Food Politics: Plants Rock! – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at Abergavenny Food Festival 2017

Apart from a post about UK foodbanks at General Election time, to date I’ve consciously chosen not to write about food politics. But I’ve been thinking for a while that that’s the wrong decision, since being passionate about good quality, healthy food is inextricably linked with the politics, economics, ethics and education surrounding it. And then last Friday I went to see food writer, broadcaster and activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall talking at Abergavenny Food Festival in Wales, UK, and that’s tipped me over the edge.

Hugh talked about his life in food from boyhood. But a significant and compelling part of what he said was about about his food activisim – and most recently about why we should all be eating more plants. The writer Michael Pollan’s adage ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’, is essentially about health of the individual and populations. Hugh’s philosophy is too, but takes things further, being also concerned with the ethics behind meat production, and specifically about tackling national problems like the obesity crisis.

It is precisely through engaging with food world big hitters like Hugh that Abergavenny Food Festival – ‘the Glastonbury of food festivals’ – seeks to push the boundaries of current thinking, and transform the way people think about their food and where it comes from. I believe that it’s a massively important movement and I’ll be posting more soon about the whole festival. But for now in this post I’m just doing my small bit to spread Hugh’s important words.

Understanding his journey into a career in food, broadcasting and activism helps also to understand his philosophy and how he has become known for his commitment to seasonal and ethically produced food, and gained a huge following of like-minded people through his TV series, books, and campaigns.

Getting into Food

Although his public school and Oxbridge background might seem an odd one for a life in food, Hugh found food early on and loved it. He graduated from the excitement and novelty of the new convenience foods of his childhood like Findus Crispy Pancakes, and of making peppermint creams with his mother. (I remember that being one of my first culinary efforts too! – along with a boiled egg which I surprised my Mum and Dad with one Mothers’ Day morning as breakfast in bed. But it was partially raw as I didn’t know that it wasn’t cooked as soon as the water came to the boil. It’s to Mum and Dad’s credit that they stoically ate it).

Age 10-11, Hugh’s food education broadened, for instance through being introduced to Raymond Blanc’s Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons  concept by a foodie teacher, and by going to the Hole in the Wall restaurant with his parents. He moved to the country with his family and discovered a physicality and contact with food very early on.

After studying at Oxford University, Hugh travelled to Africa and thought he would end up in a wildlife conservation career. But his course changed when he got sucked into working at London’s River Café restaurant almost by accident through a friend. With absolutely no training, he soon became pastry chef there after the previous encumbent didn’t turn up. But finding he had an undisciplined approach, the River Café eventually fired him.

Getting into TV broadcasting

Hugh then began experimenting with a friend who was learning filmmaking, with himself in front of the camera. This happened to be at a time when it was still possible to pitch to a TV company and have a small hope of having an idea taken up and commissioned. And that happily did come to pass for Hugh and his friend, and so his broadcasting career was launched.

His early success on UK TV was with TV Dinners – a sort of pre-cursor to Come Dine With Me that filmed amateur but passionate and eccentric home cooks. Channel 4 then gave Hugh the opportunity to explore ‘rose-tinted bucolic life’ through the River Cottage series. He experimented with keeping pigs and other rural pastimes viewers may have thought about doing themselves, but for which there was very little serious precedent for taking the plunge (unless you count The Good Life?)

So Hugh’s early smallholding experiences, as featured in the River Cottage series, then led to the publication of the River Cottage Cookbook and 10 further books, including the River Cottage Meat Book and River Cottage Veg Everyday –  to date the most successful vegetarian cookbook ever in the UK.

Getting into Food Campaigning

The roots of Hugh’s food activism were in his first exposure to the worst side of the poultry industry. A keen fisherman, he learned that the maggots given to a maggot farm for fishing bait were a byproduct of intensive poultry farming, where they crawled around on the birds in the factory farm sheds.

This was at a time when the population’s general excitement was waning around the convenience of the crispy pancakes and other packaged food introduced in his youth, and people were waking up to the dark side of this sort of food production. So Hugh’s River Cottage series was perfectly placed to both tap into and stimulate a backlash among those wanting to reconnect with the origins of food. Abergavenny Food Festival, started nearly 20 years ago – and the concept of nose-to-tail eating pioneered by Fergus Henderson, and the prolific growth of farmers’ markets – have all been part of this movement.

Hugh established River Cottage HQ in Dorset in 2004, and it’s now based near Axminster in Devon. He likes to centre River Cottage business around seasonal UK produce, but says he’s not obsessive about not using exotic produce.

A working organic smallholding, the 65 acre River Cottage HQ is also the base for a broad range of courses and events. It now has many international students and is home to the newly launched River Cottage Chefs’ School. Hugh’s talk at Abergavenny, and Abergavenny Food Festival overall, were sponsored by Triodos Ethical Bank, which lends money for positive social environmental and cultural change, and indeed lent money for elements of the River Cottage HQ project.

And Hugh clearly believes that education is at the root of getting us all to eat better and tackling national problems like the obesity crisis (about which he’s currently making a series with the BBC). In response to a question from the audience about cookery lessons at school, he is pleased that at least one exam board does a GCSE that is centred around practical cookery rather than food product design. And he feels that gardening needs to be included in food education to inform better food choices starting from school age.

Hugh suggests that Jamie Oliver paved the way for showing that food activism could work. His own campaigning, given exposure by linked TV programmes, has included Fish Fight – which was hugely successful in stimulating an international movement and change in European fisheries policy to stop caught fish being discarded because of quotas; and Chicken Out – concerned with influencing consumers to turn away from cheap, intensively farmed poultry to that with higher production methods.

Chicken Out had some success by getting supermarkets engaged and on the defensive, and by getting some people to think more about the provenance of the meat on their plate. But Hugh finds that the limitations of TV programmes are that commissioners always want to move on to the next thing, while he himself doesn’t want existing campaigns to be forgotten. A follow-up film a year after a campaign buys much more leverage with companies, who then have to be accountable for what sustainable change they have or haven’t made in response to the original campaign.

Hugh’s activism interests also extend beyond the immediate world of food, for example to the environmental impacts of food packaging. Replying to a question from the audience about a National Union of Students’ campaign to reduce use of disposable coffee cups, Hugh says that these cups aren’t really recycleable as they’re laminated, and we should be making packaging the problem of the people who produce it. He advocates use of the pop-up keep cup. And more broadly he suggests we need a more circular economy with things built to last, and the cultural and industrial change and political will to make recycling as easy as throwing things away.

The Need for a More Plant-Based Diet

Although his River Cottage Meat Book celebrates meat, it was actually through the production of this book that Hugh discovered a new respect for it, and a realisation that we should be eating less. That’s both for health reasons, and for ethical reasons around seeking to eliminate intensive farming methods in favour of free range and organic animal-rearing. That would see less meat production, longer animal growth times, and higher meat prices – but all offset against the benefits of more humane animal-rearing, tastier and healthier meat, regaining an excitement about meat as a special food, and environmental benefits. All this led to Hugh writing River Cottage Veg Every Day.

Hugh argues that the roots of the evils of intensive farming – leading, for example, to animal cruelty and poor quality meat – are a natural consequence of capitalism and the drive to reduce production costs and of competition driving business. For producers who do wish to move to more ethical methods, it is really hard to do so when chickens are generally sold so cheaply and profit margins are so tiny. But Hugh is passionate that we can stop anything through our own purchasing power. If as individuals we stop buying poorly-produced chicken, for instance, then there will be no longer be a market for it and farming methods will have to adapt.

There has been much media talk about the threat of chlorine-washed chicken in the post-Brexit world, and Hugh is genuinely scared by the possibility of ‘anything goes’ in the market for food and farming once the UK leaves the European Union. He does feel though, that the government Department for the Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs are at least asking the right questions in deciding what comes next for when the UK no longer has EU food law protection.

So even as an ‘enthusiastic carnivore’, Hugh says that he wrestles with the concept of meat. To illustrate this, he referenced Simon Amstell’s Carnage, which imagines it’s the year 2067, by which time everyone is vegan, and older generations are having to come to terms with the guilt of their carnivore past.

Hugh recalibrated his own cooking and diet away from eating so much meat, and is now on a mission to influence others to do the same and no longer take meat for granted. In choosing to eat some meat, Hugh makes a conscious decision to eat certain things and not others. An obvious example is choosing not to eat factory-farmed hens. He concedes that we sometimes let ourselves down on our principles through laziness, or because circumstances mean that we just can’t do anything else.

But the overriding message is to make a thinking choice to eat less and better meat. Hugh argues that plants – by which he means not just fruit and vegetables, but also legumes, pulses and cereals – are a fantastic alternative to a predominately meat-based diet, offering a stupendous array of tastes, textures and aromas. And yet to date, in the UK especially, we have been tremendously unadventurous with them.

He feels that it is too easy a cop-out for people to say it is OK for him because he comes from a place of wealth and privilege. Hugh argues instead that choosing to eat less meat is a matter of conscience and personal priority, which needs to be facilitated by better education about the cost-effectiveness of meat alternatives and cooking techniques.

Hugh argues that cheap sugar, fat and carbs at the lowest end of food markets have led to the obesity crisis. The conscience of big business won’t change this – it has to be done by the people and through education, and social media can help. He sees eating more plants as being the bedrock. We need to harness and encourage the creativity and excitement of the next generation to get over underuse and under-experimentation with vegetables.

Hugh promotes using meat cooking techniques – such as BBQ and roasting – to make vegetables delicious and a tantalising dietary substitute for meat. So think substituting a cauliflower wedge chargrilled with spices for a steak, for instance. His latest book – River Cottage Much More Veg – takes vegan cooking into this realm. The book has a very simple mission  – to make vegetables more delicious by using the whole amazing palate of ingredients and full array of cooking techniques available. And Hugh also sees growing food as hugely rewarding and part of the solution.

Statistics on changes in people’s eating habits suggest the national mood is ripe for this. According to Hugh, the market share for organic/free range chicken has increased from 2% to 12% – which is still small, but a significant increase – and there are now three and a half times more vegans in the UK than there were 10 years ago (I haven’t verified these stats).

In conclusion, I found Hugh’s talk compelling and inspiring. His messages have really made me want to experiment with more inventive vegetable dishes. And with my own interest in low-carb eating, I’m keen also to research how a diet based on less animal produce can also be low-carb. Hugh has also left me hugely more conscious of the importance, when I’m buying meat, of thinking more carefully about its origins. I just hope that I’ve done a good enough job of sharing his words here, that they might influence you too.

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