Tomato grower Guy and Wright and Bishop's Stortford farm Wickham Hall rising to the sustainability challenge
Did lockdown change your eating habits and the way you think about food? Faced with empty shelves in the supermarkets and boarded-up restaurants, many people in the UK started cooking more, wasting less and using more local shops.
Weekly sales of farmers' veg boxes jumped by 111% in just six weeks and sales of tofu doubled as more people experimented with meat-free meals. At least some of these new habits are likely to stick.
But what's the long-term prognosis for food? A report produced by scientists from over 130 countries in 2018 concluded that "the global food system is broken". More than 690 million people, around 9% of the world's population, go to bed hungry while almost the same number, 650 million, are classed as obese.
The impact on planetary health is no better. Farming already uses 50% of habitable land on the planet and is responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Food lies behind most environmental and development issues: deforestation, malnutrition, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, climate change, water pollution and more.
With the world's population expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, and demand for food projected to grow by 50%, we clearly need new ways of producing and consuming food.
We need to slash food waste and reduce our consumption of meat and dairy products – adopting a meat-free diet is reported to be the biggest single way we can reduce our personal impact on the planet. This explains the rise of veganism and 'cultured meat' products. Experts predict that by 2040, 60% of 'meat' will either be grown in a lab or produced from plants.
Things also have to change on the farming side, with producers needing to choose resilient crops, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, restore soils and protect and enhance biodiversity.
What will this look like at a local level? I spoke to some local producers to find out how they are rising to the sustainability challenge.
Guy & Wright have been growing tomatoes in Green Tye since 1928. Their green journey began 20 years ago when they installed micro-turbines to generate their own electricity.
In 2009, they invested in an anaerobic digester to produce their own biofuel. Each day, four lorry loads of organic waste (think coffee grounds, vegetable waste) are put into the digester. Millions of bugs then get to work, breaking down the waste and releasing methane gas in the process. The gas is burnt to produce hot water and power the turbines, which in turn generate enough electricity to power around 500 homes. After meeting the requirements of the site, most of the electricity is sold back to the grid.
There is very little waste. Carbon dioxide produced in the digester is cleaned and then pumped into the greenhouses to support plant growth. The sludge that's left behind is pumped to farmers up to six kilometers away to be used as fertiliser.
For Guy & Wright it's about diversification, as well as sustainability. The investment has been substantial and they have faced some big challenges – such as the time they took in a lorry load of waste garlic that killed all the bugs in the tank. They are committed to producing tomatoes with the lowest carbon footprint in the UK. You can buy tomatoes and cucumbers directly from the nursery in Green Tye.
Meanwhile, David Harvey at Wickham Hall grows wheat, malting barley, field peas and lucerne (alfalfa) on a total of around 2,600 acres between Bishop's Stortford and Furneux Pelham.
He is passionate about taking care of the soil, tilling to a depth of just 5cm and returning all crop residues to the land. "You've got to build up the soil to work with you," he explains. "With minimal tilling, you retain the organic matter, increase the number of worms and beneficial fungi, and garner nutrients leading to better yields." This means fewer chemical inputs and more carbon absorbed into the soil.
David's other passion is biodiversity. The farmland is home to at least six species of bat, including a colony of rare barbastelles, along with skylarks, yellowhammers, housemartins and red kites.
The rich wildlife population is supported by farming practices – for example, leaving a greater than normal width between seed rows to allow for skylarks to nest on the ground. The 300 acres of lucerne, which flowers three or four times a year, provide a prolific food source, attracting bees and butterflies.
It is heartening to find producers on our doorstep who are embracing sustainability as an integral part of their business. The good news is that feeding 10 billion people within planetary boundaries is possible, but it will take action by all of us to get there.
Unlike many sustainability issues, our diets are at least partly under our control and we can make a real difference by cutting back on meat and dairy and reducing food waste.
I'll be honest, with kids in the house, food waste is a challenge for my family, but we are working on it. Got food left over? The food bank is open for donations and you can share unwanted food (including open packets) via the Olio food sharing app at olioex.com.