Carrying a Torch for Healthy Food

Here in England, in the twenty-first century, we have an unparalleled choice of diet.  Fruit and vegetables from around the world are enticingly displayed in the supermarket;  instant meals make it easy for us to escape the chore of cooking;  and fast food establishments are open from first thing in the morning until late at night, so that we could eat three hot meals a day without even lighting the oven if we chose.

With such a stunning array of food choices surely comes an unprecedented responsibility, and I believe that this is a personal more than a corporate duty.  Whilst it’s a bonus if food factories and supermarkets seek out healthier or more eco-friendly ingredients, I don’t feel we can abdicate our responsibilities to them:  each of us has to decide exactly what we will put into our mouths, what we want to fuel our lifestyles, and what costs we are prepared to tolerate to support those choices.  Those of us who buy, prepare and serve food to our families or others are also making those decisions on behalf of others.

The very scale of the choice available can be bewildering, especially if we consider the impact that each decision has on the wider world as well as on the future health of our loved ones.  We are urged to take food miles into account, to consider animal welfare, and to investigate the pesticide load of our food.  There are those who prescribe zero tolerance for sugar, for salt, for meat, for non-local food, for additives:  it sometimes seems that any meal we serve up must be unhealthy or unethical in some way!

It’s in the very nature of a busy modern lifestyle that compromises end up being made.  A nutritionally sound and appetising diet with zero negative impact on animals or the planet is virtually impossible in our climate, and even getting close often seems incompatible with earning a living and having time to spend with our families.

I know that I am particularly fortunate to be surrounded by establishments that contribute greatly to the quality of our diet, while minimising the impact on the wider world.  The school where I work grows organic food year-round, and sells the surplus, freshly picked, to staff and parents.  The garden is an immensely valuable resource;  as well as delicious seasonal food, it provides a place for pupils to learn to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers, and an oasis of calm amidst the bustle of a busy school.  A gentle stroll amongst the well-tended rows is a renewing experience before the next set of lessons, or to create a refreshing space between school and home.

A couple of miles away lies Plawhatch Farm, where animal welfare is paramount, and where a wide range of artisan dairy products complements the vegetables and fruit in the farm shop.  There is no chance of anything untoward entering the food chain here:  all the cheeses and yoghurt are made from milk produced by the cows on the farm, and they in turn are fed on the grass in the fields, or on hay grown especially for them, depending on the season.  The extra ingredients, such as the fruit in the yoghurts or the herbs in the cheeses, also come from the farm, and, as one of the tenets of the biodynamic methods they espouse, they try to grow or source on-site all the compost, fertilisers and supplements that are added to the land, so that there is a clear and sound provenance for everything that enters or could affect the food that they sell.  If the vagaries of the British climate or other factors necessitate the odd top-up supply, these are purchased from known organic farmers.

Shopping there is more than just topping up the fridge:  it is a holistic experience.  There are chickens pecking on the verges, the cows amble up to greet visitors, and the whole place is redolent with mindfulness.  I can feel the busy-ness of my life melting away as I touch base with something that is deeper than my concerns, a tradition of attentive care to animals and food that stretches back to an age when sustenance came from nature, not from production lines.  I cannot imagine any way that I could feed my family that would be healthier, more nutritious, or less harmful to animals and the wider planet, than to buy food from the school garden or from Plawhatch Farm.  I do grow some of our vegetables myself, but I could not possibly feed us entirely from my garden patch, and even so, I end up buying in seeds or organic fertilisers from time to time.

It therefore seems particularly ironic to me that, when the powers-that-be decide to try to legislate to improve the national diet, their efforts should be directed not against the factories that seek to use ever cheaper ingredients and then to use more and more artificial substances to replace the taste lost by such practices, but against the small, organic or biodynamic, farms that provide an oasis of sanity in a system that has subverted nutrition in the name of cheaper food and higher profits.  The latest idea to protect the consumer from the folly of his own choice of diet is not to limit the fat content of fast food, or the chemical load of instant meals, or improve the living conditions of animals born in factory farms:  no, the powers that be want to ban the sale of raw milk!

Now, raw milk never, ever, enters the food of anyone who doesn’t choose it.  Milk that comes from huge-scale farms is pasteurised as a matter of course, and this is the milk that ends up on our doorsteps and in our supermarkets.  Even organic milk bought in the shops is pasteurised.  Raw milk is only produced by small-scale farms like Plawhatch, and can only be sold at the farm itself, so only those who actively choose it can buy it.

Certainly, pasteurisation has its place.  If cows are kept in poor conditions, if milk is stored inattentively, or if a milk processing plant needs to mix milk from many big farms, so that there is no direct accountability from herd to bottle, pasteurisation may make milk safer to drink.  It certainly did in the days of Louis Pasteur, when the need to bring milk from rural farms into urban areas, with no refrigeration available, meant that many city-dwellers became sick after drinking milk that was many days old.  But this is not so on a small farm with meticulous attention to hygiene and with a regular and rigorous testing protocol.

As I see it, this is not, as the government would have us believe, about protecting people from a potentially harmful dietary ingredient that they might consume without realising the dangers.  It is about choice.  Those that choose to drink pasteurised milk are free to do so, in spite of the routine antibiotics, growth enhancers, and milk yield promoters that are added to the diet of cows on large-scale farms.  Those who would like to avoid such additives, and who would like to put the needs and well-being of the cow at the centre of the process, should surely also be free to choose raw milk.