In the battle of idealism v. pragmatism, who wins? Or how do we scale sustainability?

How about both sides winning? Or at least, between them, can agree to an honourable draw?

I’m continually reading — when not eating — looking to get as much new information as I can find on this whole food thing; to try & learn more about this subject so close to my heart (stomach?) and I already have no problem recognising the cold, hard truth, learned through bitter experience by those people who have chosen to go into small-scale, high-quality farming — what’s often called “sustainable food” — have already realised. And that is? That there are very many steps in that food- chain from the farmer to the consumer, and one pretty much 100% guaranteed way to go broke, is to try to go it alone.

“The dirty secret of the [farm-to-table] food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living”. Bren Smith.

And in his “A Greedy Man in a Hungry World“, Jay Rayner argues convincingly that

“Big Agriculture, Big Food — call it what you like — is here to stay.”

So how can we square this circle between the huge food combines on the one hand (the “bad” guys) and the small, family-run, ethical farmer (the “good” guys) on the other ?

I agree (with people much brighter & more deeply involved than I) that it’s a question of scaling. The food movement — pushed by celebrity chefs, journalists, numerous NGOs and even individual bloggers inc. yours truly— still misses, ironically, taking much real account of the views and perspective of the people doing the actual work involved in growing this very same food that they’re so passionate about. Our — idealistic — ‘platform’ has been largely predicated around how to provide good, healthy food, whilst pretty much ignoring the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in the current (global) food supply chain.

Those same chefs championing “local food”, “sustainable sources”, “seasonal ingredients” and all the rest of the current, in vogue, vocabulary know that running a restaurant is in reality, a low-margin, cut-throat business; chefs have to pay the bills too (and if they don’t, they soon learn this fact, or very quickly go to the wall — the failure rate is HUGE). To make sure they make enough to do this, the industry rough rule of thumb is: “keep food costs to 30 percent of the price of the meal”. But that leaves precious little to pay for ingredients that are, by virtue of they way they’re looked after and produced, sometimes 2 or even 3 times as expensive as that “dreck” we all claim to despise, available from the chain supermarkets.

So what about the hundreds of higher-priced, community-supported agriculture farmers’ markets that have sprouted up around the country? Surely they’ve made a real difference?

Hmmmmm. Those new venues were promising when they started appearing some 10 years or so ago, but now, with so many to choose from, there’s an increasing pressure on farmers to reduce their prices in the name of the great god Competition. And while weekend farmers’ markets thankfully remain valued community spaces, their sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages for our much-loved, rightly vaunted, small-scale farmers & producers. Young farmers, who can’t afford to buy land, instead are driven into neo-feudal relationships, leasing from huge agro-pharma combines. Indentured slaves, in all but name.

We need to insist on totally shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to support workers up and down the supply chain who are fighting for better wages so that their families can actually afford to buy the food these small farms grow.  The farmers & producers have to be helped to start building up their own production hubs and distribution systems outside the existing oligopoly in a truly effective and fair co-operative model. And whatever is done and agreed has to accept and ensure as the main principle, that growing good food also means making a good living — we shouldn’t be looking at (effectively a return to) subsistence farming as an acceptable option any longer, certainly in the richest countries.

More on this over the next few weeks as I expand on the problems, the complexities of unravelling what we currently have to work with and some suggestions for possible ‘solutions’ and ways to reduce the dependence on Big Food.

And one last thing?

Pot-belly can be a term of derision. But not around this neck of the woods, no sirree Bob! How about the Potbelly Brewery named after and using as their logo, a pot-bellied pig? We tried some of their beers; they’re good. We intend trying more. Who’d have thought we’d do that, eh?


About Salute The Pig

Charcuterie, smoking, curing, brining and all things porcine. Brought to you from deepest, darkest Cambs, England by Chris Bulow. In the smoker or in the kitchen.... Salutate porcum!
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