Fanatical about food

| 19th June 2009

Rosie Boycott

It's time to re-engage with our food and re-evaluate the way we feed ourselves, says Rosie Boycott
The more I learn about systems, the more astonished I get. They are the most unjust systems in the world

When London mayor Boris Johnson appointed me his food adviser in 2008, many people scoffed at the idea that food could be grown in the capital. But it can – in nooks and crevices, on rooftops and disused railway banks – and there’s an army of extraordinary people out there who are wonderfully enthused to take part in this new, quiet revolution to change the way we eat, as well as the role food plays in our lives.

At the end of last year, Boris Johnson and I launched Capital Growth. It was an idea stolen from Vancouver, where they are creating 2,010 new growing spaces to be completed by the Winter Olympics in 2010. We expected to get 50 spaces up and running by April, but in early May I found myself opening the 83rd, and we have about 300 waiting in the wings to join the scheme. The only requirements are that the spaces be run as community growing plots; after that it’s up to the groups to do what they want. We help with small amounts of money, but large amounts of advice and connections.

I’m passionate about this project, and not just because it will help make London a nicer place to live. Food produces some 40 per cent of London’s CO2 emissions, so environmentally, the more local food we grow the better. It also helps us to make a much-needed reconnection to the magical process of growing our own, even in tiny quantities, and to bind fractured communities around a common interest. I’ve seen projects in London, such as one run by the Women’s Environmental Network, where once-scary and rubbish-strewn swathes of concrete have been transformed into growing spaces, safe, well-looked-after areas for people to meet friends and have parties and barbecues together – all through a communal love and fascination with growing and gardening.

The more I learn about food systems, though, the more astonished I get. They are, I would venture, the most unfair and unjust systems in the world. In the second half of the 20th century – a century of such extraordinary progress in so many respects, from penicillin to the internet; a century where global food production grew by 145 per cent, which works out at the equivalent of 25 per cent extra for every person on the planet – we still have a world where almost two billion are starving.

How did we let this happen? We can go back to Roman times, in fact, when the basic rules of democracy were laid down, as well as the idea that citizens should have rights that were administered by the state for the common good: education, law, the military, health and so on. But food went straight under the wire and into the hands of the free market – and it’s never changed. Bristol was built on the blood of the slave trade; Tate & Lyle, Booker and other large companies were content to hide their treachery behind our ignorance and desire for such commodities as sugar and coffee. We still do it today, though, and now have less excuse for it. Anyone who has made even the smallest effort to find out knows what pesticides do to Indian farmers, especially cotton farmers. They are also forced to compete on a world market where the US still subsidises its own cotton farmers, making it harder for growers in the developing world to make even the meanest of livings out of their crops.

I’ve followed one part of this story myself. Two years ago I was in South Africa, where women apple-pickers get just four per cent of the price we pay for apples in our stores. Here in the UK, we used to grow no less than 2,300 species, each one a product of its particular bit of soil, with a taste like a magical language, a provenance and a legacy. Since the second world war we’ve thrown it all away, grubbing up approximately 80 per cent of our orchards.

Now we don’t care where our fruit comes from, only whether they are able to withstand long journeys, slung around in the backs of lorries or in the holds of ships; tough enough to withstand the pummelling, but to hell with the flavour. And has this process improved lives in developing countries? Not that much, unless they are part of free-trade. Instead they have become our modern slaves, in the process destroying their own food sustainability. I was recently in Grenada, which is so fertile that anything would grow: yet its farms are falling apart and the island imports wheat from Canada, its people losing their own skills as farmers in the process.

According to Professor Tim Lang, food crosses no less than 19 ministries. Our most important need has been parcelled out like yesterdays fish and chips. But food is not like cars or CD players; it is a basic need and one that should never have been left to the free market to plunder like a goldmine. Monsanto now owns no less than 11,000 patents on genetically modified seeds, which translates into almost 95 per cent of global world production. Think of that – all in the hands of one company. Beef is a similar story: 81 per cent of all production is in the hands of just four processors. We currently import 95 per cent of all the fruit we eat in this country, and around 80 per cent of our vegetables. The unfairness runs right through the system, as we freely steal other countries’ soil, water and labour to ensure a continuous supply of cheap food for our own consumption. 

Governments have always been content to leave the supply and production of food in the hands of so few, happy that it has kept inflation down and people eating, even if what they have been eating is unadulterated crap. Not that long ago – less than 30 years – we spent some 28 per cent of our weekly shop on food. Now it’s less than eight per cent. And it’s that gap that has allowed us to buy flats creen televisions and go on cheap holidays to the Costa del Sol. Food became so cheap that when I was a newspaper editor and we wanted a laugh or were facing a day when the news was thin, we’d just ring up MPs and ask them the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. They never knew. I can’t say much here for my profession either, though – the other day Waitrose’s head meat-buyer told me she had received a call from a journalist asking to see a herd of semi-skimmed cows.

The story of cheap food is – of course – also the story of cheap oil. Ninety-five per cent of all the food we eat has oil in it somewhere, and it takes 10 calories of oil to produce 1 calorie of food. If we all ate like Londoners we’d need three planets to keep us going. And Londoners are the greediest buyers of ready-meals in the country: Britain overall eats 49 per cent of all the ready meals produced in Europe, a sad fact of life in which I think I unwittingly played a small role when I founded Spare Rib in 1972. ‘Don’t cook, don’t type,’ we said… and we meant it. Life was, as they said, too short to stuff a mushroom. Our first and only offer was a dishcloth emblazoned with the words: ‘First you sink into his arms, then your arms end up in his sink’.

But feminism and the desire to abandon the kitchen for the dubious delights of the workplace coincided with the rise of consumer goods and credit cards and the need for two income households, as we all became convinced that the route to spiritual wellbeing lay through buying – and then buying a whole lot more that you didn’t need because you’d decided you wanted to keep up with those much-maligned metaphorical Joneses. Our loss of a proper food culture has meant that families no longer eat together, however, and the ties formed simply by families sharing a meal have been broken. And that, I would argue, has played a big role in the troubled lives so many youngsters lead today.

Food is now making a comeback, though. Buying directly from a supplier is one of the few honest purchases you can make. Picking up a £1 t-shirt from the likes of Primark makes us feel grubby, as we know the misery that is at the end of the chain. Now I believe we’re all on the most exciting journey of our lives – and quite easily the most important. It doesn’t matter how you start, what matters is that you do start. The time for talk is over and the time for action is here. A few months ago, I spoke at a rally in Parliament Square as part of a group of women demanding action on climate change. We crushed ourselves against St Stephen’s Gate, blocking access and demanding decisive steps from the Government, not just empty platitudes about runways and reductions in carbon emissions. We were celebrating in part the extreme bravery of our great- and great-great-grandmothers, and what they had achieved for women like me today, but we were also saying that governments must now work to ensure that the planet is here, in a healthy state, for our great-grandchildren too.

After all, we all only have one home and it’s this one, the wondrous place that has mothered us for so many many aeons. Now it’s time for us to mother the Earth, but this time we need to mother it for everyone – the poor and the dispossessed, the hungry and downtrodden – because no truly sustainable movement for change, which breeds resilience in us all, will ever come about unless underpinned by social justice for everyone who shares this precious space. Get out your spade and start digging!

The more I learn about systems, the more astonished I get. They are the most unjust systems in the world

Rosie Boycott is a journalist, broadcaster, author, farmer and chair of London Food


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