Edinburgh International Book Festival: Good Low-Cost Food

Review by Ceris Aston | 16 Aug 2014
  • Artisan Bread

Food is, and always has been, a political issue. As writers and activists Mike Small and Andrew Whitley address the comfortably full tent at Edinburgh International Book Festival, discussion ranges from the globalisation of the food industry to sourdough. Small opens the discussion, declaring to widespread agreement that "there’s something fundamentally wrong with how we produce and distribute food." The author and food campaigner makes a compelling case against what he terms "the corporate capture of our food system," arguing that the supermarket monopoly on our food supply needs to stop. After citing last year’s horsemeat scandal, where Tesco pled ignorance to the contents of their ‘beef products,’ Small suggests the conglomerate’s new ‘Eat Happy Project’ may not be the most positive way for children to learn about food. He’s critical also of corporate influence upon health and diet in other areas – such as McDonalds’ sponsorship of children’s sport.

In 2007, concerns about the globalisation of food led Small to set up the Fife Diet, a food project which encouraged citizens of Fife to sign up to eating food from the region for a year and monitored their progress. Since then the Fife Diet has expanded to become Europe’s largest local food project, with a large network of people involved in trying to re-localise their food and develop an ethos of sustainability. The project’s goals are to encourage people to grow their own food, waste less, eat less meat, eat more organic food, to compost and to eat more local food. With other regions and urban areas adopting their own versions of the Fife Diet, the impact could be great – not only upon health and the local economy but as a proactive response to the climate crisis.

For Whitley, this re-localisation of food feels inevitable. The writer and baker, credited with being the first to introduce sourdough to the UK, spends a good deal of his time teaching and campaigning with Borders-based organisation Bread Matters. His talk reflects his frustration with the current state of affairs, as well as showing a deeper recognition of global and historical power struggles over the supply of food. "Food justice is the most important thing – access by all to good, healthy food," Whitley asserts. From a discussion of the dearth of nutrients in mass-produced bread, to a warning against "pseudough" – spelled out, it gets a laugh – Whitley illustrates the current state of bread in Scotland and why it is important. All non-wholemeal flour must now be ‘fortified’ with chalk, iron and B vitamins, which were once present in the grain but have been stripped from it by modern processing techniques. Vitamin E – now sold in overpriced capsules from pharmacies – used to be present in the germ of the grain. It comes a surprise to most of the audience that Scotland produces 700,000 tonnes of wheat a year. The majority of it is fed to animals, or used for biofuel. Whitley’s emphasis on re-localisation has a global element, as he condemns the injustice of food sovereignty and the UK’s track record of exporting food even from countries in the grip of famine. He adds his voice also to the global censure of Monsanto, who trap producers into cycles of debt and poverty with their seed monopolies and collection of royalties.  It’s clear that in his eyes, buying locally has the potential to benefit everyone.

Both Small and Whitley condemn the inequalities in wealth which have led to widespread food poverty and poor nutrition for many within the UK. The main food issue this year is of course the sharp rise in food banks. Small condemns the coalition government’s austerity measures, relating that "One in six GPs was asked to refer a patient to food banks in the last year" and that food concerns are "not just about environment or health but poverty and social justice." Picking up on the theme, Whitley decries the notion that "only if you have money are you entitled to eat proper food." Combating a criticism which one imagines he’s faced all too often, he declares that "it’s an absolute calumny to say people who want to improve the quality of our bread are only catering for the well-heeled – it should be the right of everyone."

While both men make knowledgeable and compelling arguments for change, they stall a little when asked how those of lower incomes can get involved in this food revolution. While many of us would love to be able to afford to buy organically and eschew the likes of the rapacious Tesco, in reality, it’s not always that feasible. Whitley suggests making our own bread, citing the Bread Matters Fungal Network as a community of sourdough-sharers, and reaffirms that "attractive appearance or low price doesn’t equal good value." Unfortunately, that’s not always the issue if it’s all you can afford. Small’s response is that they try to "encourage higher aspirations," but the notion’s tough to chew on and doesn’t taste so good. ‘Thrift and simplicity’ may work well enough in some cases but they’re not a catch-all solution to food poverty. In the battle of David against the conglomerate Goliaths, we need to include those who are most affected. Food is a political issue.

Mike Small & Andrew Whitley spoke on good low-cost food at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 Aug http://edbookfest.co.uk