healthy food

OCH: Food

Robin McAlpine – 23 June 2022

Week six of the OCH (Our Common Home Plan) campaign takes us to food. I write this with some apprehension – there was probably no more difficult or contentious section of the Plan to write. I’ve come to realise just how passionately people feel about food and how we produce it. Getting consensus is not easy.

Why? Well food policy has to deal with a complex interchange of culture, biology, commerce and rurality among other things. Everyone holds strong views. Vegans see a lot of the solution as being to end animal-based foods whereas the traditional farming community see themselves as stewards of rural Scotland who feel under pressure from people who don’t understand their community.

Small producers generally favour balanced, more labour-intensive farming. Agroecologists can accommodate themselves to large farming if it is done right. Emerging food industries celebrate the possibilities of new technology which others find threatening. There are areas of agreement but also areas of substantial disagreement.

No-one is wrong here – all of these different approaches will play important roles in moving us to a better food system. But the degree of passion held by those who advocate different approaches can make it tricky to come up with a coherent masterplan for doing it.

So it helps to think about the environmental impact of food to act as a guide. It also makes no sense to think about this without thinking about the other importances of food, not least on health and the role of food in poverty.

The first environmental impact is the most immediate; how we grow food in Scotland and what impact that is having. There is no way around this – we use too much pesticide, too much weedkiller and too much inefficiently-applied fertiliser. We plough and thus disturb soil on an industrial scale and we prioritise large mono-crops with little in between.

This has to change. Soil erosion and degradation, failure to hold water in soil, loss of the biodiversity essential to long-term food production, pollutant run-off (especially fertiliser) which is choking up rivers, excessive depositing of poisons in our land – we have to tackle this.

The second issue we need to think about is food supply chains. In our (mistaken) pursuit of ever cheaper and cheaper food we have stretched supply chains to inordinate lengths. This has the obvious impact of belching carbon dioxide during transport, but it also involves a range of practices to boost food longevity – preservative chemicals, massive use of plastics, industrial processing.

These all have environmental impacts but they very much have human impacts too, particularly on health. The linkages between obesity and highly-processed food are very well known.

The third issue is one from which we tend to avert our eyes – the expectations of the modern shopper. We have come to expect to be able to buy whatever we want, whenever we want it, forever. This is the ‘avocado on toast in January’ expectation. It has two implications.

The most obvious is back to the length of the supply chain with large amount of carbon emissions during transport. But if we’re being truly moral about our responsibility to the world, we also inherit the responsibility for how all that imported food is grown. If our avocado habit is draining the water table that sustains land in Latin America, the only honest way to look at that damage is to see it as our damage.

So what does all this mean? Again, while we can argue about the details or the balance of each option, the ‘menu’ of actions is fairly clear. We need to move to a system of agroecology domestically. This means growing food efficiently but doing it in a way that works with nature.

There is far too much to write about this here but there are some key points. We definitely need to intersperse our arable and pasture land with many more patches of woodland, hedgerows and plantations of shrubs and wild flowers. These don’t need to take up massive amounts of space but they provide not just habitats but staging-posts for wildlife.

We need to return to older growing knowledge, making better use of crop rotation and mixed planting. We should be trying to disturb the soil as little as possible and grow as much as possible without ploughing. We need to use more natural forms of fertiliser including planting ‘green manure’. New technologies can do much to reduce the need for pesticides.

But we do also need to change our diets, in a number of ways. We need to eat much less highly-processed food for health reasons but also for environmental ones. We have to accept that we will eat less meat in the future – but when we do we should prioritise better meat. And we desperately need to learn how to cook again and how not to waste the 30 per cent of food that we throw out uneaten. That also means changing shopping patterns.

If you read much about the global approach to reducing the environmental impact of food production you will have noted quite a strong backlash to the idea of ‘small, localised craft production’. It isn’t seen as a realistic for the world’s megacities. But Scotland doesn’t have megacities but does have lots of land. Small and local works when you have our low population density.

So we need to see a boom in local processing – bakers, butchers and small, quality food processing businesses of all kinds. This reduces our reliance on long supply chains.

All of that is perfectly doable. The two big barriers are culture (‘we’ve always done it like this…’) and the assumption of the dominance of markets over food. As the recent, desperately under-powered Good Food Nation legislation shows, governments just do not seem to think they have responsibility for food systems. They outsource it to supermarkets and that isn’t good enough.

But this still leaves the big, difficult question about our expectations of our food system. Growing up a cry which was never heard around our house was ‘oh no, we’re out of lemongrass’. Our food culture is much richer for the more varied foodstuffs we have access to, but it has made us complacent about the implications.

I will own up that it is here that I incline to get radical – and since the publication of the Common Home Plan it has been really reassuring to see through initiatives like the Climate Assemblies that the public is seriously willing to look at radical solutions. We need, straightforwardly, to import less food and produce more food for ourselves – import substitution.

This has great economic and health impacts but it brings us back to our ‘avocados in January’ problem. It is virtually impossible to source only ethically-grown foods in world food markets so either we turn a blind eye to the harm our food consumption does, we accept reduced availability and choice in our food system – or we use new technologies.

Some of these currently seem like the realm of science fiction – 3D printed meat, new foodstuffs produced through advanced fermentation, insect farming and so on. These all have a role to play. But the technology which may be most important in Scotland isn’t complicated at all – growing under artificial light.

If we start ‘vertical farming’ we can (in theory at least) grow anything at all at any time of year. Crop yields are many multiples of growing the same foods outside and because it’s a closed system there is no need for pesticides or weedkillers. There is no reason Scotland should not have aircraft hanger-sized orchards indoors growing avocados, peaches, cherries, whatever we want, all year round.

This has been a fast whizz round a complex subject, but all of this requires one final honesty about what this means. We have to accept that we pay too little for food. The food we eat now is sold at such crazily low margins that the quality of the food is often very heavily compromised, and that brings environmental damage with it.

In most parts of the Common Home Plan the results will save you a lot of money – on heating and electricity, by getting access to a circular economy, by reducing waste. But we have to spend more on food if we want a good food system. It doesn’t have to be ruinous – we calculated that we could grow a quarter of all our calories indoors using current technologies for only about £1.75 per person per day.

But at some point we have to ask ourselves how it is that we can buy a loaf of bread for pennies – and why it is that loaf never seems to go stale. It tells us about what we’ve done to our bodies, our planet and our traditional food industries by buying this item which is barely bread at all.

The upside to all of this is that a better food system is not only essential for our environment, it does four other things as well. First, it creates significant economic opportunities for domestic food production. Second, it gives us a chance to rethink our food culture (we need to learn to cook again). Third, it greatly improves our health.

But it is the fourth factor that we need to shout about a lot more – it tastes so, so much better. So it may still be a little tricky to put all of this together into a single, consensual plan just now. But it doesn’t need to be – and the destination we are working towards is one that will improve all of our lives.

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