This was a speech I gave at the Harmony in Food and Farming conference in Llandovery, Wales in July 2017.
Please click here to see video clips of the Prince of Wales, Patrick Holden and myself during the conference, which was organized by The Sustainable Food Trust. It aimed to develop an agricultural perspective on the ideas propounded in the book 'Harmony' by HRH The Prince of Wales and Tony Juniper.
In 1967 Joni Mitchell wrote a song called Woodstock that included these lines:
“We are stardust, We are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves
back to the garden”
We are indeed ‘billion year old carbon’ – the average person of about 80kgs/176lbs contains about 15kgs/33lbs of carbon. That ancient carbon is in our bones, our muscle, our fat and our bloodstream, as carbohydrate, fat, protein and other compounds. The carbon in our bodies may have been previously in soil, in trees, in charcoal, in dinosaur turds, in mosquitoes, in honey... It was everywhere before it ‘reincarbonated’ in us. Carbon is immortal. And it is stardust.
A billion or so years ago a very hot star kept getting hotter. As it got hotter, it formed hydrogen, then carbon, then oxygen and then the other elements that we know.Sir Fred Hoyle, the great astrophysicist, described this as ‘stellar nucleogenesis’ – stars creating atoms.
When that star got too hot it exploded, became a ‘supernova’ and blasted its carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and rock into space. Those chunks of rock and elements consolidated to form our solar system, with a sun that is still burning today with the remaining heat of the star that formed it a billion years ago.
Carbon is a promiscuous atom, it has 4 points where it can ‘mate’ with other elements. That’s why there are so many carbon-based molecules and why carbon is the foundation of all living things. Where there’s life, there’s carbon.
According to Hoyle, life, in primitive form, was everywhere. This was called ‘Panspermia.’
Life in rock was called ‘Lithopanspermia.’
Life was fungi. That life bumbled along, depending on acid rain from the very CO2-rich atmosphere a billion years ago to break down carbon that was stored in rock. Then a miracle happened that changed everything.
Bacteria called cyanobacteria became able to combine carbon dioxide CO2 from the atmosphere with H2O water, using sunlight energy, to make carbohydrate C6H12O6, whilst excreting oxygen. That carbohydrate was the sugar that is the basis of all living energy in plants and, eventually, in animal life too.
Once this happened, one can speculate that the rock-eating fungi saw their chance and organised the cyanobacteria into chain gangs, maximising their potential to capture carbon from the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, then at about 95% CO2.
These became algae, then simple plants, all busy making sugar to feed their own growth and, more importantly, to nourish the growth of the fungi that created them.
The fungi worked with other microbes in the soil, thriving on the sugar coming from the plants and delivering back to 'their' sugar-making plant all the mineral nutrients that they needed to grow. Plants died and decomposed. Fungi and bacteria died and decomposed. The carbon-rich detritus of their existence rotted down to become what we know as ‘soil’ – a most precious resource because it is the perfect habitat for fungi and bacteria and a rich source of recycled nutrients for plants.
This soil built up over millions of years, producing rich plant growth that eventually could support the large life forms such as dinosaurs and brontosaurs that existed in the ‘Carboniferous’ age.
This was the soil that early pioneers found in the American Midwest, rich in organic matter that ran very deep thanks to the 3 metre roots of prairie grasses.
When my great grandfather began to plough virgin prairie in Nebraska back in 1885, the soil on our farm contained over 100 tonnes of carbon as organic matter (organic matter in soil is approximately 50% carbon). By the time I was born in 1944 this was down to about 20 and now it is closer to 10, totally dependent on fertilizer and pesticides.
Farmers are frugal, on our farm we grew and processed almost all the food that we ate, only buying in commodities like flour, salt, sugar and soap that we couldn't make on the farm. Old calico flour sacks were washed and recycled as clothing, overalls for the boys and dresses for the girls.
Some enterprising flour companies printed pretty patterns on their flour bags when they realised this was happening. My mother and her sister Thelma wore Nell Rose flour sack dresses.
The men were frugal too, but they were unwittingly wasting the most precious resource on the farm, the soil. As the poet Wendell Berry put it:
"We didn't know what we were doing because we didn't know what we were undoing."
What we were undoing was all the decomposed plant matter that had been accumulating ever since those first Cyanobacteria sped up the process of life on Earth.
The destroyed soil lost its water holding capacity and lost its structure and integrity. The result was the great Mississippi floods of 1927 when the river was 60 miles wide from April to October, sparking the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities as their farms were submerged for half a year.
Then in the 1930s the Dust Bowl triggered another migration, of "Okies" from their farms in Oklahoma, Kansas and western Nebraska as their farms became submerged in dust and dirt. Richard St. Barbe Baker, an Englishman who founded Men of The Trees in 1926 and was a founder member or the Soil Association, helped restore the broken soils of the Midwest. Operating under the banner of President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps he oversaw 3 million men who planted 10 billion trees between 1933 and 1940. (These men also made good soldiers in WW2).
Tractors also played a destructive role, they could plough twice as deep as a horse-drawn plough, bringing up fertility and carbon from deeper in the soil. My Uncle Floyd (pictured with me in 1947) still used horses to draw his 8-row planter because horses didn't compact the soil. Tractors did, weakening soil structure.
This experience alarmed people in Europe. In Britain Eve Balfour wrote "The Living Soil" which proposed a new approach to agriculture that worked with nature and became known as 'organic farming.'
Eve Balfour collaborated with Dr. Innes Pearce who had shown at the Pioneer Project in Peckham that low income families did much better if they understood the basics of good nutrition and domestic hygiene.
Together they formed the Soil Association in 1947 on the premise that good farming would produce heathy food to nourish healthy people and create healthy societies.
My introduction to organic food and healthy eating came via the Japanese guru Georges Ohsawa, author of Zen Macrobiotics. I imported the books to the UK and sold them via various bookshops.
I sold brown rice snacks at the UFO Club, where the Pink Floyd were the house band. In February 1966 I opened a restaurant in Notting Hill to spread the macrobiotic message. In 1968 my brother Gregory opened Seed restaurant, our larger restaurant in Bayswater, London.
Getting ourselves back to the garden
ZEN MACROBIOTICS - Taoism
- Balanced - Yin and Yang
- Organic - Sustainable
- Food for health
- 'Justice' (Fair)
- Japanese (Miso, Nori, Tamari)
- No additives, no hormones
- Avoid sugar
- Eat only when hungry
- Exercise and Activity
Like the Stoics mentioned in the Prince of Wales’ book "Harmony" we believed in "an attunement between human nature and the greater scheme of the Cosmos." We saw this through the prism of Daoist yin and yang philosophy and saw it as the key to a long and happy life ('macro' = 'big, long', 'bios' = 'life').
When we launched a range of macrobiotic food products in 1970 we branded them "Harmony" with a trademark that was a Yin Yang symbol with leaves and roots.
The company went on to become Whole Earth Foods a decade later - unfortunately 'Harmony' was a brand we couldn't register in our key European markets.
When I launched Whole Earth cornflakes in 1997 a friend Dan Morrell, who had founded Future Forests (later to become the Carbon Neutral Company) asked me if I'd like to take the corn flakes 'carbon neutral' - a term he originally coined. . He then commissioned Richard Tipper of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management to measure the carbon footprint of the cornflakes.
To our pleasant surprise we had to plant hardly any trees to offset the carbon used in growing, shipping, processing, packaging and distributing the cereal because the increase in the organic matter on the farms where the corn was grown almost completely offset the carbon emissions from everything else. That's when I understood that, if we priced carbon into the cost of food, people would farm in a very different way. It is now urgent that we do so
The UN has said that we only have 60 years of farming left. Farming generates more than a third of the annual increase in greenhouse gas.
Volkert Engelsmann of IFOAM has calculated that we are losing farmland at the rate of 30 football fields every minute. None of these losses come from organic farming, which is restorative and regenerative.
Industrial farming wastes energy. It takes 12 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy. A farmer with a hoe uses 1 calorie of human energy to produce 20 calories of food energy. On a calorie-for-calorie basis a farmer with a hoe is 240 times more carbon efficient than a farmer with lots of equipment and inputs. More than 30 years of trials at the Rodale Institute farms in Pennsylvania show that organic farming can sequester 1 tonne of carbon per annum. They have also shown that once the soil is in good shape, the yields match those of industrial farming.
There is an effort afoot to attempt to bring market forces into bringing an end to this potentially disastrous loss of viable farmland. Part of this is to attempt to appeal to the self-interest of companies like Unilever and General Mills whose supply chain will suffer if farmland becomes unviable and unavailable.
The French National Institute for Agricultural Research published a report in 2015 that stated that if farmers could sequester 4 parts per 1000 of organic matter, that’s 0.04%, every year in their soil that would be enough to totally offset the annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions that is causing climate change. That’s without counting any transition to solar, wind or greater energy efficiency. As a result the French National Assembly voted a carbon price of €65 per tonne to take effect in 2020 and to include agriculture. French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll then announced his ‘4 per 1000’ initiative which became part of the Paris Climate Agreement. It was endorsed at COP 22 in Marrakech and 36 countries so far have signed up to participate in restoring soil, the capital base of every nation.
The Prince of Wales co-authored a children’s book called ‘Climate Change’ that shows how carbon goes into the atmosphere and how it comes back into the earth and the sea. The net annual increase is 16 billion tonnes.
A 3000 hectare biodynamic farm called Fattoria La Vialla in Tuscany Italy has its carbon measured every year by a team from the University of Siena. La VIalla are sequestering ‘7 per 1000’ every year. If everyone farmed like those 3 brilliant brothers in Italy, whose farm is roughly 1/3 pasture, 1/3 forest and 1/3 everything else (grape vines, cereals, fruit, vegetables), then we would not only cancel out the 16 billion tonne increase in CO2 but would see a 12 billion tonne reduction every year. Additional benefits would be greater biodiversity, cleaner water, less risk of drought and flooding and safer food. (Their wine is pretty awesome, too).
Going beyond stopping degeneration is the regeneration movement. This includes: Regeneration International, an offshoot of the mighty Organic Consumers Association in the US; the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation FAO; Soil and More (Netherlands); People 4 Soils (Slow Food movement); and Save our Soils (UK).
Corporations like General Mills are taking strong initiatives. They have 100,000 hectares of land from their supply chain to be organic by 2020 as part of their carbon reduction policy.
But we still burn food. One half of the annual USA corn crop is converted to ethanol using more energy to produce it than is embodied in the ethanol. It is mixed with gasoline to be burned as fuel. The US is now exporting oil and gas yet still burns vast amounts of food in the name of 'energy security.'
We still destroy forests. According to HRH the Prince of Wales this is at a rate of 15 football fields per minute. If we valued the carbon stored in those forests at $20 tonne each hectare would be worth $15000. Once the forest is cleared and then planted with soybeans it is worth $300 per hectare. HRH described this in a speech in 2008 as ‘The greatest example of market failure in the history of capitalism.’
We still burn wood. There is a false virtuousness to burning wood. 200,000 wood burning stoves a year are sold in the UK alone. Wood smoke is more harmful to health than smoke from coal, oil or gas. It takes a tree 50 years to sequester the carbon that is then consumed in a wood burning stove in 50 minutes. If a replacement tree is planted, will take 50 years to take that carbon back out of the atmosphere.
Wood has the resilience of steel and the load bearing capacity of concrete. 'Glulam' and other new wood technologies mean that wood can be used in 20 story buildings ('plyscrapers'), sequestering the embodied carbon in the wood for centuries. We should never burn wood, it's a terribly inefficient waste of carbon.
Biochar, or charcoal made from wood, is a way to convert wood by-products into a carbon rich substance that can be put in the soil and will stay there for decades or even centuries.
It dramatically increases the population of beneficial microbes in soil, delivering a healthier plant immune system, increased water retention and reduced loss of nutrients from leaching. It is the best use for woody material that is not suitable for building or furniture making. It is proven to help restore degraded soils and make them fertile and fit for farming again. There are many examples of its benefits: tomato growers use it to combat plant diseases and increase yields; it cures honey fungus, ash dieback, chestnut blight, phytophthora and other tree diseases; it helps cocoa farmers overcome the devastating impact of black pod. Stockholm uses it for all their new urban tree plantings as it enhances survival rates. In Qatar the Aspire Park now use it for all their new tree plantings, with gratifying results. Biochar in soil protects the beneficial microbes that are part of a plant’s immune system, its food supply and it’s water supply.
Farming and forestry would be transformed if carbon pricing were to be introduced for their activity. People would plant trees instead of growing wasteful biofuels. Prairie grass would replace corn in the Midwest. Farmers would adopt regenerative methods such as organic and biodynamic farming.
Farmers would profit from farming carbon in 2 ways:
- An annual payment for any increase in soil carbon and a charge for any decrease in soil carbon
- An 'interest' payment on the actual level of soil carbon on the farm. This would be effective at around 10% annually.
A typical organic farm would benefit to the tune of approximately £100 per hectare and an industrial farm would have to pay a carbon tax of as much as £100 per hectare. Farmers would change behaviour overnight and agribusiness behemoths like Monsanto, Bayer and John Deere would have to rethink their business model. Taxpayer-funded subsidies to farming could be largely phased out as carbon markets would trade the carbon credits.
Farmers could also insure against catastrophic events such as flood and drought that might impact on their soil carbon. However, farming with carbon in mind would reduce the likelihood of such damaging events.
Soil is Nature’s capital and the foundation of all life on Earth. Capitalism is about valuing capital and pricing it. Capitalism has failed to deal with carbon because industry, transportation and farming have been allowed to pollute freely at no cost. All other forms of pollution are nowadays strictly controlled for wider social benefit. It is time for carbon to be priced and traded like very other important commodity.
We can get 'back to the garden' - the Garden of Eden. We just have to price carbon and change the way we farm our beautiful planet.
"We are stardust, We are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves
back to the garden"
Craig Sams imagines the health farms of the future where ‘super healthy’ humans are raised.
Until just over a decade ago the missus and I would go to Shrubland Hall Health Clinic up in Suffolk, where we’d enjoy vegetarian food, bracing country walks, massage, pilates and other healthful activities and return refreshed and invigorated. They closed in 2006 and more recently we go to Amchara in Somerset, which offers a vegetable juice fast, yoga, massage and colonics. Amchara are big on probiotics, which you have, with psyllium, with every liquid ‘meal.’ Their therapy is designed to break your bad dietary habits and restore your gut flora. But is this enough? What if your gut flora are too degraded to be restored? What if candida or other ‘bad bugs’ are in control? What if the ‘good bugs’ have been wiped out and can’t re-establish?
The average kid has 17 courses of antibiotics before they reach maturity. Doctors carelessly prescribe them to adults too for minor problems like runny noses or tummyache, problems that could be cured by a day or two of bed rest or fasting. Antibiotics destroy your gut flora. So do steroids, some vaccines, stress, alcohol and low fibre diet. The resulting gut dysbiosis is associated with colitis, IBS, multiple sclerosis,autism,anorexia, depression, OCD, migraines and Parkinson’s disease.
A particular dangerous side effect of taking antibiotics is Clostridium difficile. It’s a disease that was practically unknown until the advent of antibiotics. Now 30,000 Americans a year die from it and about 5000 in the UK. Clostridium takes over your gut flora after the 10,000 different bacteria, fungi and archaea in your gut are wiped out by a dose of antibiotics. Some of the good bugs survive, mainly by hiding in your appendix until the antibiotics are stopped. Then they can try to combat the Clostridium. If they fail the triumphant Clostridium leads to diarrhea, abdominal pain and in about 6% of cases, death. The conventional cure is more and stronger antibiotics. This works in about 25% of the cases but has a 50% relapse rate. There is another cure that has a 90% success rate, though. That’s faecal transplantation, also known as stool transplantation. It works for colitis, IBS, candida and other gut diseases, not just Clostridium. Only one hospital in Britain offers it as it’s a bit complicated. First you have to find a ‘donor.’ This is a person who has a completely healthy gut flora with no traces of infectious diseases such as AIDS or malaria. These aren’t easy to find. What’s more, faecal transplantation is a messier business than popping pills. A typical treatment programme would require 10 days of daily transplantation. But when it is done properly it can prevent a lifetime of misery and pain.
What about other person-to-person transfers from the healthy to the unwell? At the Society for Neuroscience convention in November 2016 researchers reported on trials that show an injection of blood from a young healthy person can reverse Alzheimer’s and senile dementia, improve cognition and strengthen the heart and liver.
“Could the health farms of the future be real farms? Farms where the farmer is raising healthy humans? What a lovely way to make a living if you’re the one being farmed”
Could the health farms of the future be real farms? Farms where the farmer is raising healthy humans? What a lovely way to make a living if you’re the one being farmed. All you have to do is live in a stress-free and happy environment, eat a balanced diet of organic food, avoid antibiotics, alcohol and risky sex and earn your living by providing a ‘donation’ 2 or 3 times a day. Sure beats mining coal or driving a mini cab.
Imagine: “Welcome to Poucura Health Clinic, Mrs. Jones. We have diagnosed your problem and advise that your donor is Marlene, an extremely fit young woman who has a 100% success rate in curing Clostridium difficile in her donatees. You will stay with us for 10 days and have 2 treatments a day. If you are having forgetfulness issues (we note that you are in your mid 60s and missed an earlier appointment) we can also provide you with a memory-enhancing transfusion from Arthur, whose IQ of 155 reflects his mental acuity. Your diet during your stay will include high-fibre foods, probiotics and inulin to help accelerate the repopulation of your gut with immune-boosting flora.”
Exchanging bodily fluids has been a big no-no and the years of AIDS have made everyone even more cautious. But the war against diseases of modern diet is being lost and doctors are running out of weapons. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said “all disease begins in the gut, ” adding “let food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” To fast track this we can pay people to be really healthy and then let their bodily fluids and solids be our medicine, along with food. Cures like this only last if they are followed by lifestyle changes. But it’s a lot easier to change your lifestyle when the gut flora that are telling your brain what to eat are the good ones that are always urging healthy choices.
In conjunction with their exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 (10 September 2016 – 26 February 2017), the Victoria and Albert have uploaded a series of videos interviewing 1960s Rebels including myself.
The late 1960s saw progressive ideas emanate from the countercultural underground and revolutionise society. Challenging oppressive, outdated norms and expectations, a small number of individuals brought about far-reaching changes as they sought to attain a better world. Their idealism and actions helped mobilise a movement which continues to inspire modern activists and shape how we live today.
OK, reversing humanity’s decline took 40 or 50 years longer than we thought. But let’s celebrate it anyway, writes Craig Sams
Could this be the Big Lifestyle Turnaround that we’ve been dreaming about and waiting for?
Every year for decades there has been an annual increase in new cases of Type 2 diabetes, which correlates with comparable figures for obesity, which is a factor in cancer and heart disease. That’s the bad news. What’s the good news?
Over the last 6 years (averaged to avoid ‘blips’) research shows there has been a significant DECLINE in incidence of diabetes in the US. Diabetes is still happening, but less and less each year. That means that, going forward, there will likely be less cancer, less obesity and less heart disease. The endless upward graph is going into a downturn.
The researchers, at the US Governments Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), took a shot at what might be behind this encouraging news. Their studied conclusion? People are more health conscious than hitherto and this is reflected in healthy and informed food choices and greater commitment to regular exercise and bodywork, including yoga and pilates. In other words, the message of healthy living is getting through. More people than ever are shopping at natural food stores or Whole Foods Market. Supermarkets are giving more and more space to organic and healthy foods. We’ve always said that this could happen and now the evidence is in that a healthy lifestyle prevents degenerative disease.
So where does that put Coca Cola? Their sales are down in the US, with the international market also weakening.
And MacDonalds? For seven straight quarters up to the middle of last year, their sales have been dropping with no evidence of a turnaround. Big Macs and Coke once seemed invincible – the obesity epidemic and resulting diabetes soared in parallel with their sales. Now their growth has stalled.
So where is the money going? Last year yoga and pilates studios in the US had sales of $9 billion, up 7.5% year on year. There are 30,000 businesses employing 95,000 people, about three per business. It’s a horde of small enterprises that are capturing people’s longing for physical wellbeing, core strength and flexibility. The yoga bunnies and pilates enthusiasts are alive to nutrition, healthy eating, the gut microbiome and anything else that points them towards a longer, healthier and happier life. There’s little opportunity for scale in this market – there are a few big gym chains but most of this healthy stuff is run by sole practitioners or a small local group that might also include nutritional advice, massage and counseling. In the caring, sharing economy of the future there is a lot more peer-to-peer and a lot less corporate-to-consumer relationship.
It’s not going to be easy to get humankind back on track, though.
The junk food decades from the 1950s to the 2000s meant that a lot of kids were born who inherited the epigenetic legacy of their parents’ poor diet and environment. We know that what you eat affects your health – now we also know it affects your genes and is an undesirable legacy to your children. I won’t go into the detail of DNA methylation and transfer RNAs, but suffice to say that if a father or a mother eats too much sugary and industrial food and is exposed to environmental contaminants such as pesticides, food colouring and preservatives their baby’s start in life is clouded and the kid is more likely to suffer impaired insulin tolerance that could lead to diabetes. The good news is that epigenetics cuts both ways. A lot of the crap that used to screw up our genes is now out of the system – things like DDT, lead, hydrogenated fat, toxic dyes and preservatives and high levels of pesticide, fungicide and herbicide residues in our food are all non-existent or much lower. So going forward we could be passing on healthier and more robust genes.
When we launched Yin-Yang Ltd, the macrobiotic food company that would morph into Whole Earth, Vegeburger and Green & Black’s, we thought the healthy eating revolution would be over by the early 1970s. It was so obvious. We naively thought everyone would go for it – after all, who didn’t want to live a long and healthy life? As my brother Gregory said, we were looking at the future through the wrong end of the telescope. We saw the future, we were just out by 40 or 50 years. Boo-hoo about the ruined lives along the way, but hip hip hurrah for the coming reversal of humanity’s decline.
This morning, for breakfast, I went into the garden with a couple of slices of bread slathered with mayonnaise and a rice cake smeared with Jersey butter. Then I proceeded to pick from my winter salad garden: lamb’s lettuce, French parsley, various Japanese winter veg including mizuna and two frilly but intensely hot mustardy greens, land cress (a thicket self seeded from a single plant earlier this year), lettuce, winter purslane and, for a touch of the bitters, artemisia – wormwood. I added a leaf of radicchio from plants that have sprung up through the brickwork of a path. Just as we think of ‘food miles’ there is a parallel concept of ‘food days’ from harvest to consumption. In this case it was ‘food seconds’ – the leaves barely knew they had been plucked before they disappeared into the welcoming warm darkness of my esophagus, still brimming with vitality as they headed for the acid bath of my stomach. The garden owes everything to Rocket Gardens Winter Salad Collection, a superb collection of cold-tolerant plants that were delivered to me back in September, to get established before the cold set in. They haven’t been tested by frost (well, a very light one a few weeks ago) but my experience has been that my biochar-rich soil has such an active biology that the warmth it gives off acts as underfloor central heating for the plants. Soil is everything and I am lucky to have Carbon Gold at my fingertips, continually discovering new aspects of the joys of biochar gardening.
But enough about the soil, it’s the variety that gets me every time I have my salad breakfast.
Here they are, sharing a plate with a buttered rice cake and the lamb’s lettuce growing just behind. But read on for the individual varietals and pictures.
I love the light mucilaginousness of winter purslane, with its spade-shaped leaves that look like they’ve escaped from a deck of playing cards.
Then there are the red chicories – radicchio and rosso de Treviso, both squeezing through the brick path. These provide a crisp bitterness.
The Japanese Red Frills Mustard leaves are hot and mustardy and satisfyingly crunchy. Here are the purple ones, finding space between the turnips and the spring onions.
And here are their green cousins, the Green Frills Mustard
The land cress is easily as peppery as its aquatic cousin
The Lamb’s Lettuce miraculously replaces removed leaves almost, it seems, overnight. Light in flavour and texture.
French parsley does the same, endlessly offering up new leaves to replace those plucked earlier. Here it is in the foreground, with emerging Babbington’s leeks just behind.
Mizuna rounds it out, though it seems to be struggling more with the cold than the others.
A dab of Artemisia is always a good digestive tonic, but very bitter, so I get that down first and then follow with the sweeter and more pungent leaves.
Modern Zen macrobiotics was created by the Japanese leader George Ohsawa. His leading apostle was Michio Kushi. Kushi died in December, leaving the macrobiotic movement leaderless for the first time in its history in the West. In any belief system there is always the potential to confuse the messenger with the message. The Ten Commandments ban worshipping graven images and Islam prohibits images of Mohammed. This prevents believers worshipping a fellow human who connected with the universal spirit of love and peace (or ‘health and happiness’ if you prefer) instead of seeking that connection themselves. In macrobiotics the tendency to follow the man rather than the practice has been a marginalising factor that has kept it as a cult instead of the universally popular diet that we once thought it would become. Yet macrobiotic principles are now the guiding principles of the renaissance in nutritional awareness that is gathering pace worldwide. It looks like we’ve won, just not under our flag.
The Zen Macrobiotic diet originated as a reaction to the introduction of American food in Japan. In 1907 The Shoku-Yo-Kai association was formed to educate the public in healthy eating and to encourage a return to the traditional Japanese diet and avoid the meat, dairy products and sugary refined foods introduced from the West. Japanese were beginning to succumb to hitherto unknown diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The President of Shoku-Yo-Kai was George Ohsawa in the 1930s. He was jailed and nearly executed because he opposed Japan’s militaristic and imperialistic adventures that led to World War 2. One of his students was Michio Kushi, who took the message to the US in 1949. He was not the only one. Another was a Hollywood-based Shoku-Yo-Kai practitioner called Dr Nakadadi, who in 1947 cured my father Ken, who suffered debilitating intestinal disease for years after fighting as a Marine in the Pacific war. But it was in the 1960s that Ohsawa’s book Zen Macrobiotics lit the fuse under the macrobiotic rocket. It married the Taoist philosophy of Yin and Yang to diet and lifestyle. Taoism, like Zen, ideally seeks to achieve states where you transcend earthly day-to-day worries and become a mover and shaker while playing and staying in a state of constant bliss. This is why macrobiotics appealed so much to the Sixties hippie generation, who experienced those states temporarily and sought something that could bring them there without having to rely on psychoactive substances.
Ohsawa died suddenly in 1966, leaving the macrobiotic movement leaderless.
Michio Kushi on the East Coast and Herman Aihara on the West Coast, took up Ohsawa’s mantle. Kushi set up the East West Institute in Boston. It was a mecca for burned-out hippies who would make the hajj to Boston and work in the study centre or the associated restaurant and food wholesaling business Erewhon, while learning the philosophy and how to cook the food. Kushi’s lectures to his followers were published in The East West Journal and the Order of the Universe magazines, reaching more than 100,000 subscribers worldwide. His students became the missionaries of macrobiotics beyond Boston. Many of them came to London, where we welcomed them and gave them jobs in our restaurant, bakery and shop. We rented them a house in Ladbroke Grove where they could promulgate Kushi's message, give shiatsu classes and teach cooking. They disdained our free and easy approach to macrobiotics and advised us to go to Boston to study with Michio. We thought they were too ‘straight.’ They wore suits, smoked cigarettes and drank Guinness and coffee just like Michio. But the rest of their diet was much stricter than ours, allowing little in the way of sweeteners or dairy products. It was a bit alienating, but we thought 'each to his own' and were grateful to be introduced to shiatsu and to have active missionaries spreading the message.
A few years ago I wrote here about our macrobiotic sea cruise. It included late stage cancer sufferers who had, thanks to Michio Kushi's teachings, been clear for five or ten years. It was moving to hear their stories and their gratitude that macrobiotics had given them life beyond their doctors' expectations.
Will macrobiotics thrive in Kushi’s absence? The philosophy is now everywhere, the basic principles of making healthy diet the foundation of your physical and mental well being; eating whole unrefined cereals; exercising actively; always choose organic; avoid sugary refined foods; prefer sourdough over yeasted breads; avoid artificial preservatives and colourings; no trans fats; eat locally and seasonally… these were once quirky macrobiotic precepts but are all now well-established and the stuff of Sunday newspaper supplements. George Ohsawa once commented that as long as you were in a state of bliss it didn’t matter what you ate, you were macrobiotic. Kushi’s messaging was more prescriptive, but it reached a lot more people. These great men are no longer with us, but thanks to their teachings the quality and variety of food we can easily obtain is better than it has ever been in human history. There is no excuse for eating crap any more. For this we should be eternally grateful.