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Joanna Blythman on the Power of "lots and lots of little projects"

Joanna Blythman

Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author who writes about food and food issues.  Her book The Food We Eat had a huge impact on me when I read it nearly 20 years ago.  She remains one of the most incisive and insightful writers on food issues.  I had wanted to interview her for some time now, and am very grateful that she made some time available to talk to me.  

Joanna, one of the things that prompted me to get in touch with you was reading the piece that Jay Rayner wrote in The Observer several weeks ago about food, where he announced that a study he'd just come across, although it was actually 7 years old, was “the final nail in the coffin for localism”. It argued that food produced in New Zealand and exported to the UK could have a lower carbon footprint than food produced here because "New Zealand simply has a better landscape and climate for lamb and apples". I wondered what your thoughts were on that piece? 

It might come as no surprise to know that I don't agree with Jay Rayner on that point. I've always adopted the following strategy and this is what I've made explicit in my most recent book which is called What To EatJust to recap a bit I've written several books: The Food We EatBad Food BritainThe Food Our Children Eat, How to Avoid GM Food, and Shopped which is about supermarkets. 

At the front of that book there are 20 principles of how to eat well, thoughtfully and healthily and sustainably. One of the key strategies for me is always local first. So it's local first, then regional or national. The third option is Europe or further afield if you can't satisfy the first two. I would never say to anyone "you must never eat a lemon, you must never ever eat an allspice berry because it can't be grown in the UK" for example. What I would say is it just makes total sense to eat what's on your doorstep and to make that the thing that you try to satisfy the majority of your food needs.  

There are lots and lots of surveys, little bits of research and academic studies about food miles. We hear things like, for example, a tomato grown in Sicily can be greener than a tomato grown in Britain. I think these are false arguments. It's best not to say “I'm going to eat local and if I can't get it locally then I just won't get it”. What you can say is “right, let's start on our doorstep with what grows in this country and then look beyond that if we can't satisfy that”.  

In another role I have sat on the board of the Fife Diet which is Europe’s biggest local eating project. It started off with half a dozen people sitting in a tent in a soggy field at an ecology festival, and turned into 1500 households all participating. It's all based on eating local food. They came to the conclusion that what's realistic for most people is what we call the ‘80/20 split’. In other words 80% of the food we eat from where we live and 20% from elsewhere. That seems to be quite feasible for people in Fife and probably that sort of proportion is going to be relevant to most communities in Britain. That's how I see it. 

I'm not going to get into an artificial discussion about food miles because food miles is not the only reason for eating local food. There are many others: 

  • I'd rather give money to the local community because of this multiplier effect
  • More of the benefit from that will feed back to the community
  • I want there to be local shops, markets
  • I want to keep local growers going. 

There are many socio-economic reasons for supporting local food.  Cutting food miles is not the only criterion whereby local food makes sense. This is why I part company with Jay Rayner on this point. 

It seems an extraordinary argument that he says New Zealand simply has a better landscape for growing apples when we live in a country that has historically produced 3 - 4000 varieties of apples, apples that will store for a year, apples that can be used for all kinds of different things ...

I do think it's silly. I'm sure Jay would accept that he likes to be an iconoclast and the peril of being an iconoclast is that sometimes you say things that aren't perhaps as well thought-out as they might be. If we think about New Zealand lamb for example, it's absolute nonsense for us to be shipping lamb all the way from New Zealand when we have kilometre after kilometre, mile after mile of land that is really good for rearing sheep. There's something perverse about having something that you can easily produce on your doorstep that you decide to source from the other end of the world.  

There is a simplistic argument emerging that very much comes under the 'reduce meat' banner that all meat eating is bad and Britain would be better if we relied on non-meat, vegetarian-type food. The problem with this is that meat and dairy could be said to be the strongest products we have.  We're good at producing dairy and we're good at producing meat. We're not good at producing things like lentils, it's not the best climate for aubergine. 

I think we need to be pragmatic here and say yes, there are things that at certain times of the year it makes sense to import, but to take basic things that we can produce here: lamb, apples, beef, milk, all these things that are imported, is of course very bad for our food security. We rely on faceless people in faraway places who owe us absolutely nothing, to provide us with a large proportion of our food. That's clearly a very perilous situation.  

The recent Economic Evaluation for Herefordshire found that between 70 and 83% of all food and drink sold in Herefordshire was sold through 5 supermarkets in the county, and 16% of the food was sold through local independent businesses.  It seems to be at the moment that national government's relentless push for growth and for increased GDP focuses entirely on growing the 83% rather than growing that 16% and sees the future of economic growth in removing all obstacles to that 83% becoming 90-95%. I wondered if you had any thoughts as to how our food culture and need to preserve resilience sits alongside that push for growth? 

The first point I'd like to make is about supermarkets. I think it's abundantly clear that ever since supermarkets made their push to take over the lion's share of the UK shop grocery spend, and that started in the late 80s-early 90s, public health has declined seriously. We used to mostly cook food that we bought locally in small shops and markets, and we tended to be quite healthy and obesity was a rarity. I think what supermarkets have done is ushered in a whole new era of processed food where we're all encouraged to eat this globalised, industrial food.

In your ready meal lasagna, the onions might come from Poland, the tomatoes might come from Italy, the beef might come from Ireland, the garlic might come from China. We're sourcing globally to create this processed food diet. Before we even get to the economic argument, there's a huge cost to public health and to the NHS from people deserting what was a fairly sound way of eating for the industrialised, globalised food that supermarkets provide.  

There's a kind of false populism around supermarkets. This is where most people shop. This is where the big business is done. The government has always been very good at listening to the supermarkets and trying to accommodate them because they're seen as great contributors to the British economy. I think this is a very dangerous situation to be in. 

Firstly because of the health scenario that I've outlined and secondly I think we've concentrated on big retailers and they want a supply base of big suppliers. As a consequence we've lost a lot of small and medium-sized businesses in this country, and they were the people who were sustainable and not running vast supply chains from the south of Spain to a superstore in this country. They were probably running them within a radius of 30 or 40 miles. Governments seem to be in love with the supermarkets and don't seem to understand that for resilience we need to localise our food supply again and base it around smaller units.  

Supermarket fruit salads

For me the best scenario would be to deliver healthy, wholesome food, sustainable food, food which strengthens its local community in terms of creating jobs, sustaining our high streets....There has to be a plurality of suppliers – lots of small suppliers not a few very big ones like we have at the moment. We complain to kingdom come about the government being in the pockets of the supermarkets, which it undoubtedly is.  But I don't expect the leopard to change its spots, that's not going to change. It's more about what people choose to do in their own lives and what I think is really exciting is when I see what you have been achieving in Totnes, in places like Herefordshire, and in Fife ... 

People are saying, if we sit and wait for our government to sort this out, they won't, we have to create our own solution. We should never underestimate that, I think that's very important. What's really interesting at the moment is that cabinet ministers are sitting there thinking “these people haven't a clue, they're just a bunch of hippies, they're dreamers, that's not real business”. But if you look at where we are now, with environmental problems, peak oil looming, one thing after another, one of these days they might think – now what were those people saying, maybe they had a point!”  

You have the model there for a sustainable future. The current industrialised global food system as we know it is bust and it's increasingly defective. It's falling apart at the seams. There'll be more and more manifestations of the defective nature of the current food system. The whole scandal over horse meat is just the latest example of how dysfunctional our industrial, globalised food system really is.    

Retailers should be delivering good wholesome food to everyone.  It’s our democractic entitlement.  I think that realisation will dawn eventually but in the mean time, people have to press ahead and do their own things locally. Those will be very powerful, inspiring models to other communities when things do get extremely serious and we start wondering whether we're going to run out of food, and also how much can obesity really grow in this country. When we start really tackling these issues then all these local efforts will be very relevant. 

I love the quote that you had in Shopped from Sir Terry Leahy (CEO of Tesco) about “queuing in one store then trudging down Watford high street in the rain – is this what people actually want to go back to?” It feels like one of the things that you really pulled out there is that the projects that you mentioned, what they're doing is really telling a new story about food and giving a new vision of what the food system could be. You've touched on it in parts but could you give us a sense of what your vision of what might successfully replace or out-muscle supermarkets might look like? 

The first thing is that there are two big problems with supermarkets, and they're meant to be their selling points. The selling points for supermarkets are they're meant to give you cheap food and they're meant to be convenient. Now everyone loves the idea of cheap food if it's cheap good food. If it's cheap bad food it's not such a bargain obviously. 

I think we know that when it comes to the raw, unprocessed whole foods that I would like to see most people basing their diet on - fruit and vegetables, meat, fish - supermarkets are actually really expensive places to shop. Secondly it's actually not that convenient to have to get in a car every time you want some milk or a loaf of bread. 

Shopping in Morrisons

I think that a lot of the local food models, and there's so many of them now, things like community shops, organic box schemes, bread clubs, all kinds of cooperatives and initiatives now and local markets, in many places it's actually becoming much more convenient to use them than trail all the way to a supermarket.    

There's something incredibly alienating about supermarket shopping.  I know that when I walk in the doors of a big supermarket I actually – I was going to say lose the will to live but that's an exaggeration – I certainly lose the will to cook, and I think this is a very depressing experience. You end up doing  what most people in Britain do, going around, paying more than we thought we'd pay, going back home and finding the fridge is still full of all the same things we bought the week before which we throw away to make room for the new ones. There's something very soul-destroying about it.  

I try to avoid going to supermarkets, that's one of my key goals in life.  I've managed to do that with really quite a large degree of success. What I do is use quite a lot of local shops, and I'm lucky to still have a fishmonger, a butcher, a good grocer. I go to the farmers' market on a Saturday.  There's another indoor market project where I live which is really good, really well stocked. 

I have a choice of organic vegetable boxes. It's just much nicer to have a proper baker who makes traditional sourdough bread, to be able to see him working away in the background and know that you're getting the real thing. It's not the same when you go into a supermarket.  I think in terms of quality of life and quality of food that small food outlets are life-enhancing, and vastly superior to supermarkets.  

I should say the reason I'm interested in local food is that ultimately I'm a very food-centric person. This is what's taken me into the environmental arena but fundamentally I'm not interested in food being right-on if it doesn't taste good. What I find quite interesting is the quality of the food we're seeing now in the independent sector is much, much higher. When you go for the good quality food in Britain that's where you go for the best-tasting food.  Of course seasonality is a very big factor in creating taste.  

The alternative to me seems like a lot of small local businesses on your doorstep and being liberated from this dreadful get-into-the-car-and-drive to the out of town supermarket – I'm sure a lot of people will agree with that.  

The Totnes Blueprint had that figure about if we could shift 10% as a community what we spend on food to local food, then that's £2 million coming into the local economy's pocket rather than the supermarket's pockets. But given that our finding here was that about two-thirds of what's spent on food here goes into just two supermarkets in the town, is there a case for working with supermarkets to get them to stock local produce and support local producers, or is it just a case of building a completely parallel system that doesn't have anything to do with that? In Shopped you say 'We can't have both'. Is there a case for working with supermarkets or are we best just to turn our backs on them completely? 

The number two option: we have to build a parallel system. What you have to understand is that supermarkets are structurally incapable of embracing the concept of local food. It goes against their business model, which is so centralised: head office; central distribution; relatively few people in local stores and certainly in those stores no manager who has the power to buy locally because everything is just sent to them. They can't change, they're dinosaurs. They're really not capable of it. They operate on hundreds of thousands of product lines every day and they want them in massive quantities. 

I remember once interviewing a supermarket person for Shopped and he said “it's not worth our while switching the computer on for this sort of thing” so I said Well why don't you buy local cauliflowers?”  I think this might have been in Lincolnshire where there are fields of cauliflowers outside. Not worthwhile switching the computer on...  

Supermarkets need these big suppliers who give us the same thing every day of the year 365 days a year. It's not about understanding how supermarkets operate to think that you'll ever get them to take local food seriously, because they're just not able to do it, and they don't want to do it , because what they have done is got supply down to what suits them very well, what's called category captains, which is big companies who give them everything that they want in a category at the lowest price with the suppliers carrying all the risk and the supermarkets carrying none of the financial risks. That's enormously profitable for supermarkets to do that and provides absolutely no incentive to change. 

When you go into your local supermarket and they say things like “We support local growers” ...  but when you look at what's there it's something like a few pots of jam, that’s the extent of their interest in local produce. When I looked at the proportion of local food 'lines' in the supermarket, it was less than 1% and I don't have any reason to think that's changed hugely.  There's no point in expecting them to do that. 

I think  people have got to develop more of a European mentality about supermarkets. At one point in my life I lived in France for 4 years so I'm quite familiar with the French pattern of shopping. I arrived as someone who was thoroughly imbued with the British way of thinking about food shopping i.e. a once-a-week shop in a supermarket. 

The French have these massive out-of-town, really really big hypermarkets like Carrefour, Auchan etc, but French people would never dream of getting everything they eat there every week. They never go there every week, they go there maybe once every six weeks. They see them as places to buy cheap dull things like toilet roll or tins of tomatoes or something like that, something that isn't particularly fresh. They use things like the market, the local shops, and these are very valued. I think that's very strong also in Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe as well.  

In Britain we've gone down an Anglo-American path where it's all about big supermarkets and the independent sector is almost irrelevant. I think that's not particularly European and we need to get back into that European way of thinking.  

You've written about the GM issue. What's your sense of where we're at in that debate at the moment, what's the current state of play do you think?  

On GM it's absolutely obvious, because of study after study and piece after piece of market research,  that most British people are either opposed to or extremely suspicious of GM. I think the latest figures were something like 80% of people are anti-GM, I think that was a survey for The Grocer magazine. We know that and we know that in Europe there are the same sentiments. 

GM is very unpopular in Europe. It was quite interesting to see that last week or perhaps even earlier this week, one large GM company announced that it wasn't going to actively try and get its crops grown in Europe or to get crop trials in Europe because the European market doesn't seem to want it and they're going to concentrate on countries that appear to be more amenable.    

We have to realise that although government ministers, such as Owen Patterson, are telling us that GM food is the way for the future and it's the only way for food security and more food on our plates, the public isn't buying that. We're being sold a fairy tale, that it was going to stop animals suffering and make food more nutritious and use less pesticides and one thing after another. 

What do we really know about GM crops? We know that they increase the use of pesticides. We know that the yields are not higher. Even the US Department of Agriculture has admitted that. We know that it produced super-weeds, super-pests, and now increasingly as we suspected for a long time, health consequences of the great GM experiment are becoming identified much more. 

This so-called benign GM technology can pose health problems and bring about changes in animals and in humans  which are not good for public health.  I think the case against GM food strengthens rather than weakens.  There is a very well-oiled marketing campaigning message trying to force GM down our throats but I actually don't think it's going to work because I think the benefits are just not there and the risks are becoming more apparent.  

It's always going to be a big battle with those GM interests, they're very powerful. I think in Britain it's alarming to see how pro-biotech interests have hidden behind the veneer of so-called evidence-based science and being objective to push GM, when in fact they have a very clear agenda, which is to do with certain companies and institutes gaining funding. I think that's disappointing but predictable and the main thing is that consumers are still very anti-GM food and I don't see that changing in the near future.  

You've talked about the need to build this parallel economy, this parallel food culture and about how you can start to see that in things like the Fife diet, what Transition groups are doing and Incredible Edible and the whole local food explosion that's going on. How do we scale it up? If we're looking at it being still a very small slice of the cake now as opposed to what it would have been in the 50s and 60s, do you have any thoughts on how we might join it up more strategically and start to make this something that can really effectively start to claw its way back? 

In a way I wouldn't want them to be scaled up, but to multiply outwards.  What we need is not lots of bigger projects, but lots and lots of little projects. It would be to do with the sort of activity amongst the groups. There already are speaking and I know that the Council for the Protection of Rural England did an interesting thing looking at local food clusters. I think the more we work together and show that all over the country in completely different environments: industrial, some urban, some rural, some very remote, that alternative models work and are sustainable.  

I think we just have to go ahead and do, it and try and communicate more between these groups. Perhaps a network would be a good idea because it certainly seems to me – almost every day, every time I switch on my computer there's a whole lot of new people saying to me – did you know about this, did you know about that. Very interesting, for example there's a Crop for the Shop scheme, a local shop saying to people “if you've grown pproduce in your garden and you have a surplus, bring it to us.  We’ll sell it for you”.  

It’s an organised thing which is looking at a whole community like Totnes or the Fife diet, I think we should link those up because what always comes out when I talk to people is how enormously positive people who are involved it feel.  It’s such an antidote to the doom and gloom that comes with the industrialised model which is just so defective. People are very suspicious of it and not necessarily happy with it, and I think that is something that is a great selling point for the alternatives. Getting connected means we'd be in a position to show that here are people who are really doing something and it is really working in a whole lot of different places. 

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