Thursday 7 July 2016

Food-related documentary bingeing on a rainy weekend

Normally a Sunday afternoon in late June should be the cue for a lazy pint of bitter in a beer garden, or a bike ride along the coast. Instead, this particular weekend brings bone-cold temperatures and rain pummelling the windows. Netflix provides a lifeline to somewhere else.

Food, Inc. (2008) 
First up is the chance to finally knock off watching Food, Inc. by Robert Kenner. Although the focus is on the US food industry, particularly the rise of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) where animals are effectively warehoused from birth to slaughter, there’s a feeling of inevitability that Britain will one day follow.

The fantasy of farming 
Food, Inc. looks behind the neat rows of boneless, bloodless meat cuts on the supermarket shelves to expose the inconvenient truth of industrial-scale meat production. We allow ourselves to buy meat, he argues, because we are sold a pastoral farming fantasy. In fact, we’re supporting a largely hidden, automated production line where the animals never see sunlight or grass, the farmers rarely see a profit, and a handful of giant corporations have regulators, supermarkets and the government hog-tied. He points out that in the US the top four beef packers control 80% of the market and that McDonald’s alone is the largest purchaser of ground beef and potatoes in the US.

There’s nothing natural, either, about the farming. Chickens are raised for slaughter after just 48 days, and cattle jacked up on corn and antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to grow big enough for slaughter. When this final stage comes, the animals are funnelled through just 13 slaughterhouses for beef in the whole country, where contamination leads to outbreaks of eColi in the food chain. Likewise, at the largest slaughterhouse in the world in Kentucky, up to 2,000 pigs an hour are dispatched.

Kenner’s conclusion is depressing. You as a consumer are kept at a distance from the process, and barely anyone seems to have the right to regulate, censure or control the big packers. Every time you buy meat, however, you vote. And with the average American putting away 200 lbs of meat per year, that’s a landslide.

Cowspiracy (2014)
Kip Andersen's Cowspiracy is more ponderous, a little looser round the edges, and follows the technique of Vice documentaries in placing the director firmly at the centre of the story. The shocking aspect of the conspiracy in question is that it’s going on right out in the open.

Anderson investigates the central thesis that livestock produces more greenhouse gas than all transportation combined, making it the biggest single threat to the environment. Although his figure of 51% of all greenhouse gas has been disputed, the statistics within the documentary are otherwise supported by peer-reviewed research.

So Cowspiracy unloads one jawdropping statistic after another:
  • US livestock requires 34 trillion gallons of water a year.
  • 1 quarterpounder needs 660 gallons of water, 1 pound of beef 2,500 gallons, a gallon of milk 1,000 gallons of water. A cow eats about 150lbs of food a day and requires 30-40 gallons of water.
  • The world’s human population of 7 billion needs 21 billion pounds of food and 5.2 billion gallons of water per day. The world’s 70 billion farm animals need 45 billion gallons of water and 135 billion pounds of feed. As a result, 30% of global water production is for animal husbandry, and 50% of the world’s grain for livestock.

Counting the real cost
This isn’t a documentary that attacks the cruelty of farming livestock, but targets the environmental cost of eating meat. He points to the fact that 91% of the Amazon that has been destroyed is just for raising livestock, yet land can produce 15 times more protein from plants as it can from animals. In most of the countries where starvation is high, the land that isn’t desertified has been turned over to raising livestock, inevitably to provide meat for wealthier nations. When the livestock is raised at home, the industry receives such generous subsidies from the taxpayer and government that, he calculates, a $4 burger typically involves $7 of additional costs that the manufacturer doesn’t cover.

Some local input
The documentary also puts the kibosh on the idea that grass-fed livestock could be a solution, since they take longer to mature and produce more waste in the process, on top of the fact that there’s simply not enough land to sustain the numbers. By coincidence, the issue is touched on in Ben Watson’s excellent Riverford blog which drops into my inbox a few days later. He takes a different view, arguing that, “There are actually many arguments in favour of grass-fed beef and the same applies to lamb which, if anything, offers even more benefits on hilly, marginal farm land. So for better or worse, grass-fed beef, lamb and venison is pretty much what it says on the tin. With non-herbivore pork and poultry things are different; in extremely simplistic terms and ignoring all the other building blocks of a good diet, there’s plenty of protein in grass but pigs and chickens don’t have the digestive system to extract it.”

The most unsettling part of the documentary is when the director tours various environmental groups asking for comment on the greenhouse gas statistic. None of them seem to be aware of the problem. When they are, Anderson finds himself stonewalled, obfuscated and finally threatened. The inference appears to be that the war on fossil fuels is something of a red herring, but that mysterious forces are preventing discussion of the bigger problem.

Ultimately, both documentaries support the view that the only way a planet of some 10 billion people can possibly support itself is by cutting out meat. Not just once a week, not by switching to organic or grass-fed, but by eliminating the industrial-scale farming of corn-eating, methane- and slurry-producing, water guzzling livestock.  

It’s a change in behaviour that can only happened day by day. But for each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life.

Sunday 3 July 2016

Tracey Collins - owner of Ajar Of...

Tracey Collins Ajar Of
Lady Marmalade - Tracey Collins
You will probably have come across the Ajar Of range at farmer’s markets and food fairs around Dorset, possibly even taking home a Jumbleberry Jam, Red Onion Marmalade, Mango Chutney or Tomato Ketchup. You might not guess, though, that each jar is prepared in open pans inside a converted cow barn on a small farm in Sturminster Newton, using produce from local farms, PYO or even foraging. Ajar Of founder Tracey Collins took time out from canning her latest batch to tell Dorset Gourmet the story so far…

How did Ajar Of come about?
We made the decision that we wanted to move down south. I gave up my job in London and while we were waiting to sell our house, I started making cakes at a cake stall in food markets in Beaconsfield, Bucks. Somebody asked me if I would do preserves and run a preserve stall. I said, ‘Go on then’. In 2011, I rocked up at Henley Farmer’s Market with 66 jars and went home with 13. And it started from there. I rang the council and said I wanted to do a food business. They told me to register with the EHO and sent out a lovely man who ate cake and drank tea in my kitchen and gave me the nod.

Did you have to refit your kitchen?
Because I was making what they consider a safe product that doesn’t involve dairy or meat then they were quite happy for me to do this out of my home kitchen. They are quite flexible as long as you show good practises.

Chutney is a little more demanding because they’re quite hot on botulism. It’s all about washing your vegetables and using the correct boards, so I have a fruit one and a vegetable one.

Where did you learn how to make chutneys and jams?
I always liked blueberry jam and I decided I was going to make my own. Then I did the same with piccalilli. I didn’t like the shop-bought version as they’d changed the recipe and made it sweeter. Actually, I found Delia’s recipe and made that. I used to give them away as presents and experiment.

How do you keep it consistent?
I have learnt from experience that when I’ve developed a product, I write down the various recipes as they develop. The final one goes in the recipe booklet.

You’re very active on social media. Where does that skill come from?
I was a business analyst in London so I’ve always been in computing. I also worked on the first ever Tesco internet site in the IT department. They developed a wine ordering service via floppy disks in the post.

Social media is an important side of the business. When I moved to Dorset, Twitter was my friend. It found me a lot of customers. When they see you out at events they have something afterwards to go back and look at. I’m much better at Tweeting than when I started. I try to keep it 80/20 mix: some of it’s about a new jam, some if it is just about my dog.

What the best advice you’ve received?
Keep It Simple Stupid. I probably have a range of 25 products but it changes with the seasons. When we come into the soft fruit season and everything is gorgeous and lush I might have a gooseberry or a strawberry on or blackcurrant. The most popular is the raspberry jam and the jumbleberry fruit mixture. The best-selling chutney is the dried fruit mix and the aubergine chutney.

Who’s inspired you?
Fellow producers. I look at people like Christine’s Puddings who’s done her gluten free range. She’s found her market, her niche.

What would be your advice to anyone setting out on a similar journey?
Do your market research. Don’t start anything until you know there’s a market there. It’s the biggest failing I’ve seen. When I started out I noticed everyone was doing fancy cakes, so I did traditional cakes. I have an accountant for a husband who liked eating cake but didn’t like the wastage figures. When I went into desserts in the Buckinghamshire markets, nobody was doing it. When I moved to Dorset, I discovered that everyone was doing it.

What do you enjoy most about Ajar Of?
Talking to my customers. I love the feedback. They taste something and engage with you, about how they’re going to use it or store it. I’ve always got different ideas of how to use products not just as a condiment but as an ingredient, like caramelised onion in your gravy.

What has been the biggest challenge?
Coming to Dorset and breaking into the food and drink scene down here. It took years. But I joined Dorset Food and Drink, a wonderful organisation, and they’ve been really helpful. We’re doing a calendar together in July with other female food producers.

What would represent success?
Now. I would say I am thoroughly enjoying what I do. But I am in the horns of a dilemma at the moment. If I get much bigger I’m going to have to find premises that aren’t at home. I’m not sure if I want to get any bigger and move to a unit. There aren’t that many in Dorset and to pay for it, you have to increase production dramatically and then you have to go into bigger production. Will that maintain the flavour and the quality and the fact that it’s an artisan product? When you start putting it into jam boiling machines, I’m not sure where the skill is.


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