Organic farming: values that won’t go out of fashion

Organic sales from Welsh farms are up, according to the Organic Centre Wales 2016 producer survey report published last month, even though the area of land certified as organic has fallen. This piece of good news reflects a 7% increase in UK retail market sales of organic food in 2016, according to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report, which puts growth down to continuing enthusiasm for healthy lifestyles, ‘free from’ eating and knowing where food comes from.

But are consumer trends really a sound basis for a food production system that is all about the long-term care of soil and nature? Given the interdependence of food producers and the people they feed, it is vital to bring the two into the closest possible shared understanding of what it is all about. That means looking at our values, which was the topic of the Food Values project that we ran at Organic Centre Wales in 2015 in partnership with geographer Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, now at Bangor University.

Part of our role at OCW was to build the organic market, working in partnership with farmers and businesses to develop and share messages which went out on leaflets, on social media, and even the backs of Cardiff buses. We put a lot of thought into this, working out what people were looking for, and how to give them reliable information that would help them choose. One thing we knew was that food scares like mad cow disease or the horsemeat scandal are good for organic sales, and we tended to take that as a starting point, even if it did feel opportunistic.

People obviously don’t like the idea that their food might be contaminated, and even without a major scandal like BSE, there is the ever-present problem of pesticides. The obvious tactic is to say that “organic food is free of pesticides” – except that it’s not true. Pesticide residues are everywhere on the planet by now, and more to the point, organic producers do use a few pesticides under certain conditions, just not very much.

This introduces an unwelcome shade of grey into the message. But it gets worse. Saying that organic food is relatively free from pesticide residues carries the implicit message that non-organic food might poison you, and quite apart from the negative advertising which so irritates conventional farmers, research from social psychology suggests that playing on people’s fear in this way might in the long term actually be detrimental to sales.

The thinking, summarized by Common Cause, an organization whose aim is to strengthen compassionate values in society, goes like this. We all hold a mixture of values, ranging from what might be described as the self-centred ones of security, status, wealth and power, to the altruistic ones of social justice, unity with nature and equality. However, we are social creatures who change our allegiances constantly according to what we are talking about or where we are, seesawing between these two tendencies with little awareness of how easily we change our minds.

Primed to think about our health, for instance, we temporarily forget about social justice and the environment. Telling people that organic food is safe, therefore, while it may help sales in the short term, also makes us that bit more selfish. We start to turn organic food into a mere consumer item, and a luxury one at that. This is not what the organic movement was supposed to be about. Lady Eve Balfour, when she wrote The Living Soil in the 1940s, was talking about a healthy society, based on healthy crops and livestock, reared from healthy soil. She was not thinking of a niche product for ABC1s living in the southeast.

The key shift might be to stop talking about consumers, and start seeing the public as citizens who want to make the right choices for future generations, because actually that is what makes us happier in the end. This is the argument behind the New Citizenship Project’s recent report on Food Citizenship. If we talk to people as if they cared about the animal welfare, the environment and the health of humanity in general, then they will tend to respond in kind, welcoming the opportunity to step out of their passive role and make a real contribution.

Instead of customers they will then become participants and even partners in the organic movement, as Community Supported Agriculture schemes have long demonstrated. This is an opportunity for the organic sector to shake off the elitist image it has acquired in the UK and to position itself as part of a progressive alliance for social change. Sustainable food production is a natural companion for global justice, equality and human rights, and the shared values behind these campaigns means that they reinforce each other’s messages.

How to talk about organic food

As a step in that direction, we produced a guide in 2015 called Communicating organic food values, a guide for producers, which is available on the OCW website. It explores the values that producers hold – for instance, benevolence, self-direction, achievement, security, tradition, recipra ploughed field on an organic farmocity, pleasure and broad-mindedness – and asks what these mean in the context of their work. Our message was that producers should sift out for themselves which are most important to them. They should then speak out confidently for what they believe in, facing honestly the tension between the idealism that has driven the organic movement and the need for businesses to make a profit.

Organic producers need not be at the mercy of food fashions powered by consumer anxiety, and maybe they shouldn’t exploit them either. They can instead help to shape the food system by engaging with their customers as fellow citizens, making it clear what they stand for: a farming system that builds the soil rather than depleting it, that coexists with nature, that provides meaningful work and is the basis for a fair and healthy society.

The OCW survey, which was commissioned by the Organic Research Centre, found strong interest from farmers in converting to organic production. With dwindling government support for organic farmers via the Glastir Organic scheme, and with no staff at OCW, the organic sector in Wales might appear to be at a low ebb. But the values that it stands for will not go out of fashion and that’s something that farmers, growers and the public can all get behind, organic or not.

Picture: organic farm on Anglesey by Rosie Boden

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Joining the dots of the Welsh food system

This article originally appeared on the Food Ethics Council website

Food in Wales means many things. For some it is sheep on the mountains, shellfish in Cardigan Bay and black and white cows in the ‘milk fields’ of the southwest and the northeast. For others, it is free school breakfasts, a childhood obesity rate that is the highest in the UK with over 28% overweight or obese in the most deprived areas, and a population that doesn’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. Then again, it is an industry with an annual turnover of nearly £17 billion that employs a quarter of a million people, a money-earner that can never be outsourced. Or it is the growing number of food banks – 157 last year – which co-exists with the 300,000 tonnes of food waste thrown out by Welsh households in 2015, below average for the UK.

It is prestigious food festivals and high-end restaurants, and it is parents who don’t know how to cook a meal from scratch and children who have never seen a cow. It is back gardens, allotments and community gardens where many of us grow at least a few veg, and it is Welsh cakes and cawl, the remnants of our peasant food culture. And it is our connection with the natural world: the winter stubble and hedgerows that shelter nesting birds, the bees that pollinate our orchards, the grassland that puts carbon in the soil and keeps the climate cool.

When food is so much part of our lives, and has so many apparently unrelated aspects, how do we join the dots and make it work on all fronts – health, the economy, the environment, social justice, farming, climate and culture? It is an absolute necessity for our survival that we all work together on this, but so often the pressures of rapid change set one interest group against the other and the system fragments. Economic expansion may have an unacceptable environmental cost, affordable food means low pay for those who produce it, nutritionists don’t talk to farmers (much) and food education struggles for a place in an overcrowded school curriculum.

And it’s not just at the policy level that we are divided. As a society, we are increasingly isolated from each other, as the technologies that are supposed to connect us actually draw us apart: the car that means we can live far away from our jobs and families, the internet that gives us enough company not to bother with our neighbours down the road, the smartphones around the dinner table – and in many homes, no dinner table at all. Loneliness is epidemic, and in a culture where the economy is all-important, those who are not in good jobs – the young, the old, the underpaid, the sick, their carers – get left behind.

What’s needed is a national conversation, ideally over a meal, that emblem of togetherness. We need to step out of our professional and economic roles for a while and connect as human beings. We also need to move beyond the comfort of our own kind and seek out those who see things differently, not just because there are joyful discoveries to be made, but also because sometimes the very discomfort of such encounters wakes us up to new possibilities. That is the buzz that happens when a farmer goes into a school classroom, for instance, or a supermarket manager delivers surplus food to a Christmas dinner for homeless people, or a primary school teacher learns some gardening from a grandparent.

Rather than seeing the complexity and rival agendas of the food system as a problem, we could see them as a sign of unrealized potential. What new connections could we make? And what fresh enthusiasm might be released if we thought we could really make a difference and that it was worth trying? The more intractable a problem may appear, the greater the benefits that might result. Now is the time for creative thinking, for imagination, for play. Feeding the world is a job for the arts as much as the sciences.

This is the premise of a proposed new Food Network Wales. So far it is simply an idea and an invitation, linked to a Food Manifesto Wales that has been ticking over for a few years, gathering blog posts and followers. It aims to be a space where conversations can happen and new ideas emerge, as well as a conventional network that will make some new connections in the food system. It has only just begun and will only grow if it meets a need and attracts support; it is an act of faith. It does however have strong underpinning values, and it builds on some encouraging developments in Wales and beyond.

One of these is human rights, including the right to food enshrined in international law and placing obligations on government and business. Another is the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015 which requires public bodies to work with business and civil society on matters which affect the general population, and to extend this concern to generations yet to come. Our commitment is therefore to a food system which is fair, provides good food to all, enriches our lives, supports human connection and coexists with a thriving natural world. Just as importantly, when compromises inevitably have to be made, these should be on the basis of respect and dialogue. Sensitive issues should not be settled by a contest to see who can shout the loudest or buy the most advertising space.

Running alongside this, we need a step change in the way we think of ourselves, leaving behind the passive role of the consumer and the employee and claiming our agency as citizens, as the New Citizenship Project’s Food Citizenship report argues. It is not enough to excuse ourselves on the grounds of the power wielded by governments or multinational corporations, or the limitations of our job remits, or the unfairness of the ‘system’. We can all do something, however small, and that counts.  Citizens are to be found everywhere: in government, in community groups, in business. It is time we identified ourselves as such.

Could you be part of the new Network? Read more about it and complete our survey.

The power of food businesses to do good

One dark, damp evening just before Christmas, my partner and I turned up at a local supermarket. The Fresh Produce Manager, who was expecting us, proudly handed over thirteen crates of assorted produce and helped us stack them in our campervan. There were carrots, satsumas, potatoes, grapes, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, little pots of fresh herbs, lettuces, a melon or two and a LOT of beetroot. All appeared to be in perfect condition, but there was one thing wrong.  They had passed their Best Before date and would be thrown out unless we could use them quickly.

The next day we dropped the food off at various charities around town. Several crates, including the sprouts and satsumas, would find their way into a church Christmas dinner, and a hostel for homeless people took much of the rest. It was satisfying to think of the herbs going into stuffing, of the fruit sitting in a bowl to grace the hostel table, of the solid nutrition for people who perhaps didn’t always eat so well, and even of the cash that hard-pushed charities could save on their bills.

We were working a shift for a surplus food distribution group that sprang up recently in response to public outcry about food waste. According to FAO figures, roughly one third of all food grown is lost or wasted at some point between the farmer’s field and our stomachs. It is built into the way food is handled, from the outgrading of misshapen fruit and the Buy One Get One Free offers that encourage customers to buy more than they need, to the public expectation that shops will always be stocked with everything and the fact that for most of us food is cheap enough to waste.

Surplus food waste redistribution takes many forms. There are dedicated organizations such as FareShare, community fridges both literal and virtual, apps and surplus food cafes. Where I live, a group of volunteers pick up produce from two supermarkets which they pass on to a handful of charities. Once a month or so they use it for a community meal, bringing people together and raising money for local causes like the community garden.

There is no doubt that the exchange meets a need on both sides. Supermarkets hate the bad press that results from sending perfectly good food to landfill while demand for food banks is rising, and for charities and community groups it’s a nearly-free resource that can save money, generate goodwill and bring people together. But it’s worth a look at what going on under the surface.

THE SHIFT FROM CONSUMER TO CITIZEN

Talking to shop staff it’s clear how much they enjoy the chance to do something useful. After all, it’s their local community too. For every supermarket worker who sticks to their job description and accepts the routine waste of good food, another is thrilled to do a bit extra. As we accepted our random abundance of food from the supermarket worker that December evening, our shared good deed felt like a triumph of common sense over the system, and we celebrated.

What if that spirit of common humanity was allowed to direct our food system? The story of profits and shareholders is not the only one. It’s a noble calling to feed people, as food businesses do, and we are missing something if we assume that making money is what they are ‘really’ about.  As Henry Ford said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business”.  We need to tell a bigger story.

In our local communities we know the power of relationship and generosity. We sense that it’s a stronger story in the end than the one about money. And that spirit lives just as strongly in the people who work in the food industry. Now is the time to name it, so that we unleash the power of business to do good: for our health, for our farming systems, for our communities.

It’s the shift from the consumer to the citizen. One is passive, the other is able and ready to help shape the world in which they live. In the UK the New Citizenship Project has been asking: Could a small shift in thinking – from Consumer to Citizen – make a big difference in our food system? Let’s see what we come up with.

 

It’s our food system which is in poverty, not individuals

According to research at Bangor University, the number of food banks in Wales increased from 16 in 1998 to 157 in July 2015, apparently as a result of welfare reform and austerity policies. For a generation accustomed to the notion that starvation is something that happens in places like Africa, it is hard to believe that people in this country are going to bed hungry, so perhaps it is not surprising that food poverty generates an emotional response and a refusal to believe it even exists.

Emergency food supplies (photo: Trussell Trust)

Emergency food supplies (photo: Trussell Trust)

At an event I attended a while back, one woman spoke out forcefully. “People who go on about food poverty these days don’t know what they’re talking about! Real poverty was back in the 1930s, when people were really destitute. They never threw anything away then and they really knew how to cook with leftovers. Nowadays we just waste food. I’ve delivered food parcels to so-called poor people and I’ve seen their houses – they’ve got televisions and they eat takeaways. They just need to learn to cook from basics and there wouldn’t be a problem.”

There was an uneasy silence around the room. Her dismissive attitude was painful to those of us who have heard some of the stories of poverty in modern Britain, as the all-party report Feeding Britain made clear. We didn’t want to leave her assertion unchallenged, but how to respond respectfully? We didn’t find a way at the time, and we moved rather swiftly on, but I think her point deserves proper consideration.

I think she was speaking up for values and skills which have been lost. In the 1930s – or perhaps in her idealized version of it, it doesn’t matter – Britain was still a relatively traditional society with a much closer link to food production than we have today. Food took up a high proportion of people’s income, and so you didn’t waste it. You kept the bones from your chicken (which you hardly ever bought anyway, because it was so expensive) and made soup. You bought actual potatoes and boiled them, and fried them the next day.

I think she was speaking up for thrift and resourcefulness, for a world in which food is valued and shared, keeping families and communities together, and she was regretting the rise of consumerism and the fragmentation of our society that has accompanied it: the TV dinner, the ready meal, the over-packaged buy-one-get-one-free baubles that we are sold instead of nourishment.

Who could disagree with that? There is of course something wrong when people choose consumer goods over nourishing food, in the obvious sense that good nutrition will make you happier for longer than a flatscreen TV will.  And basic cookery skills could help many to improve their diets. The trouble with her remark I think was not that she was wrong in her starting point, but that she didn’t take her argument nearly far enough. She was content to pass the blame on to the nearest convenient suspect and leave it there.

Instead of shouting her down, maybe we could have honoured the values that she was speaking up for and explored them further. We could have agreed that we waste too much food nowadays, with an estimated 30-50% of all the food that is grown being thrown away – whether left in the fields, or discarded by the supermarket, or left in the backs of our fridges to go off. We could have agreed that growing your food and cooking from scratch is a great way to eat healthily and lamented that so many people have not had these experiences and have only ever known processed food.

We might also have agreed that as a society we have become ensnared in consumerism. We are likely to find our sense of belonging not in sitting round the table sharing a meal, but in having a smartphone like our friends, or the right trainers, or the right car. We have let the advertisers tell us that we need a steady supply of shiny new gadgets to make us happy, and to sell us food in the basis of its attractiveness, convenience and addictiveness, not its nutritional quality.

We could have agreed that food is in fact essential to life, and that it deserves a higher priority. We might have found more examples of this: the rushed lunch hour in schools and offices, the children who don’t know that milk comes from a cow, the scandals of horsemeat and BSE, the pesticide scares, childhood obesity, the high levels of sugar and salt in processed food, the bankrupting of dairy farmers and the fate of the battery chicken.

There wasn’t time to explore all this in the meeting but I think if we had, we would have seen that our whole society is out of alignment. We have put economic growth, status and immediate gratification ahead of feeding ourselves properly, and it is inevitably the poorest who are going to be affected most, simply because they always are. Maybe they don’t have cooking facilities at home, maybe they can’t buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the local shops, maybe they’re disabled or very old, or maybe they have such pressures on them that healthy eating, however important, falls down the list.

And then we would have got to the nub of the matter: singling out the poorest in our society for criticism of their eating habits not only misses the point but unfairly adds insult to injury, blaming the weakest and letting ourselves off the hook. Ensuring that everyone has enough to eat is one of the most basic civic duties there is, and it falls to each of us to ask ourselves what we can do to create a healthier society, where everyone has a place at the table, and food is grown in a way that doesn’t deplete our soils and warm up our climate.

I think now my answer would be: “You have raised a very important point, although I see it differently from you. There is indeed something wrong when people rely on emergency food aid. It shouldn’t happen in a rich country such as ours. And I also think that in many ways we had a better attitude to food in the 1930s, and that we have lost a lot of skills and values, and that has caused problems.

“But I don’t think people who use food banks are any different from the rest of us – most of us could do with better housekeeping and eating more healthily. Rather than blaming individuals, let’s look at the wider context and get to the roots of the problem.”

Food poverty means the poverty of our food system and we are all part of that. Are we ready to see ourselves as citizens and step up to our responsibilities?

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.

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‘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.