I am chairing the ‘Making Local Food Work’ Conference, with some hundreds of producers coming together. I think the last big food event I did was somewhat different – when I was invited to be a judge in the prestigious Product of the Year contest for the food industry. There were entries from every major food company and the experience was pretty awful.
Britain’s food and drink industry is big business. It is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, with a turnover of £66 billion. It employs 500,000 people and buys two out of every three potato, lettuce, tomato, hop, pig and sheep leaving our farms (the other little pig goes to market overseas).
But there was no imagination – and no sense that British food comes from Britain. Each product was heralded with a breathless folder lying in front of it of promotional hype prepared by the PR team or agency: the beer with not too little and not too much alcohol. The chocolate that tastes like heaven.
You say it once and it sounds good, but repeat it, and like all PR puff, it dissolves away – probably just like the products they described. Heaven chocolate was there no doubt to compete with the successful ‘Divine’ fair trade chocolate that has plumped up the children of ethical consumers for ten years. With chocolate farmers from the Kuapa Kokoo co-operative sitting on the company board, Divine was a genuine innovation.
If there was one thing that stood out as one of the shared directions for the herd, though, it was the focus on food and drink for children; gummy chews in which sugar and artificial ingredients fuse with 25% fruit juice for a natural feel; everywhere you look, saturated fat, but lower than before… ‘junk lite’ that the marketers called the trend for ‘permissable treats’. Retailers “will not want to miss the opportunities for profit from sugar consumers” – sugar consumers… there you go, children in a marketing nutshell.
In 2002, Don Curry reported to Government in January 2002, he said that the future of farming in England lay in business models that encouraged them to be stewards of land and nature and to improve the health of people. The real innovation of his widely-welcomed report ‘Farming and Food, a sustainable future’ was that it made the link between people and the food they eat. Our changing tastes and the complexity of where food comes from breaks that link.
We used to be self-sufficient in beef. Now we eat the prime, import steak and export the low-value parts. In poultry we export the legs and extremities of chickens and import the breasts. In a globalised economy, only by reconnecting food producers and consumers is there a hope of a sustainable farming future for the next generation.
And how should we do this? In terms of diet and health, Sir Don asked farmers and the food industry to reach back to the 1950s, to learn what it takes to change the habits of a nation through a consistent campaign over time. We need, he says, a response to the issues of diet and nutrition as consistent and coherent as the decades-long road safety strategy. This is a good analogy.
Back in the 1950s, the number of children killed on the road was climbing fast as more cars came onto the road. It seemed, to some, inevitable – just as the rise of industrial food may do today. Cars were becoming cheaper, more available and people wanted them. Parents, it was said, should take more responsibility for what their children got up to.
But what made the change was a government lead, combined with industry action and individual education and support.
The School Crossing Patrol Act of 1953 gave lollipop patrols the power to help children cross the road safely. It gave us the bushy-tailed road safety character “Tufty”, created in the same year, and the “Lookout club”. Many other initiatives built on this including driving tests, the green cross code, speed restrictions, drink driving campaigns and zebra & pelican crossings.
There were 797 child fatalities on the roads in England in 1953. Today, despite many more cars on the road, the figure is 169. In other countries of Europe, who have done road safety better over recent years, it is lower still.
We are still at an early stage, compared to this, but I see the rise of local food as a leading contributor to a revolution over time in our food habits.
We want convenience yes, and we will want food to be affordable. But at times, we also want to be informed, to be involved, to be inspired.
We want food that is fresh, that is seasonal, and in tune with nature.
We want food we can trust from businesses we can trust.