Best Before is a short documentary about the food revolution that is taking place in London. Since it is a revolution that few people are aware of, we wanted to draw a picture of what it constitutes of, and how and why it is happening. Our aim in making the film is to raise awareness of the precariousness of the UK’s food system, in terms of its vulnerability to oil prices as a result of dependence on food imports, its deeply negative impact on the environment, and its chronic health effects on the population.
Food movements are taking off all across London and aim to take back control of our food system, and challenge the way food is produced, traded and consumed. This revolution presents the possibility of a far more sustainable and equitable future food system.
The 2007/2008 Food Price Crisis pushed an extra 800 million people around the world into chronic hunger, as a result of the price for basic foods drastically increasing. This was so dramatic a shock since many developing countries are net importers of staple crops.
In the UK we import about 40% of the food we consume[i]. Though unaffected by the Food Price Crisis, with increasing oil volatility the UK is vulnerable. Food prices are expected to double across the world by 2030[ii], and food prices have already risen 6% in the UK in the last year[iii]. Now is the time to look beyond facile beliefs that producing more food is what is required of the world’s agricultural systems.
The question needs to be, how are we producing our food (i.e. how much damage is it doing to the land and the environment and what are the social impacts of the food system), and who has access to food?
The Fare Share depot at Bermondsey in south London is the opening scene of the film. Maria, who has worked there for 9 years, iterates that Fare Share collects waste food from supermarkets, smaller retailers and individuals, to distribute to homeless shelters, schools and other places across London. Schools cannot afford food, and, as Maria points out, more and more families are ringing her up because they can’t afford food, a result of the current economic crisis and the hardship it causes. This raises questions about how we feed ourselves in this country.
However, we also need to ask – what kind of food are we eating?
Best Before aims to illustrate how supermarkets came to occupy such a pivotal place in our country’s economy, and the power that they wield. The film therefore draws heavily on interviews with large numbers of people outside Tesco and Morrisons, in places like Hackney and Stratford, both in East London.
What seems clear is that people shop where they do out of convenience and for price reasons.
Over 90% of food is bought through the major supermarkets[iv], they have place a key role in delivering cheap food, but they not only waste vast quantities of produce, they are deeply problematic in that they disconnect people from where their food comes from.
We started from the viewpoint that food is more than a commodity, it is vital to our wellbeing and our health, and it is something that links us to our environment and our communities.
Michael is the central character in Best Before. Once a land agent in the south of England, he has seen the changing nature of our food system in the UK, and the effect it has had on communities, farmers, nutrition and health.
Michael explains that rising prices of farmland in south England after the war, and the availability of cheap fertilisers and pesticides, led to the consolidation of large farms and the replacement of people on the land. Farmers are pushed by the imperative of competitiveness to produce on a large scale, implementing industrial techniques that result in environmental damage and depletion of the soil. Agricultural land became worth more as an investment, and food was increasingly imported from abroad where it was cheaper.
As Michael points out, ‘who really cares if there are a few less farms in Sussex? ‘He converted his dairy farm to be biodynamic as a result of the environmental damage of conventional farming that he had witnessed.
Biodynamic farming, developed by Rudolph Steiner, is a method of organic farming that emphasises the interrelationships and holistic development of the soil, plants and animals as part of a self-sustaining system. Michael points out that to see eating food as simply ‘stoking the boiler’, and neglect to see where it comes from or take much care in preparing the food, reflects a lack of conscious awareness in our lives.
London is the perfect showcase for the food system in the UK. A handful of supermarkets dominate the food system, an incredible amount of food is wasted everyday, and fresh, healthy food has become the privilege of the wealthy.
But London is also the city in which community organisations are shaping alternatives. Best Before tries to depict a picture of these realities, from urban growing spaces to farmers’ markets and consumer co-operatives, and the many creative ways in which communities around the city create synergies to produce, distribute and consume food in a sustainable, ecological, and socially just way.
Growing Communities is a London-based community food organisation that runs a farmers’ market and a vegetable box scheme. It has also devised a concept of Food Zones, which is a concept that bases food production on urban areas – growing as much perishable produce in the city as possible. Due to environmental and fossil fuel pressures, shorter supply chains are necessary to reduce transport costs and produce food in a more ecological way.
Michael sells his produce directly to the customer in Brockley Market, south London, as well as to other outlets where consumers can buy directly from farmers. This direct producer-consumer relationship is crucial to not only enable us to understand how and by whom our food is being produced, but also to ensure that this model is economically viable.
At the Castle Climbing Centre in Manor House, north London, Ida Fabrizio has turned the space around the castle into food growing spaces for Growing Communities and for the local community. Food, Ida argues, is more than a commodity and should be at the heart of communities. Knowing how to produce food and where food comes from, she says, is crucial in order to understand our own nutrition and our connection to the environment.
Cultivate London, in southwest London, is another urban growing site. Ben Simkins and his team of apprentices grow fresh salad items on previously disused land that has been reclaimed. Cultivate London and the Castle are among 2012 new growing sites in London in the last few years, and are at the heart of the food revolution.
Best Before argues that food is simply too important to be treated like any other commodity, since it has a deep impact on our communities, our environment, our health and our economy.
[i] Barling, D, Sharpe, R & Lang, T. 2008. ‘Rethinking Britain’s Food Security’. A research report for the Soil Association
[ii] Lawrence, F. 2011. ‘Food prices to double by 2030, Oxfam warns’. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/31/oxfam-food-prices-double-2030
[iii] Flanders, S. 2011. ‘A food price puzzle for the UK’. 1 March 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/stephanieflanders/2011/03/a_food_price_puzzle_for_the_uk.html
[iv] UK Parliament Report. 2011.‘Written evidence submitted by the British Retail Consortium (BRC)’. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmenvfru/952/952vw06.htm
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Ben Mann is a London-based documentary filmmaker, whose main interests are environmental sustainability and the food system. He also works on City Harvest, a project that is part of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, which aims to promote urban agriculture across Europe. He has previously worked as a research assistant and project worker on agricultural development projects in Vietnam and Guatemala.
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