Open up...and say 'ah ha'! : Conference bloggers : Soil Association

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Open up...and say 'ah ha'!

Pat Thomas - 02 March 2012

How do we decide what to eat? That was the subject of today’s Rethinking Diets panel discussion and debate.Most of us there expected some blue sky thinking but to say the skies turned a little thundery in our little room is an understatement.

The Soil Association’s Richard Young made a fascinating case for bringing back indigenous pasture fed animals because not only can they thrive in our climate but the simple act of eating a natural diet of pasture means they have a healthier fat profile that mixes saturates, monosaturates and polyunsaturates in proportions that are optimal for human health.

Richard’s view of the research, which was echoed by that of Dr Nastasha Campbell-McBride is that we’ve demonised animal fat at the expense of our health (though few agreed with Dr Campbell-McBride’s view that vegetarians were suffering from a form of mental illness!). Of course this is absolutely the antithesis of message we’ve all grown up with and a hard sell in the marketplace.

Nevertheless, compelling research shows that the link between fat and heart health remains unproven and indeed the ‘fat is bad’ mantra has been used to skew dietary advice to a spectacular degree making it harder for any of us to make clear decisions about how we eat.

As Sue Dibbs of Sustain said, many of us just eat what’s there, because busy lives mean that we rely on others (such as supermarkets) to make the choice for us. Yours truly suggested that it’s time to at least put the notion of choice editing on the table for a proper discussion – really do we need supermarkets with 30,000 different products to feel ‘free’?

Suddenly it becomes clear that for all the blah blah blah that we hear on the topic of food on a daily basis, real discussion about what we eat, how we eat, how our food is produced, what’s healthy and what isn’t and how the data on this is misdirected and misinterpreted to serve not so healthy corporate aims, is very rare indeed.

How do we decide what to eat? Well maybe we could start with more conversations like this that put it all on the table for everyone to digest.

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13 March 2012 15:08

Philip. As I said before me and you will argue forever. just to put the record straight i did not say that veg travelling distances was worse than local livestock. Carbon footprint even an air freighted lettuce is only a third of beef. That aside i don't think your mythical grass-fed organic ruminants exist. I have worked on a lot of farms and have never seen them. The standards are percentage different but it is definitely not the case with organic dairy who get impressive yields precisely because of grain feeding. Grain feeding is also standard with organic pigs and poultry.

Philip Ridley
12 March 2012 13:26

Anon. Indeed, and the point is, that there is a growing number of people saying that there is no basis for asking people to reduce consumption of organic meat. The Soil Association's policy, in my humble opinion should be to encourage more consumption of all organic food produce. If the Association is not confident of its organic meat products, then why should livestock farmers pay for organic certification and why should consumers purchase said products? This is the most silly position to take. As you rightly point out, organic vegetables flown in from thousands of miles away have far greater impact upon the environment than meat produced locally. And again, you have applied a complete distortion to your statements because organic meat is primarily grass fed (The soil association requires that), and organic cows can be fed hay silage during the winter, that the farmer cuts from his own fields. It is only confinement animals that are fed primarily grain based diets, and it is only conventional farms that use GM soy. So I agree, go for less grain feeding and less confinement, but the way to achieve that is to encourage increased consumption of organic meat.

10 March 2012 15:31

As far as I am aware the Soil Association message is eat less meat not don't eat meat. Last time I looked the import crisis around food is that 95% of our fruit isn't grown here and neither is 50% of our vegetables. According to Simon Fairlie from our existing rural hinterland we could produce enough meat and dairy for everyone from organic systems. So therefore this brings me back to my point we should be concentrating on arable land being used for healthy crops for direct human consumption. This is in direct contrast to the current 60% of arable land that is feeding livestock cereals when instead they should be eating grass (in the case of ruminants) and waste (in the case of poultry and pigs).

Philip Ridley
09 March 2012 23:07

Anon. Precisely, which is why the Soil Association should not be in the business of telling people to not eat meat, for their health and environment, because those criticisms only apply to factory farmed meat. You appear to want balance without recognising that there has been an anti-livestock element in recent years attempting to marginalise livestock farmers. This must end so that we can have co-existence and the encouragement of organics wherever farming is found.

09 March 2012 19:01

Philip. I said that both systems should live alongside each other. The Soil Association should support market garden in urban and peri urban agendas because it supports its other agendas particularly around good food for all. It also has its new project around sustainable cities. You are trying to polarise me when I am not taking that position. In the spirit of this tolerance the Soil Association should not be organising "rethinking diets" workshop without allowing the peer reviewed studies around 9-a-day to be presented and should be guarded around allowing a presentation that says long-term vegans are mentally ill. That is insulting to me who is a certified licensee who pays my fees, is totally inspired by the agroecology of the soil - reading Eve Balfours book the Living Soil was a life changing moment for me and has shaped all my important life decisions since. You say: the Soil Association shouldn't marginalise livestock producers - it doesn't it represents their interest very well. I say the Soil Association shouldn't marginalise vegans especially if they are food producers using animal free techniques like composting and green manures. That is my fundamental question. Is this a new direction for the Soil Association? Others in the Soil Association have pointed out to me that this isn't the case as a stockfree grower was allowed to present in another workshop. Perhaps someone who understands plant-based nutrition and health should have been paid the same courtesy in this workshop. To create balance and reduce exclusion. I know at least two people who attended this workshop were extremely upset afterwards. That doesn't create community cohesion within the movement it cause long-term harm.

Philip Ridley
06 March 2012 19:15

John. Whether or not animals are necessary to organics, shouldn't we encourage livestock farmers to become organic rather than telling them to halt production, engaging them rather than marginalizing them? Telling people to not eat their products will merely serve to marginalize the Soil Association, which should instead focus on counteracting factory farming.

John Byng
06 March 2012 18:04

I am not a vegan or a vegitarian but I do know that animals are not "necessary for organic agriculture" as Philip Ridley states. Experiments with stockless rotations have been very succesful in producing organic crops.

Philip Ridley
06 March 2012 17:02

Anon. Regardless of your ambitions for a vegetarian country, Britain has and always will have livestock farmers. The economics of livestock will always over-whelm any of your attempts. Are you seriously suggesting that sustainable livestock producers in this country should be shunned by the Soil Association? This dogmatic approach provides you no favors and will do nothing to affect the public's appetite for meat. It will only achieve the marginalization of the Soil Association, setting back the organics agenda. Within this debate, nobody is criticizing the market garden model and of course it should play a key role in restoring local produce to this Country, with or without animal manure. Unfortunately you seem to see this as a polarized debate, whereby we have either a market garden or a pasture based livestock system, but the world is not like that, and both can co-exist. Thus, in promoting pasture based farming, I am not criticizing your market garden, and I advise you to not be so defensive.

06 March 2012 16:22

I think that you think there is only one organic food production system - there isn't. Mixed farming may work in rural hinterland areas on non-arable soils but it is not the best system for urban and peri-urban situations when we have rising world populations. In those situations we should concentrate on market gardening recycling societal wastes and green manuring. Even Simon Fairlie "livestock permacultural" scenario agrees with this. Biointensive growing with super efficient distribution is the only option. Market gardening, orchards, soft fruit and nut groves produce the maximum food calories per hectare. Also I won't be taking you up on the chicken idea because I don't want to make a 365 day commitment to the market garden when we pay wages. It is hard enough making a living from it as it is. Livestock is just too expensive for the average joe grower like me to introduce.

Philip Ridley
06 March 2012 15:27

Dear Anon. It is precisely the need to move from GM that is the reason why it is so important for the Soil Association to engage with livestock farmers. If The Soil Association withdraws from that sector, then it will continue towards the factory farming route without a positive counterbalance. I think your desire to move away from meat is therefore counterproductive to your objectives.

06 March 2012 11:44

I seriously hope that the Soil Association organised this workshop to promote debate and not showing the future direction of food policy for my charity that I pay nearly £600 towards each year. Philip - Joel Salatin is dismissed in the scientific community as making things up and buying in livestock feed probably GM. The nutritionists seem shaky internet phenomenon who are into selling supplements and not into having their work peer reviewed. If this is a new waive of intolerance towards vegan and vegetarians in the Soil Association then it needs to take a good look at itself. They are often the staunchest supporters and customers. This is in polar opposition to "good food for all" which I have been extremely filled with optimism about.

vicki hird
05 March 2012 14:19

this was clearly a frustratingly short session for what is a huge and hugely crucial topic. I suspect in 5 years time it will be seen as the most important one regarding food and we will need some tried and tested policy solutions to drive dietary change. But for now I have always found that when talking to people, in the UK, who only care a bit and have even less time, quoting Michael Pollan is the best way: 'eat food, not too much, mostly plants'. For other communities with different climates and ecology there may be suitable variations..

Philip Ridley
05 March 2012 09:16

Anon. I just recommend that you get a small flock of chickens in your market garden, raised for eggs. This requires little space. Two or three can provide for a family, and you can pickle eggs for the winter. Feed them on scraps from the market garden and your kitchen and allow them to range and eat bugs. Then do a comparison, comparing veg plots with chicken manure and compost, and those with only compost from plant sources. Also, feed those fresh beautiful eggs to a child and see their eyes light up, or whisk a few raw golden yolks into your smoothie and notice how it makes you feel. Also, notice how the garden comes alive with just a couple animals, quite literally. God provided us with plants and animals, and I do believe that if we allow balance, then many of the problems in the world will work themselves out. One of the saddest things about the modern world is that we have been taught that polarized imbalance is balance, when nothing could be further from the truth.

04 March 2012 19:27

I think the main issues that Dr Natasha is arguing are that animal fats are not the issue in poor diet. I think Dr Natasha now needs to submit her papers to respected medical / nutrition journals and get her work peer reviewed. That is the only way to take it forward. I always feel uneasy about people who like putting their names to websites but that might be my British cultural upbringing. Perhaps her friends should make her aware that to many it puts her in the category of doctors who get internet degrees although I am aware that this is not the case. I believe health benefits come with eating more fruit and vegetables i.e. nine-a-day be that through reducing meat and dairy or reducing refined carbohydrates. This seems to be backed by Pat Thomas own work for Friends of the Earth and the 10 year European diet study by Oxford University. The main way to match land use with the health needs of our population is setting up market gardens to serve urban and peri-urban areas. Market gardens have multiple outcomes including health education, improved mental wellbeing, job creation, volunteering opportunities for marginalised people etc. They can also be set up on small patches of land e.g. Growing Communities micro sites. The Maasi comment was directed at Philip as he was suggesting that this is the roots of my diet. I disagree bovines have only been domesticated since neolithic times as far I am aware. Until Dr Natasha peer reviews her work we will probably be having the same discussions in 30 years time. Kind regards.

Gill Jacobs
04 March 2012 18:06

Anon, I'm sorry you didn't get my point. I hope others did. Look forward to carrying on this discussion face to face at another seminar sometime soon.

04 March 2012 15:11

To Gill and Philip. Thanks for an interesting Sunday discussion. I would urge against romanticising the diets of people who are living on the absolute marginal lands of the world like the Inupiat and the Maasi - this argument is always trotted out. In Britain we do not live in what are essentially deserts. The Maasi men are very aggressive and have some dubious cultural traditions including beating their wives, letting the women and girls do all the work and female gential mutilation of young girls. We cannot pick and choose which traditions we like of theirs. I am sure these traditions lead to a lot of mental health conditions far worse than imposing nearly two decades of a wholefood vegan diet on my body. If I was going to be experiencing the mental disfunction that you are arguing for I think it would have happened already. I also am friends with a lot of long term vegans and they are extremely positive people who hold professional careers and often work towards social justice. Britain is one of the best countries for growing food and that we should do. I am thinking we need a Dig for Victory type food system but instead linked to community-led trade ideas developed by Julie Brown. This is the only way I can see to create jobs in low-income neighbourhoods and connect everyone to better diets.

Philip Ridley
04 March 2012 00:04

In addition, if you wish to see how mixed family farms can feed our population, read Graham Harvey's "Carbon Fields".

03 March 2012 23:04

As a vegan of 17 years and a registered organic farmer for 8 years I feel saddened that the perceived lack of healthiness of a vegan diet marginalises vegans who are a subject of ridicule within the organic movement even though many of them are doing a excellent job as food producers. These forms of prejudice would not be acceptable in other walks of life. We don't run a mixed farm because we do not have the space. What I do know is that our rented 3 acre market garden, that is run purely on compost and green manures, feeds a lot more people on arable land (not marginal land) than any mixed farming system I have seen. Mixed farming was fine when we had the population before the second world war. It cannot provide 60.5 million people with a diet full of fruit and vegetables. Oxford Uni are arguing for nine-a-day. We are living in resource depleting times we have to get to grips with the real issues for arable land i.e. maximum calories per hectare. I believe urban and peri-urban horticulturalists e.g. the SPIN farming movement in US etc have much more to environment, health and social justice agendas over large organic farms that buy inputs from and sell within the industrialised food system. I also know onto our 3 acres we welcome about 30 volunteers each week with heart breaking issues around learning disability, physical disabilities and enduring mental health issues. We give then something to look forward away from where they live which is a really deprived and declining industrial town. Surely this is what "Good Food For All" is really about? Finally I would like to add that my veganism and that of my children (who are veggie) is not showing any lack of mental faculty in fact the opposite we are really happy, every day, and our children are thriving alongside the community that we are creating. We understand that we need to eat healthy fats and we include them in our diet. That is not a problem in a plant based diet. I also agree that a major factor in obesity is refined carbohydrates. The issues are complex but the vegan bashing in the organic movement takes us backwards not forwards.

Philip Ridley
03 March 2012 21:56

Pat, I was interested to see that you campaigned in the past for Meat Free Mondays. Given that animals are necessary for organic agriculture and, given that there are now questions about saturated fat, it would be interesting to see what implications that has for the meat reduction agenda that may fail to achieve any human health or ecological benefits, tho I do believe that many involved in that movement are unaware of that. I think it key that we not only rally against factory farmed animals, but also fight for grass fed, organic animals.

Barbara Jones
03 March 2012 19:03

It was a shame that this workshop had a poor start with last minute changes to the panellists and late arrival of Dr Natasha Campbell McBride. Joanna Blythman was asked to chair the workshop at short notice and was only made aware at a very late stage during the session, that we actually had an extra half hour. So everything was too rushed unnecessarily and points could not be made or explored in any depth. I had come across the work of the Weston A Price Foundation before and my daughter had attended a lecture last week by Dr Campbell McBride and recommended her highly. Without this background information, I don't think it would have been possible to get much from that session at all. From what I understand of the work of the Weston A Price Foundation, the organic system of food production is fundamental to their teachings and there was no time to bring this into the discussion and to make the connection between their work and this conference. This did her a disservice and would surely not improve the credibility of the Soil Association in their eyes. I was aware that you, Pat, were brief and succinct with your comments thus allowing more time for discussion in that short workshop, so thank you for that...

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