borough talks future of food

The future of food at Borough Market

Gavin Wren Food Education, Writing

Last week saw the final instalment of Borough Market’s ‘Borough Talks’ series, a set of hugely engaging debates that have taken place over the last few months as part of Borough Market’s 1000 year anniversary. This time it was about the future of food, a subject that filled my mind with wild sci-fi fantasies of space age foods and Jetsons-inspired meal packs, so I was keen to find out what people had to say, with the bonus of sampling some delightful food laid on by a few of Borough Market’s residents afterwards.

Future of FoodImage from Borough Market’s Twitter feed, here, you can also find photos from this event here at Borough Market’s Facebook page.

The panel

Professor Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London was an utterly compelling speaker, his knowledge and passion very clear from his first words, combined with a sense of frustration, as if struggling to make people understand the imbalances in our food supply. Since the debate I’ve discovered that Professor Lang, an ex-farmer, is a leading researcher and adviser on food policy at a very high level and coined the now ubiquitous term ‘food miles’ back in the early nineties.

Sam Bompas, one half of Bompass and Parr was an effusive contributor and clearly holds unrestrained, passionate creativity for both food and colourful trousers. His firm, Bompas & Parr specialise in flavour-based experience design, culinary research, architectural installations and contemporary food design, which essentially means they exist to create amazing and engaging experiences using food and drink. He contributed a ‘Whiskey Tornado’ to the evening, which was glass case with a swirling torrent of vaporised whiskey within, that could be inhaled through a straw.

Douglas McMaster, the chef & proprietor from Silo, the first zero waste restaurant. He made some greatly considered contributions and a very realistic demonstration of how zero waste can be achieved by using a ‘pre-industrial’, holistic approach to ensure nothing goes in the bin. It’s an amazing concept and inspiring that he’s succeeded in doing this on a commercial level, having reverse engineered the whole process so that they start from the waste bin and move up to the food that’s served.

Victoria Loomes, a senior trend analyst at Trendwatching, who unfortunately didn’t get much of a look in after her initial contribution about the trends of the food industry, as the debate was largely dominated by the rest of the panel. Her initial talk of the smart devices in the kitchen was more or less the closest we got to space age technology all night and something I would have been interested to hear more about.

Shock tactics

If I took one thing away from the evening, it was Tim Lang’s fact about the division of revenue within our food’s supply chain. Of the £196,000,000,000 (£196bn) a year we spend on food, only 4% goes to the farmers who grow or produce the raw ingredients. The manufacturers, processors, distributors, retailers and anyone else in the chain get the remaining 96%. I’m still shocked, wondering how such a ridiculous imbalance has arisen, how the people who make the food you eat receive so little money for the work they do. This led the discussion firmly onto the idea of sustainability and the integrity of the food we currently eat, it’s sources, supply chain, waste and if our current food supply is tenable.

Such a shocking fact leads you to assume the dark, evil, shadowy corporations who control ‘big’ food are responsible for this injustice, but Sam Bompas stood in defence of these corporations, denouncing the idea they’re all seeking to get their pound of flesh, but instead are genuinely interested in creating good food and interacting with their customers. However, there is something amiss somewhere along the line, if farmers are paid so little for their produce that entire sectors have their future in jeopardy, yet buyers of milk from farmers, such as ice cream manufacturers Magnum, can lavish huge sums of money on internationally touring sensory experience pods, yes, created by Bompass and Parr.

Of course, that’s a simplistic and provocative way of looking at things and on the face of it, Unilever, who own Magnum, appear to have made laudable strides in sustainability of food sources with their ice cream brands. Creating great experiences AND treating producers well is to be celebrated, but the race to the bottom which has caused the imbalance must also exist somewhere amongst these large corporations, as they are the only ones with the buying power to drive prices down.

Waste not, want not

The inspired thought and methods that have gone into Douglas McMaster’s Silo are truly impressive. From start-to-finish, or perhaps that should be finish-to-start they have developed a restaurant that utilises everything and wastes nothing. They even gather the excess steamed milk from local coffee shops and turn it into cheese, from which the whey is also used to create more ingredients. The processes are endless and any leftover food is composted and sent back to the farms to help create more food. It’s an amazing food eco-system that seems to work at a professional scale, leading me to wonder if this fits into food’s future somehow. But I struggle to see how it can actually translate to a domestic level, as there’s just too much labour involved or not enough volume of waste for your average nine to fiver to take it up. But it does promote a strong message that there are ways of doing things differently, we just need to start re-thinking our processes and ingrained behaviours as communities to accept alternative methods and ways of working. These ideas may not work on a singular level, but collectively there might be more possibilites.

If I could turn back time

Sam Bompas made an interesting point that to find new concepts we actually need to look historically. He was referring to opulent displays of grandeur such as the Savoy gondola banquets whose essence can be recreated to develop experiences that can amaze; but it also works on a different level and ties in with Douglas McMaster’s concept of pre-industrial catering. He also is reflecting back upon historic methods, but finding a much more sustainable and less wasteful way of being. Both Bompas and McMaster are talking about winding back the clock over a century and finding not only more sound ways of eating, but also eminently more fabulous and engaging ways. Although they have different aims, they are very much using the same source of inspiration, which makes you wonder if the future of food could actually lay in the past.

Space oddity

If something was missing from the evening it was discussion on products such as Soylent, a food which claims to be a completely balanced meal in the form of a milkshake. In a ‘Tomorrow’s World’ field of vision, this is the direction of food’s future, eschewing fresh produce with a quickly and easily consumed meal pack, which negates the need to spend any time preparing vegetables or sitting down to consume a meal. It’s all a bit ‘Brave New World’, a story in which human emotion has been conditioned out of the world’s inhabitants and frankly, if we got all of our nutritional requirements from a milkshake, the world would be an utterly soulless place.

I believe that food is enduring not simply because of it’s necessity for our survival. It’s a ritualistic activity, steeped in human connection. Since ancient man gathered food, prepared it and ate it, there has been ritual and habit surrounding the consumption of food. Along with air and water, food is a fundamental requirement of human life. To survive as a race, we also need protection, such as clothing and shelter, as well as sexual relations, to procreate. We take great pleasure in all of these fundamental necessities and we also naturally seek opportunities to elevate our experiences of them. This is why the future of food is safe, because it is in our fundamental nature to seek food out, share it and to elevate that experience to be as enjoyable as possible.

I’d like to thank Borough Market for arranging these talks, two of which I attended, because I find debates like this massively inspiring and open up questions I may never have previously considered. If there’s any way you can do more of these talks, you can be sure I’ll be buying tickets.

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