December 2008 saw me being asked to talk at the press launch of a Parliamentary inquiry into food security on a panel including Professor Tim Lang (a brilliant speaker who is one of my food heroes) and the President of the NFU. “What is food security?” you may be asking… It’s the fundamental question of how and where as a country we provide our food. In an age of soaring food prices and drastic food shortages, the assumption that Britain can simply rely on the global market to meet our food needs seems distinctly complacent. The Inquiry, which is now underway, wants to hear from anyone interested in contributing and I was invited to speak in order to provide a ‘consumer’ perspective. The following text is what I said at the launch, which took place at Borough Market:
I began writing about food in 1990. Having lived in Italy and Singapore, my fascination with food was to do with food as a source of identity. .At that time food was definitely something of a backwater in terms of its media profile; in those days, one didn’t have to be a celebrity to get a cookbook published.
Then, in the UK, food became fashionable, a lifestyle accessory. Gary Rhodes, who was working as a chef long before it was fashionable, said to me that young catering students now write to him saying that they want to be a celebrity chef and he points out they need to be a chef first, to put in the hours at the stove.
The last few years, however, have seen a growing realisation that food issues are complex and problematic. People shopping for food have an array of ethical choices to make, As a food writer I can no longer simply recommend cod with a clear conscience – when one looks at what is happening to the world’s fish stocks one wonders if one should be eating fish at all. Is it better to buy organic, to support enriching our soil system, or, if one’s concerned about food miles, should one support local, non-organic farmers? What about the issue of animal welfare? Fair trade? This growing sense of the complexity of food issues is being reflected in our media. I think it’s a sign of the times that our celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are turning their attention to issues like providing decent food for school children, food deprivation and animal welfare.
With regards to this inquiry, there are two areas I would like to see looked at.
The first is markets, so it’s very appropriate to be sitting in Borough Market. Earlier this year I researched a book on British cheeses, during which I talked to over 100 cheesemakers. At the moment, farmhouse cheesemaking is enjoying something of a renaissance in Britian and we have a very vibrant scene. What came up over and over again was how important farmers’ markets were as a way of allowing the cheesemarkets access to sales. One lady up in Scotland who’d been making cheese for over 40 years said that farmers’ markets were the best thing to have happened to small cheesemakers. They do away with the need for middlemen, allow cash turnover and also, very importantly, the chance to test public reaction to new cheeses. Markets traditionally offer cheap rents. When Borough’s retail food market started, its low rents meant that farmers and producers such as Peter Gott of Sillfield Farm, Andrew Sharp or Tim Wilson of Ginger Pig could afford to bring their food down to London and have direct access to London’s consumers. Overall, however, the picture for markets is grim. All over London, from Newham in the east to High Barnet in the north, traditional down-to-earth street markets are under threat, often because of developers who want to build on their sites and these markets, who have evolved, lack protection. These aren’t fashionable markets, these are markets offering cheap, fresh ingredients to people who are shopping on a budget but want good fresh ingredients to cook for their families. I think that it should be made compulsory for local authorities to protect food markets.; all to often, local communities support their markets, are horrified to see them threatened but there simply isn’t any legal way of protecting them if the market site has fallen into the hands of someone who has no interest in retaining the market and wants to develop it for a profit. Maybe the plunging property prices will see the postponement of some of these development issues, but in the long term markets remain vulnerable. Local food-buying cooperatives are another model that allow consumers direct affordable access to locally-produced food.
The second area that I as a food writer think is very important is the issue of food knowledge and food waste. When I started writing about food eighteen years ago I had no idea that cookery was going to become a vanishing skill. With the rise of microwaves and ready-meals many people simply don’t know how to cook any more. So we have the schizophrenic situation where our TV schedule is filled with cookery programmes and chefs, yet people are losing basic cookery knowledge that would enable them to eat cheaply and healthily. When I met other mums in my son’s primary school playground and they discovered that I was a food writer they would often ask “Do you cook every day?” and when I said yes many of them were absolutely amazed.
It’s been estimated that in households in the UK throw away an astonishing 6.7 tonnes of food waste – about a third of what we buy with half of this being edible. Many people simply buying too much food, too much perishable food, more food than they can eat. By teaching people to plan their meals for a week, draw up a shopping list that they follow instead of succumbing to impulse buys, we could do a lot to cut down on food waste – this would have benefits for the environment in terms of cutting down on landfill and carbon emissions.
Anyone who does the food shopping here will know that price of food have soared within the last year. Perhaps a positive side of this will be that we learn to value food more, to respect it We have become so used to having a huge range of choice; When I grew up different times of the year brought their pleasures with them – such as peaches in summer. They were there briefly to be enjoyed, then we went without until the next year. In supermarkets, seasonal produce is simply offered alongside all the other non-seasonal produce. In these recessionary times it makes good sense for us to relearn the thriftiness that previous generations took for granted.