Ruminating on Food
Hello and welcome once again to the Sustainable Futures Report. I’m Anthony Day and it's Friday, the 28th of February.
|You looking at me?|
This week’s episode is about food. Should we be vegetarian? Should we be vegan? Is it wrong, or even unsustainable to eat meat? Students at the London School of Economics seem to think so. Will we see, as some say, the end of farming? Will we return to mixed, organic agriculture or will the whole industry be revolutionised by technology? Are we condemning parts of the world to poverty and hunger while the rest of us over-eat our way to obesity and ill-health? The whole topic of food is full of questions and I don't pretend to have all or any of the answers, but at least I can provide some ideas, issues and opinions. Your feedback, as always, is welcomed. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's my pleasure to start this week by welcoming our latest silver supporter, Dragos Mitrica from the Netherlands, who signed up this week at patreon.com/sfr to make a monthly contribution towards the costs of publishing this podcast and the associated blog. This week’s episode is a good example of that, because I’ve paid for a transcription of the interview which you're about to hear and you can find it on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report .
Dragos, welcome and thanks for your support. And let me take this opportunity to thank you all for listening and thank all my other patrons for their continuing support.
We start with an interview…
Anthony Day: Anthony Davison, our guest today on The Sustainable Futures report, you're the CEO of BigBarn, which is a not-for-profit organisation which has been trading for some 20 years.
As I understand it, your role is to encourage healthy eating and sustainable agriculture.
Anthony Davison : Correct, yes.
Day: So how do you do that?
Anthony: Well, when I first set up, I'm a fifth generation farmer, and set up the site because we were growing onions in Norfolk. Every time we went to sell them, we could get about £100 a ton, and two days later, we'd see the onions on the Tesco's shelf for about £800 a ton.
So our food supply chain is giving farmers a bad deal and consumers a bad deal. Because if anyone turned up at the farm and asked for onions, we'd be very happy to sell them at half the price of the supermarket.
So BigBarn is all about reconnecting people with where their food came from and helping farmers sell direct and consumers buy direct. We hoped in that process that people would find out about the food they ate, and they'd eat healthfully because they'd buy fresher local food.
Day: You've been doing quite a lot of work with schools, I believe.
Davison: That's right. We see that to change people to cooking and buying local food we really need to act on the influencers. And we see the main influencers as children. Because if you can get children eating healthfully and going to their parents and wanting healthy food, it'll encourage parents to eat better food as well.
Day: So what do you actually doing with the children in the schools?
Davison: Well, we ran a project in Leicester where we went in every week to help the kids grow seeds in little plant pots, and then we built some raised beds and planted fruit trees. And these children learnt all about growing food. And when it was ready, they were really enthused to taste it and actually cook with it. And we had this added incentive that they could then take what they'd grown to the local shop, and the local shop would sell it for them.
It was called Crop for the Shop and it was a really brilliant way of enthusing children about food and food growing.
Day: Have you any plans to roll that out further into other schools across the country?
Davison: We'd absolutely love to. Because we've got 26,000 schools in this country, and we found out that 14,000 of them have got a veg patch or a garden. So it would be actually quite easy for them all to get involved.
But unfortunately it's not on the curriculum. And at the end of the year, with the school in Leicester, we went to the teacher and said -- look, here's the teaching notes, there's the veg patch; we managed to get a lot of academic subjects into the veg patch; so are you going to do it?
And she said -- no, I'm not doing it, it's not on the curriculum, I'm only doing what's on the curriculum.
And unfortunately, we've been running a petition for a long time about getting school food growing and cooking on the curriculum, and the government with Ofsted, only measures school performance on O Level Maths and English, and that's a big mistake. So we are lobbying, and we'd love to do more. But we're restricted by government at the moment.
Day: Okay, so that's a dead end for the moment, unfortunately then?
Davison: Well, there is a new food and farming policy coming out at the moment and being worked on. And we hope that with the evidence that we've got with a number of other organisations that it will change and the government will see the opportunity.
Because if you can change people to eat healthy food, I think at the moment 20% of NHS spend is on food-related disease. So if we can get people eating healthy food. And if we get those influencers at school eating healthy food, we could see some massive savings in the NHS.
Day: Just tell me that again. 20%, do you reckon, of NHS expenditure?
Davison: Is on food-related disease.
And I think 10% is diabetes. And the rest is, obesity and heart disease, and other food-related problems.
So yeah, there's a lot that can be done. And, I think the time is right with Brexit, and with people caring about more, and with the massive amount of foodie programs on TV.
Day: How do you relate Brexit to this?
Davison: Well, people are going to start thinking about where their food comes from. And we're going to have news about sanctions and import duties on certain products. Hopefully things like American cheap food like chlorinated chicken and processed pork that's come from low animal welfare factories in America.
Day: You're hoping that they will be on the wrong side of tariffs? They'll be kept out.
Davison: I hope so. Yeah.
Davison: There'll be some duty, but Mr Trump doesn't want that.
Day: So therefore we're going to have to look at domestic food production.
Davison: We're going to have to, yeah. And hopefully when people see this trade war happening with the cheap American food, they'll start thinking about what food they should buy. And when they get the supermarket, they'll think about where their food comes from. And they'll want clearer labelling, which would be really good. But the only kind of food you can really trust is someone who has produced it locally, and whose his reputation is at stake, which is where our local food map comes in.
Day: Right. Yes, I was going to come on to that. So your food map -- tell us a bit about that? Because it seems to cover the whole country. I looked at my local area, York, and you've got five or six producers listed. So tell me more about it.
Davison: Well, it's a constantly evolving, constantly updating map, that at the moment has got 8,500 local food outlets on it.
Every outlet has a username and password to add pictures, video, description. and even build themselves an online shop if they want to. What we do now is we share our map with as many websites we can. So we'd love Yorkshire websites to have our map, and to actually be adding to it.
And the idea is that when you have our map, it looks like it's yours. The more websites that have the map, the more those who are on the map will benefit, because they can update their page and they can see it updated on all the other websites.
So to help that process we're becoming a co-op, a community benefit society, and we're sending a clear message that everyone can be part of this. And if it's a success, we all share in the success. Rather than, a lot of these companies that are backed by venture capitalists or investors, who suck out all the money.
Day: So how is your organisation backed?
Davison: Well, at the moment, it's backed by me and a few friends. And what will happen is that when we become a community benefits society, we will have to release our equity for everyone to be part of it.
And hopefully that'll gain buy-in, and we'll get people like Jamie Oliver, who will go -- oh, this map looks really good, everyone's on it and I want to have it on my web site.
And of course, that helps the whole process.
Day: Okay, so what sort of organisations are actually on the food map?
Davison: You've got lots of farms shops, farmers markets, butchers, bakers. And what we want is for all of these people to put up a video of themselves, which is very easy now with iPhones and YouTube, basically to tell their story. And that's what people want, is to see where their food come from, and to feel as though the person who's produced that food can be trusted. I think that would be a great way.
You'll notice that on some icons there's a little carrot flag and that means if you've grown stuff in your garden or your school, you can take it there and they'll sell it for you.
This is a great way to, I think, build communities around food.
Day: Right, and are we talking about local shops, or are we talking about businesses with an online shop?
Davison: If you go to the map, you'll see that green icons mean you have to go there and red icons mean you can click and buy. Or you can nearly always go to the place, the red icons as well.
But we want all kinds of people on the map. And if you grow food, you could take it to your farm shop. Or perhaps, if there's a local pub, that's joined Crop for the Shop, you can take your beetroot down there and they'll put your beetroot in their menu, and they'll give you a pint of beer in return, for payment.
So it's a great way of all sharing and building your community.
Day: It's an interesting idea, because we have an allotment, and at certain times of year we get far far more fruit, mainly, than we can cope with -- masses of it. So it's interesting to know that this sort of thing exists.
Davison: Yeah, well, things like fruit. We love farm shops to have... Every farm shop, we think, should have one of those apple presses, so you can take your apples on a certain day and get them crushed. And perhaps also get some tips on making some cider.
Day: Well, that's an idea, yes. Now do you vet these organisations in any way?
Davison: We thought when we started about having some kind of inspection system, but then we thought, well, if people are going on a map and they're adding information about themselves, the local consumers should be the ones who vet the people on the map. So we have a review system, so that if you see anyone who's making claims that you think aren't true, you can feed back. And we can then investigate, and de-list people who are dodgy.
But we have found over the years that, because people know they're promoting themselves locally and their reputation is at stake, they do tend to tell the truth. And I think we've only had to scratch one person off in twenty years.
Day: So the food map's been going that long then?
Davison: Yeah, yeah. And it's constantly updating. We're constantly adding more people. And we even run a competition so that if you look at the map and you see that we've got a mistake or someone missing, you can send us an email and you'll be put in a prize draw to win a big box of crisps, everyone.
Day: Alright. There's an incentive. Okay. And people can find this map at bigbarn.co.uk.
Davison: Yeah. And more and more websites all the time. We'd love to be working with people like Visit Yorkshire and Deliciously Yorkshire, so that we all have the same map and we all add to it. It then becomes a lot more powerful.
But sometimes it's difficult to persuade people to change. But we're working on it.
Day: Let's talk about food policy in more general terms. I know you've got a lot of opinions and thoughts, which you put up on your blog.
A lot of people say that if you're serious about climate change -- and I put myself down as one who is serious about climate change -- then you should go vegetarian or, ideally, vegan. Is that the message that you want to promote?
Day: Definitely not. No. I think you should certainly think about it, and you should definitely cut down on meat. But 70% of the world's agricultural land can't grow crops. In other words, it's places like the moors in Yorkshire, where you are, or highland ground, or savannas in other countries, where you just can't grow crops. So that land needs to be grazed, and by grazing the land, you actually improve it. And we then need to cull the animals that grazed, so we should eat those animals.
But, when I say eating animals, we definitely shouldn't eat meat on the scale that we are at the moment, which for many people is three times a day, it probably should be more like three times a week. And only eating sustainable meat.
So I would say that yes, vegetarian and veganism is a good thought process. But I think it's dangerous to have a knee jerk reaction to saving the planet by becoming a vegan. And I think it should be thought through.
I was flabbergasted to see some of the universities banning beef, rather than providing the students with the whole story of beef and then letting them make their minds up.
Day: Okay, but there's been an academic report from the Food Climate Research Network called Grazed and Confused. And they point out that there's a very high proportion of global methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A very high proportion of that comes from livestock, and therefore, the implication from that seems to be that we shouldn't be raising livestock, and we shouldn't be therefore eating meat, because we can't afford to have these emissions.
Davison: Well, I agree with you, in a factory-farmed situation where we're putting grain into animals and they're producing methane from grain. But in a sustainable agricultural situation, you'll find that that methane actually breaks down after 10 years and is part of a very natural process of grass being produced, animals eating the grass, a little bit of it becoming methane, and then it breaking down into carbon oxide. And that grass then using up the carbon dioxide, so it's in a closed loop.
There's a great blog and a study that's been written called "Don't Compare Cows To Cars" because cars will produce carbon dioxide and that'll be in the atmosphere, and it'll be cars that have broken down fuel into carbon dioxide. Whereas cows are part of a closed loop system.
Day: Yes, I think there's a link or a commentary on that report on your blog.
Davison: There is, and there was a load of academics that got together in Belgium. And I had put a video up of it on BigBarn. And that shows the whole cycle that I've just spoken about. And these academics were singing the praises of ruminants, and how they're a very important part of feeding the world by 2050.
Day: Right, now you're saying we should eat meat, but a lot less. That, of course, fits in with the fact that people who turn around and say -- if we're going to give up factory farming, we are not going to have nearly as much meat and dairy, and therefore we're going to have to cut it out, or cut down on it in our diets.
Davison: That's right. Yeah. And it's... I was halfway up a mountain in Switzerland a little while ago, and there was a cow halfway up the mountain sitting down chewing the cud. And I did a little video of it and said -- what is more sustainable? Milk from this cow that is part of the ecosystem, or Almond milk from California that uses massive amounts of water and chemicals, and is flown halfway around the world to satisfy the Vegans?
You know, it is all about sustainable agriculture and where we've gone over the last 50 years is to more intensive food production, as cheaply as possible. And I would much rather see every village and town have a few small dairies around it, and those dairies being part of a sustainable agricultural system where the rotation means that the animals are putting natural fertilisers on the land, and the vegetables have been grown without the use of chemicals or manufactured fertilisers.
Day: One of the problems which is occurring in the UK is that increasingly stringent conditions mean that small abattoirs are having to close because they can't afford the costs of the veterinary supervision and other measures, which are now required.
That means that small farmers who are producing maybe rare breeds or organically-reared cattle are having great difficulty in actually getting them to slaughter, so it puts their costs up. So what are we going to be able to do about that?
Davison: Well, a fair bit of work has been done. And that will also be in this new food and farming strategy that's being worked on at the moment. Interestingly enough, it's the first food and farming strategy we have had since the war.
Davison: And that's absolutely ridiculous that there hasn't been any change.
But, yes, what we need is some small, mobile abattoirs -- and they have developed a couple of them -- that can travel around and quickly sort out the animals and be put straight into the local food supply chain.
And if those animals can be sold direct to consumers rather than go through the market, the middlemen, and the supermarkets, then not only can the farmer benefit, but the consumers benefit, and we see a lot of plastic cut out as well.
I worked out that to sell an average bullock in a supermarket takes about 5 to 600 plastic cartons, because of course, the animal is cut up, put into cartons, and then put on the shelves. Whereas your local butcher will get the whole carcass, chop it up as it's required, and put it in wax paper, and use zero plastic.
So that's another story that's helping this whole process of more sustainable, not only agriculture, but actual buying and consuming.
Day: Looking at the climate crisis from a food point of view or from any point of view, are you optimistic for the future?
Davison: Only if we can enlighten society. There's no point in farmers all converting to sustainable farming and producing some brilliant products, if consumers only want to buy ready meals and fast food from the likes of McDonald's and KFC, because those people are going to want meat from factory farms, and those factory farms will carry on.
It needs consumers to be saying -- oh, hang on, I don't want to do that anymore. I want to cook with my friends and I want to do things differently.
And that's where the education in schools comes in.
Day: Okay. So what do you think people listening to this podcast should be doing tomorrow to try and achieve those sorts of objectives?
Davison: Well, the exciting thing is they're so much information at your fingertips now. And just listening to this podcast, you never would have been able to do something like this years and years ago.
So I hope they have a look at our food map, see what's in their area. Go and visit some of these local food outlets. And ask lots of questions. The more questions we ask and the more we engage with our local producers, the more they're going to start producing things we want.
A classic, for instance, is to go to your butcher and say it -- does this meet come from a sustainable farm and where do you buy your meet from? That butcher then starts to ask the farmer and the farmer then changes and the butcher then talks to the consumer about, kind of, what are you cooking and helps them with that process. But, also kind of tells them more of a story, so people will buy probably not so much meat, but buy better meat and become more healthy as a result.
Day: Good. Well, that's an optimistic view of the future.
Anthony Davison, thank you very much for talking to the Sustainable Futures Report. I hope we can perhaps come back to you once this food and agriculture strategy has been published and see what you think of it?
Davison: Yeah. Please, do. I mean, one of the things that I forgot to mention is that please register with BigBarn with your email and postcode and we'll keep you up to date on what's happening locally.
We have a newsletter that comes out every month, only once a month so you won't be bombarded. And it should have local food news in it, so we'll let you know if anyone opens in your area and we'd love everyone to get involved. And as we convert from a CIC, which is what we are at the moment, to a community benefit society, then we're inviting people to actually join in and be part of their local food industry and benefit from it.
So the more people involved in this, the better, as far as we're concerned, so that it can be run and looked after for everyone.
Day: Thank you very much. Thank you again.
Davison: Thank you.
Anthony Davison’s BigBarn is at bigbarn.co.uk. I’ve put links to a couple of his blog posts on the blog and they in turn contain links to videos from the ruminants conference that he mentioned.
A Place for Ruminants
They reiterate the point that 70% of farmland cannot be ploughed but it can be used for grazing animals. They also show how while ruminant animals like cows and sheep are a significant source of methane, this is all part of a natural cycle. Animals eat and digest plants which humans cannot digest, they produce methane which breaks down into CO2 and the CO2 is absorbed by plants which the animals eat and so we go on. Until the Industrial Revolution, when the use of coal, oil and gas which had been buried under the earth for millennia started to release additional CO2, all this was in balance. While extra CO2 stimulates some plant growth, the increased carbon emissions have exceeded the capacity of natural carbon sinks, the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere is growing and the planet is getting hotter. You could argue that demonising cows and sheep which produce CO2 naturally is simply a strategy to offset fossil fuels which produce it unnaturally.
Out of School
Anthony mentioned that some universities have banned beef in their canteens. This started last year with Goldsmith College followed by University College London and last week students at the London School of Economics followed suit. As he said, surely students at these prestigious establishments should be capable of assessing the facts for themselves and making up their own minds. After all, if the result were totally undeniable then there would be no demand for beef in the canteens anyway.
Writing in The Guardian, Christopher de Bellaigue asks if we are seeing the end of farming. He starts by talking about the degradation of shooting estates in Scotland caused by overgrazing. He goes on to describe how some of these estates are now being re-wilded. Re-wilding brings back trees and and a wide range of plants which in turn provide a habitat for wildlife. Plants and trees stabilise the soil against erosion and form a carbon sink. Rewilding is not without significant cost and with no more shooting parties and no agriculture the income now comes from luxury tourism. You could argue that it’s saving the planet, but at the same time it seems to be excluding one group of wealthy people while welcoming another.
Walking on the Wild Side
Bellaigue argues that in many cases British farmers have only been solvent thanks to European subsidies and were incentivised to seek ever-increasing yields. He cites Charles Burrell’s 1,400 hectare Sussex estate which made no money despite subsidies and investment in state-of-the-art technology. Burrell decided instead to create a biodiversity wilderness, let the land go back to nature and seek income from organic meat and, again, tourism. It appears that the estate is now profitable and employs more people than it did as a farm, but it still relies on EU subsidies. What’s the future after Brexit? It seems that the new Agriculture Bill will reward public goods like wildlife reserves and the footpaths like those across Burrell’s land, but will not subsidise crops. And where do we make up the shortfall from the crops that the estate and other farmers will no longer produce?
Some farmers are turning to more organic production while others advocate a return to mixed farming - crop rotation including grazing livestock to fertilise the fields. Maybe this will be better for the soil, but yields will undoubtedly be lower. How does this square with the UN prediction that population growth will demand a 70% increase in food production by 2050?
Is technology the answer? It clearly didn’t work for Charles Burrell, but things have moved on. Writing in Transform, the journal of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, Chris Seekings investigates the many ways that agritech could be about to transform farming and food production. He talks about 30MHz, a company based in Amsterdam which describes itself as “The data platform for your crops”. They say,
“Capture the metrics you need to make a difference in your agribusiness. Our customers use crop-level data to drive yields, reduce losses, optimise irrigation, improve storage, prevent disease risk, and reduce energy. Know what your crops need by monitoring metrics including: VPD, dewpoint, moisture deficit, EC, VWC, temperature, light intensity, relative humidity and CO2.” (Not quite sure what all those abbreviations stand for.)
Then there are the robots. The Small Robot Company shamelessly describes itself as the future of farming. Their small robots care for crops plant by plant, gathering data across the field. They say,
“When we can not only understand a farmer’s field on a plant by plant basis, but also take action at that level, a completely different farming system becomes possible. Farming will be able to produce an abundance of food with minimal negative environmental impact. These autonomous robots use up to 95% fewer chemicals and 90% less energy than traditional tractors, can work 24 hours a day and avoid crushing worms or destroying hedgerows and other biodiversity. Increased yield and minimal chemical use can boost revenues by up to 40% and cut costs by 60%.”
Meanwhile drones are being used to identify drainage areas, crop health and weed pressure.
We’ve known for a while about hydroponics and indoor and vertical farms. Now comes aeroponics. This technique involves no soil and water but suspends plants in a nutrient-dense mist. Pioneers LettUs Grow - building the farms of the future - provide cutting-edge technology for greenhouses and vertical farms. They claim that aeroponic methods use up to 95% less water and fertiliser than traditional field farming and emit 90% less CO2 than hydroponics. They can grow all the year round regardless of the weather, though, as the name suggests, this technique is largely suited to salad crops. There are quality advantages, but there are major up-front costs as well as significant expenditure on electricity to keep the LED lights burning. It’s all a long way from barren moors, rewilded croplands and glamping and retreats.
One aspect we need to address of course is waste. There is waste at all stages in the supply chain, from vegetables rejected by supermarkets because they don’t look perfect to waste in the home because you bought one, got one free but didn’t use it. We might try and discourage waste by making food more expensive, by adding VAT or something, but that would hit the poorest elements of society the hardest.
Waste is a topic I’m going to have to revisit in more detail.
Overconsumption is another problem. In his book “There is No Planet B”, Mike Berners-Lee states that the average human eats 2530 kcal per day, which is 180 kcal more than we need. Of course this is very much more in some places and very much less in others, but as things stand we produce 14% more kcal overall than is needed to feed the world’s population - we just don’t share it equitably. In the book he shows in detail how waste occurs at each stage of the supply chain.
What are the conclusions from all this? Not very clear, and your ideas would be welcome. BigBarn can help us find sources of healthy food. I’m fortunate in that I have both the time and the money to take advantage of these shops. Many people just don’t have the time: the supermarket where everything is available in one place next to a big carpark is all they have time for. Many don’t have the time to cook, choose not to or don’t know how to, hence the growth in consumption of ready-meals and takeaways. Others in depressed areas do not have the transport to take them further than the local chip shop or convenience store.
Feeding the world and saving the planet. Why is everything in sustainability so difficult?
And that’s it…
Well, that’s it for this week. Apologies to patrons who got this less than 12 hours in advance of everyone else, instead of the normal two or three days. Will try and do better next time.
As I mentioned before, I have more interviews lined up for future episodes, including one on population, one on the future of capitalism and a sea-captain who wants to take a fleet of sailing ships around the world to spread the message of the carbon balance. He’s looking for sponsors.
Just before I go I learn that the Court of Appeal has blocked Heathrow’s third runway. I’m sure we’ll hear more about that.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Till next week.
Fixing the food industry: https://www.bigbarn.co.uk/2020/01/22/how-do-we-fix-the-food-industry-together/
Meat Guilt: https://www.bigbarn.co.uk/2019/11/23/meat-guilt/
Mistake to compare cows to cars: https://www.bigbarn.co.uk/2019/08/27/major-mistake-to-compare-cows-to-cars/
Farmers under pressure
The end of farming?