Call for Sustainable Food

Tom Carmen

What will it take to create a sustainable food system? A lively audience of about thirty people heard Tom Carman of Cultivate Oxford explore this theme at the latest Green Drinks event organised by Sustainable Charlbury, which took place at The Bell in Charlbury on 11th April.

Tom described how economic power rests in a few hands within the UK food production system, pointing to a screen showing a chart that looked like an hour glass. “Flour milling and baking are good examples,” Tom explained. “There are about 63,000 grain farmers and over 60 million consumers, but in the middle there are three companies that mill around 50% of all grain, and two bakers that produce 55% of all bread,” he said.
This was one of several examples showing how global food production systems are concentrated on a few big firms. Another example showed how three companies (Philip Morris, Nestle and Sara Lee) roast 45% of all global coffee beans.
Tom said this has been a trend over time, as power has moved away from farmers, initially to manufacturers, then wholesalers and more recently retailers and marketing businesses. Sometimes we underestimate the size of these companies, Walmart is larger than either General Motors or Exxon Mobile.
This model may deliver for some people who gain access to high quality food, but in too many places there are “food deserts” where fast food outlets dominate, and life expectancy is dramatically lower.
The challenge is to create a food model that ensures a biodiverse countryside that allows farmers to generate a decent living. Sometimes the answers are not clear-cut. A farmer in the audience explained how they had moved to a “no till” arable model and soil quality had improved hugely, but to do this they relied on pesticides that were shortly to be banned.
There are examples of where communities are doing things differently, The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission are supporting studies of what our food system might look like in the next few years. Many people will still buy from large retailers, but increasingly communities are working together to grow and distribute food.
Locally, The Kitchen Garden People have been growing year-round salads and a wide variety of fresh produce since 2016 for their growing number of weekly member customers in Charlbury, Chadlington, Leafield, Finstock and Chipping Norton. Christine Elliott of Charlbury Green Hub also spoke about the annual Big Apple Take-Aways run in Charlbury every autumn
since 2008, ensuring that fruit from local gardens and orchards isn’t wasted and is made freely available to local people.
Whilst there are great ideas and the sector has grown significantly over the last decade, the existing food model remains dominant and is likely to do so for a few years yet.
But the meeting was left with a vision about a possible food future might look like and some practical examples of how we could start to make a change.
Tom’s slides can be downloaded here: Tom’s slides
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