Feature - Issue #1
Our food culture is shaped by many things, but chefs are some of the biggest influencers. Like supermarkets, their choices impact the whole supply chain - from farm to fork - and the very foundations of our food system and food culture.
As a child growing up in Northern Ireland I remember how during the summer months the grocer’s shelves would become awash with colour - from tomatoes to rhubarb, raspberries to broad beans. It would also be a time when we would go blackberry picking to make jams, or help the local farmer harvest his potatoes.
The food we had access to, just 30-odd years ago, was restricted to what nature was willing and able to offer at any given time. As a result we ate according to the seasons, and were largely dependent on what was available locally, or imported from across the water in Britain. Despite only having a brief window of opportunity to enjoy seasonal delicacies, life didn’t seem so bleak, and we somehow survived.
Now the possibility exists for me to consume more summer fruit and vegetables than I could ever have dreamed of as a boy. Regardless of the time of year, and whether you crave an apple or an avocado, brussels sprouts or smoked salmon, you can pop down to your local supermarket and buy whatever you want - four seasons have become one.
Chef Anahita Dhondy. (Photograph courtesy of Forest/Sabrina Dallot-Seguro).
Chef Justin Horne
“We don’t know what’s in season anymore,” declares Conor Spacey, the culinary director of FoodSpace, an award-winning sustainable catering and hospitality company operating througout Ireland. “If you ask many chefs who have been cooking for a long time what’s in season, they wouldn’t have a clue. Because they have access to the same food 12 months ofthe year, and aren’t concerned about where it comes from.”
Conor is one of the original members of the Chefs’ Manifesto - a network of chefs from across the globe that has grown to over 360 members from 63 countries since launching its action plan at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum 2018. The action plan is a consolidation of the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals into eight thematic areas, presented in a way that chefs can more easily engage with and adopt, regardless of their location.
The action plan was created by chefs for chefs, through a collaborative process, and challanges the members to promote and integrate into their own practice the following:
1. Ingredients grown with respect for the earth and its oceans.
2. Protection of biodiversity and improved animal welfare.
3. Investment in livelihoods.
4. Reduce waste and value natural resources.
5. Celebration of local, seasonal food.
6. A focus on plant-based ingredients.
7. Education on food safety, healthy diets and nutritious cooking.
8. Nutritious food that is accessible and affordable for all.
At the core of the manifesto is the embracing of the past - our traditional food cultures, evolved out of an intimate knowledge of food and its production, gained over millennia.
“This is what we should actually be doing” says Anahita Dhondy, a chef based in New Delhi, India, and a member of the Chefs’ Manifesto. “But you have to keep up with the times, otherwise nobody’s going to listen to you. So it’s important to be relevant, while also having a mission to create the change you want.”
The chefs within the network have taken it upon themselves to do exactly that - to individually and collectively do what they can to re-establish the natural order of things, and create a more sustainable, equitable food system, while sharing their experiences of adopting the eight themes into their practice with other chefs, policy makers and members of the general public.
“Chefs aren’t going to save the world all by themselves,” says Paul Newnham, the person behind the SDG2 Advocacy Hub - the organisation that kickstarted the Chefs’ Manifesto. “But in looking at scale, and driving prices down, and attempting to increase efficiency to reduce costs, there has been a disconnect with many of the chefs in terms of their skillset, their connection with the produce, and what actually makes good produce.”
The existence of the manifesto is an acknowledgement that things cannot remain as they are. The food system in its current form is inherently unsustainable and there’s a price to pay for any attempt to alter the ebb and flow of nature’s way.
The industrialisation and globalisation of the food system has come at great cost to our health and wellbeing, and that of the environment. One of the consequences of the loss of traditional food culture is that we live in a time where there are around 2.1 billion obese people in the world – almost a third of the global population – while around 820 million people do not have enough food to eat.
Then there’s the contribution the industrilised food system makes to anthropogenic climate change, generating in the region of 20-30% of human-associated greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food Climate Research Network, based at the University of Oxford, with the majority of that coming from agricultural practices.
Even countries like India, where traditional food culture is still relatively strong, are affected. Anahita says: “Farmers are going to grow and sell at the market what they’re going to get a good price for. And wheat, rice, maize - these are the main crops now being grown because of the price they can get for them. There is no real demand for native Indian grains like millet.”
In the space of a few decades many of us have turned our backs on traditional food culture and locally grown, native produce, and instead embraced highly processed, manufactured food, and imported produce, built upon an intricate, globalised web of just-in-time production and supply, heavily dependent on only a handful of commodity crops.
And farmers have gone from rotating those crops, helping nurture soil fertility and biodiversity, to establishing vast monocultures - the consequence of which is a greater dependency on inputs such as pesticides and fungicides to battle the diseases and insects that thrive under such conditions. The monocultures, often planted annually, also deplete the soil of its nutrients, and constant ploughing results in the topsoil gradually being lost, resulting in an ever-increasing dependancy on chemical fertilisers. This in turn is contributing to biodiversity loss of such massive proportions that we are now in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, having wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish since 1970.
Chef Chantelle Nicholson.Photograph courtesy of Forest/Sabrina Dallot-Seguro.
Chef Michael Elégbèdé.
The history books are full of examples of societies that collapsed due to surpassing ecological boundaries and developing food systems that lacked resilience to feed their growing populations. For example, the Mayans stressed available soil and water resources, and were forced to farm more marginal land, ultimately creating a more vulnerable and unsustainable system. Rather than pushing for further intensification of industrial agriculture, or adopting hydroponics, aquaponics, genetic modification, and other technological fixes, which are only a means of sustaining existing patterns of consumption, we must rekindle a respect for those practices from the past that help build resilience into food systems, and help communities function within ecological boundaries.
In this way we can nurture a health-giving, equitable food culture, that respects the value of food, minimises waste and nurtures biodiversity. The Chefs’ Manifesto is a framework through which one small but influential group can focus their efforts on achieving this.
Anahita, Conor and the other chefs that have signed up to the manifesto are all doing amazing work to both minimise their impact, and promote the same practices among other chefs and members of the public alike. But chefs are not going to create the change we need alone. It will require government leadership at a significant scale, and the buy-in of consumers.
We can all choose to adopt the action plan, modifying our buying and eating habits to minimise our own impact. By doing so we can also influence what is sold by food suppliers such as supermarkets. As Conor says: “Change will happen by public demand.Companies will only sell or produce what we’re buying.”
The Chef's Manifesto