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Minute of the Quaker Business Conference 2014 - FOOD: There’s a story behind everything we eat

Friends House, London, 5th November 2014.

57 Q&B members, Friends and others concerned with the Food industry, met at Friends House in London on Wednesday 5 November 2014, for the tenth in this present series of Quaker Business Conferences, to consider the subject of FOOD. We were shown: more about how probably the largest, most diverse industry on the planet produces food; more about how to purchase food more responsibly ourselves; and more about how to apply useful pressure for beneficial change. Besides knowing more, we learned that becoming a citizen journalist is one way to press for change.

Preparing the way for this Conference is the very informative Pre-Conference Circular, outlining the issues in the global food industry today, and listing information and campaigning groups active in the industry. A version can be downloaded here.

Attending Conference are people from many farming and food-related interests, including those working on and concerned about:- animal, insect, soil and plant care; measuring the true cost of producing food; distributing food sustainably; cooking; GM including single gene replacement; and non-GM plant development via selective breeding (the salt tolerant potato was given as a recent successful, useful example here). The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association were present too: it focuses on raising ruminant animals exclusively on pasture. All present were welcomed and encouraged to contribute. See the Circular for the full list of groups present.

Despite the many causes for concern about the global food industry, Conference's mood has been positive: many good things are happening. We sought a balanced and discerning view of the way agriculture is organised presently, and how it can be - and in fact is - being improved.

John Turner, Quaker and Farmer from Lincolnshire described his family's approach to Mixed Farming, which is a 7 year rotation cycle of wheat, barley, oats, then 4 years of clover & grasses. This rotation sustains the fertility of the soil more effectively than the straight application of fertilizers annually to perpetual food crop fields.

However, agricultural subsidies still encourage large, heavily fertilized, monoculture crops in large single field acreages. And, cattle are kept in very large sheds, even on organic farms. Is this latter fact really what organic food buyers might expect? Food labels presently do not convey important facts and information about production methods. Also, ill thought out subsidy systems can encourage perverse outcomes, including the ploughing up of permanent pastures to retain land use flexibility.

John pointed to the practical difficulties of getting the spirit of good farming recognised in the market, and asked: “What would the food chain look like, if designed from Quaker Values?” He distinguished between the exploiter, an expert focused on private profit, and the nurturer who focuses on care and sustainability of the natural world's food production system. John encouraged us to become more discerning and to look for new ways of purchasing sustainably produced food.

Next, Compassion in World Farming’s Philip Lymbery described what he had learned in travelling the world to write his book FARMAGEDDON. With industrial farming, the large numbers of animals housed in one place are increasingly out of balance with the land from which their food is derived, and onto which their manure must be disposed. This leads to large scale-pollution of land and water, affecting the health of both people and livestock. He described landscape scale orchards in California, which are tree monocultures, lacking birds and having all its pollinating bees trucked in – who fly between the aerial pesticide sprays - normally that is!

Despite this and other disheartening stories, Philip spoke positively about the opportunities for change, and what we can do as individuals. He described his organisation's work in speaking truth to the powerful in large supermarkets, to win them over to the better path. Philip encourages the view that access to real, nourishing food is a basic right. Why do the poor get to eat poor quality, cheap food? Can this be right, Friends? Remember: 'New occasions bring new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth'. Though today's cheap, poor quality food might be more abundant, is it nutritionally better than yesterday's poverty diet? Is it good enough, by today's standards? We heard that the nutritional content of food has actually diminished by a factor of up to 3 under some of today’s production systems. (Scientific citations are available to support this assertion.)

And, how can food availability be better distributed worldwide, to avoid Western obesity and undernourishment elsewhere?

Colin Tudge, writer and founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, demonstrated that it is quite feasible to feed a growing world population without destroying the productive land. Doing so requires a shift to farming with nature rather than seeking to control it, to recycling the land and to food eaters paying a price for food closer to its true cost. Colin emphasised that smaller farms can produce more food per acre than large farms, because they are better managed over time – by working with nature. Colin was doubtful about attempts to influence the large food production and retailing companies, because their core purpose of maximising private returns to their leaderships, debt holders and shareholders will permit them to make only relatively small and market-sensitive shifts in their practice. “They are absolutely locked in to what they do. They are the presently dominant neo-liberal version of capitalism, where nothing matters at all apart from profit maximisation and privatisation. In extremis, they might say of us: Morality is for wimps!”

Instead, Colin seeks a, still capitalist, renaissance in Food production and retailing, utilising all the new and at present still smaller structures and processes linking farmers to their land and to their markets. These may produce results Friends might prefer. He seeks a capitalism with morality built in, where a business must wash its face, and then equitably, sustainably, compassionately benefit all it affects, not just enrich a few. He sees the present food supply chain as a massive source of food waste, organised to ensure the continuance of its market! Colin says the way forward is in communities taking over and making sustainable parts of the overall Food system. Underlying ideas are: Economic democracy (see the Circular), plus food justice, security and sovereignty.

Sally Bagenal, Quaker and former organic farmer with deep experience, and first CEO of the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative, explained the mid-late 20th Century origins of the organic farming movement. She focused on the creation of the organic milk market; Sainsbury's were a lead supermarket, and other major outlets were involved. This led to harsh lessons in large corporations' commercial behaviour, and how to co-exist with a supermarket’s approach to its supply chain. It can be done, but it is not easy. Could supply chains be organised more compassionately, less 'dog-eat-dog'? Sally's view is yes, and building on what has been learned so far, there is real, potentially useful work being done here.

Patrick Chalmers, author and former Reuters’ journalist, with former editor of The Friend Judy Kirby, explained how to use easily accessible, low cost social media to be citizen journalists and so more effectively spread our messages of change. “It's about getting the compelling stories out to people. How is that done? By telling a story. It's a way of getting something changed for the better, by moving people to do things differently.” Patrick found that conventional media do not always act as forces for positive change. National and international level policy making is often powerfully influenced by corporate and sectional interests, and done behind closed doors. Patrick has written a book about it: Fraudcast News. He suggests: tell some positive stories about food, which are too little known. Also, speak truth to power, and, as a journalist, speak the truth about power to those affected by power – particularly when power is not listening. For surely, Friends, rightly, power is answerable to those whom it affects? Canst thou pray and work lovingly to bring in such a world?

We were shown examples made in our Conference, and are invited to learn the skills of citizen journalism: to use our own smart phones and post our uncut, unedited videos onto the internet. [Friends, we have heard that citizen journalism can be a powerful tool for good. Therefore also like all human tools, it can be used, potentially, for ill too. Please use it lovingly. - This is a note from your Minute Clerk.]

Patrick invited us to view an online video called The Corporation, which dramatises the inner nature, the selfish genetics, of the current corporation, embodied in the design of the limited company since its inception in the mid-19th Century. He sees this corporate design as a structural issue, a state of affairs which is sustained principally by the power of its rich beneficiaries.

Our subsequent small group discussions produced answers to the posed questions:-

  1. What would change look like?
    • compassionate farming standards becoming the norm
    • small scale farming can produce more per acre. But as it is on a small scale, it is a thin income.
    • so more research and investment should go into small scale as well as into large scale farming
    • good balanced food, well cooked, becoming the norm
    • a thinking, reflective acceptance that Food is just one of many major interconnected world issues
  2. How to get there?
    • better inspection, better awareness, better behaved supermarkets
    • generally, present government policies and present supermarket behaviour will not do it.
    • animal-centred farming, allowing animals to be themselves, rather than mass processed
    • examples of good practice, from TV etc
    • greater diversity of cultures in the UK: we need more migration!
    • maybe nobody can change this system? All are complicit. Despair and stasis exist as options
    • therefore, a catastrophe may be required to shift humanity forward
    • short of that, study the supply chain between farm gate and supermarket checkout for openings
    • get those from across the whole Food industry to meet and work together for positive change
  3. Where will it start?
    • with public awareness, education
    • with a move away from cheap, low nutrition food
    • with the individual, not with the supermarket
    • and, faith groups may be able to help
    • with food supply health scares which really shock
    • with innovation! Unforeseen new ways and devices surely will help
    • with solving the quality versus affordability issue for those on low incomes
  4. What Can I do?
    • eat less but better meat, which benefits animal welfare
    • support community and local farms and local shops, set up a lobby group,
    • support restaurants with traceable food sources
    • accept that change will be slow, but if we all try, know that it can be cumulative
    • build new structures locally, and join with others in so doing
    • look at the list of Groups in the Circular, and link with them
    • create spaces with many margins, where people from varying disciplines and roles can interact
    • show practical alternatives
    • use your smart phone to read bar codes on meat in butchers, to read its provenance!
    • learn to be a citizen journalist

We learned that Oxford hosts both the Establishment's Farming Conference, and also the Non-establishment's Real Farming Conference!

May we hope that one day they may become one, creative, diverse Conference?

Timothy Phillips, Minute Clerk
Wednesday 5 November 2014
Friends House, London, UK