April 18, 2012
by Ed

Why is food getting more expensive? And what can you do about it?

So inflation is up again to 3.5%, and it seems that some people are surprised that food constitutes such a large proportion of this increase. Let’s have a quick look at why it’s happening and how you can avoid it.

Cheap, good, and plentiful. Choose two.

Why is food getting more expensive?

Because we’re realising it’s been way to cheap for the last 50 years.

Or more specifically we’ve been paying for it, just not at the till. We pay in farm subsidies, our water bills (to remove fertilisers and pesticides, clean water ways, and to ‘compete’ for its inefficient use of 44% of all fresh water used in the EU), in our public health (diabetes and obesity to name but two), in our genetic heritage (75% of food species have been lost in the last 100 years), in wildlife (farm bird population has halved in the last 30 years alone)… I could go on, but it’s jolly depressing to list all the hidden costs.

We’re increasingly factoring-in these costs, especially by increasing animal welfare standards and shifting subsidy payments.

The direct costs are going up, too. Oil is a vital input for post-war warming models (we expend 9 calories of oil energy for every 1 calorie of food energy we produce, which is pretty dumb). As oil hits $200/barrel, naturally this has a dramatic impact on the cost of food.

We’ve also approaching peak-phosphorus, meaning fertilisers are getting more expensive.

Because we’re trying to feed more people with fewer resources.

Global population increases by ~200,000 people every day. That’s a lot of extra mouths. Those mouths are getting more affluent so buying more meat. That takes more resources (grains, legumes, and water) to produce, so driving up the price of these staples. The rich eat a worse diet, the poor can’t afford  good one.

We have drought, of course, which means that farmers are planting less, knowing they won’t be able to water it, so that means less food to go around.

Even if we were planting more, our proclivity for top soil erosion means we have less available fertile land to grow it on.

Besides drought, climate change means big changes in temperature fluctuations and rainfall patterns, which are likely to effect in crop and livestock disease patterns, leading to further speculation.

Food price speculation.

When you’ve got a market which fluctuates, you’ve got an opportunity for hedging. When you’ve got hedging you’ve got profiteering and market shaping, aka speculation.This used to be regulated, but since that was rolled back in the late ’90s, the share of the food market owned by speculators has increased from 12% to 61%, and in the last five years the amount of financial speculation on food has nearly doubled,from $65 billion to $126 billion.


What can you do to avoid food price inflation?

  1. Nothing. Your food will still be ‘too cheap’ for quite some time yet, and its price will increase. Look at the factors above. Whilst they are reversible it will happen slowly.
  2. Buy locally produced food. Don’t shop via channels which are subject to food price speculation. i.e. buy from sustainable local food systems which are not subject to the speculations and indulgent whims of distant greed-mongers. Barclays alone makes £340m / yr from this, so move your money.
  3. Join a CSA and support your local farmers.
  4. Grow more of your own. It’s easy (even comes in a box), and even if you can only do a little bit, every little bit helps and tastes great.

Gosh. Sorry about all that. Bit of a downer, isn’t it?

April 15, 2012
by Ed

In credible food

In the past ten years, the organic food industry has become big business and consumers have been left wondering exactly what the word “organic” means and how they can really know what they’re eating. (It makes you realise how lucky we are in the UK to have an organic certification which actually means something.)

With the rise of farmer’s markets and more and more chefs sourcing their ingredients from local farms, consumers are now able to meet and talk to the people who are growing their food.

LOCAL discusses the rise of the local food movement, the challenges of sourcing locally and how it’s become a growing part of the food scene.

LOCAL - A Short Documentary from Christian Remde on Vimeo.

via BuckyBox

April 9, 2012
by Ed

τρία ζήτω (Three cheers) for Greece

Top article on the Guardian, courtesey of Jon Henley – on how an alternative food model in Greece is linking producers to consumers and helpingregenerate a stalled economy:

A town hall announces a sale. Locals sign up for what they want to buy. The town hall then tell the organisers of the scheme the quantity required and he and his students call local farmers to see who can supply it. They show up with the requisite amount of produce at the appointed place and time, meet their consumers, and the deal is done.

It works “because everyone benefits,” says professor of agricultural marketing at the University of Thessaloniki.

Too right…

In the grand sweep of human history, accessing food has dominated domestic life – and also politics and economics. Today, supermarket shelves are groaning with a bewildering range of produce from around the world, and we forget that bringing food to the table and having enough to survive to the following harvest has been a preoccupation for generations of our ancestors. The false show of abundant food on either side of the supermarket aisle disguises the fact that the age of cheap imports and plentiful resources is no more.

We cannot carry on as we are.  Change is necessary, and inevitable.

Despite being pervasive in all aspects of society – in politics, in economics, in public, private and environmental health– food is now practically invisible.  We no longer think about where it comes from – or what it’s doing to our bodies… as Michael Pollan puts it - we don’t look beyond the barcode.

But a shift is taking place.  And just as the negative impacts of our homogenised food system on our health, the environment and our local economies are becoming increasingly obvious and unpalatable, at the same time the advantages for us and our communities when we start looking at new ways of sourcing, buying and selling food are becoming more and more apparent.  Greece is just one example of this - in our work we’re lucky enough to hear similar stories from people every day.

And it becomes hard to remember what it was like when we weren’t working together.

Greece, we salute you…


Photo credit: Graibeard

March 27, 2012
by Ed

Why would anyone bother mapping a food web?

So as you (probably) know, we’re mapping food webs and food flows. In other words, we’re making the invisible information of “who’s got what, where, and trades it with who” visible.

Some people get it, some people ask us why.

From a business perspective this helps relocalise trade and shorten supply chains, leading to higher margins for local reinvestment.

But it gets REALLY fun and powerful when you look at it from a network perspective, because it’s in the connections between us all that the real difference can be made.

Because we’re mapping the the trade links between food businesses we can identify the best ways for them to cooperate to reduce their costs, and to collaborate to increase their opportunities. By analysing the network and its connections we can also determine the opportunities there are for new businesses to get involved in the places they’re needed most. We can even help identify those most catalytic ones which can accelerate the development of robust, resilient, viable local food systems.

So for example if you’re looking for barriers to market in organic dairy production, we drop them all a line and do a quick survey (we might as well ask them directly!), but then importantly we look at the successful areas, and compare with the less successful areas. We can learn, for example, that having a local dairy doesn’t help much, but having locally produced feed does (perhaps effecting the immune system, like local honey for a hayfever sufferer?); or perhaps being within 20 miles of a town so get the margin from more direct sales; or being part of a mid-sized coop… etc.

Pretty cool, huh?

It’s clear that our food system is going to change enormously in the next 20 years. Not only because it should, but because it quite simply has to. We don’t have the luxury of cheap imports any more, and nor do we have the necessary resources to maintain the status quo. So if we’re to effect change and invest our limited resources in the right place, with the goal of creating a resilient, sustainable food system which delivers public and environmental health, then clear information has to drive those decisions.

That’s why we do it.

March 24, 2012
by Ed

Resource roundup

Food Climate Research Network

The FCRN’s aim is to increase our understanding of how the food system contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and what we can do to reduce them.

Its focus is broad, encompassing technological options, behaviour change and the policy dimension. We look at the role of technology in reducing food-related emissions but also at what changes in our behaviour (in what and how we eat).

Food and Environment Resource Network

To produce investigative journalism on the subjects of food, agriculture and environmental health in partnership with local and national media outlets.

Which Snack Will Fill You Up? A Cookie or a Banana?

In their latest insightful and likely controversial infographic, Column Five Media and Massive Health say bananas are less filling and energy sustaining than a cookie or french fries.


How to crowd fund your project

This page is a short step-by-step guide to using the crowd-funding model that paid for The Age of Stupid but serves as a good starting point. Includes legal documents.

Good Food World

GoodFood World is an important platform to help re-establish the connection between consumers and the sources of their food.

We seek out, select, and profile producers and processors who are growing, harvesting, and preparing local or regional, whole or minimally processed food products.

The Funding Circle

Funding Circle is an online marketplace to help businesses find fast finance, and investors get better returns. There are no middlemen, no banks, and no lengthy delays. Instead, it’s an open exchange with detailed real-time information, empowering you to choose the best deal for your needs.

Get Food into your local planning documents

Brighton & Hove is the first Local Authority in the UK to adopt planning advice to encourage the provision of growing spaces in new developments as part of its commitment to sustainable development {1}. Food growing in urban areas is too often limited by lack of space, but this new advice encourages developers to make creative use of walls, roofs, balconies and edible landscaping at the start of the planning process.
Harvest Brighton & Hove


Urbivore is a new social venture and charity which believes urban agriculture can make an important contribution to the regeneration of distressed cities where old industries have failed, and to pockets of deprivation in inner-city areas.

Through the local production of fresh food at a commercial scale, Urbivore aims to create apprenticeships and work for socially excluded groups, as well as offer training to wider communities. We will work with an intergenerational model and promote health and well-being through volunteer programmes and other services.
http://urbivore.org.uk/ via Gloria Charles

Muddy Carrot

Selling online or face to face: Muddy Carrot is straightforward; you can quickly add your products to sell online. The online range includes food, drink, home, garden, livestock, land and property.

WholeFoods Film Festival

Whole Foods Market is giving its annual Do Something Reel Film Festival the digital treatment and taking it online.

Now in its third year, the festival showcases films and documentaries about food and environmental issues.

Starting on April 22 (Earth Day), users will be able to stream a different film each month from DoSomethingReel.com. Films will be available for a limited time and will cost between $3 and $5 for a single viewing.
Do Something Reel via Mashable

March 21, 2012
by Ed

What is a sustainable economy?

I’m pleased to say that Sustaination stimulates or touches responsible (aka ‘sustainable’, in this instance) behaviour in 34 or the 43 components which make up a “sustainable economic framework”.

It’s perhaps a little too bold to claim that they’re ALL our doing. Many of those 34 come by facilitating sustainable food production practises. But even if they’re secondary effects which we help bring about, it’s still reassuring to know that we’re in to something Good.

March 19, 2012
by Ed

What will Sustaination do for the rest of us?

There are a number of ways Sustaination can benefit the final-consumer*:

  • Buy higher quality produce more directly, from sustainable local sources.
  • Food safety & transparency: know where your food comes from, avoid scares, and (typically) ingest fewer chemicals since you’ll more likely to buy from a sustainable source.
  • Discover what’s truly local: we try to show the whole supply chain, not just the final link.
  • Support local business by buying their produce.
  • Community involvement: with CSA and development of food coops / buying groups.
  • Show opportunities for new entrants since you’ll see what’s NOT being produced locally but could be

These last two might be of particular interest for communities in transition towards a sustainable economy, since you’re building community cohesion and increasing local supply and resilience.

70% of Community Support Agriculture members say their quality of life was improved, and their cooking and eating habits changed. 46% said that their health improved.

- Soil Association

But perhaps of primary interest to local sustainability groups are the food mapping tools. Mapping your local food-web shows what is currently produced and traded locally, and where. This shows those businesses which are having the greatest impact on the local economy, and demonstrates opportunities for relocalisation.

Food is a very ‘easy’ way for a group to start thinking about sustainability, since it’s so direct to all of us, and we can all make some attempts to think about its route between farm and fork. (It’s not, for example, like talking about energy supply which requires more technical knowledge, and opens up debates about nuclear power, which starts heated arguments and before you know it someone’s stabbed someone else with a fork or invaded Iran.)

Food mapping is an accessible, useful, and interesting group activity which can involve all ages, and easily be tied in to school projects which can go on to include farm visits, field trips, and local impact surveys.

Food maps are always a great way to demonstrate the impact of local businesses opening and closing, or that of new supermarket since you can clearly show the cascading impact within your community - evidence which local planning committees find it very hard to deny.

Make the invisible visible, then you can start managing and improving it.

* The word ‘consumer’ is so passive and gluttonous, but at least it’s semantically correct here. It’s a little odd that there are so few alternatives. ‘Citizen’ is quite nice, but perhaps a little revolutionary for some tastes, which undermines the main message. Any thoughts on a better lexicon for the 21st century?