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Sustainable food is good food. A Farmers' Market in Jackson, Mississippi. Photo: NatalieMaynor via Flickr.com.
Sustainable food is good food. A Farmers' Market in Jackson, Mississippi. Photo: NatalieMaynor via Flickr.com.
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Sustainable food is excellent food!

Sharon Garfinkel

3rd January 2014

The True Cost Accounting in Food and Farming conference was remarkable - star speakers ... fine food, drink and music ... even an impromptu Panto performance. In short, writes Sharon Garfinkel, it was an inspiration to all who attended.

We're a deracinated culture - we've lost the roots. Let's make food culture get rooted.

What is sustainable food if it is not also good food?

This was a key message from the True Cost Accounting in Food and Farming conference at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

The delightful memory of the artisan cheeses from Neals Yard Dairy, seafood from Dorset Oysters, charcuterie from Trealy Farm, and cocktails and canapés designed and created by The Ethicurean, will be with me for some time to come.!

And the message is an important one. Making our food sustainable does not mean condemning ourselves to a dull, dissatifying diet of grey gruel. Quite the opposite - it is about enhancing our lives as well as those of farmers, animals and the natural environment.

The root of the problem

The conference began with a wonderfully thoughtful filmed message from HRH The Prince of Wales where he spoke of the "economic invisibility of nature" being "the root of the problem". In his seven minute message he said:

"If I was to identify one of the biggest pieces missing from the jigsaw it would be the principle of the polutter pays for the damage the polluter causes. The damage done to soils and water systems, let alone to the oceans, which are out of sight and out of mind, is one of those costs not factored into farming at the moment and yet is such a huge cost ...

"We have to find a way of valuing, in financial terms, the increasing damage done to the earth's life-support systems by our over-reliance on intensive chemical-based, mono-cultural farming systems."

The conference was packed with diverse and eloquent speakers, among them Patrick Holden, the founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, who said:

"This day is the beginning hopefully of a process and is arguably the largest international gathering that has ever taken place with the incredible panel we've got today addressing this theme - true cost of accounting in farming. We hope it will be the beginning of a journey where we most forward."

Less about agriculture, more about food culture

This sentiment was echoed by all the distinguished speakers in their own ways. Tim Lang stressed that "the public health damage from current dietary habits in the rich western world are vast and the problem in the developing world is following us."

He added the caveat: "We need to talk less about agriculture and more about food culture ... The great Teddy Goldsmith always used to say we're a deracinated culture - we've lost the roots. Let's make food culture get rooted."

Pavan Sukhdev drew on the connection between rural poverty and ecosystems, saying: "Ecosystem services - the goods and services that flow from nature to us are a challenge because of their economic invisibility.

"No bee ever sent you an invoice and yet when you measure, as a result of how much is the cost of bad bee years versus good bee years in terms of the value of food output around the world then that answer is of the answer of around 200 billion dollars. So you know what's the value of the services the bees deliver without ever having received a single invoice from them.

"But this is just an example. There are many such examples of the economic invisibility of nature and converting those examples into economics may sound banal, even silly and immoral, but is necessary because economics today is the language of politics."

Pantomine performance?

In the closing session, BBC presenter John Humphrys - whom I interviewed last year for Resurgence & Ecologist - took on the role as cynical moderator, playing devil's advocate.

In doing so, he entertained the audience with his tremendous wit, which he targeted at the audience and panel - made up of Patrick Holden, Peter Blom, Henry Robinson, deputy president of the Country Land and Business Association, Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of Food Tank, and Richard Mattison, chief executive of Trucost.

If anyone wants to watch some comedy, then I urge you to view this closing session of the day. This session carries many gems including at one point Aine Morris, head of communications at the Sustainable Food Trust saying to John:

"Sorry to interrupt. Can we make a quick housekeeping request. If we're going to take some comments from the audience can we invite people to come and stand here if they'd like to say something?"

A baffled John Humphrys retorted: "Oh right, if that's the way you do it, by all means. Are you people waiting to say something? Go ahead. I thought you were setting up some sort of dating agency."

It really was a farcical and enjoyable end to the day. Not that everyone appreciated the joke. Many became immensely frustrated with Humphyrs cynicism, accusing him of being patronising. At one point Humphrys threw up his arms, shouting:

"Look you're not trying to persuade me. The purpose of this is not to persuade and convert me. I am converted. All right? I am playing devil's bloody advocate here. As Jesus wept. I mean honestly."

A member of the audience stood up and complained that the session was not "feeding" them as it was not adding to an already stimulating day. He stormed out of the conference. Humphrys laughed and there were a few claps. Members of the audience shouted at him. Again, they were missing the point. Panto had arrived early.

Farms not factories

One of the most sensible points of this session came from Tracy Worcester of Pig Ask who asked the audience to partner her organisation in getting positive messages out about the fact that cheap meat comes at a high cost. She is calling for an urgent need for food from farms, not factories.

It remains to be seen how the Sustainable Food Trust will develop the themes of the day. But one which all will surely appreciate is that sustainable food is also very, very good food.  

 



For now, you can watch any of the talks from the conference, by visiting www.sustainablefoodtrust.org.

 

 

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