Future of food: Meet the farmers and scientists who could save our fragile global food system

The era of cheap produce is over. So what next? Robin Barton meets the farmers, producers and scientists with the future of our food in their hands
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Indy Lifestyle Online

We live in the era of the £1.25 loaf of white sliced bread and the £250,000 bluefin tuna. It's a time when the source of our food, the cost of it, and its effect on our wellbeing and our world occupies us like never before. Across the Atlantic – the home of industrial-scale farms, childhood obesity and all-powerful corporations – the future of food has long exercised bestselling writers such as Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan and their forefather, Wendell Berry. Over here, too, we stand at a crossroads while scientists and economists, farmers and retailers plot a course forward.

Earlier this summer, riding through the lanes of Hampshire, I was surrounded by lemon-yellow fields of oilseed rape. These swatches seemed more pervasive than ever and I barely glimpsed the bluish-green of young barley. It's not an unattractive yellow, but I wondered why there was so much of it. So I called my local farmer, David Bowtell. Sparing me the arcane details of the deal, he explained that growers of oilseed rape have received a cast-iron subsidy courtesy of the Common Agricultural Policy since the k early 1990s. Oilseed rape, a crop that demands extensive application of agrochemicals, is otherwise uneconomical to plant. The seeds from Hampshire's fields are sent to one of the three major oilseed-rape consortia in Britain and then become, increasingly, biofuel.

Paying farmers to grow biofuels on prime land in Europe's most densely populated region is just one of the many absurdities of modern food production. (See also: supermarkets selling blackberries from Mexico in March, and just three or four British varieties of apple in a country that has 2,000; the patenting of seeds; grain-fed cattle that take seven to 10 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef...)

The globalised food industry, far from being robust, is exceedingly fragile. Every family will have noticed recent increases in the price of food. Those same price rises have occurred elsewhere and were one of the sparks of the Arab Spring revolutions. Accusatory fingers are pointed at speculators, oil prices and crops for biofuels. But one fact often overlooked is that the world produces more than enough food to feed itself. Indeed, it wastes a billion tonnes annually. "The case for urgent action in the global food system is now compelling," wrote Sir John Beddington, the government's chief scientific adviser, in his foreword to January's Global Food and Farming Futures report, citing the billion who go hungry and the billion over-consuming.

"We live in a society where food-growing has become undervalued," says Clare Joy of OrganicLea, a workers' co-operative and community-supported agriculture scheme (CSA) bringing market gardening back to what was once London's bread basket, the Lea Valley. She is one of a growing band of people, across Britain, the US and beyond, set on rebooting the food-production system. Over the past 10 years, OrganicLea has welcomed volunteers to farm a 12-acre plot and several vast glasshouses at its Hawkwood site.

In the past, the Lea Valley was the main market gardening area of London, and neighbouring Epping Forest provided the fuel – hornbeam, charcoal – for London. Produce would be taken to the city, which would send back a million tonnes of horse manure a year via the River Lea for fertiliser. "Not to romanticise Victorian life," says Organic-Lea grower Ru Litherland, "bits of it were terrible, but today we're disconnected from working with our native soils and climate. In France and Italy there remains a relationship with the land; we have industrial-scale farms."

The Independent on Sunday's recent Dig for Victory campaign against the removal of the protective regulations around allotments shows that when what little growing space available is threatened, the response is vociferous.

"There's been good work done by Growing Communities on how a London of the future might look," explains Litherland, "with 80 per cent of its food grown in the UK and 20 per cent, such as chocolate and coffee, coming from abroad. In the cities you'd grow the most perishable products, such as salad leaves. Beyond that, glasshouse crops lie on the urban fringes, then field crops and livestock."

Growing Communities is based in a former fire station in Stoke Newington, north London. It's another CSA, but one dedicated to rebuilding the links between urban and rural communities. Where OrganicLea grows its own, Growing Communities sources most of its produce for its box scheme and market from small, sustainable farms – the sort that struggle in an economy where three-quarters of the average household's weekly food is purchased from a supermarket, according to the 2009 Living Costs and Food Survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Indeed, although the way we farm has changed drastically over the past century, moving from small, diverse farms to monocultures, how we shop for food has changed even more. According to the ONS survey, the average household spends just £52 a week (11.4 per cent) on food and non-alcoholic drinks, out of a total spend of £455. This is one of the lowest percentages in the world, exceeded only by the US, highlighting that we are one of the least vulnerable nations to price hikes. And despite the popularity of shows such as Masterchef, most of us are cooking less: the ready-meals market was worth £2.7bn in 2010, up from £2bn five years ago. All of which begs the question: on what are we spending our time and money? k

How we farm, what we buy and how we eat is affecting not only our environment but also our health. Nutrition is a relatively new scientific discipline but, with 350 million diabetics worldwide, it's a fast-growing field. "We're predominantly a research centre," says Professor Jeya Henry of the Functional Food Centre at Oxford Brookes University, "but we have [worked with] a large portfolio of companies. For example, firms such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are acutely aware of the sugar issue: five years ago the big guys would have been inflexible; today they're not."

These white-coated scientists – biochemists and dieticians, inventors of Plumpy'nut, the high-calorie emergency food used for malnourished children, and low-calorie spreads such as Benecol for the West – are today as relevant to the future of food as farmers: while Professor Henry heads Britain's first food research centre with a staff of 14, a Chinese university is producing 1,500 BSc food scientists a year.

Down on Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire, Jody Scheckter is using science to better understand nature. You won't find fields of oilseed rape here (although the former F1 champion did have the first tractor in the UK converted to run on pressed rapeseed); rather, Scheckter has devoted the years since his retirement from racing to working out what's going on underfoot at his organic farm. He's as interested in the minute interactions beneath his farm's grass as in the slow-growing beef living on it. "The more you get the biology in soil going," he explains, "the less fertiliser you need. With the increasing price of fertiliser, more farmers are looking again at more natural methods." Accordingly, Laverstoke Park has not only a custom-designed abattoir but also a licensed soil microbiology laboratory.

Over the past couple of years Britain has opened its first food research centre, seen farmers' markets thrive and welcomed back the urban market garden: small bulwarks against the unstoppable demand for more and cheaper food. But one thing Scheckter, our urban farmers and our scientists would agree on is that taking a greater interest, as communities and as families, in how we grow what nourishes us would begin to make a difference to the food system. 1

The biodynamic farmer

Jody Scheckter, Laverstoke Park Farm

One farmer is going further than most to supply sustainably produced food. Down on Jody Scheckter's Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire you'll find meadows sown with 31 varieties of herbs, clover and grasses for his native Angus and Hereford cattle. Scheckter's grass-roots revival of traditional farming at Laverstoke had a simple goal: "All I wanted to do was grow the best-tasting, healthiest food for the family. All the other things come for free." He's a firm believer in "you are what you eat eats" – the notion that beef raised on its natural diet of grass will be healthier (and require less medication) than beef fed grain in a barn. Nutrients, says Scheckter, flow from soil to plant to animal: "Science knows less than 5 per cent of what goes on in soil. We follow nature strictly but use science to examine and understand nature better."

The urban farmer

Clare Joy, OrganicLea

OrganicLea, based in north London's Lea Valley, is one of a growing number of community-supported agriculture initiatives across the country, offering fresh vegetables via a weekly box scheme – and a focal point for the local community. The money from the produce sales – £14,000 last year – supports OrganicLea's community work, such as hands-on plant-growing workshops with schools and sheltered-accommodation providers. The last Sunday of each month is an open day, with families exploring the site.

The co-op has 12 members, with volunteers helping during the week. "Our volunteers begin to appreciate the effort that goes into food growing," says member Clare Joy. "It's not easy work, especially if you're trying to do it sustainably. But I see the empowerment that comes when people have actually produced a crop. The message we get back is, 'I actually feel good about myself' – it's about valuing food and the work that goes into it. For the people who drop by, it's about experiencing free, open space. They prefer to come here rather than visiting a garden centre because they know they're with people that grow. They value that. What's always very sweet is that you get inundated with stories afterwards about what has and hasn't grown well.

"There's a growing awareness of the unsustainability of the food system," she continues. "We need to look at land and the realities of food production differently. There's an important focus on urban food production at the moment but cities aren't going to produce for themselves. You also have 70 per cent of our land in the hands of 3 per cent of the population. Land redistribution is part of the transformation we need."

The small-farm champion

Julie Brown, Growing Communities

"This urban community is our driving force," says Julie Brown of her north London community-supported agriculture scheme, Growing Communities. "We're using its money to enable small farmers to survive. But we're also generating income to allow ourselves to survive, create jobs, grow food at three local market gardens, and invest in projects such as Patchwork Farm, which trains people to take over a small urban plot."

Last year, Growing Communities' turnover was £394,510 and the scheme has grown by up to 35 per cent every year over the past five years; it now supplies an estimated 3,000 people with sustainably sourced food. "With fewer resources such as fertilisers and water, and vulnerability to rising oil prices and changing climates, we need to transform our food system urgently," says Brown. "We're not anti-technology. But as a society we're going to have less energy, money and resources. We need to find ways to farm that don't require us to be scrabbling around in the dirt. Our mission is to get as many people doing community-led trading as possible." Graduates from Growing Communities' Start-Up programme, from Scotland to Margate, will launch regional food-box schemes this summer.

Aside from locally grown veg and hormone-free meat, talking to the people who provide our food is the great strength of farmers' markets. "More than half the world's population lives in cities now," says Brown. "By creating spaces such as our market, they can see why it's important to support local farmers, why food costs what it does." It's clearly a need to connect shared across the West; as well as 500-plus farmers' markets in the UK, there are now more than 6,000 in the US.

The food scientists

Professor Jeya Henry and Dr Lisa Ryan, the Functional Food Centre, Oxford Brookes University

Fitted with labs and kitchens, the UK's first dedicated functional-food research centre opened in 2009 and is the base for the work of Oxford Brookes University's Nutrition and Food Research group. Developing foods that lower cholesterol or aid the low-glycemic index (GI) diets essential for diabetics (one in 20 people in the UK), scientists play an ever-greater role in what we eat. But wouldn't a balanced diet of natural foods, such as that eaten by Italian and Japanese communities, noted for their longevity, do the same job? "Families in which both spouses work and single-parent families are increasing while cooking from scratch is falling," replies Professor Jeya Henry. "Our work is to complement natural diets."

"We've lost touch with what food is," adds diabetes expert Dr Lisa Ryan. "If you talk to 18-year-old students, many have never seen a meal prepared from scratch."

Professor Henry makes the point that families spend less money on food, less time cooking and less time eating together. When that link with older generations is broken, he says, we lose the wisdom that underpins the Functional Food Centre's research. What sort of wisdom? "Cultures around the world have meals that combine grains with legumes – chapatis with lentils in Asia, tortillas with black beans in the Americas, beans on toast here. That combination regulates absorption of sugars into the blood. They are [naturally] low-GI."

In addition to low-GI foods, Professor Henry foresees a future of personalised nutrition, diets for cognitive performance and diets for an ageing population: "We are an innovative people. And we're only scratching the surface of the link between food and health."

'We must grow more from less'

Economist Andrew Jarvis of Chatham House, which published the report 'Food Supply: Lunchtime Blues', explains the forces that drive food prices

As we look ahead to a future in which demand is ever-increasing, resources scarcer, and the climate less predictable, it is hard to believe that we are going to return to a world of cheap food. Many key centres of food production – the Punjab, Australia, California and southern Spain – are facing huge problems of access to water after 50 years of unsustainable use. Energy prices seem set to stay high and we cannot achieve the targets for greenhouse-gas emissions while continuing to generate food through fossil fuels and by clearing forests and other natural habitats. So we need to grow more from less.

The international prices that capture the headlines are important but they are not everything. Even for something apparently simple such as bread, wheat accounts for only a small fraction of the cost of loaf. Labour, fuel, seasonal shifts and sterling's value all have an impact on what we get charged at the till. And use of fossil fuels is now hard-wired into the food system, from the manufacture of fertilisers to the cost of the diesel for the trucks that supply your supermarket. When oil is $120 a barrel, costs go up.

People in the UK are less vulnerable to price spikes than the poor in the developing world, where a higher share of household income goes on food. In many parts of Africa, it is the local harvest and the capacity to store food that determines whether people can feed their families. It is these locations that harbour endemic hunger, which moves on to the front pages only when it morphs into mass starvation [as we are witnessing in East Africa now].

Supply and demand is finely balanced. When something goes wrong, such as a harvest failing, the balance is upset and prices climb. In the past, European markets were shielded from volatility because farm prices were supported, often at levels far above world prices. Those arrangements were expensive for the tax payer and consumer, and bad for the environment.

But the "new normal" – of volatility and uncertainty – is taking some getting used to. Analysis of 2008's food-price spikes suggests that governments made a difficult problem worse. When producers introduce export bans and importers panic-buy, prices are only going to go up. Governments should concentrate on three things: making markets work better; ensuring vulnerable countries can grow, move and store more food; and investing in the research needed to meet future demand.

The Gates Foundation, for instance, is looking to revive efforts to breed crops with reduced dependence on synthetic fertiliser – a challenge that could take decades. Our problems will be fixed (or not) in foreign fields rather than in Britain. But why can't Europe show some vision, take a slice off the billions in subsidies it gives to farmers and put that money into research on the sustainable solutions needed to secure European farming's future?

In the UK, we've seen more people being prepared to pay more for "better" food. Economic pressures are putting that interest to the test.

Grains of truth

6.9 billion - world's population

10 billion - world's population by the turn of the century

900 million - people going hungry now

350 million - diabetics worldwide (80-90 per cent Type-2)

50 per cent - increase in world food production needed by 2050

20-30 per cent - UK population working the land pre-war

50 per cent - increase in UK farm productivity post-war

1 per cent - UK population working the land now

40 per cent of weekly household budgets spent on food mid-20th century

11.4 per cent of weekly UK household budgets spent on food in 2009