On food businesses, innovation and values

When you have finished making crisps out of a batch of potatoes in your factory, what do you do with the leftover peelings? You could feed them to pigs, which certainly turns a waste product into a resource, but how much more exciting to mash them up, extract the soluble fibre and use that to give texture to your muffins, enabling you to reduce their fat content. Healthy food and profits, all in one, brought to you by the Irish firm CyberColloids.

microscope and peppersThen there’s fructo-oligosaccharides, or FOS, which despite the offputting name occurs naturally in many vegetables, including leeks and Jerusalem artichokes. It’s a sugar polymer which is mildly sweet but indigestible to humans, therefore serving as both a sugar substitute and a dietary fibre, while also feeding certain beneficial bacteria in the gut such as Bifidobacterium. You can use it to make such things as high-fibre, low-sugar chocolate sauce, and even mix it with water and vitamins to make a palatable drink that helps towards your Five a Day. You can buy it from the Chinese firm Quantum Hi-Tech.

These were just two examples of food wizardry on show at last November’s Food and Drink Business Europe New Product Development and Innovation Summit in Birmingham, where stakeholders in the food and beverage manufacturing industry met to hear about such topics as reducing sugar in processed foods, identifying gaps in the chocolate biscuit market, and trends in loose leaf tea. Running alongside it was a Quality and Safety Summit where we learnt about things like the need to check your turmeric for contamination with lead chromate, and how best to train staff to follow hygiene procedures. With much mention of regulatory frameworks, horizon scanning and of course innovation, the impression was of an industry that is pulling out all the stops to get us the tastiest and healthiest diet possible.

It is always good to hear from people who are enthusiastic about what they do. These were scientists, engineers and managers who have found a way to put their gifts to work in service to something bigger than themselves, and their delight in their own mastery was infectious. It is a reminder of what the human brain can achieve in the right circumstances – in a team, with a lab, a factory, a market and finance. It demonstrates the power of business to innovate and bring about change, running ahead of government and shaping our day to day lives with its convenient supply of necessities and luxuries alike, raising our standard of living to heights our ancestors could not have imagined.

And yet, questions arise. What problem are these highly processed, highly packaged treats really solving – the need of the public for healthy food, or the need of the company to devise new products and make an income? Replacing sugar with healthy sweeteners, for instance, does nothing to cure us of our sweet tooth or help us resist all the other sugary temptations that will still come along. High fibre vitamin drinks may have their applications but why not eat an apple and drink a glass of water? The fact is that the food industry has supported and driven changes in our eating habits that haven’t always been good and the problems are piling up, from tooth decay and diabetes to food waste and excess packaging.

How can we  channel all that creative energy towards solving some of the urgent problems of the day – obesity, diet-related illness and the ills of agriculture – in a way that really gets to the root of the matter, rather than tinkering with the details? That is where values come in, as the guiding principles which shape our activity, the compass by which we set our intentions. Innovation by itself is not enough; as George Orwell put it, ‘Put a pacifist to work in a bomb-factory and in two months he will be devising a new type of bomb.’  There needs to be a moral compass and accountability.

It’s time to bring the innovative power of business into alignment with genuine human needs so that it helps to create a healthier society for everyone. That was the theme of my workshop in the afternoon, encouragingly entitled ‘Food Values: business and well-being go together’. Of course, there are plenty of examples of corporate food messing up. But it isn’t inevitable, and it’s time to start telling the story of how industry can help the world, and how money is only a means to an end. We need to talk about how people in business are doing good things, because they are the right thing to do. It’s not a simple story though, and I’ll say more about that next time.

The future of farm subsidies: what really matters to farmers?

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, farmers are understandably concerned about the future of agricultural support, and the big decisions that need to be made. The payments that currently come from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – without which many farms, especially small ones, would be unable to carry on – will then end, and UK national governments will have to decide whether, and how, to continue them. This means a new rationale – how much and in what ways should taxpayers support agriculture and the countryside in the future?

This most contentious of policy areas, farm subsidies – tarnished by past associations with butter mountains and barley barons, set-aside, ripped-up hedgerows, and then reinstated hedgerows, and the current problems of plunging biodiversity and increasing food insecurity – is open for discussion like never before. So often we see a power struggle conducted in an atmosphere of fear and blame, where positions become increasingly polarised. But maybe now is a good time to try another approach. Behind the rhetoric, what is it that really matters to farmers?

This past summer, as part of a wider project to investigate the values that shape our food system, I was part of a team led by Bangor University that interviewed half a dozen farmers at the Royal Welsh Show. The result, while hardly constituting the last word on farmer attitudes, nevertheless revealed some core sentiments that provide a new starting point for discussion.

It was clear, for a start, that being a food producer was a very important part of how farmers saw themselves. “Farmers don’t feel appreciated by general society,” one of them said. “People take food for granted and seem to think we’re just subsidy junkies.” Another one added, “If we could have a fair price for our produce, we wouldn’t need government handouts.” Some remembered the lesson of World War II when the UK’s dependence on food imports became a threat to national security, and farmers were called upon to join in the national effort to increase food production.

Producing food, however, appeared to mean much more than having a commodity for sale. It was about contributing to society by feeding people. It was also about supporting rural communities by generating employment for contractors, abattoirs and the like, and spending their money in local towns on market day – or at least, that’s how it used to be. They also talked about skills, taking pride in traditional craftsmanship and being ready to learn new things. And it was about keeping the land in good heart, conscious of inheriting it from previous generations and passing it on to the next.

Behind all that lay a sense that in farming, we face one of the mysteries of life: how food is conjured from the soil, in an alliance with the natural world – with all its challenges of weather, pests and diseases – to support the human race in its most basic need. Farmers are at a crucial intersection between human demand and the integrity of the biosphere on which we are absolutely dependent.

“I’d love to have one of those people from government spend a few weeks in the countryside seeing what farmers do,” one of them said, and it wasn’t with any sense of vindictiveness. He was trying to convey that farming is not reducible to its economic outputs alone, but is rather a complete way of life. Food production, nature conservation, and a beautiful countryside that sustains a thriving rural economy are part of a whole, which has great meaning and is for many farmers their life’s work.

That is perhaps the sentiment that lay behind the negative response from the farming unions to a proposal from the National Trust last summer, which suggested that public payments to farmers should be entirely linked to their stewardship of wildlife, soil and water. The problem with this way of thinking is that it breaks the fundamental unity between food production and nature. While it treats environmental benefits as a public good to be funded by the taxpayer, food production becomes a private business decision to be weighed up on the basis of its profitability alone. Whether a farmer uses their best land to raise lambs for the export market, to grow potatoes for the local town or to host holiday-makers in luxury yurts, by this logic, is entirely up to them.

Of course, good environmental practice is essential, and we depend on the biodiversity which farming can maintain, from soil bacteria to birds of prey, from wildflower meadows to oak woodlands. There is no doubt that any support for farming must make conservation an essential requirement. But it is so much more than that. To state the obvious, we cannot live without food. Attempting to separate out food production from wildlife conservation using that most powerful tool of social engineering – money – sets the champions of food production against the supporters of conservation in an entirely unhelpful battle, which neither side can or should win.

What if we moved beyond a trade-off between wildlife and food production, and looked at the whole system? What if we decided food production was too important to be left to the market and invested in growing more food in the UK, perhaps bringing it back to the 87% self-sufficiency it reached at its post-war peak?

What if public understanding of the countryside was also seen as vital? What if we recognised the role of farming in preserving some of our deepest cultural roots – here in Wales for instance keeping Welsh, one of Europe’s oldest languages, in current use along with a rich tradition of skills and customs? Indigenous livestock breeds, traditional crops such as black oats, mixed farming, the transhumance system of ‘hafod a hendre’, water-powered milling, the informal exchange of labour and community solidarity – all these are, or were, part of the life of the countryside and enabled a better relationship between food production and the biosphere. They represent a technology of survival that may not quite be ready for relegation to the museum. Even now when farming has been driven by economic and social forces into an activity that is often environmentally destructive, much wisdom remains and we need that continuity with a past that was as low-carbon as we need our future to be.

It is heartening that nature conservation organisations are increasingly taking their message beyond the easy and photogenic appeal to save butterflies, birds and wildflowers, and are talking about farming itself. The National Trust and the RSPB, for example, are both talking about the food they serve at their visitor centres, drawing attention to local produce farmed in nature-friendly ways, increasingly with the Food for Life Catering Mark accreditation. They are pressing home the message that wildlife depends on good farming practices, and on the public paying a bit more.

The creation of a healthy food system fit for future generations needs the wisdom of everyone, and is not helped by confrontation across tribal lines. We are all on the same side here. Farmers deserve a proper hearing, not because they are any more important than anyone else, but because they stand at the start of the food chain, and that gives them a perspective that others miss. As one of our interviewees said, “If we are to succeed together in the countryside we all need to understand each other better – town and country”. It has never been so important to listen to each other.

You can view the video and find out more about our Food Values project here.

Supermarkets and the fabric of society

At the Welsh Government’s recent Food for the Future conference in Llandudno, the corporate sector was well represented, and rightly so, given the proportion of our food that reaches our plates via the superhighway that is the global food industry. So also was the health sector, there to express concerns about rocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart attacks. There was much talk therefore of the relationship between the food industry and the public, and I was struck by a remark made by Tim Rycroft of the Food and Drink Federation, the industry body which represents the UK food and drink sector, with members all the way from Tregroes Waffles to Tate and Lyle.

carrots poster

‘Our values make us different’ – but how different?

Food, he said, is part of the cultural fabric of our society, and this is particularly true in Wales, where people have a particularly soft spot for food produced in the part of the world they call home. That is certainly true. It’s what connects us as families and communities: just think of Sunday lunch, picnics at the beach, allotments, cafes and the workplace canteen. And the opposite of that: TV dinners, children who don’t know where milk comes from, adults who can’t boil an egg, junk food and worst of all, no food at all. Food connects us and expresses who we are as a society, and it links us to the natural world too.

So what is the supermarkets’ response to that? Both Tim Rycroft and Nick Canning of the supermarket chain Iceland had much to say about the quality and freshness of their food, the information that they give their customers about what’s in it, and the steps that the industry is taking to move away from special offers that steer us towards buying more than we need, or making unhealthy choices. They are taking confectionery away from the tills, reducing salt content, producing low-fat ready meals and labelling their products to tell us what’s in them. Many of them are also (though they didn’t say this, because the focusof the conference was on the health of the Welsh population above all) sourcing some of their produce ethically through various certification schemes such as Fairtrade, Freedom Foods and organic.

All this is good, and there is no doubt that corporate food is aware of its social responsibilities and taking some steps in the right direction. Still, I felt there was something missing, and I think the problem lay in the rhetoric of ‘the consumer’, and the uneasy relationship between the profit motive and the aim of feeding a healthy population. When the consumer – and in the mass, a local community – is the source of a supermarket’s profits, how much more lucrative to sell them what they want, rather than what’s good for them. In the strange world of the supermarket, where the lights are bright and the choice is vast, it’s easy to do that. Those flapjacks might be clearly labelled as being 30% sugar and 20% fat, but who cares, when they look so alluring?

I think if the food industry is really to serve the society of which it is part, it needs to engage with its ‘cultural fabric’ in a more genuine way, building it up rather than mining it. We all need to stand up as citizens, not producers and consumers, and see how supermarkets can be more a part of their local communities, rather than outposts of their head offices. There are plenty of examples of good practice already: supermarkets have been sponsoring school gardens, donating surplus food to charity, linking schools with farms, promoting local produce, funding community groups to grow food in their carparks, and hosting farmers markets.

What if instead of doing these things in a piecemeal way, with an eye to PR, supermarkets really committed to the job of rebuilding local food networks, and thereby strengthening local communities, and we held them to it? Let’s stop talking about us and them, and join together to transform our food system into one that really embodies our values of care, fairness and balance with nature, not just for ourselves now, but for future generations.

Filling the streets with food

Outside the library in Machynlleth is a set of raised beds with herbs and salads growing in them, plus hazel arches which in summer bear beans and squashes. In the carpark of the nearby Coop supermarket, there are redcurrant bushes, rhubarb and more herbs. Round the back of the Plas, there are picnic tables with apple trees growing up through holes in the middle and troughs planted up with thyme and rosemary.

woman with herb planter

Katie Hastings of Edible Mach, with the herb bed outside the Coop

This is all thanks to a project called Edible Mach, which engages teams of volunteers to maintain eleven plots around the town, growing food for the public to pick and adding an unexpected twist to public spaces – flowerbeds with a difference. It’s inspired by the original Incredible Edible project in Todmorden, the Yorkshire town celebrated for its dedication to public vegetable growing, where the police station is famous for the sweetcorn in its front yard and the concept of ‘vegetable tourism’ was born.

We were there for a course on how to ‘Fill the streets with food’, which included a guided tour of the Machynlleth project and tips on how to get started. Growing vegetables in public spaces is sometimes known as ‘guerrilla gardening’ but it’s better done with the full consent of the local authorities, who see much to gain from the unlikely vegetable beds: less litter, more neighbourliness, local colour. Councils are often willing to make land available, and local businesses to sponsor materials and plants. Volunteers are of course vital to the enterprise, and in turn gain from the social interaction and sense of contribution, while paid staff are invaluable in holding a project together and looking for new opportunities.

People had come from all over mid Wales to find out more, and there were enthusiastic discussions about what we could do in our home towns: a raised bed here, an apple tree there. The big question though seemed to be: where do the volunteers come from and what keeps them going? Who are these people who are happy to give up their free time to grow food that for the most part they won’t even get to eat? Will the initial enthusiasm last?

This led on to a discussion about selfish and compassionate values, and tied in nicely with research from the Common Cause Foundation which says in essence that people are more altruistic than they are given credit for. Most of us have a strong allegiance to values such as kindness and justice, and really want other people to be happy, even if we are fickle and easily panicked into looking after Number One. However, we tend to think that it’s just us that wants to contribute to a better world, and that everyone else is driven by the profit motive. We always put money into honesty boxes, but we are pretty sure most other people don’t. And so we go along with the general assumption that other people are selfish and have to be bribed and coerced into doing the right thing, and because that is a soul-destroying way to relate to each other, we give up.

edible mach libraryInterestingly that gap between holding compassionate values ourselves, but thinking that other people don’t, is particularly marked in Wales and leads to a general pessimism about our neighbours which holds us back from positive action. If we only realized how much other people care, we might not feel so much embarrassment about asking them to contribute to community projects, and we might create a positive spiral of good actions, building higher and higher levels of trust and cohesion.

Growing vegetables in public spaces is powerful because it makes altruism visible, in exactly the same way that giant advertising hoardings promote the profit motive. Visitors to the library at Machynlleth see that their fellow citizens have gone to the trouble of creating a pleasant experience for them, providing both beauty and food, and that challenges their assumptions about selfishness. It creates trust and shows that people are valued as humans and citizens for once, not for their spending power and their achievements. It reminds us that we are all equal in our need to eat, and that providing food for each other is one of the most basic human obligations. And that is maybe why people want to help keep the vegetable beds attractive and productive.

Schoolchildren, organic artichokes and soup

March 2015

Our Food Values project has been an opportunity to look in depth at how we get organic food messages across, and to find out what really resonates with people who, unlike us, don’t talk about it all day. What do they really care about? How can organic food meet those needs, and how do we communicate that?

In February we worked with two communities, one in Cardiff’s inner city districts of Adamsdown and Splott, and one in rural Gwynedd, around Penrhyndeudraeth. As you might expect, there were some striking differences in the sort of conversations that come up in those two areas, but there were many common experiences too, and the general theme of food as a means of building or maintaining community came across as a strong concern in both of them, whether we were talking Sudanese soup recipes, lobscows or school meals.

Both events involved the local primary schools. It’s interesting how a primary school draws a community together and becomes the focus of change and of hope for the future. This is where the next generation is being formed – so what do they think?

Cardiff soup twoIn Moorland School, Splott, I visited the school’s Eco Committee who were busy making soup to be served to the public the following day. A key ingredient was organic artichokes, sourced from Riverside Market Garden in the Vale of Glamorgan, and they excited a lot of comment, particularly for being hard to peel.

The next day I interviewed a group of 10-year-olds to find out what they thought was important when choosing foods. It was clear that the children had got the message about healthy eating, as most of them put that near the top. As one said, “If you are not really healthy you grow up really weak and tired and doing nothing, you have a really bad life”. But they had other concerns too, especially for fair trade and wildlife.

As another one put it: “We can’t only think about us. We need to think about other people as well or it won’t be fair because we’ve already got all the food and enough money to live,” and she went on to express a concern for wildlife and the need to be kind to animals.soup on the table

I think it’s fair to say that organic food was not something that they knew much about. It was clear though that they knew that some foods were better for them than others, and that they cared about doing good in the world and had some idea of what difference their food choices would make. It was encouraging to hear how seriously they were discussing their food, and with a hatching project and maybe a farm visit to come, they will be well on the way to being well informed food citizens.

After school, we met again outside St German’s Church in Adamsdown and local volunteers served the soup the children had made, alongside contributions from the church itself and a nearby synagogue. It was a cold day but the children were happy to sit outside, sharing soup with their parents and other visitors and drawing pictures. Among that cosmopolitan group, which included recent and not so recent immigrants from several continents, homeless people, long-term Cardiff residents and professional groups, the primary school and their soup, with its organic artichokes, were very much at home.

Putting the glue back into society

Published on the Organic Centre Wales website in May 2015

Writing in the introduction to Feeding Britain, the all-party report on food poverty published in 2014, the Bishop of Truro made a plea for a discussion about values. As he put it, “We believe it is time to look again at the state of our country and to review the fundamental values that led to the creation of our welfare state.” He went on to describe how we have lost the glue that holds society together, that is, the informal networks of families, neighbours, community groups and so on that people can turn to in a crisis, and how we need to put it back.
soup event

Food poverty is often framed as the problem of certain unfortunate individuals, an attitude betrayed by suggestions that if only they knew how to cook from basics, they could afford to eat on a tiny budget. The Feeding Britain report suggests however that food poverty is inevitable in an economy where the minimum wage does not allow people to live with dignity and it calls for radical moves to put the situation right.

At a recent conference on food poverty in Cardiff, the lesson that emerged for me is that our entire society suffers a disconnect from food, buying much of it in prepared form, processed with sugar and salt, and never having set foot on a farm or grown so much as mustard and cress. No wonder that obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and all the rest are affecting our quality of life, while our farmers are at the mercy of the commodity markets and public subsidy.

Our Food Values project, which has been running for six months now, has been looking at some of the underlying values that determine people’s attitudes to food. We’ve supported food events with local partners in Cardiff, Newtown, rural Gwynedd and Aberystwyth (twice) and talked to people about food. What does it mean to them? How important is local food? What’s their favourite recipe? Do they grow food themselves? How do they decide what to buy? And what is organic food all about?

As we expected, food is very close to people’s hearts, and everyone has a view on it or a story to tell. It connects us to each other and to the local area, it is associated with cooking and growing skills passed down through the generations, it is precious and should not be wasted, we want the people who produce it to be fairly rewarded. These conversations brought out, through food, some of the fundamental values that we live by: those of meeting our own basic needs for security and health, looking after ourselves, caring for others, creating pleasure, finding our own way in life, caring for nature, and creating a just and peaceful world.

Which brings us back to the Bishop’s plea that we look to our values, and begin a much larger and deeper conversation about how we live together. The organic movement has a vital contribution to make here. Based as it is on principles of health, ecology, fairness and care, it has always been aware of the social context of food, and promoted a vision of a healthy soil supporting a healthy human population. In this view of things, food is not so much a commodity as a human right.

Happily, although the values by which we live have clearly resulted in an unjust society where some people are going hungry, food is also an important part of the solution. At a soup event organized by a church in Cardiff in February, a young man living in a hostel and getting by on a mixture of low pay and benefits came in off the street and accepted a bowl of (organic) soup and bread, which he wolfed down before eyeing up the fruit and vegetable display nearby. It was a sobering reminder that there are people for whom a food event is just that. We talked about why we were doing it, and he said “Yes, food is like music, isn’t it? It brings people together.”

Our project has shown some of the power of food to connect people and to start a conversation about the food system and the society we want. We will present the results at our closing conference on 3 June in Cardiff, where we will explore how a shift in values might improve food security and sustainability for the people of Wales, and also how food itself might be the means of building a more just and sustainable food system in balance with nature. We have also produced a set of publications which are available here.