A stone throw from King’s Cross station, the Impact Hub recently hosted the first of a series of #FoodTalks, designed to stimulate debate and constructive thinking about the issues that surround the world of food. The idea came from Charles Redfern (Organico) and Jamie Grainger (Think.Eat.Drink) – who joined forces with the Food Ethics Council and Impact Hub Kings Cross for this series.
Around 50 people came to our first event to learn, join in the discussion and enjoy delicious sustainably sourced food. To kick-start this series, Professor Tim Benton (University of Leeds and UK Champion for Global Food Security) and Aniol Esteban (Head of Environmental Economics from the New Economics Foundation) helped unravel some of the key issues surrounding sustainable food.
But what is sustainable food? Is it possible that the term is used too broadly, that its definition is becoming too loose? According to our speakers, whichever definition we settle on, it should as a minimum include intergenerational equity, respect for livelihoods, and preservation of ecosystem services.
What is wrong with our food system?
Our current food system faces a huge range of challenges. However, the discussion boiled down very quickly to the fact that “our food system is part of an economic system that is not fit for purpose.” This in itself begs questions. What would a system fit for purpose look like? And whose responsibility is it to shift the economic environment and trigger transformative change across the food system?
There is a growing movement promoting alternative food systems and social enterprise, citizens clearly wanting to see social change. Many people are hungry for a new narrative around food and a change in power structures. However, action to date has been constrained, not least because government policy tends to be disjointed and because existing incumbents aren’t seeing incentives to change. In the search for solutions, the prevailing assumption is often that the current landscape of industrial agriculture and major supermarkets is here to stay.
However, we heard that we should challenge that assumption – and recognise that a radically different system is possible and perhaps not so far away as we might think.
What needs to happen?
Whether change should happen from the top-down or bottom-up is open for debate. Many argue that for change on any significant scale, it will need major disruptive events. Ideally, as any new social movement begins to grow, it prepares its leaders to take action when such an event arises.
This, we heard from Tim Benton, is what happened with the tobacco industry. For decades, a large movement sought to ban cigarettes based on health concerns. However, it wasn’t until the King’s Cross fire of 1987, believed to have been started by a lit match, that government took action to ban smoking in all London Underground stations.
What should we tackle?
Of the many issues surrounding food, two raised during the panel discussion felt particularly important.
“Demand cannot be infinite on a finite planet.” In the Western world, many of us eat more food calories than are necessary, and more often than not, these are considered “empty” nutritionally. Moderating our food demands as individuals and as societies would take some pressure off land to produce more food, and allow opportunity for less intensive farming practices.
Tackling waste would also optimise the amount of food we are already producing. In the EU, about 40% of waste is found at farm level, often due to over-contracting by supermarkets and produce “not fit for sale” (for example because it doesn’t meet cosmetic standards), 40% from home waste, and a final 20% from food processing.
What can we do?
With so many ethical questions to consider in our roles as citizen and consumers, how does one choose how to eat sustainably? There is no simple answer. However, key elements include buying more fresh, seasonal ingredients from sustainable sources; changing to lower impact diets and wasting less of the food we buy. As well as showing our support for a more sustainable food system through what we eat, it also ensures we don’t forget our culinary skills in the process!
Finally, we discussed how to shift government policies on sustainable food. The answer could be to become individual Champions for Food Security. We can shout about our interest in sustainable food systems by attending Food Talks like this; by asking our local prospective parliamentary candidates when they come knocking on our doors; by discussing the issues with friends and family – or even just by reading this! You too can support this cause and inspire others to do the same.
Forks at the ready for a food revolution! See you at the next Food Talk…