This 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.
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.