Event connects city eaters with food issues

Some farmers are moving away from organic to unaudited ‘regenerative’ systems while sustainable food choices are still price exclusive, say chefs, growers and suppliers talking to Londoners on food choices and the environment.

LogoThis article is part of a new series by Wicked Leeks, Sustainable Cities, exploring what sustainable food means to those living in the city.

Organic is still the highest guarantee of sustainable farming and animal welfare although there is growing interest in regenerative farming and what it offers.

That was one of the topics debated at a talk on food choices and the environment, where experts also discussed value of local supply chains and who can afford sustainable food.

Chaired by George Lamb, founder of sustainable grain brand Wildfarmed, speakers included zero waste chef and founder of Silo Restaurant, Douglas McMaster, founder of organic bone broth company Borough Broth Co, Ros Heathcote, and co-founder of SSAW Collective, Lulu Cox, hosted by east London social enterprise Benk & Bo.

Heathcote, who focuses on flavour, nutrition and paying farmers fairly, said her biggest challenge is finding enough suppliers of organic bones for her broth business.

“The Soil Association’s organic label is pretty much the highest qualification you can get,” she said, but added: “A lot of farmers I work with are wanting to move away from organic because it’s too expensive, and farmers can look after their animals and land without being organic.

“As a business, I’m at an ethical crossroads. I don’t want to compromise, [but the other option] is to audit all my own farms,” she said.

“As a consumer, organic means a lot to me, and as a producer that audit means a lot. If they wanted to give antibiotics to their animals, or put them in a pen for a week weeks, they could do that. With organic, they couldn’t do that. For animal welfare, having these audits is really worth it.”

McMaster, who recently relocated Silo (known as the restaurant with no bin) from Brighton to Hackney, said he sees the word ‘regenerative’ as a useful way to reimagine our relationship with earth’s resources.

“For me it’s just such an obvious word. We’re living beings on a living planet. We have finite resources, and at the moment we’re just taking from the planet without giving anything back,” he said.

Regenerative farming is an unofficial term to describe those who focus on soil health and fertility, and use less, though crucially not zero, chemical fertilisers and herbicides.

It began as a grassroots movement in the US that has inspired small-scale and non organic family farms in the UK to reduce their reliance on feed and fertiliser, improving the quality of their grass and creating a more self-sufficient rotation of crops and animals. It has also faced criticism as bigger multinationals take advantage of the fact it is not an audited, official term, to greenwash their marketing.

As Heathcote put it: “It is still a very vague term. People will profit from it.”

McMaster agreed that “as soon as people with lesser intentions get hold of the term, it will go out of the window”, but also pointed to the need to ‘see the wood for the trees’ in terms of the bigger picture of a broken food system and climate crisis, and what needs to happen to solve those.

Borough Market
Londoners are faced with multiple food choices and it can be difficult to pick based on environmental impact. 

Elsewhere, the discussion focused on who is financially able to buy good food, produced in harmony with nature and with a fair price to farmers, and whether the pandemic helped people feel closer to nature.

“We’re here and very privileged and can spend a certain amount on our food. Other people were in a one-bed flat, off work and just wanting to buy what’s cheapest,” said Heathcote, addressing the room full of primarily young people.

Lamb pointed out the limitations to organic food as primarily accessibly only to those on higher incomes. “How can we move it out to the masses and stop it being surrounded by the privileged, so the average person can go out and have good food at an accessible price?” he asked, adding that conversations to get sustainable products into mainstream retailers are still ‘price driven’.

Cox, who has spent the last few years researching regenerative food systems, said: “The only thing that goes round in my head [as the answer] is local supply chains. Because local economies, I feel like there’s so much to be said for that. I’m quite anti globalisation.”

While all panelists worked with suppliers and farmers they know and could trust in relatively short supply chains, Heathcote noted that purely buying local isn’t always the most sustainable. “Something like tomatoes can be grown in the south of England but use a lot of energy to heat the glasshouses,” she said.

9 Comments

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  1. Interesting article. I started buying an organic veg box in September 2021. It was more expensive than going to my local supermarket or the big boys. So, I decided to do a comparison month by month on how much money I was spending on food and drink.

    I stared 3 months prior to my veg box delivery. The results are quite eye opening. Since receiving my veg box delivery, I have on average saved between £100-200 per month. Yes a surprising result. As I pay more for my well cared for and chemical free produce,

    I have found I respect the produce more than I did when buying enormous bags of vegetables on ‘special offer’ therefore refuse to waste anything

    . I get my fruit, veg, dairy and some meat from my supplier, therefore I have reduced very much my visits to the supermarket. On average once a month instead of once a week. I do not impulse buy, therefore I don’t waste food like I did do

    . Supermarkets rely on impulse buying, mountains of Easter eggs, new products etc. to tempt you, and it works, I’m as vulnerable as the next person.

    So, In my experience, buying organic has helped me, respect where my food comes from much more, and, saves me money.

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    1. I totally agree!! I am a pensioner with only the basic bottom-line pension coming in so I keep wondering what I might be doing wrong as – I have an organic veg box, not every week but most weeks and I don’t seem to suffer. It seems that my finances cover this. I have loved not going to the supermarket! I am have no attraction to ‘buy one get one free’ rubbish or ‘Reduced’ yellow sticker stuff that I really don’t need. I admit, I struggle for entertainment sometimes in that a trip to the supermarket is exciting (sad? maybe) and I do have moments of craving sugary or processed rubbish but I’m very aware that the withdrawal symptoms will pass. When I was working (as an NHS Health Trainer) I used to say to folk that, rather than read the label, if it’s got a label, put it back. You’ll be healthier in the long run and – there’s another plus. That’s how we move away from the corporations winning.

      I LOVE Riverford!! I love the letter too, especially when it’s political. And this week – the slurry? Yaaaaay!! More muck-spreading!! Let’s all love it!! And I’m going to start doing a survey on how I spend my money. I’m pretty sure the Riverford/organic way helps me make savings!!

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    2. Great to hear your experience Jude – less food waste, less food miles, and a healthier diet to boot. Interesting how so many can be put off by the perception that eating organic is more expensive, but it is that whole shift in how you buy, cook from scratch more, and eat seasonally that helps reduce what you spend rather than increase it.

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    3. This is so interesting Jude – do you think seasonal and veg box eating has made you more resourceful?

      I live in the city, and I’m out and about a lot – so I do end up wasting a few things at the end of my box – which i feel guilty about. How do you go about ensuring that you use everything – do you have a bit of a system in place?

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    4. Hi Jack, I have made the most remarkable soups, I had a bit of a glut in potatoes and leeks last week = leek and potato soup, yum, enough for two portions each for myself and my husband., any leftover veg will make soup, its nutritious easy to cook and freezes well. I’m looking for recipes for Fennel soup as I’m just about to make one. I’ll probably pop a potato, leek and onion in with it too.

      Worth looking at Riverford recipes for inspiration. Good luck. Jude.

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    5. Reading Jude’s comment was as if it were me! I haven’t done a comparison but I am only paying for what we actually eat and it’s great and I waste nothing. I even take any veg peelings that I do have to the free range chickens where I buy my eggs. Made a lovely soup this week with onion, leeks, parsnips, a leftover courgette and a bit of kale, delicious and I adore my roasted beetroot!
      Joining Riverford is one of the best things I’ve ever done and I love Guy’s letters and the Wicked Leeks articles
      Thank you all

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  2. Do share the results of your own survey Di – and so love you saying ‘rather than read the label, if it’s got a label, put it back. You’ll be healthier in the long run’. Brilliant.

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  3. Thank you al very much for your very interesting replies. I was stunned by the response. I do believe that since I have joined Riverford it has changed the way I do things.

    I have always been health conscious and I must admit I’m a serious ‘Foodie’. Like Di, I too have retired from NHS, and have spent a lot of my career giving advice about nutrition and wellbeing.

    Joining Riverford has taken that up a notch and I feel as if I have joined , not only a vegetable supplier but a family. Love Wicked Leeks, the content is so interesting. I don’t understand the politics behind farming but you all have my unwavering support for what you do, and, what you are planning to do. .

    Jack, if you are going to start making soup, I would advise investing in a stick blender. The Fennel soup is delicious, another one for my recipe book.

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    1. Hi Jude, thanks for your response – think I might have to dust off my food processor – not quite as handy as a stick blender but better than nothing.

      So glad you’re enjoying the articles Jude – on the politics – we’re always really happy to answer questions in the comments and every month we answer a reader’s question in full. The next edition is coming soon:

      https://wickedleeks.riverford.co.uk/search/content?keys=your+questions

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