

Bread is a case in point. From a humble foundation of four essential ingredients rose a rich variety of heritage wheats, diverse breads and local bakeries. As Mark Riddaway writes for the ‘Edible Histories’ section of Borough Market’s Market Life magazine:

“The history of bread is the history of humanity. It’s the story of 1,000 generations of people from every corner of the globe, from Stone Age foragers in the Middle East to the skilled artisans of Bread Ahead who work their weird alchemy at Borough Market every day.”

Despite this, 80% of our supermarket loaves in Britain are made by the industrial Chorleywood process, a ‘no time method’ of baking that reduces fermentation time to three hours through the use of low-protein flours, additives and enzymes. Borne out of a post-war rejection of dense, brown loaves and demand for ‘unadulterated’ white bread, this industrial process gives the illusion of freshness and purity by using a cocktail of 30 artificial ingredients including sodium and calcium acetates (preservatives), lecithin (emulsifier), L-cysteine hydrochloride (bleaching agent) and phospholipase A2 (increasing volume and softness). Aidan Chapman from Bread Ahead concludes that, despite a newfound demand for wholemeal bread, “the soul of bread has been ripped away”. We are locked into the legacy of an industrial baking system that blurs the definitions of what makes bread ‘real’ and ‘wholesome’.

Revitalising legacy and supporting our staples

We need to start celebrating the quality of real bread, milk and tea, which our modern food system has largely taken away from us. TOAST has suggested several routes to do this:

Revisit taste – Celebrate the aromas, textures and tastes that our milk, tea and bread have to offer. Panellist Lee-Anna Rennie, the Dairy Co-Ordinator of the School of Artisan Food, spoke of consumers’ experiences of blind milk tastings at her dairy consultancy. We have forgotten what it is like to taste real, raw milk – the way it coats your mouth; the sweet and sour flavours; the creaminess. Attendees at the TOAST event became taste investigators themselves, sampling a range of treats including loose leaf teas from East Teas, raw yoghurt from Hook & Son and sourdough from Olivier’s Bakery.

Cook, both at home and in classes A vital factor in educating consumers and promoting demand for real, artisan staple foods, is getting people making food themselves. Aidan Chapman from the Bread Ahead bakery explains how, by involving people ‘hands-on’ in baking bread, consumers become part of the gastronomic story and gain a knowledge and understanding of the processes that go into the production of real bread. They are more likely to support local bakeries instead of buying supermarket bread. They also realise how simple and satisfying it is to bake your own bread; it is the original ‘no time method’.

Transparency through honest labelling and cross-sector collaboration – This is of paramount importance. Sarah Roberts of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) argued for the need to collaborate across sectors in order to increase the transparency and traceability of our staple foods. ETP is part of the Tea 2030 initiative, a partnership between ETP, Rainforest Alliance, Unilever, Fairtrade and other organisations, which is working to build a sustainable, ethical tea industry. It can also be as simple as using a transparent teapot or infuser, which Teapigs famously uses to show the quality of its loose-leaf, single origin teas. Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign highlighted the Honest Crust labelling scheme, which identifies ‘real’ bread made without the use of processing aids or artificial additives.

Support for research – The bulk of R&D funding in food production goes to pharmaceutical companies and agribusinesses rather than independent food producers or traders. This can have an impact on the viability and availability of artisan and other non-industrial products, which can be seen in the issues around the production of raw milk and food safety. With a lack of well-documented research into the benefits of raw milk, fears around its safetydominate debates on the production and sale of raw milk. There needs to be more support for vigorous research into the environmental, societal and health benefits of raw milk, as well as ‘real’ bread, loose leaf teas and other staple products. Until this happens, consumers will continue to be spoon-fed information that is dictated by those most disconnected from the real, wholesome products themselves.

The history of bread, tea and milk can be found online at Borough Market’s magazine Market Life. The full milk and tea debates are also showing on the Borough Market YouTube Channel, the bread debate is coming soon.

Ten things you should know about soil


Interesting facts about soil – article originally published here, by the Sustainable Food Trust.

Along with air to breath and water to drink, soil is one of our most important natural resources. Without it we would starve. However, due to poor farming practices, we are using soil at a completely unsustainable rate. The United Nation’s General Assembly has designated 2015, the International Year of Soils, to raise awareness of the urgent need to switch to sustainable soil management. If we do not make major changes to farming methods, food production will decline in future, instead of rising to meet the needs of a growing population.

Most current food production methods do not nurture the soil. Instead they exploit it, as if it were an infinite resource. As a result, 24 billion tonnes of soil is washed or blown away every year. That’s equivalent to 3.4 tonnes for every adult and child on the planet, every year. As well as being eroded, soil is also being degraded – losing its organic matter and structure – a process which ultimately turns 30 million acres of food producing land into desert every year.

Soil isn’t just important because it is the source of our food, it also plays a vital role in regulating the climate, providing clean drinking water and supporting plant and animal biodiversity.

The situation will only improve if we all understand what is going wrong and why, and what needs to change. There are many inspiring examples from around the globe of farmers who care for their soil, as well as examples of how once degraded land and even desert, is now producing food and sustaining local communities again. However, there are many more examples of abused soils in serious decline.

In this International Year of Soils, the Sustainable Food Trust will be returning to soil many times. We start with an introduction to this extraordinary and life-giving natural resource.

  1. Over 95% of our food comes from the soil. The quality of soil influences the quality of food, especially in relation to the content of important trace elements, such as selenium and zinc, and arguably also in relation to taste.
  1. A spoonful of healthy soil can contain more living organisms than there are people on the planet. The more fertile the soil is, the more organisms it has living in it. These organisms include bacteria and fungi, as well as larger soil creatures like nematodes, earthworms and ants. All are important for the health of soil.
  1. Soil is a mixture of minerals from rocks (45%), organic matter derived from decaying plant and animal material, plus the tiny living creatures in the soil (5%) – along with air (25%) and water (25%). It takes approximately 500 years for 1 inch of soil to form.
  1. Soils still contain more carbon than the atmosphere and all the world’s forests combined. Soil is one of our key defences against climate change because of this. The healthier the soil, the more carbon it holds.
  1. Soil organic matter is about 50% carbon. Humus is dark, stable, organic matter in healthy soils. Each gram of humus can hold twenty times its own weight of water, allowing soils with high organic matter to act as a sponge to soak up heavy rain and continue to provide moisture for crops during dry conditions.
  1. To increase humus levels by adding organic matter, it is vital to compost it first in an aerobic way to introduce oxygen before adding it to the soil.
  1. Most cropland globally has lost 30-40% of its organic matter. Well managed grassland that is not overgrazed generally rebuilds organic matter.
  1. Professor John Crawford of Rothamsted Research has pointed out that, at the current rate of degradation, we only have enough soil left globally to provide food for another 60 years. Soil degradation in countries with temperate climates is less severe than in some parts of the world, but researchers at Sheffield University claim that even in the UK we only have enough soil left for another 100 harvests at current rates of decline.
  1. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck tells the story of families that had to leave their land and become migrant workers due to soil erosion in the 1930s. The severe soil degradation in the ‘Dust Bowl’ was caused by unsustainable farming practices which replaced native deep-rooting long grasses with continuous cropping of mostly wheat and led to three million people leaving farms in the praires of North America and Canada.
  1. History shows that civilisations, like the Summerian society in Mesopotamia (the world’s first literate culture) which flourished from 3,000 BC, came to an end because of over-cropping and over-irrigation of their soils. Irrigation in hot countries is a major cause of salinisation – the build up of salts in topsoil, because evaporation prevents minerals being taken down to plant roots. As US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”.

Food Security in a Shrinking World


Guest blog by Pete Ritchie on the Scottish Land Action Movement page –

“In a shrinking world, if our land is not for feeding our people sustainably into the future, then what is it for?”  – access to land for food growing has to get easier, esp. for small communities.

A fair trade label for milk


A follow up to my post earlier this month about milk being cheaper than water….

Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trusts calls for a ‘fair trade’-esque label for milk. YES PLEASE!