Farming, Food & Medicine – A healthy ‘ménage à trois’?
Farming, Food & Medicine - A healthy 'ménage à trois'?
The more I thought about farming, food and medicine in the present day, the more it struck me how all three systems are struggling with common problems and facing HUGE challenges. I asked myself: why isn't everyone involved - farmers, doctors, nutritionists and chefs - working together for people and planet? The question bothered me throughout 2017.
When I thought about the ways our 'progressive' societies...
- farm, grow and distribute our food (intensive, monocultures, long-distribution retail chains)
- produce our food (industrial manufacturing operations, restaurant chains/cafes, our own kitchens)
- practise medicine and deliver healthcare (acute, pharmaceutical, reactive, symptom management)
... it struck me that perhaps the models for each of these endeavours have become to be rather self-serving. While of course, farmers, growers, nutritionists, doctors and cooks of all kinds need to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, raise the kids... and more, they're not there just because they can be, or because they're educated and smart, or because they're talented and creative. It struck me that, ultimately, each was there (or needed to be) in service of PEOPLE and increasingly in service of the PLANET. It struck me that, while progress and tech innovation had created a very different world - one with limitless possibilities – people and planet were not doing so very well.
Increasingly, I felt we needed to start a conversation about how farming, food and medicine (in the body of farmers, growers, food retailers, nutritionists, doctors and chefs) could and must work together to build a new, holistic paradigm that serves not only themselves, but serves people AND planet.
So, I had an idea…
THE farming event of the year in the UK is held every January amongst the dreamy spires of Oxford University. This prestidgeous annual (and rather expensive) event is largely aimed to attract and promote conventional farmers and growers; its patrons are ‘big names’ from the agro and food industries. This is the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC). The OFC website told me:
"The discussions at Oxford each January shape the industry; problems and opportunities are not just discussed at the conference, but allegiances are formed to get to grips with them.”
Hmm, sounded promising…
Then, I discovered that at the very same time each January, just across the road, Oxford Town Hall hosts a
“unique gathering of the UK's sustainable and organic food and farming movements [offering] a practical mix of on-farm advice, showcasing new techniques for best practice in agroecological farming, as well as broader discussions on what needs to change to create real change in the food system”.
This, folks, is the Oxford REAL Farming Conference (ORFC). It's website told me:
“ORFC delegates come from across the food and farming sector, with an interest in new agricultural models. Those interested in meeting global food system challenges in innovative, environmentally sustainable ways …. people putting new models of farming into practice … farmers facing their own challenges in producing good food for healthy communities. The Oxford Real Farming Conference is a unique opportunity to connect with new, young and emerging farmers; from those taking over the family farm, to those innovating in unusual urban spaces.”
What? Come on!
When ORFC put out a call for conference submissions for 2018 – I took a deep breath and submitted mine:
THE FARMER, THE DOCTOR AND THE CHEF - BIG IDEAS FOR A HEALTHY 'MENAGE A TROIS'!
"The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old,
but on building the new." (Socrates)
My submission proposed to bring together farmers, doctors and chefs to start a ‘back to the future’ conversation about how these disciplines could work together and with citizens, to bring about cohesive and sustainable changes in the way we farm, grow and cook food to create better health for people and planet!
The submission was well received by the ORFC and the selectors asked me if I would consider sharing a session with another group, whose submission on the nutrient-density of foods appeared to have some synergy with my own topic. In the spirit of collaboration I immediately agreed and following a long discussion with the group's representative (on a chilly Moor Street Station Café in Birmingham) it was clear that we were all on the same page and a collaborative conference session was in prospect!
Let the planning commence - but who should we ask to Chair our session?
We got Tweeting…
Serendipitously, at the very same time that we were scratching our heads to find just the right Chair, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) was launching a major two-year independent inquiry - the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission – to consider how we can achieve a safe, secure, inclusive food and farming system for the UK, a flourishing rural economy and a sustainable and accessible countryside.
Sue Pritchard, the Commission’s newly appointed director, expressed a standpoint that sounded right on the money:
“We urgently need to ask ourselves: what kind of country do we want to be, and what do we, as citizens, really want from our food, farming and countryside?”
We learned that Sue is organic livestock farmer in Wales and the farm is also home to a charity, the Silver Birch Foundation, which provides education, training and development for disaffected and disengaged young people, in partnership with local schools.
Perfect? You bet ya!
Team Ménage rocks ORFC
On Friday 5 January 2018, well over 100 conference delegates packed themselves into the Long Room at Oxford Town Hall and seven passionate women - our ‘Team Ménage’ - broke new ground:
An awesome, powerful Chair (Sue Pritchard) supported two farmers/growers/retailers (Charlotte Hollins, Fordhall Organic Farm and Marina O’Connell, the Apricot Centre), two public health nutritionists (Anne-Marie Mayer and Elizabeth Westaway), a general practitioner (Dr Sarah Myhill) and a nutritional chef practitioner (yours truly) to ask:
- Where are we?
- Where do we need to be?
- Where are opportunities to build the new?
Boy, did we rock it!!
As more and more delegates squeezed into the room (lining the walls and sitting on the floor!), the engaged audience listened, participated and scores of signatures were added to our sign-up sheets - people wanted to stay in the conversation!
A highlight for me, was to see Darina Allen, Director and doyenne of Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland (where I trained as a chef) take a seat in the front row - as soon as one became available! I will always be grateful for Darina’s wisdom and tutelage - it changed the course of my life, my health and my career and her influence in the fields of food, farming and the culinary arts is international.
After the session, many delegates personally expressed their support and interest (erm… even in the loos!). As one put it:
“To see seven strong women delivering the same message from different perspectives was really powerful. You guys were awesome - you needed more time!!”
Encouraged by the feedback and several specific requests, we’re looking to put together a one-day event in April/May this year, to continue the conversation, explore the issues we raised at ORFC in more depth and create an inter-disciplinary team to take action to build that new, holistic paradigm for farming, food and medicine… in service of people AND planet. Watch this space!