Food, Family and Fun

Last night I watched “How to live to a hundred” on the television. The argument put forth is that a traditionally based lifestyle helps keep people happy and healthy, that Food + Family + Fun [community] = Happiness. Whilst the ‘modern’  post-industrial economy of Western Europe is actually causing a range of modern diseases such as diabetes, cancer, food allergies and social diseases leading to mental health problems. I tend to agree, it backs my long held view that much of how modern society operates is really unhealthy and just seems loopy. It is why i have struggled to find my place in society. It is simply better to work with nature, rather than against it, the answer I believe lies in evolutionary biology.

Food

The modern western diet differs from the traditional diet in a number of ways: It consists of high quantities of meat,  often meat of poor quality produced industrially and intensively. Food is often processed and contains artificial compounds such as preservatives. This industrialisation of food means food is nutritionally poorer and lacks flavour, so often processed food contains high levels of salt and sugar to compensate for this lack of flavour, these high levels are beyond what the human body can cope with.

Family

I have wittered on previously about the importance of acceptance for humans in society, family provides that. I’m living with my father at the moment and it is simply nice to share meals together at the kitchen table. One of the reasons I was unhappy in Surrey was because I had to eat meals by myself in the bedroom, which is simply wrong, but many people are thrust into this position by the economy. Due to economic diversification, people often have to move away from their family to take on jobs and one person abodes are expensive. This modern way of working detracts from humans ability to take pleasure from eating and sharing food as part of the enjoyment of eating.

It does annoy me sometimes that i took decisions at quite a young age that led me to be ‘mostly vegetarian’, rather than conform to the mainstream diet, as sometimes my father and I have to cook separately to stick to our dietary choices. This phenomena is compounded by food allergies and different diets, I don’t think most people know how to provide a meal that will satisfy everyone at the table, yet I feel it is important that everyone should know how to put on a collective meal. Having a collective meal is fun

Fun / Community

Cooking together and sharing food at the dinner table is an enjoyable social event. When I was working in the forests of Madagascar, the whole team would sit together for dinner, the conversation flowed and it was a hugely enjoyable experience, even if only to see what those on cooking duty had managed to produce from our limited resources (rice and beans, supplemented with mangoes or breadfruit that had been gathered during the day, we had zebu (type of cow) once in two months and that was a real celebration). Human beings are social animals and interactions between the local community are fun. There is a special something about an event that draws the whole community in, which offers something to everyone, this has value in ensuring communication between generations and social groups. The example is of  summer fayres, where everyone comes to together to eat, play games, sing and dance together (and provide talking points about performances in the ladies over 40 sack race!), Fun and Community, where everyone is free and encouraged to make a fool of themselves is important. Sadly such community events are dying out as people retreat into only socialising in there own social circle.

Happiness

It isn’t possible to go back to a time when people physically lived off the land with their family, socialised in the village and the wider world was the ‘here be dragons’ of faerie tales. However human beings lived for millenia in such societies, it is what our species evolved to cope with. I think the problem is partly that we are living lifestyles that genetically we are unsuited for. It’s only a few generations since many people no longer had physical labour jobs, a few generations since we began eating industrialised processed food and very recently since we now spend parts of our lives not in family units.

Many of the elements of a traditional lifestyle are possible, but often difficult. People claim not to have time to cook properly as they have to work long hours and may spend hours every day simply traveling to and from their place of work. People often don’t have the time or space to maintain a kitchen garden or a similar physical project. People sometimes don’t put the time and effort into maintaining family units and consequently that may fall apart.

Processed foods are I believe to blame for the rise in food allergies. Humans tend to like salty food as humans lived for millenia with low Sodium diets and more Sodium was required for health. Now our diets contain too much Sodium salt, this has health consequences as the body struggled to metabolise  so much salt. Hence, processed foods are putting pressure on out metabolisms they haven’t had a chance to evolve with.

There is much talk of a establishing a work/life balance. In a traditional society, such an idea is absurd, as work involved your family and community, the family and community contributed to your work too. Post-industrial work is largely not like this so generating time for family, for social activities is paramount, however, the modern economy makes it harder and harder for people to find this time and hence people become unhealthy and less productive, it’s the crisis of the Western world in the 21st century.

Is there a good chippy around here?

I love fish and chips. So, when visiting a new town I would ask a local ‘Is there a good chippy around here?’. You generally used to get an answer, these days it seems the question is greeted with bafflement.

Well sometimes, you didn’t. I remember visiting a village in Norfolk, which had two chippies and discovered that the village was bitterly divided between the two chip shops! Sometimes, particularly recently, people seem to neglect the ‘good’ word in the question and just direct to a chip shop. It used to be wonderful when you’d ask and be told such things as ‘Yes, but it only opens from 7-9pm, don’t bother with the other one’. Or even , ‘sorry, not in this town, hasn’t been a good one for years now’, giving me the exact local knowledge I needed.

I think that visitors to the UK and people who didn’t grew up with a chip shop culture (urban types mainly) don’t realise, or care that there are vast differences in quality when it comes to chip shops. The town I grew up in had an excellent chip shop, until a new chip shop opened on the high street, which wasn’t nearly as good. Surely,’market forces’ would prevail and the good chippy survive and the poor one fail. But no, I grew up in a somewhat tourist town in Wales and the good chippy was hidden away on a back street, so didn’t pick up the tourist trade. Why didn’t the tourists just ask ‘Is there a ‘good’ chippy around here? The good chippy closed, and left me with a lifelong distrust of ‘market forces’.

There are just too many bad chippies, who didn’t seem to care about the quality of their product and bad consumers, who just wanted the convenience of location even if what they were eating was vile. Bad fish and chips truly are disgusting.

What annoys me, is that there is an art to making fish and chips, but the basics are fairly simple: The oil needs to be hot , the oil needs to be fresh, select potatoes that are good varieties for chips, fish should be fresh, not frozen and ruddy cook fish to order, fish kept warm for more than a few minutes rapidly loses it’s taste and consistency. Oh and be good, only source fish from sustainable fisheries such as MSC certified (Marine Stewardship Council). This isn’t that difficult surely when it’s your livelihood? Locals do notice, and learn such things as not to go for chips on a Thursday as they know the oil will be gone by then and produce horrid pale chips.

When I first discovered that you could put your own pages on the internet, I tried to set up the ‘Good chippy guide’, whereby people could submit reviews of chip shops and establish a database of good chippies throughout Britain. No-one found it or contributed and i’m surprised that no such service exists to this day. There is a good beer guide for pubs though. There should be an app for this? I’m left with my local knowledge of places, near the main roads, where I know good chippies are. For example, if visiting Wales, use the old bridge (M48), pop into Chepstow town and go to Weeks chip shop, they are excellent!

Before anyone comments with such gibberish as ‘Yorkshire chippies are the best’. Obviously, Welsh chip shops are the best! I am something of a purist, generally preferring salt and vinegar as my condiments, though occasionally I have brown sauce. A good chippy should have all possible condiments and not charge extra for them. i do like curry sauce too and even gravy (though as I’m mostly vegetarian I tend to avoid these unless I know they’re really veggie). I can see the point of ketchup and mayonnaise although they only work well, I find, with pub chips as opposed to chippy chips.

So, my advice is ask the question, help the businesses that care about and put the effort into their product thrive. engage with the locals in places you visit, and not just hop to go somewhere convenient. Engage with places, don’t just pass through, this and good chippies make life worth living.

Proper Milk and Happy Farmers!

Cows-skipping

At last, an opportunity to celebrate and promote good news! I may come across as some weirdo milk obsessive (not that this isn’t entirely untrue), my grandfather did grow up on a dairy farm in Carmarthenshire, so I have a connection to dairy farming, (milk is in my blood <sic>).  I have despaired about modern society rejecting the value of good quality produce. A new dairy initiative has been set up to promote and distribute traditionally produced milk from cows that graze on grass (as indeed they should), check out  and look out for freerangedairy.org.

So, why am I so excited about this? I have been saddened as small dairy producers have fallen by the wayside as the supermarkets demand lower and lower unsustainable farm gate prices for milk. The mega-dairies have arose with cows never seeing the light of day in giant factory farms. I have found this particularly annoying, as such production methods are not as sustainable, or even efficient as pasture based systems. Basically more labour is involved in looking after the cows and harvesting grasses (or worse grain) to bring in to feed the cows, this system is really inefficient though economically cheaper only because of a distorted market.

I only buy organic milk. Well almost… not all of the cheese I buy contains organic milk, I love cheese and I wish I had better access to decent cheese made with sustainable milk,  cheese it the one compromise I make in ethically sourcing food. I digress, like intensive chicken meat, organic milk makes up 2-3% of the market in the UK currently. It has always puzzled me why free-range eggs make up >50% of the market and not chicken. I remember seeing in the supermarket a ready meal containing intensive chicken, and the label was promoting the fact that the sauce contained free-range eggs, did no-one else see the irony?

Perhaps the reason for this is simply price. People will happily pay a few pennies more for ethically sourced eggs, but not a few pounds more for a free-range chicken. Conscience, it seems, does have a price for the majority of people. So, I’m excited by this new scheme as without having to jump through the expensive hoops to certify as organic, free-range milk will only be a few pennies more than intensive milk, it can win, our environment need not be blighted by ugly smelly mega dairies.

Another thing that has frustrated me is that the family farms of upland Wales, the area where I grew up and the area I call home, are relatively poorer than farmers elsewhere in the UK. Basically because the land is less productive, however they produce a superior product in free range lamb, yet have often been unable to command a superior price for their superior product. I may be bias but i think it is true that Welsh lamb is sweeter and more flavoursome than lowland English or New Zealand lamb. Actually, the best lamb I have ever tasted came from Scotland (and it does pain my Welsh heart to say that).

Also recently, I’ve discovered a way to describe my food requirements in a way that doesn’t offend people but makes clear what to offer me. I am ‘mostly vegetarian’. The phrase is apparently widely used in India to describe Hindus who aren’t entirely strict with their vegetarian diet, yet haven’t entirely abandoned the traditional Hindu diet. The phrase ‘mostly vegetarian’ works to describe people like me who only eat free-range, traditionally produced meat products as an occasional treat (due to pricing). No longer will I have to explain myself in restaurants for taking the veggie option, then chomping through a rare steak of lovely Welsh beef at home. Basically I have often had a hard time explaining to people that I don’t eat intensive meat and some homes I’ve visited have been offended by this, so I’ve longed for a way to describe it.

I wish this scheme every success, and hopefully someone will read this and buy a pint of proper free-range milk?

Fighting Against Evil Supermarket Bread

I love bread! I love making it, baking it, the smell of it, eating it and spreading it with jam! It is the most wondrous stuff and the staple of European food. To an outside observer it would seem that the British in general have ended their love affair with bread. The story is a rather middle-class first world problem, but also illustrative of creeping value loss.

I was lucky to grown up in a small rural town, isolated from the early wave of the supermarket takeover of the British high street. The town had a bakers shop, mainly baking bread for the townsfolk and local businesses such as hotels and restaurants. We had several butchers shops, a fishmonger at the weekly market and several greengrocers. We also had a local independent supermarket , which sold one of everything, basically all dry goods, it even had a cheese counter. Shopping meant walking from shop to shop to purchase your provisions.

Nowadays the town has a rather poor chain baker, is very fortunate to have retained a butcher and convenience shops (which are basically only good for alcohol and snacks). There is a huge supermarket, 7 miles away in the next town, a drive or a bus journey. Time wise, weekly shopping now actually takes much longer. How did this happen? How is the only way of getting a decent loaf of bread to travel 7 miles to buy flour and bake it yourself, indicative of a more modern efficient society?

Supermarkets came about as they offered a more efficient distribution network, offering lower prices, more choice and exotic goods. There were supermarkets in the big cities first. My family used to drive to the city (a three hour round trip) once a month or so, for shopping: books, LPs, clothing and anything else we desired. On the way back we would visit the supermarket to stock up for the month on dry goods, such as rice, as this was much cheaper and to be able to buy foods we couldn’t get at home.

Most people in the town did this kind of shopping (in those pre-internet times). This did impact on the local shops. However the bakers survived as, fresh still warm bread is something very special, to be picked up from the local shop and delivered to the breakfast table. As time passed, local bakers declined. The supermarkets sold the soggy crappy ‘Chorleywood’ sliced, plastic bag bread, only good for toast, at rock bottom prices. So people bought this cheap crap and didn’t eat as much of it, instead people ate more and more of the other things the supermarket provided to replace bread (which they made more profits on),  bread declined. Occasionally people missed fresh bread, the supermarkets provided ‘in-store bakerys’, producing bread any real baker would be ashamed of. However, this made those who only used a supermarket to think that this was what real bread tasted like, it was no longer seen as something very special.

The supermarkets won and killed off real bread as an everyday staple. Bread is now seen as an artisan, luxury product, and often priced accordingly. This is very sad. Many place the blame on the ‘evil’ supermarkets, exploiting the British consumer. This is a rather reactionary view and is indicative of how extremist views can arise, whether they be on bread, meat-eating, political creed or religion. A blame culture, blaming others for a failure to act responsibly. Are the supermarket bosses really that evil, do they drink the tears of virgins with glee?

No. The supermarkets have simply followed the path of maximizing their own profits, without regard for their impact on society. The town planning system failed in holding back their growth.  They are not evil in the sense that they set out to destroy peoples enjoyment of bread,  A consequence of this is loss of bread and a loss of appreciation of the value of various foodstuffs. People are not evil, they simply follow convention and seek cheap food. This explains why bread demised, why the disgusting factory farming of animals proliferated, why people vote for political parties that superficially make the right noises.

Those of us who have invested the time to research, investigate and think have understood this. but the majority don’t. So, for those who understand, can see the situation as one where people just need to be told the truth, to be educated and they will form the same conclusions as these early seers. However, the majority appear not to listen to this vocal minority. They don’t listen because surely a minority of wierdos can’t be right, they must be extremists. So, all these dedicated minorities become tarred with the extremist label, whether they be religious converts, animal rights activists or political activists. The minorities respond by becoming exasperated, so shout louder and sometimes start acting immorally themselves ‘for the greater good’. Moral principle is lost, as well as access to a decent loaf of bread.

Corporate culture has killed off many things precious to ordinary folk. Not because pursuing a profit or greater efficiency is evil, but by taking the idea too far, without control, trying to be all encompassing. It is often heard that people don’t have the time to enjoy kneading there own loaf of bread, yet people have the time to sit for hours everyday in a traffic jam on the way to work and queue in the supermarket. It is very curious indeed how people don’t seem to take responsibility for there own lifestyles anymore in this ‘need’ to comply with contemporary economic theory.

Arguing for Sustainable Intensification

Many arguments stem from semantic differences. Arguments often involve different interpretations of the same word, or  concept. Often there is a reluctance to shift ones own understanding of a concept, as there is an awareness that this may involve applying this shift to other arenas of thought, the fear of re-evaluation of deeply held beliefs.

So, it is important to clarify what is meant by sustainable intensification of agriculture, especially as it is a melding of two different concepts. Two different concepts that have historically be viewed as in opposition to each other.

Firstly sustainable means being able to continue a practice forever or at least for the foreseeable future. Undertaking a practice that doesn’t through it’s impacts curtail long term continuance of the practice.

Secondly, intensification means finding solutions to producing more from a limited resource. In agriculture, this has meant increasing specialisation, or increasing the inputs from other sources to increase production locally.

So, sustainable intensification means producing more from a limited resource, without in doing so affecting future use of the limited resource. however it doesn’t automatically imply that intensification can only be through increased use of external resources, it is here that issues come in interpreting what is meant by intensification. Nor does it imply simply increasing more from any one area of agriculture, a more holistic approach may be required.

Sustainable intensification has come about as a concept due to the challenge of producing enough food to feed the growing population of the world.Part of the problem is identification of what the limited resources are? The obvious answer is land, but it isn’t only land as in modern agriculture resources are used that come from outside the individual farm.  It is for this reason that traditional pre-industrial farming is often cited as being a sustainable model, because most resources used came from within the farm, so had to be sustainable. However traditional farming produces lower yields than modern farming.

Traditional farming was sustainable as local resources were used. Farms were mixed and produced food for consumption by the local community. All farms produced arable crops and animal products. what was useful was that it worked with natural biological processes, rather than seek solutions to constraints imposed by biological processes. Land was fertilised by the livestock, allowing arable crops to flourish and a portion of the arable crops sustained the animals through the winter months.

Industrialisation of agriculture, was a product of economics. The idea of producing low yields of an arable crop on land which was more suited for grazing, and conversely the idea of raising livestock on land which was capable of high yields of arable crops was dismissed on economic grounds. However the intensification enabled by this was not sustainable. It was not sustainable as the soil was drained of it’s natural resources, nature abhors mono-cultures, requiring ever more complicated artificial fertilisers and ways of combating pests/diseases. The battle of restraining nature caused ever spiralling costs.

Agriculture has become isolated from wider society. Further intensification using industrial techniques, including genetic modifications technologies, unless there is a very major breakthrough, is not going to increase yields very much. More lateral solutions are going to be required to achieve the goal of sustainable intensification.

One such solution comes through a  tweaking of the definitions, through ignoring the definition and instead dealing with the goal of feeding the world. not increasing any individual yield, but to focus on a holistic total yield. Western society has become used to consuming foods that are available all year round, from all over the world. Achieving that availability, particularly producing food out of season, invokes costs and inefficiencies. So, the solution is perhaps to ignore what the ‘market’ supposedly wants and instead concentrate on maximising production in a sustainable way. This will involve changing everyones diet. Some popular foods will become more scarce and expensive, especially out of season, other foods will become cheaper. The diets of the people of the ‘developed’ world will be changed in a similar way to agriculture, from working against the constraints of ecology to working with the ecology. Away essentially from the idea of using grain from arable land to feed livestock, to using foraging livestock to maintain arable yields for human consumption.

This process, does involve a change in how markets are viewed. Farming is after all a business, farmers main concern is making a tidy profit. A current phenomena is that dairy farmers in Wales are moving back to pasture based systems away from intensive use of concentrates. The reason for doing this is that costs are drastically reduced. So whilst yields are lower, the profit is increased. This is great economically and in terms of animal welfare, however, it is unclear whether, ultimately sustainable intensification is realised, as it is unclear how much less land is utilised globally in such a production system. There are developments in this area such as intensive foraging, where cows forage on mature grasses, which have an improved nutrient and protein content, leading to higher yields.

Sustainable intensification will be about finding ways of increasing yields on individual crops. by itself it won’t feed the world. The challenge of achieving food security for this over-populated planet, will involve changing diets, attitudes and lifestyles to more sustainable ones. This isn’t an argument for everyone to be vegetarian, as livestock will play a role in recycling nutrients and foraging land poorly suited to arable production, rather people will learn to eat less, but better quality, animal products.

For example, modern dairy herds are almost exclusively Friesian /Holsteins. These breeds have been bred for highly intensive production, involving a lot of inputs, management and are susceptible to disease, to the extent that these breeds struggle on non-optimum foraging conditions. A solution is a return to smaller herds of lower milk yielding, but more rugged traditional breeds, which , whilst producing less milk per cow, will require less inputs and play a part of working with the land, as part of the cycle preparing it to be high yielding arable land. By taking a more holistic approach the total yield of produce over the cycle per acre of land will be higher, than the industrial specialised system, people will need to adapt, as well as the farming industry to more vegetables and less meat.

Sustainable intensification is actually a melting pot of different definitions and re-evaluations of the economic systems people in the developed world live by, but the world needs it. Solutions will come from a melding of the best of traditional sustainable practice, with the best of modern techniques and scientific understanding.

Unpasteurised

I love milk and I like cows. When I was a child I sometimes stayed over at a friends farm, having fresh milk on my breakfast cornflakes, so fresh that it was still warm was a heavenly experience. Unpasteurised milk does taste different, really in any animal product, more processing leads to less flavour. I don’t understand this culture of using skimmed, homogenised ‘milk’, it’s almost tasteless, so what is the point?

It’s the same situation with beef. As a teenager I remember farmers adapting to breed lean beef cows as fat was the enemy, this was not the real cause of increasing obesity in the British population, what this did lead to was beef that lacked flavour and an increased use of continental breeds whose meat lacks flavour of traditional breeds and hence discouraged people from choosing beef on taste grounds.

The dairy industry, like all parts of British agriculture has undergone massive changes and upheavals since the second world war. Many farmers have abandoned dairy as the relative price of milk has fallen in real terms. There continues to be a crisis in the industry as prices remain low and supermarkets charge £1 for 4 pints, whilst the farm gate price has fallen to 20p per litre, despite the intensification of the industry. Arguably no-one has benefited from this change as the price saved on a pint of milk is made up by the supermarkets on other products.

Modern intensive production of milk, with the recent importation of the idea of ‘mega-diaries’ from the United States, is a far cry from the sustainable, family farm production of my youth, in the name of cheap bland milk. Dairy cows are increasingly housed indoors, even in the summer, which for social animals seems cruel. They have been bred to be high yielding, leading to huge udders that leads to lameness, increased disease and a shorter productive life span. There have also been moves to a grain based diet, from a forage based one to increase yields further, despite this requiring cereals from high grade agricultural land. The true production costs are distorted.

I feel very strongly that intensive animal production is both unsustainable and unacceptable in terms of animal welfare. There is no true market as the consumer has little choice over the quality of milk that they consume. The only choice is between organic milk, which is traditionally produced and intensive milk. I strongly advocate proper point of farm labelling for all animal products, so consumers know where something comes from and how it was produced. In the UK we only really have a reasonable system for eggs, it’s absurd that something like 50% of eggs are free range, yet only 2% of chicken is free range. Consumers should be able to choose between traditional family farms and highly intensive production of mega dairies, here the production cost between the two systems is tiny, 1-2p per litre. Personally, I only buy organic milk, not because I am a mad keen advocate of organic agriculture, but it is the only choice available to me as I refuse to support ‘mega-dairies’.

This lack of a true market, pervades both agriculture and wider society. A true market would exist where producer and consumer interact to determine price and production system. This traditional market mechanism has been lost. It has been lost as it is now the middle man/ the supermarket cartels that determine price and quality, as such there is less regard for creation of sustainable markets as the decisions are not made by either producer or consumer.

The supermarkets distort the prices. The major supermarkets discovered that consumers decisions concerning where to shop are principally determined by perceived value, the price of individual foods is less important than the perceived value of the shop as a whole. The perceived value is determined by the prices of a small number of key products, one of these is milk, hence we have the absurd loss-leader situation of 4 pints of milk for a pound. Tesco, laughably, advertised this promotion with pictures of Belted Galloways, a beef breed!

This loss of true traditional market mechanisms, the necessity of subsidising farmers to keep produce prices down is also absurd. Yet as markets develop they seem to be increasingly distorted and people in general are less happy with how their food is produced but have less power to influence it.

I would urge anyone reading this to go out and buy a pint of organic unhomogenised milk, taste the difference and support local farmers.