Appetite, flavour and nutrition are keystones for a good food business. Obviously, food is vital for all of us every day. But for many it is not simply about how much in quantity, or the price. A lot of people want to know how their food is grown or reared, how it is being prepared or processed and where the ingredients come from.
I understand why some purveyors of fine food, and ‘fast food’, are sensitive to criticism. I can relate to that. I appreciate the need to trumpet one’s virtue and build a message of goodness and value.
But it must be an honest conversation. Nutritional science is starting to catch-up with what some have known for a long time. Our digestive systems require our diet to contain diversity and whole fibre (less processed) to maintain good health.
So, I’m struggling with the concept where the values behind some elements of a meal are inferior to other elements, and nobody wants to talk about them.
Take the humble burger as a prime example. The meat is the key ingredient when described in promotional campaigns. The beef is ‘100% British’, or the fish is ‘sustainably sourced’. Or it is ‘plant-based’, suggesting that it is a good thing that yet another highly processed food product sets sail in a vast sea of highly processed food products.
What strikes me as really odd is that we never hear about the bread served up with the burger. Can we please talk about the buns? What’s in the bun and how was it baked, where is the wheat from, how was it grown?
Wheat has come a long way from ancient varieties such as emmer or einkorn. And a long way even from landrace varieties such as the wonderful Hen Gymro which
“.. clung on in cultivation into the 1920’s – longer than any other British wheat landrace”.
Wheat today is generally treated as a ‘soft’ commodity. A soft commodity refers to where the actuals are grown rather than extracted or mined. Wheat as a soft commodity is traded on global markets which offers a balance in quality and quantity all through the year.
Bakers and millers require consistency. The protein and gluten levels in wheat grains that help support bread texture can fluctuate, sometimes a great deal.
Those protein and gluten levels can be brought to a level to satisfy the large commercial bakers of light sliced loaves. To do this, key factors must come together. In the main, these are nutrient, moisture and sunlight. Chemicals are used in non-organic farming to boost the nutrient and stabilise the moisture. They generally succeed in that effort. But they also have seriously negative consequences to the ecologies they are grown in. I don’t need to go into great detail on that here. Suffice to say the damage has been widespread and led to enormous harm for many species. Including humans.
The organic method of food production is a whole system approach. The crop is within an ecology, and all are a part of the organic system. Farming and food businesses that trade products claiming to be organic must have a valid organic certificate from a government approved body such as OF&G. Farmers must show us how they are complying with our standards right across their organic farm business.
There is no food marque other than organic that has a legally mandated, annually inspected, whole system method of production.
Back to the buns.
The biggest challenge to any supply chain is consistent delivery. Everybody in the supply chain is working with an idea of balance. When there is a glut or a lack, it causes problems, as we saw with flour and toilet tissue issue during the first lockdown. That was a consumer-led issue that didn’t materially affect our nutritional intake. We just had to manage with piles of loo roll stacked in our cupboards and hallways until such time as the panic died down.
But what happens when it’s a supply side issue? How do people in the supply chain cope when production is too great and there is a glut, or a crop failure stretches across a geographical region disrupting supplies? What happens then? Well, that depends on how big your business is.
As the economist Anne Pettifor describes so clearly, if your business is of sufficient size then you have increased spending power, and for some key players you can glean greater knowledge that gives you critical insight into what is happening when and where. And if you are minded to, you can manipulate the markets.
This size issue is pronounced in areas like wheat futures. These are bets on the future supply and so the future price of wheat. Wheat prices spiked before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Anne Pettifor writes,
“Prices are determined by a wall of money wielded by relatively few, invisible speculators and aimed at largely unregulated global grain markets.
Futures prices are guesses – speculation on the future direction of prices. They are not the consequence of a fall of 3% in the supply of grain from Ukraine.”
And what has any of this to do with the fourth annual Wales Real Food and Farming Conference?
We created this conference to help give a platform and a voice to people involved in food systems that are supported by and supportive of local communities. Food systems built on respect and transparency. If I get a bag of Hen Gymro organic flour from Anne at Felin Ganol or a roasting joint of organic pork or diced mutton from Polly at Slade Farm, I know I will be getting exceptionally good quality. I might pay less for flour and meat in a large supermarket. But the quality is likely to be far, far lower, and the negative impacts on the planet resulting from how those products were produced is quite probably far, far greater.
I’m not placing any blame on our farmers. Farmers were led down the road of fossil fuel farming decades ago. Today they are left to fend for themselves on global markets that care neither if they succeed or fail. One of the biggest challenges we face is not just whether we are producing enough food. We are being asked how we can produce sufficient quantities of nutritious, healthy food in ways that can be sustained for generation after generation after generation.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s A Silent Spring. Carson wasn’t the first to sound the alarm. And she’s not been the last. But the way that Rachel Carson described the negative outcomes of fossil fuel farming with poetic prose and scientific detail, was at the time unique.
It became obvious to her and to her audience that the prevailing food system was seriously damaging natural systems and destroying communities. And though food was produced in very large quantities, unfortunately whole ecosystems were being destabilised, and farmers were at the wrong end of trading relationships and were gradually backed into a very tight corner.
What can we do instead? How can we cope with fluctuation? How can we build natural diversity and have a food system sufficient to our needs?
We could build a food culture on a healthy cycling of nutrients that are firmly established within a resilient system where each part is treated as a vital part of the whole. This would be much more likely to give us the ability to bring a level of stability, even in times of crisis.
The farming model that has dominated markets up until now has been built on two assumptions: that the climate is stable and chemical farming is sustainable.
Neither is the case. It never really was. And yet the chemical model prevails. It does so because it is highly profitable for a few for much of the time, and for others only some of the time if they are fortunate.
That system is unsustainable because it relies on investment in the extraction of natural capital to gain monetary advantage. When nature starts to break down, the investors move on.
The funds in these systems are manipulated by financial organisations who are not required to reinvest in the ecology nor in local economies, all of which suffer as their natural wealth is demonstrably eroded. In time, these systems become more brittle and much more likely to fail.
As climatic shocks are increasing in frequency and in severity, and as commodity markets are wildly fluctuating, what can we do to not just survive, but to thrive?
I propose we bake a bun worth celebrating. We can grow with equality and respect. We can take seriously our collective responsibility to each other and to our children.
We will discuss this in the conference in Lampeter this November. I hope you can join us.
For further reading here is a very good review of where Rachel Carson’s book was then and where things are today.
Business development manager,
Organic Farmers & Growers CIC