Christopher Stopes, president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements’s EU Group told us at the Organic Research Centre’s conference in Birmingham last week that DEFRA had become production-orientated saying that, “The production narrative is not enough. We need to confront issues of consumption.” He went on to say of our Secretary of Sate for DEFRA that, “I don’t accept Caroline Spelman saying we need to increase production. We can feed ourselves, but we need to change.”
Consumption has been foremost in my mind having only just survived the excesses of the Christmas period. The two stone I lost in 2011 has been severely compromised, so Mr Stopes’ call for change got me thinking about my own diet again.
A family walking safari in Kenya last February gave me a bit of a wake-up call as far as my own daily food intake was concerned. While we were treated to a full western diet before and after our daily trek, our Samburu guides survived on their staple of maize cake and cabbage. I asked them how much meat they ate and was told that they ate it maybe once a month at the most. It seemed incredible to me that men as fit and healthy as they were could live on such a basic diet and essentially without meat.
The meat thing is interesting. I eat meat at least once if not twice a day, but it hasn’t always been like that.
When I was a child my family ate very little meat. For Sunday we would have a roast of some kind and if it was a chicken it would last for days. On Sunday it would be carved at the table and there would be the usual fights over the leg, thigh and wings. On Monday there would be sandwiches or cold chicken with a salad using mainly the breast meat. On Tuesday it would be Chicken Fricassee which was made with chicken leftovers (or the flappy bits as my wife calls them) with vegetables in a white sauce and a breadcrumb topping. On Tuesday night the stripped bones would go into the soup pot with whatever vegetables were around and some seasoning which would simmer overnight to then be made into soup for Wednesday. A single foul would provide our family with the meat we ate for over half the week. These days the tasteless pumped up equivalent is lucky if it lasts a day in most households.
Now I am not saying that I returned from Africa and immediately went out and bought a catering sack of maize and cabbage, but it did give me a bit of a reality check on how my own diet was unhealthily dominated by meat. I spent the next few months weaning myself onto smaller quantities, and although I still make the Samburu look like militant vegetarians and am still no threat to livestock farmers, my intake has definitely gone down.
Learning to make dishes just out of vegetables, albeit with some meat stock lurking in there somewhere, has also been a bit of a challenge, but I have to say I am getting there. When I started exploring all the pulses that are out there to get the meat protein equivalent in my diet I was amazed at the variety of what was on offer - see picture of my bean casserole!
By the way, just in case you don’t already know, the argument for eating less meat runs along the lines of the disparity in the amount of plant protein you have to feed an animal to get the equivalent amount of protein out in the form of meat. Same stuff but with added blood. If all the land we currently used for growing animal feed on was converted to land that we could grow food for ourselves on, it that would solve the global food security problem. I know that it’s far more complicated than that, but it’s the gist of the argument. Unfortunately it’s normally Sir Paul McCartney who trots out this fact and we carnivores don’t like being preached to by a veggie. However, I do have sympathy with Sir Macca’s protestations, and although he eats revolutions for breakfast, it would take one to effect such a change and it would have to be the developed countries of the world to show the rest the way. We can’t judge the Chinese for wanting to eat a more Western diet if we are not prepared to hold our hands up and say, “Sorry chaps, we got it wrong, it’s just not sustainable”.
OK, that is the meat consumption down, what about everything else.
Going back to the Samburu. It seemed to me that they ate what they needed to get through to the next meal and that was it. Now I realise that that is a risky strategy especially in Africa as the risk is if you don’t get the next meal things can get out of control, but in the UK with a supermarket around every corner and food as cheap as chips it’s not so risky. So why do we all eat far too much?
The easy answer is that even though food prices have risen recently, food is still relatively cheap and our local supermarket is just around the corner and it’s brimming with the stuff. Two-for-one deals are at the end of every isle and we all like a bit of a bargain. In any case, there is no point in having that new massive American fridge if it’s not stuffed with food. Talking of massive Americans, have you seen how many are getting into our market towns these days…. if they are that fat they must be Americans… aren't they?
Food can only be cheap if it is produced with the ruthless axe of cutting costs to the bone and invariably that means something has to give. The usual candidates are animal welfare, taste or nutrition and in some cases all three. Good food is not and never can be cheap, you get what you pay for.
So, the key to tackling consumption is to eat less and eat better quality food produced to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards. You don’t necessarily have to buy organic, but if you do it already ticks all the boxes. Good food is going to cost you more per kilogram, which means more return for your friendly farmer, but you will be eating less. The really good news is that not only will you be lean and healthy, but your weekly spend will be no more than when you were eating rubbish.
OK, so this is the thinly veiled launch of my UK food revolution (stand aside McCartney), and the mantra goes like this, “All we are saying, is give peas a chance”.
My keep fit video will be launched in March.