Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law
  • Audio
  • 15 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

British food: Moving beyond crisis

Updated Friday 29th January 2016

Have supermarkets got too much power? Have we lost touch with seasonal and local food in favour of convenience choice? Our panel discuss the future of British food.

Listen

Julian Cottee, Sanjay Kumar and Geoff Andrews Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license Julian Cottee, Sanjay Kumar & Geoff Andrews
 

Read

 

Geoff Andrews

I’m Geoff Andrews from the Open University.  In this podcast, I’m going to be discussing the power of the supermarkets, the revival of interest in local food markets and whether there’s an emerging crisis in the food system.  This is a time of big changes in the global food system, global trade or as some say globalisation’s expanding massively, challenging the livelihoods of local producers, the seasonality of food and bringing more powerful large corporations, above all supermarkets.  At the same time there’s a new interest in local food with a rise of farmers’ markets and a new awareness of environmental issues and biodiversity.

I mean, with me in the studio to discuss these issues, I’ve got Julian Cottee, Co-Founder of Cultivate, a community owned social enterprise, which brings fresh local organically grown food direct from farmers to the City of Oxford, and Sanjay Kumar, chef of the Headlands Hotel in Cornwall.  Can I start by asking you Sanjay is there a crisis in the food system?

Sanjay Kumar

Geoff, these are exciting times, and I guess convenience food has slowly crept into the British eating habits, and we have slowly started eating ignoring the cycles of nature, and yes there is a crisis in the food system in Britain.

Geoff Andrews

So it’s cheap convenience food that’s at the heart of this crisis.

Sanjay Kumar

Yes, convenience food has turned us into unadventurous shoppers who are working and shopping and eating and consuming against the cycles of nature, and it is making us separated from the cycles of nature.

Geoff Andrews

Julian, is crisis the right word to describe the food system at the moment?

Julian Cottee

It’s an interesting word, because walking into a supermarket you certainly wouldn’t think there’s a crisis.  We’re at a time when we have a cornucopia of food available to us.  I think it’s more akin to a time bomb really.  It’s a situation where cheap readily available food is masking huge costs at other times and in other places.  It’s a huge environmental cost in terms of the CO2 emissions associated with transporting and growing food, but it’s also a social cost associated with the low prices paid to farmers and a broader biodiversity cost in terms of monocultures and destruction of local ecosystems.

Geoff Andrews

And one of the biggest challenges at the moment, some people say, you know, that’s at the heart of this crisis or this time bomb or the availability of cheap convenience food, is the supermarket.  And we know in Britain they’re very powerful, threatening local markets, even traditional markets like Billingsgate and Smithfield.  You know, we get strawberries all year round, yet local farmers are squeezed.  Have they become too powerful?

Julian Cottee

I wouldn’t straightforwardly want to set out to bash supermarkets; I think it’s more complex than that.  It’s true that supermarkets have become by far and away the dominant way in which we do our shopping in this country, and 97% of grocery sales are rung through supermarket tills; about 78% of those sales are in just four big supermarket chains.  There’s a huge dominant force there, but that force can be used in a variety of ways.  It has been in some ways very pernicious in terms of squashing prices to primary producers.  In other cases, for example look at the Co-op supermarket turning their entire range of chocolate over to fair trade, they can have a huge impact on the entire supply chain.

Geoff Andrews

Paradoxically, Sanjay, there’s been this new interest in local food.

Sanjay Kumar

Yeah.

Geoff Andrews

And you’re a chef based in Cornwall, a county with strong food traditions.  How important are local food markets to your weekly menu as a chef?

Sanjay Kumar

Local food is very significant to me as a chef, because it creates a symbiotic relationship with nature, the produce, the producer and my menu.  As a chef I work as an informant and a decision maker as to what the consumer will eat today, and being in a relationship and a harmonious connection with local food gives me the power to give the right economic fresh local choice to the consumer at the right time of the year and in the right season.

Geoff Andrews

Can you give me an idea, some insight into the kind of local producers you meet, you know, the local markets you visit?

Sanjay Kumar

Local produce is all about eating the right food at the right time of the year, be it asparagus, be it sardine, be it tomatoes, be it berries.  It’s about the anticipation is the joy of eating strawberries in summer just as it is being vine ripened under the sun as much as sun we get in Cornwall.  It’s about eating asparagus when it comes out of ground in such a force that you are possibly harvesting it three times a day.  It’s about sardines which come into the Cornish waters in the summer, only for a brief period, and it’s about eating the right food at the prime so that you get the best nutritious value and yet enjoy the fact that you’re not being across the border, over the counter and not knowing what is the origin of food.  It’s about connecting to the base, to the heart of the food where it comes from and getting it through the real person who is possibly in many cases vending the food himself or herself as well.  So it’s a journey from the plough to the plate or from the boat to the plate through the food producer itself, and it’s a great story.

Geoff Andrews

There’s some local food knowledge that’s in the Cornish community, the markets and so on that you’re relying on.

Sanjay Kumar

The power of knowledge draws experience from traditions, and nature has a strong role to play as far as nutrition and health is concerned, and if a food producer brings some food to the local market, he has his reputation on the stake as much as I have it as a chef.  It is a journey which is clean, good, clean and fair where you know that the food that is being brought from the source to the plate has a story behind it and it is good for you.

Geoff Andrews

Julian, Cultivate is attempting to change the eating habits of the people of Oxford, and you really are an alternative to supermarkets aren’t you with your pop-up markets and the VegVan?

Julian Cottee

Well I mean I’ll add to what Sanjay’s just said that local food is really about people at its heart.  It’s about the quality of the food and it’s about people.  And what we’ve started in Oxford is a community owned local food co-op.  We have 230 members who have invested between them £80,000 for the startup of this social enterprise.  And what we’re doing is fitting out a van to become a mobile shop that goes to various parts of the City and the surrounding areas that will take produce from our fields and other local producers out to where people are.

Geoff Andrews

This is directly from the farmers to the community.

Julian Cottee

Directly from farmers the same day, so the relationships that we have with the producers and with the customers are at the absolute core of making the social enterprise work.

Geoff Andrews

And is this sending a message saying to consumers in Oxford you don’t need to rely on the supermarkets, here is an alternative, is that what you’re arguing?

Julian Cottee

That’s the idea.  We think it’s our job not to sit back and criticise what’s going on in other parts of the food system, but to come up with alternatives that are economically viable, competitive, but also really attractive and fun.  And that’s what we’re setting out to do, we’re trying to create energy and movement behind local food in Oxford.

Sanjay Kumar

It also reduces waste, because it takes me back to the pre-refrigeration days where you only shop for so much as you need on a daily basis, so the food is not staying in your refrigerator for a long time; you are buying fresh local produce and consuming it within a day or two.  I have a classic example: a bag of spinach which stays in the fridge for more than eight days at 37 degrees loses half of its folic acid, so you’re eating basically leaves with no nutrients in it.  So possibly it’s taking spinach from the field to plate within one day and consuming it at its prime, is that what you’re trying to do?

Julian Cottee

And we’re starting to change how we shop as consumers.  I think we’re less setting out with a list of things from a recipe to buy, but we’re going out to the producer or the local retailer and saying what’s in season, what have you got?  Buying up what’s fresh and lovely and making something out of that, and a key element of what we’re trying to do is have the producers there present at the point of sale so that they can inform and communicate with the customers, tell them what’s going on in the field, show them the tops of the beetroot as well as the beetroot stem itself, and explain to them how they can use that in their cooking for example.

Geoff Andrews

And let’s be clear this isn’t just market for posh people who’ve seen on the many food programmes on TV that farmers’ markets look good and so on, this is a community.  You’re providing a service to the community really is that what you’re saying?

Julian Cottee

That’s our challenge now is to go beyond the very committed core of people who buy local, a fantastic group of people, but tend to be environmentally conscious, well educated, middle class.  Now we’ve got to go out to other groups of people within our community who have the desire and passion to eat fresh local food, but maybe need other ways of accessing that food, and we’ve got to create those.

Sanjay Kumar

I don’t personally think that farmers’ market is a place only for people who have a lot of money.  I come from Indian humble backgrounds and local market or a hart or souq is a formula that has run for less-resourced civilisations for a long time.  And I guess shopping locally is not about the resource, it’s about the interest.

Geoff Andrews

Yet despite this interest in local food some people are predicting that with increasing economic pressures people will return to the supermarket in search of cheap convenient food, how would you respond Julian to that?

Julian Cottee

I think it’s certainly not the case that local food is always more expensive than supermarket food.  There are great efficiencies to be had in transporting things over smaller distances.  And if you compare fresh good quality produce to supermarket packaged meals or pre-prepared foods, then there are certainly savings to be had from buying locally.

Geoff Andrews

Sanjay?

Sanjay Kumar

Absolutely!  Poverty should not be used as an excuse to eat unhealthy or unadventurously.  Look at the humble chicken, if you buy a whole free range organic chicken from a farmers’ market, you can use it from the wishbone to the tail, and use it for four or five different meals, and feed a family for a couple of pounds extra.  As compared to that, if you buy a pre-packaged set of chicken breasts from a supermarket, which might look cheap in the first instance, but won’t give you the value because possibly it will shrink to half its size, and won’t have the taste and the flavour and the nutritious value that it gives to your family.  So at the end of the day shopping local has its own benefits, and it definitely does not have to have the economic tagline attached to it, look at the value not the price.

Julian Cottee

I would add to that though Sanjay that food has become undervalued.  We’ve seen downward pressure on food prices to the point where food is now cheaper than it’s ever been at a time where we’re economically better off than we’ve ever been, and we’re spending less and less on food, and the hidden cost of that is pushed down to farmers at the lowest levels.  At some point we had to see a recalibration of our value chain and supply chain, and it may be the case that in some instances produce needs to become more expensive to reflect what is fair for producers, and you see this with the fair trade movement in the developing world, but maybe there are similarities with what needs to happen in our own backyard.

Sanjay Kumar

It’s not all doom and gloom; there is definitely a lot of good light in the future.  We just need to focus on making the most out of resources.

Geoff Andrews

And finally, looking at the bigger picture again, one of the impacts I think of the industrial food system has been the decline of people wanting to work on the land, who wanted to be farmers.  Can I ask is that likely to change and what does the future hold for consumers and producers Julian?

Julian Cottee

We’re now at a time where the average age of farmers is 60+ in the UK.  There are very few new entrants to farming, and there are obvious reasons for that.  It’s a job with incredibly long hours, it’s very poorly paid, and it’s difficult to market produce and make a decent living off it.  I think there’s some encouragement to be taken by looking at what’s going on interestingly in the US, where there’s been a real movement of young people re-energising farming from the ground up and mostly going into small ecologically-friendly farming, and I think we see a similar thing happening here.  If you look at the growth of farmers’ markets in the UK, it’s come about twenty years after that in the States, and we’re now really getting rolling on that.  If you look at community supported agriculture, a similar process is happening.  And I think you see the beginnings of a revival, a renaissance in agriculture in this country I hope. 

Geoff Andrews

And one of the things you get from the US in particular is when people talk about critically the cheap food economy, food movements in the US and making all these connections it seems to me between the environments, between local food, between education and the wider political economic system, so they have a kind of holistic approach rather than seeing food as a sort of nostalgic return to the past.

Sanjay Kumar

US is the nucleus to bring change, and I guess a lot of movements I would say have begun there and have been models for the whole world to follow, and I guess change will come beginning in US and following through in the whole world.

Geoff Andrews

But we’ve had movements in Britain, such as Hugh’s Fish Fight.

Sanjay Kumar

Yes.

Geoff Andrews

And I know you’ve been involved in a campaign to save the sardines.  So it’s not all negative in Britain, there, you know, in recent years have been important movements that have grown around food.

Sanjay Kumar

The future of British food is bright.  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight and my recent campaign to bring Cornish sardines back into fashion, one bite at a time, shows that education is the key to eat healthy.

Geoff Andrews

Okay, I’m sure this debate is going to continue.  I’d like to thank Julian Cottee and Sanjay Kumar.

13’25”

 

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

The politics of food: Perspectives Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: By Marcin Floryan via Wikimedia under Creative Commons 2.5 audio icon

Society, Politics & Law 

The politics of food: Perspectives

How does the decline of the British apple orchard have wider significance to our understanding of food, politics and the way we live? And why it is so important that the food activists have sustainable goals.

Audio
15 mins
‘Social Murder’: the realities of ‘Better Regulation’ in Contemporary Britain Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Artwork by Catherine Pain © The Open University article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

‘Social Murder’: the realities of ‘Better Regulation’ in Contemporary Britain

Is the 'Better Regulation' in areas like food safety, workers' health and pollution control slowly killing us?

Article
Food: A nation of haves and have-nots Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Food: A nation of haves and have-nots

The latest evidence about the growth in food banks reminds us that the Coalition's policies are making the situation worse, writes Dick Skellington.

Article
Elitism won't hold back the food revolution Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Elitism won't hold back the food revolution

With interest in the sociology of food increasing, Geoff Andrews explains how assumptions of ‘fine dining’ are being disrupted

Article
Berlusconi: Perspectives Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Markwaters via Dreamstime.com under subscription. audio icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Berlusconi: Perspectives

Elections once every four years, an all or nothing choice, is probably outdated - but what is the cost of populism, such as achieved by Berlusconi, for democracy? Join Dr Geoff Andrews, and his guests, for a roundtable discussion.

Audio
15 mins
Luxury pudding: Food shopping in a time of austerity Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team video icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Luxury pudding: Food shopping in a time of austerity

As the credit crunch lunch becomes more common Gregg Wallace give us his views on the rise of the healthy take away and public consumption of ethical food products.

Video
5 mins
Can consumer ethics survive the recession? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: איתמר ק., ITamar K article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Can consumer ethics survive the recession?

Will the increase in ethical consumption over the last few years be affected by the recession?

Article
Buying local food Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Buying local food

Can buying local food make a difference to the wider planet?

Article
Food Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Nature & Environment 

Food

When it comes to food, we are bombarded with choices. We consider some of them here

Article