How to ‘start little revolutions in our own kitchen’

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These are questions which celebrity chef and journalist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is asking householders to consider in his foreword to a new book – Eating for Pleasure, People & Planet – by eco-chef, writer and climate-change campaigner Tom Hunt.

In his opening message, Hugh speaks about the ‘food crisis’ the world is facing, citing ‘agriculture’s contribution to environmental degradation and global warming, the unprecedented dominance of refined and ultra-processed ingredients and the colossal waste of so much food while so many go hungry’.

While these may seem likes issues which are too great to tackle on an individual level, Hugh believes that, by starting ‘little revolutions in our own kitchens’, people have not only an ability, but also a responsibility, to ‘shift the balance back towards sanity and sustainability’.

These are views echoed by India Hamilton, founding board member of SCOOP The Sustainable Cooperative, who contributed to, and is featured in, Tom Hunt’s book.

‘It was really exciting to be involved with this book, which is designed to help people to understand how to have a sustainable diet within their households,’ India explained. ‘It is all about how people can engage with a food system sustainably and empowering them to understand their purchasing power. Research has shown that, on average, each household throws away £700 each year through wasted food. This book teaches you how to address that waste, saving yourself money at the same time.’

While the book contains recipes, it is far more, says India, than a typical cookery book.

‘It starts with a very accessible and interesting description of the foods we should be eating, setting out basic facts about food waste and unpicking the food system in a way which shows people why it is important to participate. It tries to decentralise the challenges facing the food system while saying that you can be part of this.

‘It features a whole host of recipes but also gives you techniques for preserving food and dealing with surplus. Recognising that many recipes are a nightmare because they encourage people to buy specific items – which often then contribute to the waste issue – this book gives you frameworks of how to put food together. For example, it shows you how to build a bowl of food, layering flavours and textures, without worrying about specific ingredients.’

The last few months have been particularly busy for India and the team at SCOOP. As well as participating in Eating for Pleasure, People & Planet, the cooperative has joined the Chefs Manifesto and features on the organisation’s SDG2UN Advocacy Hub.

‘The Chef’s Manifesto is a World Food Programme project, which features more than 640 chefs from 77 countries. I came across the manifesto through my research for my thesis and my work for Tom Hunt’s book. It’s a great initiative, put together by development experts and chefs, based on the 17 UN sustainable development goals, which it has expanded to about 166 targets. This sounds massive but the participants have reduced this broad base into a very practical toolkit to turn these overarching goals into something accessible that can be put into action,’ India explained.

‘The platform is designed to work across all areas of catering from purchasing food through to cooking, and is relevant for anyone from institutional buyers – such as those working in hospitals, for example – to chef designers.’

In an island famed for the quality of its local produce and its gastronomic offering, why does India believe that this is so important?

‘I think it’s time now to really understand how agricultural policies, the ways people eat and the food that you buy as a chef has an environmental and social impact across the whole food system. Agricultural policies need to be joined up with good consumer policies to improve everything from soil health to gut health.’

Honing in on one of the Sustainable Development Goal points, India expands on the issue of reducing consumption and improving waste management.

‘If you look at your kitchen and decide to eliminate food waste, the first point you need to address is how you buy the food and how you can improve your productivity by getting more out of your produce,’ she said. ‘Sustainability in a kitchen is very dynamic with lots of trade-offs to consider, but by using the manifesto, chefs have a simple framework to follow, as well as access to hundreds of chefs who are participating.’

It is having access to this network of chefs from across the world which India thinks is particularly beneficial.

‘By connecting with these chefs, you discover new ingredients, heritage grains and ways of adjusting your recipes by engaging with different suppliers. By introducing different ingredients, chefs can move towards more plant-based recipes while adding value to the quality of their meat-based dishes,’ she said.

Interestingly, though, for India this does not necessarily mean sourcing products locally.

‘I don’t see local as a blanket action for success. Instead, I would advocate localism, which is a slightly different idea, in which you know your supply chain and can connect it so you build upon the system that you would like to see developed. Local is not necessarily about purchasing within the space around you, but about building an ecological and social community.’

It is an approach which India not only talks about but also practises when sourcing products for SCOOP.

‘Our goal is to build an environment which supports farmers who want to grow in a more ecological and sustainable manner. We are trying to spread the money along the food chain so that as many people as possible can participate in it, while bringing residents a range of sustainable organic produce. We recognise that, while wanting to shop sustainably, many people are time-poor so convenience is important. We have therefore brought together 450 products which address every part of your lifestyle. Our range is based around diverse ingredients rather than multiple products which all feature the same ingredients.’

To achieve this vision, the team uses the organic auditing system to select its suppliers.

‘Our agenda is to build more ecological processes so, as soon as something is available to us locally, we replace the items,’ India said. ‘We currently buy from 35 local producers and have relationships with all our suppliers which mean that we can trace the journey of each product through the food chain. For us, it really is all about sustainability, which ultimately improves the environment, people’s health and puts more money into the economy. But it’s a difficult issue for many to understand because the bottom line isn’t money. It costs more to farm in a sustainable way, without the use of chemicals, and needs farmers to accept that they may produce smaller crops but that the food will be better.’

With many debates taking place about how the future of food production and people’s diets may change as the world’s population grows, India does not feel that lower yields would be problematic.

‘Production does not equal population,’ she said. ‘We know that increasing the amount of produce does not result in everyone being fed. The challenge is in changing people’s lifestyles to reduce the amount of food wasted. At the moment, we are losing a third of the food we produce, which is a shocking statistic and relates to the £700 per year that each household in Britain throws away.

‘This waste comes from a range of sources but, to give some examples, every year at Hallowe’en, 19,000 tonnes of pumpkins are wasted, while a third of all mangoes that are exported are designed not to make it to supermarket shelves. That loss is factored into the supply chain. Meanwhile, sell-by dates and best before dates result in tremendous loss and, of course, stock management and changing weather is an issue. For example, if retailers buy in a high level of barbeque food and it then rains, people don’t buy the items and the produce is wasted.’

Another food trend which has gained momentum recently is veganism, with The Vegan Society figures showing that the number of people embracing this lifestyle in Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019. While the society estimates that 25% of the British population will be vegetarian or vegan by 2025, India is not so sure that this trend will continue to dominate the headlines.

‘I think the vegan conversation will wane as our understanding of food systems progresses,’ she said. ‘For me, it’s about the how, not the cow. I think we need to know where our meat comes from, and support the farming system we agree with. I would argue that our eating of meat should be determined by how much sustainably-farmed produce we can afford, rather than relying on cheap meat that we cannot trace.

‘I have counted three outlets in Jersey so far which are selling chicken that has come from Brazil. It is cheap but how can we know whether, or how, its production has impacted the Amazon? It has travelled all this way, and we cannot trace exactly where it has come from, and yet is has filtered through our food system, and is now cheaper to buy than British quinoa or lentils. My message, therefore, would be that it doesn’t matter what we eat, as long as we understand that it is not part of intensive agriculture and that the farmer is being paid properly.’

• Eating for Pleasure, People & Planet by Tom Hunt is available from SCOOP.

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