Is The Future of Sustainable, Healthy Food Just Organic?

Eliza Pearson
Friday, 25th February 2011

We live in an age of uncertainty, in a society where denial is prevalent. It is difficult to change entrenched eating habits but organic food has become cheaper and hence more accessible recently, but what if there was an even healthier and holistic alternative to organic food? I went to the 'Food and the Big Society' Soil Association conference to find out if the Organic Movement are exploring the new models of regenerative farming.

The Soil Association, the largest organic certifying body in the United Kingdom recently held a two day conference (9 - 10 February 2011, Manchester Town Hall) to discuss the future of food. A colourful mix of individuals from professors to farmers gathered to engage in a debate about soil health, localization, diversification and human scale enterprises. According to Peter Kendall, president of the NFU, "Feeding a population of nine billion in a sustainable way is no small task. There is much to learn from small farmers and those who use less fossil fuel and manage their farms in a sustainable way should be rewarded."

However Mr. Kendal later gave his unqualified support for the proposed super dairy at Knockton. It would be difficult to find a project with less green credentials. In such a unit cows are kept like battery chickens, living their short lives on concrete and never seeing a grass field. They are totally dependent on imported soya beans often grown on cleared Amazonian rainforest land. Knockton would threaten every family run dairy unit in the country by introducing a competitive technology into the dairy industry that would be exploited by the supermarkets to further erode the dismally prices currently paid to our milk producers. Why would the NFU wish to support a project which would ultimately damage the interests of its smaller dairy members?

Much of the discussions over the two days were focused on all things organic. Joanna Blythman, author and journalist said, "The perception of elitism on organic food needs to be shaken off, everyone used to eat organic food. Not all-organic food is more expensive than conventional; we also forget to look at the externalized costs. An alternative to supermarkets is the key to us making progress and there are viable alternatives, we need to put our weight behind independent and local producers. Supermarkets have made things very expensive on many levels and we all know its not going to the producers" The first advertising campaign wholly focused on spreading the brand of Organic in the UK has just begun. Its called 'Why I Love Organic'. Although this is great news, the fact that Italy has already had 13 such campaigns shows how behind the UK is.

"Organic farmers are the pioneers of sustainable farming and have an important role to play but they are not the cure all," says Caroline Spelman, MP secretary of state for DEFRA. There are so many other issues linked to food production. We must not look at any one point in the system in isolation, there is a relationship between every part of the food chain, from farm to fork and beyond which takes us to waste.

Around 2.9 million tones of food and drink is thrown away by consumers before ever being cooked or served and 5.9 million tons of avoidable waste in the UK is thrown away every year (WRAP). "Food waste is the first way we should start to create a more sustainable food system" says Dr Mike Bushell, principle scientific advisor of Syngenta Waste is unused energy, "Its like throwing money down the drain. We should buy only what we need and compost and recycle what we don't use."

Professor Tim Lang of City University believes we should concentrate on eating more plants with less meat and dairy, unless the cattle are organic and grass-fed. There are so many destructive practices linked to livestock production. Fifty percent of all grain is grown for cattle, including GM, soya bean plantations now stand in place of pristine rainforests, pesticide use is killing biodiversity and this is just to mention a few. "We need policy and political leadership" but Joanna Blythman also points out, "we cannot rely solely on the government and policy makers" our society is shaped not always by the powerful but by the people. "We need a bottom-up approach, we need to engage people in the food process, throw feasts in local library's, teach our friends how to cook! Lets bring people together through food and let food bring people together." We need to link up the local with the nation.

Should we influence food choices and inspire change? "In Britain we don't seem to place value on 'good' food." said Monty Don, president of the soil association. Colin Cox from Manchester Food Futures added, "People don't think that changing their food is going to change their quality of life but a new Plasma TV will! We need to inspire a change in food culture. We need to educate people and make it convenient for them to be healthy encouraging ethical food choices." Arthur Potts Dawson, founder of the Peoples Supermarket added "We need honest labeling on all food products its not just about buying organic, we need to ask more questions, such as who is the producer? What are their farming practices and health of their soil? is it fairly traded? How much fossil fuel was used? Consumers should have the opportunity to really know what they are buying". All animals leaving our farms today are tagged and identifiable right through the slaughtering and packing process. Why is this information not available on the product packaging?

Michael Pollen wrote in his book In Defense of Food a list of 'don't' with regards to food, one being "don't eat food with more than five ingredients", this was then elaborated upon during the debate by Guy Watson of Riverford Organics to "Tax processed foods with more than five ingredients"! Jan Hutchinson, director of Public Health from NHS Bolton was also on the panel, and said "It is easier to buy a microwavable meal from Tesco than make the effort to buy the ingredients and cook". On the surface it looks cheaper but we don't see the hidden environmental and social costs, we loose connection with our food, valuable skills such as cooking and less time is spent within the family and community.

We need to encourage independent retail, its easy to get chains like Tesco to come in but this often creates a food desert in the surrounding area as consumers make all their purchases in the one supermarket disregarding the local more specialist retailers who end up going out of business. Says Colin Cox from Manchester Food Futures. "We must become less dependent on grants, create systems that manage risks and build proper business models that are self sustaining. We need to be as good as the supermarkets and the big names, the difference is we will make ethics work with money," added Joy Carey, a local food consultant.

Prof Urs Niggli of FIBL said, "We need resilient farming systems, a moving away from intensively managed towards extensively managed systems." Practices such as holistic grazing management, no-tillage, permanent grasslands, appropriate and more robust livestock are all very beneficial. He also added, "Farmers are not just food producers they also need to be ecosystem managers."

We must move beyond organic towards holistic and regenerative methods of farming such as permaculture, or rotational mixed farming which looks at the system as whole. When we exchange our money for goods and services we are saying that we want to see more of the kind of product we are buying in the world and that we support the company too. If we questioned more and realised the power we hold at our fingertips perhaps we would be making more ethical and healthier choices.

After two days I left the meeting feeling that it had been dominated by sometimes arcane theorists and that little thought had been given to the economics of sustainable organic farming systems. How can we ensure producers receive a fair price for their product and thereby encourage a sector of agriculture that is paving the road towards sustainability and animal wellbeing more than any other part of the industry? 

lisa@permaculture.biz |
Sat, 26/02/2011 - 12:22
Loved your article Eliza. Prof. Urs Niggli is right onto the solutions with regenerative agriculture practises. Defiantely don't agree with Colin Cox re ,"make it convenient for consumers to be healthy..." , people need to stop being scared of being inconvenienced and take responsibility for their health and the health of the planet.
Aranya |
Sat, 26/02/2011 - 20:22
Nice article Eliza. It can be frustrating to see how slowly things move in big organisations, but lots is happening at the grassroots level. Really looking forward to Regen Ag coming to Britain in the autumn, thanks for initiating that!