By learning from the convulsions of the Covid-19 pandemic the food industry can play a vital role in navigating society towards a better future, a leading figure from the UK organic industry says.
Alex Smith, the founder and owner of Alara Wholefoods, makes the comment in a wide-ranging interview with the chief executive of the Food & Drink Federation (F&DF), available now as a podcast (26/10/20 edition).
In the interview Smith acknowledges that “the whole Covid experience has been shocking in terms of the terrible disruption and dreadful loss of life”. But, he argues, “it’s also sensible to understand that there are some benefits in these sorts of shock to the system”.
One such benefit, he says, is a deepening of our appreciation of food – “not just organic, but food as a whole”. He told F&DF’s Wright: “People are very appreciative of the enormous effort and hard work that goes into ensuring that everyone in this country is fed. The next step is looking at the quality of that food and the impacts of production systems on human health and planetary health.
He thinks we need to put the present pandemic into sharper perspective. “Covid has been terrible but climate chaos is going to be much worse, and a much harder thing for us to deal with”.
“There is a real opportunity now for us to go to a really amazing place. It’s not sackcloth and ashes, it’s in my view the next iteration of society.”
Gaining a better understanding of the profound climate impacts that food production has is vital, Smith says. “Food production accounts for around one third of the climate change gases, and 10% of all climate change gas on the planet is nitrous oxide, mainly arising from artificial fertilisers. These are absolutely key things that the food industry is going to have to take on board. It’s not just about greening electricity and factories, we need to think about the embedded CO2 in all the food that is being sold.”
Asked by Wright if organic should be seen now more as part of “a portfolio of sustainable approaches…an integral part of a more holistically focussed system”, Smith says there is a significant distinction between organic and other ethical and sustainable labels: “Organic is the only food supply chain for which the methods of production are mandated for under what are now more or less global laws. So it is produced under legal requirements that are specified in law, which these other supply chains aren’t. What that means is that there is real integrity in organic food supply chains that sometimes can be lacking in other systems”.
Smith believes organic offers a proven template for sustainable food and farming. But he acknowledges that organic’s benefits are still only partially understood by many people, including politicians and policy-makers. “We still have some of the same challenges – communicating the benefits of organic – as we had 40 years ago. And also getting recognition for the benefit that organic brings.”
“Society will be without question sustainable. It’s tautological. The real question is what form society will be in when it becomes sustainable.”
To say that food must be at the forefront of the movement towards a sustainable future is almost too obvious a point to make, Smith suggests. “It’s not even a question of are we going to be sustainable or not. Society will be without question sustainable. It’s tautological. The real question is what form society will be in when it becomes sustainable.”
Reflecting on 45 years in the natural and organic food movement, first as an independent retailer in a business started when he found £2 in the street, Smith says he didn’t set out with a dream or particularly ambitious plan. “It was more a question of what was appropriate to be doing at the time. Where I feel I’ve been so lucky in my life is that I haven’t really had to compromise at all in what I’ve been doing.
“What do here now is not just about organic food it’s also the way that we are embedded in the community, the way that we are able to have some outreach for what we believe in – both in terms of the food we produce but also the ability to articulate that belief and make a small difference. I know that is what the Alex of 40 years ago was keen to do. I feel really blessed to be able to continue to do to it now.
Smith believe sustainable food systems can be a vehicle for transformational change. “There is a real opportunity now for us to go to a really amazing place. It’s not sackcloth and ashes, it’s the next iteration of society.”
Main image: Alex Smith in the permaculture garden he created in land alongside Alara’s manufacturing facility in King’s Cross, London