Michio Kushi, last of old school macrobiotic gurus, is no more

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.

Seed Magazine 1975

To create real change in the world sometimes you have to compromise

Last week four Soil Association trustees resigned from the charity accusing it of lacking conviction on organic. But to create real change you sometimes just have to compromise, says Craig Sams

In 1946 two pioneering women, Eve Balfour and Dr. Innes Pearce, founded the Soil Association. Eve was a farmer who developed organic principles by creating healthy soil on her farm in Essex. Dr. Innes Pearce ran the Peckham Project in one of London’s most deprived neighbourhoods and showed that good nutrition led to healthier families, better academic achievement by kids and fewer men deserting their wives. The Soil Association’s founding principle was that a healthy diet, supported by nutrient-rich organic food, would change the world for the better.

In 1966, the doctors, dentists, nutritionists and veterinarians who were members felt the Soil Association had become too farmer-oriented and resigned to set up the McCarrison Society, named after Sir Robert McCarrison, whose 1926 book on nutrition and health inspired both Balfour and Innes Pearce. This was a sad moment as it marked the divorce between the advocates of healthy soil and the advocates of healthy eating. A year later we founded our macrobiotic business Yin Yang Ltd (to become Harmony Foods and later Whole Earth) which brought together, at a commercial level, organic food and healthy eating.

Happily the Soil Association has rediscovered its roots. At a conference in 2002 titled ‘Education, Education, Education’ I gave the keynote speech that highlighted the few examples at the time of how better school food could improve kids’ behaviour and academic performance. Then the Soil Association, with Garden Organic, Focus on Food and the Health Education Trust got a £17 million Lottery grant to make it happen.

The grant money was well spent. Not only have over 4500 Schools enrolled with the project, and started to teach children to cook and grow and also taken them to visit farms, but the Soil Association Catering Mark has been developed too.This starts with the Bronze standard (75% freshly prepared, no GMOs, no hydrogenated fat, free range produce). Then they graduate to the Silver standard (a proportion of organic, a larger proportion of locally sourced, Fairtrade, MSC, LEAF). Then they go for Gold which takes it to even higher levels. The migration is only ever one way, from Bronze to Gold and the impact on organic suppliers is spectacular. The Gold holders are now asking the Soil Association for a Platinum category. More important is that schoolkids become aware of organic food, go home and challenge their parents. 950,000 school meals a day  are served with the Catering Mark and it’s now also improving food served in nurseries, hospitals, care homes, offices and industrial canteens. By this time next year there will be 2 million school meals a day served to the Catering Mark standard – half of all schoolkids in the UK. This all sounds pretty good to me and if Dr Innes Pearce were alive she would be punching the air with triumphant joy that her dream back in the 1930s and 1940s was finally being realised. And this is just the beginning. The Catering Mark is the fastest-growing activity of Soil Association Certification and is sucking in more and more organic food as the biggest national foodservice companies get behind it.

“We compromised on organic, we compromised on sugar-like sweeteners, we compromised on restaurant food (where organic regulations don’t apply). We never compromised on GMOs. We are winning because we were pragmatic. And how we’re winning!”

But concern about the Catering Mark is the main reason why four trustees resigned from the Soil Association Council at the beginning of December. They felt it was an ethical sell-out to allow non-organic food in meals that bore Soil Association approval. They were unhappy that the standards permitted organic food that was frozen or canned, as this was not ‘fresh’ even if it was ‘freshly prepared’

I got into the world of organic food from the standpoint of the macrobiotic diet. We ate natural and wholegrain and organic whenever possible, which wasn’t often in 1967. But we mapped out a route that helped us get to where we are today. The reason the marvellous macrobiotic diet that has been the mainstay of my health and happiness for five decades never went mainstream was because it got hijacked by people who were rigid and restrictive. The macrobiotic guru and author of Zen Macrobiotics, Georges Ohsawa, was horrified to see this and just before he died he tried to correct this by writing that, thanks to macrobiotics he could enjoy whisky, chocolate and other taboo foods, as long as he did it in moderation. We compromised on organic, we compromised on sugar-like sweeteners, we compromised on restaurant food (where organic regulations don’t apply). We never compromised on GMOs. We are winning because we were pragmatic. And how we’re winning! The tide is turning. Finally clinicians are recognising that food is medicine and the Hospital Food Standards Committee have recommended Catering Mark as a scheme that can improve hospital food.

You might have missed it, but School Meals Week was in early November. The Minister of State for Education, David Laws MP, praised the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark, commending it as a scheme that allows school leaders to choose caterers who are committed to providing school children with high quality, nutritious food. He said: “My message is: ‘Quality really matters’. This is our challenge for 2015. I would like to see all schools and their caterers holding – or working hard towards – a quality award like the excellent Catering Mark.” The evidence is compelling – kids at Catering Mark schools have better attendance rates, better academic performance and better understanding of food and nutrition, the key to avoiding obesity.

The three journalists and a baker who resigned from the Soil Association cited the Catering Mark as the main example of how the Soil Association has lost its way. If that’s what losing its way looks like then perhaps the Soil Association should ‘lose its way’ more often.

The future is meat less

People everywhere are reducing meat consumption. Craig Sams argues that organic farmers are well placed to adjust to the coming low-meat scenario

My late great aunt Sophia was very religious and faithfully observed all the fast days of the Orthodox Church’s nearly 2000 year-old religious calendar. When you totted up every Wednesday and Friday plus Lent, Dormition and Nativity Fasts she had about 180 days as a vegan, two with no food and another 40 that were ovo-lacto vegetarian. Two thirds of the year. She would never have described herself as a vegetarian, though. She once killed, skinned and cooked a rabbit when I came to lunch.  She cooked broad beans, chickpeas and wheat for protein on meatless days. Her generation’s view was that you weren’t a proper Christian unless you adhered to the fasting rules, purely for spiritual reasons.

When Japan went Buddhist  and vegetarian 1400 years ago it was made easier by having tofu and ‘seitan’ wheat gluten and meaty-tasting miso and soya sauce – the same meat-replacing foods that help people transition to the macrobiotic diet. Michelin 3 star chefs Alain Passard and Alain Ducasse  both now have successful restaurants in Paris that are almost entirely vegan or vegetarian.

In 1981 my brother Gregory came up with an idea for a vegetarian burger mix. He registered the name ‘Vegeburger’ as a Trademark because it was such a novel term –(just imagine trying to do that today).  Set up under the Realeat brand the Vegeburger took off like a rocket and Gregory hooked up with Gallup to launch an annual survey on ‘Changing Attitudes to Meat Consumption’ that revealed the dynamic growth in the market for vegetarian food that continues to this day.   It shook off the ‘beards and sandals’ image that some backward folk still had about vegetarianism and made meat reduction hip and groovy. Pirate radio stations ran the first ever rapping food advertisement. That cemented the Vegeburger as cool.

The VegeBurger made the transition to vegetarianism much easier and more tempting for people at a time of rising food awareness in the 80s. Some people were critical – ‘Why imitate meat dishes with a veggie substitute?’ they’d ask. Why not? Most sausages are about 90% breadcrumbs.  Rissoles and patties have been around for as long as hamburgers. If putting something savoury in an appropriate roll or bun is delicious, who says it has to have been a mammal or bird previously?

Last August I attended a conference titled “Reversing The Trend” organized by Plantlife, Wildlife Trusts and Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Attendees mapped out a strategy to raise the profile of pasture-fed meat as opposed to intensive factory farmed animals.  The Prince of Wales dropped in and emphasized the arguments for biodiversity and reducing global warming.   The conclusion?  The same message that Slow Food and the Soil Association repeat: “Eat less meat, but eat better.”

People everywhere are reducing meat. There’s good reason. Eating meat is cruel to animals, in excess leads to degenerative disease, environmental degradation, accelerated climate change, the theft of food from poorer countries and widespread starvation.

What about organic vegetarian alternatives to meat? In my 25 years helping out at the Soil Association I have worked alongside conscientious meat and dairy farmers whose commitment to the environment is unchallengeable. Many, however, mistrust vegetarianism as they think organic farming systems cannot function without animals to supply manure for fertility building. But if we were vegetarian we’d need less than half the land used for food production now and if we were vegan we’d need just one fifth of the land – we could farm more extensively, and grow more clover.

Meat alternatives have never been more convincing. The Nordic countries are leading the charge in creating organic high quality alternatives to meat that convincingly satisfy the need for meaty texture, savoury flavour and concentrated protein. What’s more, they’re successfully marketing it as hip and groovy. So can organic farmers adjust to the coming low meat scenario?  With modern developments in composting, green manures and overwintered crops there’s no need to be dependent on animal manures.  The future is probably never going to be vegetarian but food processors are coming up with some very competitive alternatives to meat, lower in price and higher in flavour.

I wish my Aunt Sophia could see how far things have come, but she’d be 115 by now  – even 222 days a year as a vegetarian can’t swing that.


• The Nordic Organic Food Fair, the leading organic food event for the Scandinavian region, takes place in Malmo, Sweden, on 26-27 October 2014.

Nordic thriller

The Nordic Food Lab fuses the finest gastronomic traditions with cutting edge science to thrilling effect, writes Craig Sams

You have to hand it to the Danes.  They took over Britain in 1066 and have ruled it with a firm hand ever since.  Now Nordic Food is where it’s at with food technology. This isn’t the food technology that destroyed the health of a couple of generations when, back in the 60s hired liars in white coats assured us that hydrogenated fat, DDT residues and carcinogenic flavourings and colourings were good for you and that sugar was a vital source of energy. This is food technology that takes the best of past tradition and combines it with cutting edge science. The heart of this progressive movement is the Nordic Food Lab, sited atop the Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen.

Voted World’s Best Restaurant year after year, Noma is the only restaurant in the world to have 2 Michelin stars despite not having tablecloths (OMG!).  I chose the vegetarian options but with egg and dairy and paired juices.  Then the fun began.  I sipped a thyme-y herbed apple juice as we awaited the first of 20 courses. Highlights of the petite starters included rye flatbread with rose petals, crispy deep fried cabbage leaves sandwiching a filling of chopped samphire held together with a watercress puree, reindeer moss with ceps, smoked  pickled quail’s egg, a boulet of blackcurrant and roses and a lovely baked onion in walnut oil. My accompanying juices included: cucumber with yogurt whey; apple with Douglas fir pine needle; celery and seaweed; nasturtium; salted grape and lingonberry; each pairing perfectly balancing the course it accompanied.

The ‘mains’ were also superb, I haven’t eaten beechnuts in years because they’re such a fiddle, but they were perfect with butternut squash and kelp ribbons. The roasted and braised lettuce root was a revelation, served with St. John’s wort – opiates and tranquilisers in one dish.  Puddings included aronia berries with an ice cream centre. Oh, did I mention the ants?  Wood ants, of course, served on a charcoal roasted green bean.  I mentioned to our waitress Cat that I’d shove my hand into wood ants’ nests in Burnham Beeches (where I used to forage for beech nuts) just to enjoy the unique physical pleasure of ‘formication,’ where hundreds of ants’ feet run up and down your arm (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it).  She responded that was how their forager harvested them.

After a four-hour gastro-journey, a Geordie called Stu took us into the front kitchen where we saw how the person who served your food also took the final steps of preparation. Then we visited Lars, the enzymologist who makes fermented sauces out of almost anything and has bred cultures from Japanese koji that perform miracles when added to fermentable carbohydrates. We bonded when I told him about how I started using enzymes at Ceres Bakery back in 1972 – they are the key to making good sourdough breads. We also looked at his garums, savoury sauces historically made by Romans from anchovies, but his included beef and other protein sources.  We went upstairs and met Rene Redzepi, the creative force behind Noma. We chatted about Slow Food, school meals, how kids can be raised on good food at home and then be corrupted on the first day at school, cooking with burdock root and eating biochar.  I’ll send him some of my biochar oatcakes

To enlist science in the interests of human health, local integrity, artisanal quality, organic production and, above all, total and unalloyed deliciousness is a dream we’ve all dared to imagine from time to time.  At the Nordic Food Lab I have seen the future, and it’s wild, wholesome, fermented, smoked, cooked, raw and yummy. It is reinventing food culture and marking a path that anyone anywhere can follow.  You don’t have to be Danish to do it.  Noma is a university that is turning out chefs and artisan food biotechnologists who are going to change the way all of us eat.  The Nordic approach will work anywhere – it’s about building gastronomy on a foundation of local geography and protecting your natural environment by eating it.

I asked Stu if some of the people who worked there had ambitions to open their own restaurant or food business. He replied “All of them, if they don’t then they shouldn’t be working here.”

• The Nordic Organic Food Fair, the leading organic food event for the Scandinavian region, takes place in Malmo, Sweden, on 26-27 October 2014.


War of the world

After a century of destructive conflict a new battle is about the begin – the one to save Planet Earth. It’s the war we really can’t afford to lose, writes Craig Sams.

“I’m the King of the castle – and you’re a dirty rascal”

Every since my playground days I’ve been aware of who holds the high ground and who is a serf. In the olden days it was the legacy of your birth that determined your future chances. In our corporate world ‘legacy industries’ cling to their power in the face of change.

Economists bat on about ‘creative destruction’ in capitalism, but there are still way too many gigantic corporations that are dinosaurs; fat and obsolete but refusing to just lie down and be creatively destroyed. They’re the ‘kings of the castle’ and they’re not about to let any perceived ‘dirty rascals’ impinge on their power.  Sometimes creative destruction does work. A disruptive technology like a smartphone can instantly make obsolete regular cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, cameras, wrist watches, calculators, voice recorders and game boxes. Apple nearly destroyed IBM.

In Victorian times Britain and France went on a colony-building binge, demolishing the Ottoman Empire and the Austro Hungarian Empire in order to take over their territory.  This led in 1914 to the ‘War to end all Wars’ that we commemorate.  Hindsight shows it was the start of a 100 Years War…WWI was followed by a lot of mini wars, then WWII, then the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Lebanon invasion, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, to name a few.  NATO is at the heart of most of these wars

The NATO conference agenda recently called for increased military expenditure now that the EU economy seems to be finally.  Where would the money go?  To arms manufacturers in the US and Britain and to terrorists who we train and arm before they go over to the other side, creating new conflicts.

War of course isn’t the only legacy industry that made all its money out of a situation and can’t move on. .

Adam Smith nailed it in The Wealth of Nations when he wrote:  “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Who are the other dinosaurs that have sunk their fangs into the taxpayer’s neck and are sucking out our hard earned money to pay their salaries and remunerate their shareholders?

The pharmaceutical industry depends on widespread disease.  Many diseases arise from environmental reasons: lead in petrol, hormones in meat, pesticide residues in food and water, side effects of drugs, additives in food and toiletries and poor quality food grown in depleted soils. Prevention is the best cure, but where’s the profit in that?  If everyone was healthy Pharma would be in a very bad place.

Agribusiness depends on depleted soils.  Once you’ve knocked the life out of soil with nitrates, fungicides, insecticides, nematicides and other toxic material the only way a farmer can get a crop is by buying in ever more chemicals.  Farmers have to do what the government pays them to do, so Big Ag leans on government to make sure that the subsidy system encourages farmers to grow biofuels instead of food and to farm for production rather than sustainable productivity. They spend a lot of money fighting off real progress.

The ‘disruptive technology’ in agriculture is organic farming – like the smartphone it delivers a number of products in one package: sustainable yields, healthier soils, lower pollution, healthier people, reduced global warming, more biodiversity and far less expenditure on subsidies for expensive poisons and chemical fertilisers.

The oil industry get massive subsidies masked as exploration grants to make them seem more competitive than they really are. Private energy generation is discouraged, but it’s more resilient and cheaper.

But the biggest legacy industry of all is government – not only does it collaborate with the other legacy industries to protect their obsolete positions, the legacy industries collaborate with government to keep them dishing out the dosh and keeping their upstart competitors at bay.

Silicon Valley blew a hole in a number of legacy industries: big computers, expensive telephony, monopolised media and communications, to name a few. Now the Silicon Valley investors are investing big time in what they call ‘AgriTech.’ These investors don’t care for heavy-handed government regulation and can see an opportunity to cash in on food production in a world where daft ideas like biofuels, GMOs, subsidies and chemicals are making less and less sense. Organic farming and agroecological systems are where the smart investment money is heading. Backed by technology, organic farming can wipe the floor with the dinosaurs like Monsanto – they’ll fight back but there is a tidal wave of smart money that is betting against them

World War Three will be the war to save planet Earth. This is one we can’t afford to lose.

By Craig Sams

Organic food pioneer and polemicist Craig Sams is Britain’s best known natural food pioneer. He is the founder of Green & Blacks, a former Soil Association chairman and the author of The Little Food Book.

Say it Loud, I’m Blob and I’m Proud

Oh, dearie me. In a bitter article in the Sunday Telegraph just a few days after Cameron sacked him as Environment Minister, Owen Paterson lashed out at “the ‘Green Blob’ of environmental pressure groups, renewable energy groups and public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape.”

Then he got personal:

He criticised a ‘rich pop star’ (Brian May) for standing up for badgers, saying that May had ‘never been faced with having to cull a pregnant heifer.’

A gratuitous and most unchivalrous pop followed at national treasure Vivienne Westwood for opposing fracking. He called her ‘a dress designer for whom energy bills are trivial concerns.’

George Monbiot got it in the neck as ‘a public school journalist who thinks the solution to environmental problems…is Back to the Stone Age, but Glastonbury style.’

And he couldn’t resist a blob job on me, either: ‘a luxury chocolate tycoon uninterested in the demonstrable environmental and humanitarian benefits of GM crops’.

For the record: I have been interested in those demonstrable benefits every since they were first promised in 1996. I’m still waiting. Things are getting worse, not better. Herbicide resistant weeds are forcing farmers to use herbicides that were banned for very good reason more than a decade ago. Why should anyone want this in Britain?

Paterson should have saved his venom for Cameron, who realised that having someone like him on the front bench was electoral suicide.   In their parting row Paterson was overheard saying: “You can’t sack me, it’s a smash in the face for 12 million people who live in the countryside.” Then he stuck the knife in and twisted the blade: “I can out-ukip UKIP” he is said to have shouted. If anything, that probably confirmed Cameron that he’d made the right decision.

But what if Gove and Paterson, as George Monbiot has suggested, set up a British ‘Tea Party?’ In the USA ‘Tea Party’ has connotations of freedom-loving Bostonians dumping tea in the sea as a protest against tax-grabbing government. In Britain ‘Tea Party’ just conjures up images of mad hatters and people who have ‘believed six impossible things before breakfast.’ Hmmm. Funnily enough it was an earlier manifestation of the Green Blob in Britain that pushed for the 1898 ban on the use of mercury in hat making, while in the US the hatters unions failed to get similar protection. In 1945 80% of American felt hat makers had mercurial tremors, the dreaded ‘hatters shakes.’ In Britain the same disease had become a rarity by 1910. Go figure.

I feel honoured to have been celebrated as being one of the influential forces that made Paterson’s job such a struggle of imagined good against perceived evil. The trouble with being honoured in a newspaper article is that it is too ephemeral – tomorrow’s fish and chips. How about making it official? I’d love to be able to put the initials O.G.B after my name, marking my elevation to the Most Noble Order of the Green Blob. Otherwise next year nobody will remember that I was ranked with Brian May, Vivienne Westwood and George Monbiot as an enemy of the industrialised countryside of Paterson’s dreams. No fracking, no GM crops, no badger massacres. I doubt that Paterson’s 12 million country dwellers are sorry about that.

Back in 1958 my girl friend cuddled a little closer when we watched a new horror movie called The Blob.  The Blob came from outer space and slowly changed from green to pink as it got bigger and bigger by eating the inhabitants of a small town. Then a clever kid noticed it hated freezing temperatures so they sprayed it with cold air from CO2 fire extinguishers.  Frozen almost solid it was flown to the North Pole where it was dropped in a place where the ice would never melt. Oops! Let’s keep it there by not fracking, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not overstocking cows, and planting trees instead of GMO biofuel crops.

By Craig Sams

Organic food pioneer and polemicist
Craig Sams is Britain’s best known natural food pioneer. He is the founder of Green & Blacks, a former Soil Association chairman and the author of The Little Food Book.

How to decarbonize a planet

Making the switch to organic agriculture on a global scale and turning waste biomass into biochar offers the real prospect of being able to reverse global warming, says Craig Sams

What’s happening out there? Is the world quietly going sane? A leading US Republican, Henry Paulsen, has come out strongly for action on climate change in the New York Times. For a political party that refuses to acknowledge burning fossil fuels can have anything to do with global warming, this is a tectonic event. Americans aren’t as stupid as their leaders think and are wising up to the fact that Hurricane Sandy was not God punishing us but to do with increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

The explosion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started around 1850 with the coal and steam-driven Industrial Revolution and the massive expansion of farmed land that was formerly wilderness or forest. My ancestors were part of this damage to the planet – great great grandpa Lars ploughed virgin prairie in Wisconsin, great grandpa Ole ploughed virgin prairie in Nebraska and grandpa Louis bought a tractor in 1926 so he could plough even deeper.

Every year the land they farmed gave up more of its life – losing ten tonnes of soil per hectare per year and as it decomposed, pumping tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They cut down a lot of trees too – which mostly went up in smoke. The same thing happened in Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, Manchuria and the Punjab. We destroyed the soil that feeds us and filled the atmosphere with the gases that are cooking the planet.

Up to 1980 farming and fossil fuels were equally responsible for the increase in greenhouse gases; now fossil fuels are in the lead. But farming still emits more than ever. Every year 125,000,000 hectares of food-producing land give up the ghost – that’s 1.8% of the available land used up, farmed-out, lifeless.

The way forward is a carbon tax. How would it work? Every time you emit a tonne of carbon dioxide you pay the price – at the moment it’s around $15 per tonne. But once there’s a global market the price will go up. What does this mean for organic food? It will become cheaper than industrially-farmed food as organic farming uses half the fossil fuels to produce a given amount of food. Year after year it increases the carbon content of soil while industrial farms deplete it. The recent Rodale white paper (see story opposite) shows that if the world’s arable land and pasture was farmed organically the reduction in carbon emissions would be enough to cancel out ALL the annual increase in greenhouse gases. Rebuilding soils with biochar increases soil carbon and stimulates increased growth and extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere by crops. By farming organically and turning waste biomass into biochar instead of burning it we could reverse global warming. We would also eat less meat as it will cost a lot more when you include the carbon cost (vegetarians have a lower carbon footprint and vegans emit about a fifth of the CO2 per year of meat-eaters).

Add in the reductions in emissions from a transition to wind and solar and we can face the future with confidence and look our grandchildren in the eye instead of looking away guiltily because our shortsighted greed has robbed them of a secure future.

California has a carbon tax which has equivalence with Quebec’s; China has opened eight carbon exchanges in its key industrial regions; Europe has its Emissions Trading Scheme. Unilever and Pepsi have created the Cool Farm Calculator so the whole carbon footprint of a tub of Flora or a packet of crisps can be calculated precisely, and the food industry is picking up on it. The 2015 climate conference in Paris won’t be another failure – there are too many stakeholders who are determined to make it happen and have already achieved broad agreement on principles.

If the whole world farmed organically and ate organic food, reduced fossil fuel emissions, produced and shopped locally as much as possible, insulated houses, ate less meat and planted more trees, we could possibly face a global cooling crisis caused by sucking too much CO2 out of the atmosphere. But that’s a long way off, so let’s just put carbon back in the soil, where it does nothing but good.

By Craig Sams

Organic food pioneer and polemicist
Craig Sams is Britain’s best known natural food pioneer. He is the founder of Green & Blacks, a former Soil Association chairman and the author of The Little Food Book.

Soil Carbon: Where Life Begins


Back in 1967 my brother and I ran an organic macrobiotic restaurant and food store – we followed macrobiotics, the way of eating described in the book Zen Macrobiotics by Georges Ohsawa. The restaurant bought as much as possible from organic producers around London so we built strong links with the Soil Association, which was founded by Lady Eve Balfour in 1946.   In order to talk about biochar I will first talk about soil, because that is the context into which biochar fits.   Satish Kumar also spoke about soil last year in his excellent magazine Resurgence.


What is soil? Where did it come from? When life on earth began there was no soil, just rock. On and in that rock lived fungi that eked out a precarious living extracting carbon from the calcium carbonate of limestone. The atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide and when it rained the rain became a weak carbonic acid solution that helped fungi to extract carbon from rock.


The rock slowly broke down to sand, silt and the finest particles - clay. But there was no ‘soil’, no humus, none of the decomposing plants, organic matter and living organisms that define soil.


Then a miracle happened

Tiny single celled organisms, ‘cyanobacteria’ (Latin for ‘blue bacteria’) developed the ability to take carbon dioxide and water and, with the help of sunshine, convert CO2 and H2O into simple carbohydrate: C6H12O6, or sugar. This was and is the fuel that powers all life on earth. The fungi saw their opportunity and locked the cyanobacteria into cells and strung them together in chain gangs.

Then they started to bundle them together in a form that we would recognise as plants

pic8 These strands of cyanobacteria became the earliest plants, such as horsetail

Plants were an efficient way to comb CO2 out of the air. The original plants didn't even have roots, the fungi had their own root system inside the plant to extract the sugar as soon as it was made. The plants were the root extensions of the fungi, not the other way round, which is how it appears today. Plants evolved with root systems and the fungi continued to keep their root network in the plant's root system. These fungi are called 'vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi'   ‘Arbuscular’ means 'tree-shaped' and reflects the form they take when the occupy the root system of a plant. 'Myco' means 'mushroom' and 'rhizzal' comes from rhizome and means 'root' - so they are ‘tree-shaped root mushrooms’. ‘Vesicular’ refers to the vesicles that are the storage areas where the mycorrhizae hold a stock of nutrients and sugar.


A plant will deliver in its sap from 10-20% of the sugar it makes in its leaves to the mycorrhizae, retaining the rest for its own growth. The mycorrhizae increase the reach of the plant’s roots by up to 10 times, penetrating soil that plant roots can’t access.

The ‘arbuscular’ shape of the fungus is shown in a root cell – this tree-like shape is a mirror of a root system – the fungus has its roots in the plant, the plant has its roots in the soil.


There are other organisms in the soil that live symbiotically with the mycorrizae. Most notable are the actinomycetes bacteria – originally they were thought to be fungi because they copied the form of fungal hyphae, with filamentous threads. With the advent of electron microscopes they turned out to be bacteria that had strung themselves together in chains in order to efficiently ferry nutrients to the mycorrhizae in exchange for sugar.   Most of our antibiotics come from soil bacteria. Streptomycin When a plant needs medicine, the mycorrhizae can farm it by feeding sugar to the bacteria that can produce that particular antidote – most commonly jasmonic acid, salicylic acid (aspirin) or ethylene. These medicines are sent up with the sap of the plant to provide it with immunity to fungal and insect attack.

One example of how mycorrhizae are used in farming is the French practice of ‘alley cropping’ where rows of fruit trees keep the fungal network going and enable crops planted in between to flourish rapidly thanks to the existing network of mycorrhizae supported by the trees. In Windsor Great Park an oak nursery accelerates the growth of oak saplings by raising them in ground surrounded by mature oaks – the big oaks provide the sugar to support a large mycorrhizal population. The baby oaks get sugar and nutrients from the mycorrhizae and grow away rapidly and healthily.

Soil is fascinating. It’s wonderful stuff. So what do humans do with it? Since the dawn of agriculture we mostly just kill it. Ploughing breaks up the neural network within the soil, though it reconnects fairly quickly but with a lot of casualties. Adding chemical fertilisers breaks up the symbiosis – the mycorrhizae no longer can exchange mineral nutrients for sugars because the farmers is providing them for free. The plant cuts off the sugar supply to the mycrorrhizae clustered around its roots and the mycorrhizae die off. Their 10,000 or so co-dependent microbial species also die off. The plant is then exposed to the challenge of fungi and other pests that give it nothing and just want to consume it. This creates the need for pesticides including fungicides, which further deplete the microbial population of the soil.

I have several generations of form in the area. My great great grandfather farmed virgin soil on the Koshkonong Prairie in 1842, cutting down trees and raising crops of grain and grazing cattle. My great grandfather farmed virgin prairie in Nebraska. These Norwegian farmers were notoriously stingy. They were frugal people in everything they did, they wasted nothing and recycled everything. Here’s an example:

Frugalism-Less is More

My grandfather would deliver eggs from his chicken houses to the Safeway supermarket and other stores in Sioux City. He would then purchase tools, sugar, flour, salt, paper and other essentials that could not be produced on the farm. The flour sacks were made of calico, so the farmer’s wives would recycle the bags to make overalls for their boys and dresses for the girls.

Nell Rose flour company bags

Flour is a commodity – one bag of white dusty flour is just like the next. So the Nell Rose flour company marketing people got clever and printed nice floral patterns on their flour bags.

This appealed to people like my grandmother and she used Nell Rose flour to make the dresses for my mother (on the right) with her sister Thelma and their cousins.

Margie on the farm

This remarkable frugalism and avoidance of waste stands in stark contrast to the way that the soils of the Midwest were relentlessly wasted, often beyond recovery. Here there was no recycling, just relentless ploughing and harvesting, breaking down the soil. The farmer’s wives wasted nothing, their husbands wasted the fertile heritage of millennia. When land was ‘farmed out’ people would just move further west.

The original Louisiana Territory and adjacent territories embraced the great river network of the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri Rivers, a 2000 mile wide water system draining into the Gulf of Mexico.

Original Louisiana

By 1925 more than 80% of the trees in this great river network had been cut down in order to create productive farmland.

trees cut down

The result was inevitable – the Mississippi Floods of 1927 were devastating – 27,000 square miles were inundated, up to depths of 30 feet. It triggered huge migrations of Afro-American farmers to Northern cities. Below Memphis Tennessee the Mississippi was 60 miles wide, 3 times the width of the Straits of Dover. The land was flooded from April to June. Floods

This great flood was followed by further devastation. The weakened fractured soils of the prairie began to turn to dust and the winds blew up vast clouds of dust that reached as far as Washington DC, prompting Congressional action.   President Roosevelt created the Civil Conservation Corps and 3 million recruits planted 10 billion trees from Mexico to Canada to try to hold down the soil.

Dust bowl

This destruction of soil happened also in Argentina, Manchuria, Ukraine, and other fertile breadbaskets around the world as tractors and chemical fertilizer accelerated the rate of soil destruction.

The greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane that were emitted accounted for half of all the increase in greenhouse gas levels between 1850 and 1980. Since then agriculture’s annual rate of emissions has continued to grow, but has fallen behind the astronomic rate of emissions growth from manufacturing, energy and transport.  But it is still responsible for at least one third of our excess emissions.


From 1850-1980:

Total CO2 from Farming:      160 Billion Tonnes

Total CO2 from Fossil Fuels: 165 Billion Tonnes

How can we stop this wasteful and environmentally damaging activity?

Part of the answer lies in a discover that was made nearly 500 years ago. When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzarro was buy looting the silver and gold of the Incas he heard about cities of gold with even greater wealth. He deputed his brother and Francisco de Orellana to find these cities and to bring back their gold.


The parties were separated and Orellana could not return up river. The chaplain on his boat kept records of their travels. They encountered wealthy populations but were repelled by armed natives, led by fierce women warriors. These natives knew already that if you came close to a white man you would break out in red spots of measles or smallpox and then, because they had no immunity, die. They attacked and drove them away – Orellana described his boat as looking like a porcupine after one such attack. They called this region the Land of the Amazons and this is how the river got its name. When explorers sailed up the Amazon about 30 years later the wealthy civilisations Orellana had described were gone – wiped out by disease. People questioned whether the ‘El Dorado’ he had described ever really existed.


Within the past 50 years archaeologists have found that the areas he described as populated coincide with areas where the soil is black to a depth of several metres - the ‘Terra Preta’ of the Amazon river settlements. Farmers who have Terra Preta have little need for fertilizer and even sell their soil to less fortunate farmers who are on the typical infertile jungle soils. The Terra Preta was made by the Amazons by taking all their waste, including animal bones and forest waste and domestic waste, piling it into pits, covering it with clay and setting fire to it. Once it was burning hot they’d cut off the supply of air and the material became charcoal and provided the growing medium for the next season’s crop.   The contrast between Terra Preta and soils of the forest is apparent when the land is cut away.

Terra Petra

Brazilian farmers who farm on Terra Preta benefit from its fertility and crops like corn grow vigorously when planted in black earth. They sell it to other farmers and bag it up for sale in garden centres. It is what we now call ‘Biochar’ – charcoal for use in the soil rather than charcoal for use for barbecuing sausages.

So what is Biochar? What does it do?

Biochar provides a supportive environment for mycorrhizae and their associated microorganisms. This leads to a doubling or more of the microbial population that is the living essence of soil.

Biochar had a high surface area – a single gram of biochar can have twice the surface area of 2 tennis courts – this means there are lots of points where minerals can stick, each point has a negative charge, so it sticks to minerals with a positive charge – this stops the leaching of nutrients from soil, keeping it in the zone where it can reach the plant.

Biochar also helps retain moisture. The result is healthier plants, more nutrient availability, more water availability and better soil structure.

Biochar also reduces soil emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

Biochar stays in the soil, too, for anything from 10 years to 4000 years, depending on the type of biochar, the soil type and the farming system. The scientific consensus settles around 1000 years. This represents carbon dioxide that is kept out of the atmosphere – most woody biomass ends up returning to the atmosphere by rotting or being burned. Thus biochar can be an important tool for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. It is estimated that recycling woody waste as biochar could remove 1 billion tonnes of CO2 annually from the atmosphere. Instead we burn it.

Biochar cell  structure

Biochar retains the cell structure of the original feedstock. So biochar from bamboo has larger pores, biochar from chestnut has small pores. But all those pores provide a refuge for mycorrhizae and a base from which they can expand even if they are disturbed by ploughing or by predators such as mites, protozoa or nematodes that feed on them.

Imagine the pieces of biochar as a ‘five star hotel’ for mycorrhizae or, even as Norman castles in the English countryside. Each biochar particle is a base for a contingent of mycorrhizae, helping them to weather the stresses and pressures of life in the soil.

We have an image of mushrooms as passive softies but they are much more than that. When nematodes that threaten a plant enter mycorrhizal territory they get more than they bargained for. The mycorrhizae attach to them with sticky substances that hold them fast, then insert their filamentous hyphae into the tiny worm and suck out its amino acids, providing protein for more mycorrhizal growth and nitrogen for ‘their’ plants. Some mycorrhizae form lassoes that are scented with fragrances that attract nematodes – the nematode pokes through the lasso that then snaps tight, holding the nematode while it is digested.


Mycorrhizae also oversee the production of insecticides and fungicides. When there is a threatening insect or fungal pest the news travels fast through the underground internet – the mycelial network. The appropriate preventive medicine such as jasmonic acid, salicylic acid or ethylene is produced and delivered via the plant’s sap to the threatened area. How is this done? We don’t really know but it is likely that the mycorrhizae simply feed more sugar to the bacteria that produce these defensive chemicals and then pass them over to the plant.


It may be that the plant produces the defensive chemical itself or that it produces it in conjunction with the soil microbes. Both the plant and its supportive microbial community have a shared interest in defeating any disease threats quickly, before they have time to weaken the plant.

Biochar, by providing a resilient and abundant network of soil fungi and bacteria, is the framework of the plant’s immune system and helps it with nourishment and water.

So what have we done at Carbon Gold to turn this theoretical ideal situation into a reality?

biochar kiln

The first thing we discovered was that the production method for charcoal was expensive, slow and inefficient – we wanted to reduce our carbon footprint in biochar production as much as possible and make it available cheaply to small farmers. We developed the Superchar 100 kiln.

It makes a 100 Kg batch of biochar in 8 hours instead of the usual 3 days. It delivers double the yield of traditional ring kilns. It has greatly reduced emissions – we recycle the gases emitted by the wood and burn them to heat the kiln contents instead of letting them escape into the atmosphere. They’re now hard at work in Belize, Botswana, Turkmenistan, Fiji, Brazil and the UK, with orders for more in the pipeline.

We also make a double-barrelled kiln that will produce 2 x 400 kg batches of biochar in a 12 hour day.

This one is part of a marshland regeneration project north of Perth, in Scotland

double barrelled kiln

Whitmuir Organics, just south of Edinburgh, are making biochar for their horticultural operation and are experimenting with it in pig feed, where a small amount makes a big difference to pig health and feed conversion.

The first UK field trials of biochar were on my smallholding near Hastings in September 2010. We planted cabbages and winter lettuce in late September, some with biochar and some without. In November we had heavy snows and the lettuces were covered in snow for 3 days. When the snow melted the winter lettuces without biochar had died. Those with biochar were intact. I think this could be that a high microbiological population in the soil acts as underfloor central heating, biological activity generates heat and this is probably what saved the plants. We also discovered that biochar has no repellent effect on hungry pigeons, which destroyed the cabbage crop completely.

biochar field trials

We work closely with Rijk Zwaan, the world’s 5th largest seed company and one that regards GMOs as an obsolete technology – they are world leaders at using natural breeding methods harnessed to genomic data. Their Field Trials Manager, Martin Kyte, stopped a comparative trial of Carbon Gold seed compost and peat compost after a few months because the results were so obviously in favour of our seed compost.


And Fergus Garrett, head gardener at the marvelous Great Dixter gardens in Sussex, has switched to biochar.

Stephanie Donaldson, Gardening Editor of Country Living magazine, trialled Carbon Gold with lettuces. After one month the difference was significant:

In Belize one of our shareholders took 3 Maya cacao farmers to Cornell University in 2008. We studied biochar production and its use with Johannes Lehmann, the world’s leading authority on biochar and founder of the International Biochar Initiative. After that we helped the farmers build a simple kiln. They did trials and found that cacao tree seedlings raised with biochar outperformed those without biochar in the nursery. A $50,000 UNDP grant helped them expand production and recently the Inter American Development Bank funded the establishment of 9 new nurseries with a target of producing 45, 000 cacao trees to really expand cacao production. It normally takes 6 or 7 years for a cacao tree to begin to produce, with biochar it starts in 3 years – that makes a huge economic difference to a farmer who has invested in establishing a cacao orchard.


Belize: Biochar + Cacao = fruit within 3 years

Normal maturation time: 6-7 years

We’re also working with farmers in Africa.

In Ghana, where tomatoes retail at $12 per kilo, Sunshine Organic Farms are starting to grow tomatoes near the capital, Accra. Biochar will help ensure healthy abundant cropping.

In Ivory Coast cashew nut waste will provide a feedstock that can then be used on cashew trees and in Senegal it will be rice husks that provide the feedstock.

We have just shipped a kiln to Botswana. Farmers in Fiji are now making biochar with our kilns to improve their fertility and cropping.

Wight Salads grow more than half of the organic tomatoes sold in the UK every year. They have greenhouses in Portugal and the Isle of Wight. Last year they started using biochar from us. The results:  8% higher yield, 10% higher sugar content in the fruit, less watering and fertilizer cost and, most excitingly, a dramatic fall in the population of root-eating nematodes. They had a lower level of this pest in their organic biochar production than in their conventional production where they use nematicide to kill this damaging pest.

Wight Salads tomatoes

They were considering cutting back on organic tomato production because of these nematodes, but now they are going to expand.


Some nematodes work collaboratively with mycorrhizae, some eat them, some just eat plants and some provide food for the mycorrhizae when they venture too close to the plant the mycorrhizae are protecting. Once lassoed they are soon converted into nitrogen compounds

Biochar works wonderfully on turf as well. Forest Green Rovers Football Club trialled Carbon Gold last year and found that at the end of the season this year the treated part of the pitch had withstood the stress of weekly games and practice far better than the rest of the pitch. Last week they spread biochar over the entire pitch and their groundsman has helped initiate trialy by the groundsman at Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal. Those trials will open up new opportunities on sports grounds everywhere and help reduce the use of nitrates and other chemical treatments.

We make products for gardeners too. These are available from some garden centres, but most of our sales come from our own website, other online retailers, QVC and Amazon. This is because biochar still takes a bit of explaining and garden centre staff are not always available or able to tell a customer about it.

Last year we worked with Bartlett Tree Experts, the Queen’s tree surgeons, on trials with Carbon Gold biochar. They successfully cured honey fungus and saw accelerated growth in horse chestnut seedlings. The results of their research were published in April in the prestigious Arb Magazine, the journal for members of the Arboricultural Association. An ash dieback trial they initiated last year has so far shown no sign of infection, but they are waiting until this October before publishing any results. They have endorsed our tree growth enhancement and protection range and are now offering it to all their customers.

Biochar to CO2

We are not yet capturing the carbon offset value of using biochar, but it is now becoming available as a carbon offset of value. The conversion ratios vary – our own figure is based on making biochar in a Carbon Gold kiln and reflects the greater efficiency and lower carbon footprint of the Superchar range of kilns.


In 2011 I visited the Green Party MEP Caroline Lucas in Brussels. She invited me back to present the biochar story to the Green Group of MEPs. In attendance were representatives from DG Agri and DG Enviro. They had a meeting after our meeting and the outcome was Eurochar. This programme funds research into biochar as a strategy for long term carbon sequestration and funds research into greenhouse gas mitigation with biochar.

Lady Eve Balfour lost the post war argument about the future direction of agriculture, but the Soil Association continued to fight the good fight while the introduction of subsidized nitrate fertilizer forced farmers into the industrial fold. The same process happened in the rest of the world and led to the Green Revolution, which is now running out of steam. Ten years ago there was a major collaboration to map out the future of agriculture in a world with diminishing resources and increasing population. WHO, FAO, UNDP, UNESCO, Defra, USDA, Monsanto and Syngenta were just a few of the global stakeholders who selected a crack team of 400 of the world’s leading agronomists to look at how we could reduce hunger, improve livelihoods and ensure social and environmental sustainability. 2 weeks before their report was published in 2009 both Monsanto and Syngenta went public by rubbishing its contents. Why? Because it said that the Green Revolution hadn’t delivered sustainable results, that genetic engineering was a dead end and that we should listen to small farmers and adopt traditional farming systems.

All of the other benefits of their proposals are summed up in rewarding farmers who prevent climate change. Whether you call it organic farming or agroecological farming, the fact is that farming in support of the living soil and its wonderful microbiological population is the only sustainable way to go. It is lower in carbon emissions and hugely effective in carbon sequestration. If only Lady Eve had lived to see this outcome that so firmly vindicated her predictions in The Living Soil published in 1943.

carbon farming

We are eating oil – it takes vast amounts of fossil fuel energy to make food energy and this is plainly unsustainable.

Farming Systems Trial

The Farming Systems Trial at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania has been growing the same crops side by side using organic methods and conventional methods. Once the health of the soil was restored, the organic crops matched conventional yields, showing greater resilience in years of drought.   Every year the organic soil added 1 tonne of carbon to the soil, while the industrial crops gradually lost it. The organic crops used 45% less energy.

Professor Pimentel at Cornell University mapped it out: organic farming could reduce atmospheric CO2 by 1.1 trillion pounds a year. That’s half a billion tonnes of CO2 – about 1/10 of the annual increase in CO2 equivalent. Add in biochar and you would get at least another half a billion tonnes, bringing down CO2 levels by 20% a year.


If the cost of CO2 was factored into food production, then organic farming would deliver a € 350 per hectare cost benefit if carbon was priced at the real cost to future generations of €70 per tonne. Add in the benefit of €210 per hectare for every tonne of biochar added to the soil and agriculture could be part of the climate change solution instead of a major element of the problem. Lord Nicholas Stern quoted the figure of €70 per tonne in his book Blueprint for a Safer Future but a few months after it was published he said he was mistaken the real cost was €150 per tonne. Anyone who experience Hurricane Sandy in New York would probably agree. But even if CO2 was only priced at €35 per tonne it would deliver an economic imperative to farm organically and to use biochar universally. The Paris climate talks in 2015 will not exclude agriculture or transportation, the fatal mistake of the Kyoto protocols back in 1993. That will be when farming has to face reality and get a grip on its emissions.


And not a moment too soon. Every year 125 million hectares of land become so degraded they can no longer reliably produce crops. That’s nearly 2% of the world’s arable land. We have replaced that lost land by cutting down forests, but that is no longer an option. We have to live within the means of our natural capital of soil and that means not spending it but saving it and building on it.

Public health will benefit too. Antibiotics saved millions of lives – they were derived from soil bacteria. Now, due to overuse in agriculture they have created resilient disease pathogens that can no longer be treated effectively with antibiotics. 80% of all antibiotic use is in agriculture, to keep animals alive that could not survive in the filthy conditions in which they are raised, on beef feedlots where they wallow in their own excrement or in pig and chicken farms where antibiotics are the only thing that keeps the animals alive during their brief lifespan.


The sad thing is that industrial farming isn’t feeding the world. The world is feeding itself despite the waste and inefficiency of industrial farms.

70% of world’s food grown on farms smaller than 5 hectares


30% of the world’s food grown on industrial farms

$350 Billion yearly SUBSIDIES

No wonder the IAASTD was so adamant that small farmers using agroecological and traditional methods were the only way to feed the world. They can produce up to six times as much per hectare as industrial farms, using fewer fossil fuel-based inputs and more human labour. Our taxes are being wasted on subsidising the destruction of our soils and dangerous increases in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Only a carbon tax can reverse this.

As this is a Slow Food Eire event it would be remiss of me not to touch on the similarities between the microbiological health of the soil and the microbiology of its counterpart in us, the gut flora, whose product is often referred to as ‘night soil.’ One third by weight of what we excrete is the offspring of the gut flora that have multiplied on our food in our digestive system and pass out along with the digested food. There are clear parallels in function between mycorrhizae and actinomycetes bacteria in the soil and the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria and associated microbial forms in the gut.


We know that babies born by C section are likely to lack the microbial flora that are part of a healthy immune system. It’s now established that stool transplants in patients with clostridium difficile can save lives – 110,000 Americans a year die of this infection, which arises after antibiotic use.

In the soil, worms are a sign of good health. The emerging medical treatment of helminthic therapy reflects the finding that the absence of worms in the human gut is associated with diminished immune function. When an earthworm consumes soil containing actinomycetes bacteria, an important part of the soil’s immune system that produces antibiotic substances, it excretes six times as many as it ingests. Roundworms in the human gut consume food we eat and excrete cytokine, an immune booster.

pic48In Chinese tradition, Kwan Yin is the Goddess of Mercy and ‘mercy clay’ has saved millions from famine – it is rich in humus, minerals and microbial activity and can sustain a person when no other food is available.

pic49In Haiti the production of clay cakes is commonplace. Made with clay, salt and oil, they aren’t consumed to keep hunger at bay, they nourish and have special benefits for pregnant women as it prevents morning sickness. Clay helps eliminate toxins and infections.


When one’s tummy is upset, particularly if traveling in foreign lands where a combination of different prevalent bacteria and different hygiene standards can lead to digestive disorders, charcoal tablets have the same beneficial effect on our digestive night soil as it does in the soil in which we grow our food.

I began this talk by quoting three people who have deeply influenced my thinking about soil and about its fundamental importance to our lives.


I would like to close by quoting an even higher authority:

Genesis 3:19

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

The soil’s living community provides an example to our society of how a cooperative community of plants and microorganisms can maximise and efficiently share the production of food derived from the abundance of water, sunlight and carbon dioxide with which our planet is blessed. We come from the soil and we return to the soil, we owe all life on earth to the soil.

We should never treat it like dirt

Have you been dealing comfrey, sonny?

The natural food trade should take a lead in exposing the hypocritical regulation of herbal medicine, says Craig Sams

A bust in Denver: “Okay, kid, put your hands up against the wall. Spread your legs while we pat you down.” Two cops search a young man’s clothing.

“Nothing here but a couple of marijuana joints … Wait a minute, what’s this? It looks like comfrey tea bags. Get the handcuffs – let’s take this one down to the station.”

A bust in London: “Okay, kid, put your hands up against the wall. Spread your legs while we pat you down.” Two cops search a young man’s clothing. 

“Nothing here but a couple of comfrey tea bags … Wait a minute, what’s this? It looks like a couple of marijuana joints. Get the handcuffs – let’s take this one down to the station.”

Depending on where you are in the Western world of free and democratic nations, your choice of therapeutic herbs can either put you in the slammer or be purchased legally.

Charlotte Mitchell, who almost singlehandedly rescued the Soil Association from bankruptcy and oblivion back in 1991, has suffered the ever-increasing impact of multiple sclerosis. The NHS refused to authorize the use of Sativex (a marijuana extract made by a drug company in Kent) for her, so she has to fork out £100 a week for this medicine in order to be legal. She could buy dope from a street dealer in Edinburgh for a fraction of the cost, with all the risks of dealing with criminals, but she sticks to the legitimate stuff. The NHS, too busy enriching the peddlers of statins, antidepressants, hydrogenated fat margarines and other crappy drugs, won’t allow Sativex for patients in England or Scotland. All her working life Charlotte paid her NI contributions, but when her time of need came, she got two fingers and now has to pay out of her savings for the only medication that effectively eases the pain of MS.

Meanwhile, it’s all kicking off in the US. Not only do 20 states allow medical use of marijuana for all sorts of conditions, but two of them, Colorado and Washington, have decided to allow it for recreational use, too. However, comfrey is still prohibited in the US and all sorts of herbs are now prohibited or strictly regulated in the UK. How on earth are we going to deal with the hypocrisy of a situation where people can go to jail for peddling herbs like comfrey and slippery elm while we empty out our prisons of people who were sent down for dealing in herbs like marijuana?

This is not the only paradox in our society that needs resolving now that progress is beginning to happen. What about speed?

The pot paradox
‘Speed kills’ – this slogan arose in the sixties as people realized that amphetamines were a terrible drug with progressively degenerate consequences. Yet our rulers encourage its use. Today we force school kids to take speed if they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It slows them down. But it also makes them fat for the rest of their lives, with all the health problems that come with obesity. The US Army gives its soldiers amphetamines, antidepressants and sedatives to keep them going in battle conditions. Then they come home and struggle with addiction – a third of addicted ex-soldiers die of overdoses or suicide. More soldiers kill themselves than are killed by enemy forces – one in five suicides in the US are ex-Army. In US states where medical marijuana was legalized, the overall suicide rate dropped by 10% or more. It’s not just that marijuana cheers people up. It also lowers consumption of alcohol, a well known depressant and significant factor in suicides.

Is it time for the natural foods trade to lead the charge for marijuana legalization in the UK? Legalization of marijuana would help to clear away all the other hypocritical regulation of herbal medicines and strike a powerful blow for the right of all human beings to own their bodies and make informed decisions about what medications they take. As someone who hasn’t been to a doctor for 49 years, but who has also had recourse to use therapeutic herbs from time to time that have kept me happy and healthy, I’d welcome the chance to live my life without the nagging fear of being imprisoned for not being a burden on the NHS.

By Craig Sams

Organic food pioneer and polemicist
Craig Sams is Britain’s best known natural food pioneer. He is the founder of Green & Blacks, a former Soil Association chairman and the author of The Little Food Book.

Small is still beautiful

Who needs big organisations that are inherently inefficient in this age of smartphones and smart farmers? The future is small, the future is beautiful … and resilient

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society, in their wisdom, decided to bestow their Shackleton Medal (for Leadership and Citizenship) on me, and my wife Jo Fairley. The event was in Perth, traditionally known as the ‘Fair City’ but also a registered Fairtrade City.  Supporters poured into the Perth Concert Hall and we met two schoolgirls whose school curriculum included writing an essay about Justino Peck, a personal friend of ours in Belize. Justino led the Toledo Cacao Growers Association in 1993 from near collapse to a vibrant cooperative built on supplying organic cacao to Green & Black’s for Maya Gold. Arguably he should have been awarded the Shackleton Medal – he moved heaven and earth to get organic cacao production up going in Belize.

What sank in as we prepared our speech was how much the world has changed. In 1993 British aid advisors and agricultural experts from the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) urged the cocoa farmers to ignore us, warning that if they went organic and abandoned chemicals their cocoa orchards would be wiped out and they’d never be able to repay the money they’d borrowed to buy hybrid seeds and chemicals in the 1980s. Justino advised the farmers to trust us and go organic – most farmers don’t like spending money on chemicals anyway.

In the 1960s there had been a massive move towards big industrial scale cocoa plantations to ‘modernise’ cocoa production. 420,000 hectares of cacao were planted in Malaysia and over 200,000 in Bahia province of Brazil. Now there’s fewer than 20,000 hectares in Malaysia and even less than that in Bahia. What happened? Quite simply, the experts were wrong. They confidently gave crap advice that led to a huge waste of money. Big plantations planted cacao trees 8 feet apart with no shade trees (instead of 16 feet apart and with shade trees. Teams of workers were paid by the hour to harvest and ended up picking under-ripe pods to meet their targets.  The result was cacao that was rubbish for anything but the cheapest chocolate. The Malaysians sent teams to Ghana to find out that complexity of flavour comes when you have lots of independent farmers growing cacao and picking it only when it’s ripe.  In Brazil a disease called Witches Broom spread like wildfire in 1989, the fungicides failed to work and 90% of the trees in the Bahia region died.  An awful lot of money, human effort and heartbreak went into this misguided scheme to ‘modernise’ cocoa farming. A lot of women got cancer or had deformed births from spraying chemicals into the underside of the trees. Some plantations wouldn’t give women jobs as backpack sprayers unless they could prove they’d been sterilised. Cheap food at what cost?

Now it’s all changed and all the chocolate companies are actively courting smallholder producers.  Big is not beautiful, it’s a disaster. Tyre companies like Michelin want smallholders to plant rubber trees. Unilever want them to plant oil palm. The big plantations don’t work. Now everyone has to make nice to the smallholders. They have the whip hand and, organised into cooperatives, can command fair prices, supported by the Fairtrade Mark and other assurances.

The thinking behind depopulating the countryside was that all those peasants were needed to go and work in factory jobs, assembling computers and cars.  Only robots now do the job cheaper.  Apple’s new factory in Arizona will make computers in the USA again, but with very few jobs.  But there’s no point in making stuff if nobody has the money to buy it. The independent smallholder farmers, getting fair prices for what they produce, will be an important market for manufactured goods.

What’s more, independent people who own their own business or land are the backbone of any representative democracy. They’re harder to push around.

Just look at what a mess ‘Big’ has got us in. Big farmers in the US and EU depend on subsidies for half their income – they’d go bust overnight without £400 billion each year of taxpayer support. Big supermarkets are struggling, squeezing suppliers for cash to prop up their flagging share price, while independent butchers, bakers and brewers and other small retailers are popping up all over the place.

“Just look at what a mess ‘Big’ has got us in. Big farmers in the US and EU depend on subsidies for half their income – they’d go bust overnight without £400 billion each year of taxpayer support. Big supermarkets are struggling, squeezing suppliers for cash to prop up their flagging share price”

EF Shumacher wrote Small is Beautiful – as if People Mattered and went on to be president of the Soil Association. Who needs big organisations that are inherently inefficient in this age of smartphones and smart farmers? The future is small, the future is beautiful…and resilient. Just look at the cacao example – it’s the same wherever you look.

Three cheers for ethical mob rule

We used to fear mob rule. But if the ‘mob’ is all nice people who you’d be happy to introduce to your mother, well, what’s wrong with that? Welcome to the Collaborative Economy.

I farm 20 acres, mostly woodland and orchard, with 2 acres of organic vegetable production.  I farm people – and they farm me.  They work the vegetable land and they call themselves Stonelynk Community Growers.

20 members put £50 a year into the kitty. I match fund it and pay for the Soil Association certification. Then we split the crop 50-50. I sell my half to local natural food stores, box schemes and restaurants, they eat their half. They each get £500 worth of fresh vegetables and work 100 hours a year. The farmer next door does any machinery work, like rotovating. This is just one example of how the sharing movement is gaining traction.

I was keynote speaker at the ‘Grow It Yourself’ launch in Birmingham in July. It’s an event that Mark Diacono of Otter Farm described as a ‘Gardeners’ Glastonbury.’ Allotmenteers, community gardeners, gardening journalists and publishers were all there. People who grow their own food together have a special bond. Most grow organically – who would spray insecticide on a lettuce they were going to serve a day later to their friends and family?

When people grow and share their produce their attitude to food changes. They want provenance and trust. They buy local. They insist on organic.

There are a small number of farmers with large landholdings who can’t make it pay without massive subsidies and there are large numbers of people without land who would love to get stuck in. Social farming is a lot of fun – you don’t just share the harvest, you share good times, friendship, knowledge and fun.  Hard to put a price on, but it means the cucumber you grew on a community farm is worth infinitely more than the one some Dutch hydroponics engineer grew under glass and which never touched the earth. People are reconnecting with the real physical world.

WWOOF now covers more than 50 countries, where volunteers help out on organic farms and get plugged in to the organic movement. Landshare was launched at River Cottage in 2009 and has connected more than 55,000 growers, sharers and helpers.

The peer-to-peer economy is replacing the top-down economy. Instead of owning things people increasingly are just using things and sharing tools and time. Building social capital is replacing the desire for things – we want good times, not to be surrounded by junk in social isolation.

These social transactions cut out the middle corporation and bureaucracy and provide secondary income while maximising efficient use of resources such as bedrooms, money, cars, energy and kitchens and, potentially, almost anything.

Bedrooms: Air BnB is so much nicer than hotels. They cover 192 countries, anything from a bedroom to an apartment to a house.

Money: After getting uncomprehending treatment from the banks, Dominic of Inspiral Foods went for crowdfunding. He quickly reached in his target £250,000. The investors were like-minded people who shared Inspiral’s values, people who want their investment to do good and do well. Funding Circle has loaned over £133m, Zopa £278m, matching up investors with borrowers. With an average 5.8% return and no banks or middlemen, crowdfunding pays.

Cars: Why bother to own a car when you can pick one up as easily as a Boris Bike. Or tap into a lift-sharing app to find a ride or a passenger from London to Exeter.

Energy: Why buy electricity? Generate it, keep a storage battery in the shed and feed power in and out of a smart grid in an energy-sharing network that doesn’t need a toxic nuclear plant or coal power station at the end of ugly pylons.

Kitchens: Cookening helps you eat locally with local people who host dinner in their homes.

This kind of stuff upsets the health and safety people because the rating of a service is done by the users, making bureaucrats redundant.

Schumacher wrote ‘Small is Beautiful.’ Shelley wrote “Ye are many, they are few”. Put it together and you get the Collaborative Economy. Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing  and sharing are the practical application of what we used to fear as ‘Mob Rule.’  But as long as the ‘mob’ is all nice people who you’d be happy to introduce to your mother, what’s wrong with that?  At least you know them and they aren’t spying on your emails.

Little supermarkets, big threat?

Having left local high streets for dead the big supermarkets are re-colonising them at a rate of knots with new small-format stores. Big threat to independents, right? Not necessarily, says Craig Sams

After decades of disembowelling the nation’s high streets, the supermarkets are rushing back in with a variety of ‘Local’ or ‘Express’ or other similar offerings.  It could be a case of too little too late, but if it means fewer charity shops and higher footfall then it could be good news for the high street organic retailer who has the right offering.

All the organic brands that started life in the natural food stores and then migrated to the supermarket shelves followed a well-trodden path: the supermarkets all had their ‘A’ stores (huge floor space, high end demographic) right down to stores that were cramped and in less salubrious locations.  An aspiring organic brand such as Clipper, Yeo Valley or Green & Black’s would get its shot at stardom in a handful of ‘A’ stores (Sainsbury’s started G&B’s out in 12 stores and the buyer was highly reluctant about allowing that). If it performed then it would move on to the B’s, the C’s and, well you get the picture.

So where do the ‘local’ supermarkets fit in? Limitations of space mean that the range available is greatly restricted. There’s no room for many of the organic lines stocked in the big stores.  But frustrated customers can easily pick them up at the nearest natural food store – along with anything else that catches their eye.

Historically local authorities have been part of the problem – shortsightedly, they bribe supermarkets to move into the outskirts and then greedily ramp up downtown parking charges to further deter drive traffic out of town. But this kind of stupidity is in decline.

The small independent convenience stores aren’t going to be a pushover. Menzies now offer retailers a smartphone app that lets them amend orders, make credit enquiries and find out what’s in stock and what’s not in real time from the shop floor. Result: fewer out of stocks, less money tied up in stock, more flexibility, higher sales, happier customers.

A recent report from the Association of Convenience Stores says that 55% of independent retailers are earning less than the minimum wage and 69% are earning less than the living wage (£7.45 per hour). It’s always frustrating when your Saturday girls are earning more per hour than you are, but sometimes that’s the price of freedom and owning your own business. Independent retailers are usually engaged in other community activity, making their neighbourhood a better place to live. Being part of a community is its own reward, one that is increasingly appreciated as central government becomes ever more remote

The big stores are investing in more space. The next five years could see 19 million square feet of new store space and 6 million square feet of internet growth-equivalent space. The new store space will be mostly small. The smaller stores cannibalise sales from the edge-of-town dinosaurs, making them less profitable. What’s worse, supermarket convenience stores are less profitable than big box stores.  But they have to make the move.  Why?  One reason is that people are finally getting it about waste: one big Saturday shop leaves you with more food than you need, stuff goes out of date or just doesn’t look very appetising when the leaves on the lettuce start to curl and the milk is barely fit for Little Miss Muffett.  Better to shop little and often, you’ll spend less and waste less.  People find they’d rather get a life than stand in a long checkout queue on a precious Saturday morning to get food they never knew they wanted before they entered the hypnotic environment of the big store.

The other big factor coming down the line is carbon footprinting.  When you factor in the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with big stores, food waste, being non-organic, excess meat consumption and all that driving around it’s not a pretty picture.  From September 30 this year every major company will have to declare its total annual greenhouse gas emissions. In a few years there’ll be a carbon tax that will force them to swallow a cost they’ve been able to dump on society up till now. That will tip the balance even further towards locally sourced, organic, lower meat and dairy, less waste and healthier food choices.

Perhaps not ‘roll on Tesco Express’, but not as scary as you might think.

Food for (psychiatrists’) thought

In-fighting among psychiatrists over what constitutes mental illness has hit new levels. Craig Sams offers to diagnose their dysfunctional behaviour.

Stop the press! The American Psychiatric Association is publishing the latest edition of the ‘DSM’ (that’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to you and me). People are mentally ill in pretty much the same way they’ve always been – but the diagnosis and treatment are flip-flopping hither and thither. Vast amounts of money have been poured into psychiatric research, making neuroscience a big money spinner for researchers. Result after 30 years? Zilch, nada, just more arguing within the psychiatric profession.

To oversimplify:

• Some time ago mentally ill people were ‘schizophrenic’ (two minds)

• Then the DSM partially reclassified it as ‘manic-depressive’ (two states of mind)

• Then the DSM decided that there was another variant:  ‘bipolar disorder’ (two mental states)

• And what’s more, ‘manic’ in a kid could be ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’ – worthy of putting the kid on addictive Ritalin.

These diagnoses can often overlap, so now they are wondering if there’s a common cause that could explain the overlap.

There’s plenty of evidence that biological problems could affect brain circuits involving emotion, cognition and behaviour.

The research to nail down the genetic causes of mental illness has got nowhere. The research to find biological markers has got nowhere.

The attempt to locate centres of mental activity haven’t moved much from the old skulls of phrenologists marked with ‘acquisitiveness,’ ‘hope’, ‘secretiveness’ or ‘sublimity.’ That was when they thought the bumps on your head could reveal your inner personality.

Psychiatric drugs are not a cure, sometimes just a chemical cosh, often misprescribed. They can suppress powerful human instincts such as the reluctance to commit suicide.  A prescription can be a lifetime sentence to pill popping.

The guru of Zen Macrobiotics, Georges Ohsawa, listed mental illness as the hardest disease to cure, but believed that if a mentally ill person got on track to good physical health then good mental health would follow.

The Royal Marines take a more manly approach, with the motto ‘Mens Sana in Corpore Sano.’ This translates as ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body.’

The natural food business is the delivery system of the healthy eating movement, reflecting the belief that if we eat wholesome natural foods we will enjoy good physical and mental health.

In the early days people who said you should eat more wholegrains and vegetables were categorised as wackos or crazies. Now the World Health Organisation, the UK Ministry of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control etc all say “eat more wholegrains and vegetables and exercise”.

Doctors struggle to keep up, it’s much easier to prescribe a painkiller or a blood pressure drug than to advise on a healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and nutritious organic food. But at least they now begrudgingly admit that you should eat less junk and walk around a bit.

So what’s with the psychiatric profession? Why don’t they get it? Do they have some kind of major mental block about disorders?

Mental illness is a lot more complicated than physical illness. The symptoms are more erratic and you can’t pin them down to a specific organ. They’ve tried to map the brain for ages, using one sophisticated method after another, issuing press releases full of misplaced hope that have only ensured more taxpayer-funded research money is squandered on misguided projects.

Mental illness can, rarely, be a disease of the brain. But very often is just a behavioral reflection of a deep physical disorder. People with mental health problems are statistically more likely to have diseases of gut dysbiosis such as coeliac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, gluten intolerance and sprue. People with serious gut health problems often suffer depression. Any clues here?

The natural and organic foods delivery system offers a cure for an ecologically sick planet and for physically sick humans.

Can it also, perhaps, offer the most effective route to dealing with the epidemic of mental illness that has left the psychiatric profession spitting tacks at each other and getting no closer to a solution?

‘Mens sana in corpore sano.’ Bleedin’ obvious and no less true today than 2100  years ago.

Sugar – are you a user or an abuser?

As experts flail around not solving the global obesity crisis Craig Sams ponders the merits of establishing a new category of crime – Food Abuse

Fat Chance, a recent book by Prof. Robert Lustig, puts forth the hypothesis that it is sugar, not fat, that is making us fat, diabetic and lazy. It rang a little bell so I pulled out an insightful little paperback book called About Macrobiotics, published in 1972. It read: “It is quite natural to find that diabetics are fat, reflecting heavy sugar consumption.” The author went on to write: “If sugar were discovered yesterday it would be banned and handed over to the Army for weapons research.”  The author? Some 26-year-old, name of Craig Sams. Yeah, the chocolate guy.

When my kids came home from school, grumpy and hungry, I’d cross-examine them to see if they’d sneaked some sugary junk with their pals.  They grew up with a healthy attitude to sugary food, less fanatical than me, but moderate to the point of being minimal with sugar. When I announced that Whole Earth Foods was about to sprout Green & Black’s chocolate, they were horrified.  When I took it to Community Foods Tim Powell fixed me with a beady eye and spluttered: “Chocolate? You? Craig Sams, who got us all to give it up back in the day?” It’s true that my brother Gregory and I persuaded the Natural Foods Union to state in our 1973 manifesto that we would not stock sugar or products containing sugar. This pledge held until 1991, when Green & Black’s came along and blew the gates off their hinges. Sugar, organic sugar even, was back in the game.

Robert Lustig almost hits the nail on the head.  For sure overconsumption of sugar is the cause of obesity and obesity related diseases like diabetes.  But he blames advertisers and a cynical drug-peddling mentality among food companies. James Ehrlichmann’s mini-book “Addicted to Food – Understanding the Obesity Epidemic” says we are food addicts, with sugar, fat and salt being the key addictive substances that work on the brain like opiates to keep addicts hooked.  He points out that since Stone Age days we are biologically programmed to lay on fat in anticipation of times when the mammoths and berries are scarce. He wants regulation and taxation. But there are so many addictive substances: sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, tobacco, mood-altering pharmaceuticals, cocaine, painkillers, opiates, even television and sex.

We’re all hooked on some combination or the other of them. Every addict has their own preferred folly mixture.  At times I’ve been hooked on cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate and ice cream, even a few months dabbling in cocaine and for 40 years drank at least 6 cups of tea a day.  So I know a thing or two about addiction, (though never got into hard stuff like opiates or coffee and steered well clear of over-the-counter and prescription drugs). I still enjoy many of the above, but I’m in control now and don’t overdo them.

Taxation and haranguing users with traffic lights and skull and crossbones images won’t change things. Cigarette consumption fell because of smoking bans in restaurants and pubs, not because of taxes.

But we can’t ban food in restaurants and pubs. So what to do? Why not create a new category of crime called ‘Food Abuse.’  Anyone whose Body Mass Index exceeds 30 gets hauled up before a magistrate. If they have a mitigating factor such as a glandular condition they get let off. Otherwise, sentence them to four weeks … at a retreat in the countryside.

A day in a NHS hospital costs £300 – a week at a health farm with full detox treatments, healthy diet, nutrition education, yoga, pilates, wheat grass juice and country walks – the lot, costs £100 a day, a third of the price. Prevention isn’t just better than cure, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.

Anyone who’s been to a health farm knows it only takes a few weeks of enforcing healthy habits to drive out the unhealthy ones. The reformed characters will be less likely to be a burden on the NHS so there’s a long term payback,too. The ex-cons will also be more likely to shop in a natural food shop than at Iceland. The big food companies and supermarkets will respond in a flash – they have no particular commitment to one food or another, they just sell what people buy.

There is no silver bullet to cure obesity and there is no single junk food. The ‘junkie’ is us and the monkey on our back can only be controlled by going cold turkey and learning good habits.

Al Gromer Khan's Jazz Christmas

A very insightful memoir from Al Gromer Khan about his days in London - on New Year's Eve he and Mike Figgis played at Seed Restaurant...when John Lennon and Yoko Ono came in.

Chapter from Jazz Christmas by Al Gromer Khan, reproduced with kind permission of the author. Published 2011, his novella a clef captures the transition in the London scene from jazz and R&B to the alternative society and psychedelia.

‘Sam’ is Gregory Sams.

The restaurant ‘Sam’s Macrobiotic Club’ was ‘Seed Restaurant’ – the macrobiotic restaurant on Westbourne Grove that launched the natural foods movement in Britain and was the foundation for Harmony Foods, Whole Earth Foods, the Vegeburger and Green & Black’s chocolate. The date was actually New Year's Eve 1968. The author is Al Gromer Khan and ‘Fargo’ is Mike Figgis, the filmmaker.


No matter what anyone says, the oversize woollen jumper was invented by us, by our generation, the Flower Children. It was then carried further by German Green Party members. Almost all patrons at Sam´s Macrobiotic Club wore woollen jumpers (in bottle green and lavender blue) on New Years Eve 1967, complete with the small black holes scorched by burning hash pieces that had fallen down from joints. But if your psyche had gone somewhat wonky with acid, the proprietor of ´Sam´s´, a quiet Californian named Sam, well on the way to be a Zen master, would provide healing – or normality – with benign vegetables and organic soy-sauce. This was restaurant, Zen monastery and docto´s practice all in one, a subterranean place where guests sat cross-legged, setting standards for legions of psycho-analysts who came thirty or so years later, for us to get in touch with our inner selves. This ´inner self´ was what our musical performance was meant to enhance too.

Prepared with small cups of Mu-Tea we began ringing in the New Year. Our musical works were based on certain concepts. One was a Kafka-quotation: 'There is a point of no return let us reach it!' Or a John Cage principle; 'Go to the border but not beyond'. A third was, 'The chief gives more than he takes' (and leaves the most important notes out). This was not background music, rather an exercise in the spirit of Zen. When our performance was announced we went to the stage and started tuning up. In a few hours it would be 1968 and we were feeling ´The Source´.

You could know ´The Source´ by the fact that in playing together each player left space for the other player to develop his music. You could furthermore tell by pauses left in order for the sound to unfold and create its own momentum. Now and then short jazz phrases would be thrown in – nothing superfluous, nothing vain. What was shown was essential and you got the feeling that it couldn´t be any other way. This was good. The music flowed.

Very soon an atmosphere of detached gratitude set in. Sounds remained in space. While playing, Fargo and I looked at each other. He had a satisfied smile on his lips - this was a good day, it would be a good year. Fargo continued his ostinato with his left  hand and took a sip of MuTea with his right. ´Mu´ means eternity, man! Next, as if this was nothing special at all John Lennon and Yoko Ono stepped into the room. With a serious face Fargo nodded his head towards the table where Lennon and Ono had taken their seats. He looked at me saucer-eyed, but he didn´t smile. This was brilliant. This would be an evening the two celebrities wouldn´t be forgetting so soon. Hadn´t our music found their sublime centre just tonight? What hundreds, nay, thousands of young musicians wished for – an audition before Lennon and Ono, to be discovered, promoted and put on record, this opportunity had arisen spontaneously and without any effort on our part on the eve of 1968. We would, in all humility, demonstrate to them how to attain optimum brain function with an absolute minimum of means and show. This might be a chance of convincing Lennon that pop songs were, in fact, an outdated musical form, that they were nothing but simple pub songs, enhanced by electrified guitars. Ono, an avant-garde artist in her own right, would presumably point out the finer points of our art, the high intuitive quality in particular. We would be discreetly asked for an appointment with Apple Music at Savile Row ... a three-year contract with further options. An adequate advance sum would carry us through the first years and allow us to terminate our ignoble jobs at the jazz club in order for us to apply ourselves entirely to our art ...  I said, ´Fargo, shall we start with ´Prayer´ like we said?´ ´No, man,´ Mike replied, ´´Prayer´ is too subtle. We should really start with ‘Kafka’ A knot fastened in my solar plexus, ´I really don´t see why we should allow the listeners to influence our repertoire.´ Fargo spoke under his breath out of the corner of his mouth, ´I´m telling you ´Kafka´ is the coolest piece for the occasion! Think of the implications!´

´But ...´

´No ´but´, man. I´m not having you ruin my career with your ideological principles!´ I hissed back to him in the same hushed intense voice.

´This is not about ideology at all, man! I simply think we should continue as we had planned our performance, do ´Prayer´ and not deviate from our programme, simply on account of the fact that some famous people are sitting over there.´

´What do you mean ´famous people´, man? These are Lennon and Ono, man! ´You know vat? Zis whole thing iss beginning to get me seriously on the balls!´ In my anger my English had fallen back into German grammar and pronunciation lapses.

Fargo said, ´Then fucking well do something about it, fucking hell!´

At this point we became aware that quarrelling was counter-productive. So we retuned our instruments and started the piece proposed by Fargo. However the sounds were different now. No longer rich and sonorous, warm and expansive, they refused to bear fruit in terms of overtones. A situation had come about whereby you started thinking while performing, a situation in which you would think what you´re going to play next in order to maximise the effect. And on account of not being absorbed in the sound, you would play everything slightly faster. Squint-eyed you looked for the listener´s reaction – and you would start playing competitively.

The famous Beatle was looking about antsy, pale-faced, restless. It did not appear as if Lennon had taken any notice of the music or the musicians. It seemed that he was occupied with something else, something that seemed to absorb him entirely. If he did look in our direction he seemed to look into the middle distance above our heads, or right through us – lost in thought. Yoko Ono appeared to be talking to Lennon uninterruptedly with a restrained voice. With an impatient gesture Lennon waved the young long-haired waiter over, said a few words to him and gave him a bank note. The waiter started to move away from their table in the direction of the stage, over to where we were sitting and playing music.´Mr Lennon sends you these ten pounds and asks whether it would be okay for you to call it a day with the music. He says he can´t really concentrate on his macrobiotics.´

To purchase Jazz Christmas, please click here

Al Gromer Khan’s marvellous body of work is available from iTunes Store and Amazon.


Only organic can rescue our dried out planet

Water trumps everything. Water is food. But the worldwide well is running dry. Only organic can rescue our desiccated planet, says Craig Sams

In March I attended the City Food Lecture at Guildhall. This is a glitzy event where the City livery companies (Fruiterers, Grocers, Poulterers, Butchers, Fishmongers) lay on a lecture and discussion and canapés. The speaker this year was Peter Brucke, CEO of Nestle.  The discussion was chaired by Sheila Dillon of Radio 4’s Food Programme.

Peter Brucke’s theme was water. He outlined how diminishing water resources are beginning to impinge on food production. It’s quite a story. He told us what was wrong but failed to mention how it all went wrong.

First the story – all over the world, in the US Midwest, in China, in Punjab, in Saudi Arabia there are massive underground lakes that have accumulated water for thousands or millions of years. They just sat there until the last 50 years, quietly just being water. Then they got pumped to the surface and now they’re exhausted, empty, pumped out, kaput.  We’re back to relying on rain ­­– just when climate change is making rain more unpredictable than it’s ever been.

How did this happen? Well, companies like Nestlé encouraged backward farmers to modernise, to use chemical fertilisers and adopt the high yielding wheat and rice varieties of the Green Revolution. Chemical fertilisers trigger a breakdown in soil organic matter.  Any farmer who has converted degraded soil into productive organic soil can tell you that it can take quite a few years before that soil holds water and nutrients and has the biological resilience that protects plants from fungal and other diseases. Any fool can go turn rich farmland into degraded semi-desert but it takes skilled husbandry to recover what is lost.

Soil that is depleted of organic matter doesn’t hold water.  Dave Vetter, who farms organically in Nebraska, uses  just one seventh of the water that his non-organic neighbours use – they put on the chemicals, add water they pump up from the nearly exhausted Ogalalla aquifer and it mostly just drains off the land, into the Missouri River, down to the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. What a waste!  What’s worse, there is no life in the sea for 200 miles off the coast of New Orleans because the nitrates and other chemicals are so intensely concentrated. The shrimp boats aren’t coming anymore.  The same is true in India, where farmers add more chemicals every year and get diminishing returns. Their water is running out, too. The Saudis have started to buy land in Africa, their own investment in farming worked out for about 20 years, now the water’s gone.

Sitting at the high table, flanked by bottles of their San Pellegrino, Nestle’s boss lamented the situation but avoided the only answer that makes any sense. Go organic. Everyone still worries about the cost. But the externalised cost of degraded soils, water depletion and crop failure is a lot more than tuppence on the price of a Milky Bar. It’s war, famine, disease and death – our old friends the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

“Everyone still worries about the cost. But the externalised cost of degraded soils, water depletion and crop failure is a lot more than tuppence on the price of a Milky Bar”

China got to grips with a dried out dust bowl in Heilongjiang Province back in 2001.  The Beijing bosses told the local boss to stop letting the dust from dried out fields blow all over the place.  The Heilonjiang apparatchiks ordered that 1,500,000 hectares convert to organic within 10 years.  Bang on schedule, in 2011, the last 150,000 hectares went organic and China now rules the market for organic commodities like sesame, pumpkinseed, aduki beans, sunflower seeds, etc etc.  And the dust clouds are a distant memory.

Of course we can’t just order that sort of thing in our representative democracies.  We have to fight our way past agribusiness lobbyists in Brussels who have a mysterious grip over the better judgement of EU Commissioners for agriculture. The CAP is rotten to the core. The USDA is little better. But when companies like Nestle start ringing the alarm bells, then companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and the nitrate fertiliser merchants will have to run for cover.

Water trumps everything. Water is food. The old soul tune says you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.  Well, it’s running dry and there’s only one way to fix that. Organic farming – the only way to deal with a dried out planet.

• Craig Sams will talking on the themes raised in his two most recent NP blogs in ‘No Place to Hide: The Future of Food in the New Age of Transparency’. The talk takes place at Olympia, London at 10.30-11.15 on Monday April 8 – visit for more information.

No place to hide

The internet is the most powerful tool for transparency ever invented. There literally is no place to hide for the perpetrators of food scandals, writes Craig Sams.

Oh, dear, another scandal from the meat industry. We’ve barely put away the sickbags from the ‘pink slime’ revelations before we get another nauseating example of how little respect consumers can expect from the purveyors of their animal protein.

Organic cynics might say it’s about time – we haven’t had a good scandal for ages.  Every time something like this comes up there is an upward blip in sales of organic food as consumers rush for the safe haven of uncontaminated, inspected, certified food produced by people with faces who care about the welfare of their animals and the health of their customers.

When Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks revelations hit the front pages the curtain that protected high-level lawbreakers from scrutiny was ripped away. Those revelations were symptomatic of a greater transformation that is taking place.  It’s the new transparency. We are no longer spoon-fed a particular version of reality, massaged by corporate spin doctors and fed out through compliant news organisations.  The truth, horrible as it sometimes may be, can’t be kept under wraps any more. The internet is changing things rapidly. Yes, it’s full of bullcrap and whackos, but it quickly sorts the truth from the rubbish and gives us all a clearer understanding of what’s going on. It’s eroding trust, but if trust is misplaced, then it’s better to mistrust. Common law makes much of assuming innocence until guilt is proven. Nowadays it’s smarter to assume the worst until you can be confident otherwise.

Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, wants GMOs to be grown in the UK.  He announced at the NFU conference in January that we were all eating them anyway as our meat is from animals that eat GM feed. He didn’t mention GMO oats at the time, I guess he wasn’t counting the horses. When I was a lad, if a government minister presided over a scandal that reflected badly on him and his department he did the honorable thing and popped in to 10 Downing Street to proffer his resignation. Patterson is brazening it out. He is even pushing to get Britain to have more relaxed meat labelling and content standards.

If his department can’t keep horses out of burgers, hot dogs and ready meals how the hell is he going to give consumers who don’t want to eat GMOs any protection? The recent events have shown that unscrupulous processors can drive a coach and, er… equines through the controls that supermarkets and the Food Standards Agency agree are enough to protect our freedom of choice. How on earth are they going to give us a choice about eating GMOs?

The meat industry has a dismal record. When my brother Gregory sold his Vegeburger business in 1988, the new owners moved production to a big meat processor and the first batch went out to Sainsbury’s. The burgers were so convincingly like meat that customers raised the alarm. Somebody had pushed the wrong button in the factory and the Vegeburgers had been accidentally made with beef (or horse, dog, cat, hamster, whatever).  Linda McCartney got so angry when her processor made a similar mistake that she forced them to build a separate, totally meat-free, factory to process her branded ready meals. And it’s not just meat they contaminate. When e.Coli contamination of spinach triggered nationwide recalls in the USA it turned out the e.Coli came from irrigation water. The water was contaminated with cow poo from an intensive beef feedlot at the top of the valley. One of the reasons supermarket buyers rotate every six months or so is because the meat buyer is almost inevitably corrupted by suppliers and the only cure is to keep moving them around. Even in Medieval times, ‘the butcher’s thumb’ referred to the practice of resting his thumb on the scale as he weighed out your pound of flesh. Even when there’s no meat on the bone, they’re still at it. When Rabbi Kahn visited our jam factory to certify it Kosher, he was particularly vexed about human collagen in gelatin. Our factory manager, who once ran a gelatin factory, mentioned how rings and jewelry would appear in the ‘cow bones’ from India that they processed.

Under the harsh glare of the internet, there are fewer and fewer hiding places for wrongdoers.  The truth will out, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.

So what to do? Choose  organic? Go vegetarian? You took the words right out of my mouth.

GM - Dream or nightmare

The American people are going to be very, very angry when the truth about GM food finally comes out, writes Craig Sams


When Mark Lynas got up at the National Farming Conference this January and said he was an environmentalist who realised he had been wrong about GM and that we should all adopt it, at once something smelt bad. He said the organic movement and Indian peasant farmers should stop fighting against the inevitable, crops to combat malnutrition and grow in drought conditions were being delayed and we have to feed the world. Owen Patterson, the new ‘Environment Minister’ attacked opponents of GM and said we couldn’t let the world starve any more (no mention of the subsidised biofuels NFU members are bribed to grow so we can burn food instead of eating it). He also said we’re all eating meat from animals that eat GM feed, so resistance is futile.

All part of Big Biotech’s new campaign to break the GM opposition in Europe. In that same week Poland banned two previously permitted GM crops. France one and various other European countries hardened their resistance. In Africa, Kenya joined the growing list of countries that completely banned GM seeds and imports of GM food. A scandal erupted in China where kids were fed toxic GM food without their knowledge in a falsified experiment.

It’s war!

The first casualty in War is Truth. Truth in the GM wars died back in the mid 1990s, now much more is at stake: the credibility of science. It’s a shame that it has come to this and that the men in white coats are trotting out the lies again.

When Monsanto discovered the DNA in petunias that makes them immune to Roundup, they fired petunia DNA into soybean DNA again and again until they got a mutant soybean that was resistant to Roundup. Bingo! With the Roundup patent expiring in 2001, they needed some way to keep farmers hooked on their herbicide and not migrate to cheaper generics at one third of the price. However, saying “We can continue to overcharge you after patent expiry for Roundup” didn’t make marketing sense. “Higher yields”, “Lower herbicide usage”, and ‘Feeding The World” were more buzzy.

They tested the GM soybean for yield and found yields were actually lower. US farmers found that Roundup usage actually increased. The biotech firms also claimed that in the pipeline were crops that could grow in salinated soils (every year we lose another 120 million hectares of farmland that’s become so drenched in chemical fertilisers that they can no longer support life – the salination is not seasalt, its salts of chemical fertilisers). There weren’t. Then they said they would develop crops that would grow through droughts. That never happened either, 17 years on. If a witness in a court of law has a record of lying they are not trusted again. Here the same old stories are trotted out, without any supporting evidence, and Tory ministers parrot them uncritically.

Monsanto had to get past the FDA, guardians of America’s food safety. Top scientists studied Monsanto’s feeding trials and counselled a ban. They were overruled by the political appointees who run the FDA, a good many either past of future Monsanto executives. The EU was easier. The CAP is so corrupt that the EU Council of Auditors have refused to approve their accounts for nearly a decade. Getting Commissioners to approve was a piece of cake.

In 1996 4% of the US soybean crop was GM. But an investigation carried out by the UK Food Standards Agency raised suspicions that all soy exports were deliberately contaminated with GM soy to deny EU users any choice.

They reckoned without Richard Austin of Rainbow Wholefoods, who galvanised the natural foods industry to boycott GM TVP from soya and GM soya lecithin, Greenpeace and the Soil Association drew a red line and the market has segregated GM and non GM ever since. This enables Waitrose to guarantee that all their own brand products are GM free, including the feed that goes to their meat animals.

The British government commissioned the most trusted and respected GM scientist, Arpad Puztai, of the Rowlett Institute, to do research GM to shut the critics up. Puztai found that GM potatoes caused cancer and deformities. He was abused by the Royal Society and his career shattered. Other researchers who got the same results were also fired or publicly humiliated by their fellow scientists. Not once has any independent research body been commissioned to duplicate their results. Too much money is at stake for the truth to come out. But it must.

We need to have proper research. Not by Monsanto’s scientists, not by Syngenta’s scientists – you can buy a scientist for about £60,000 a year, according to New Scientist magazine’s employment pages. The huge human guinea pig experiment with GM food in the US coincides with a calamitous deterioration in public health. The American people will be very, very angry when the truth comes out.

Civilising influences

The ancient Mayan civilisation collapsed over a thousand years ago, but its people lived on and are now part of a new ‘civilisation’ – of how business is done, writes Craig Sams

I first visited Belize in 1987 to film the Deer Dance of the Maya because it was, according to the Maya Calendar, the ‘Harmonic Convergence’ – the August 17 alignment of the planets that was the lead-in to the 2012 excitement that various overexcited doomsayers are saying is ‘the end of the world.’  In fact, the Maya Calendar is clear, there is a paradigm shift taking place.  We come to the end of a 5200-year Great Cycle of History on December 21st 2012, but the assumption is that we will move to a higher spiritual dimension.  It will signal the end of the old world of greed and exploitation and herald the onset of a new age of connectedness and shared mutual interest.   At least that’s what we thought when we went to Belize in 1987 while simultaneously ‘sun dancers’ stood on Glastonbury Tor holding hands, with similar events at other sacred spots like Chaco Canyon, Machu Picchu and Stonehenge.  Shirley MacLaine, Timothy Leary and John Denver were all participating.

While I was in Belize I met some cocoa growers and the first little seeds of an idea started to germinate in some fertile corner of my skull.  4 years later we had launched Green & Black’s.   We had some pretty clear objectives from day one:

– we’d pay a fair price to encourage increased production and farmer income;

– the cocoa beans would be organic and sustainably produced;

– no exploitation of children and respect for women’s rights;

– no exposure to toxic pesticides or fungicides

– the environment would be protected and ecosystems kept intact.

In 1993 we pumped $20,000 cash into underpinning the producer cooperatives that would make it happen.

Green & Black’s had these principles embedded in its DNA from birth.  We won the Ethical Consumer Award, the Worldaware award and became the first Fairtrade marked product.  Sure, it tasted good, so we won awards for that, but the big prize was that we proved it was possible to do good and do well without compromise.  Now this sort of thinking isn’t just commonplace, it’s what conscientious customers expect.  But what about Big Business?

When Cadbury’s took over the Green & Black’s in 2005 the hooting and hollering reached a crescendo.  Everybody expected them to drop organic, drop Fairtrade and turn Green & Black’s into a high-class variant of Dairy Milk.  In fact they helped the Maya growers in Belize recover from the terrible damage from Hurricane Iris and at the same time they learned a great deal about how cacao can be grown without chemicals and by small farmers rather than on plantations.   In 2008 Cadbury announced their Cocoa Partnership, a £45 million fund to help improve living conditions among farmers in Ghana and to help improve declining yields.  And they took Dairy Milk Fairtrade.

Then Kraft took over Cadbury.  More weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. More angry emails in my inbox.

Recently Kraft, amoeba-like, divided and the new chocolate entity is called Mondelez International.  At the International Cocoa Organisation conference last month in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Tim Cofer, CEO of Mondelez announced an upgrade to the £45 million Cadbury Cocoa Partnership.  It’s now a $400 million “Cocoa Life” programme, working with UNDP, WWF and Anti-Slavery International to improve the lives of cocoa farmers.  It has 4 main targets

  1. Help farmers improve yields and increase incomes
  2. Create positive communities and promote gender equality
  3. Eliminate child labour by attacking its root causes
  4. Protect the environment so that cocoa farming is viable for future generations

Sounds familiar?   It’s uncannily similar to the founding principles of Green & Black’s.  OK, it’s 20,000 times as much money as we invested, but we’re talking a major initiative to transform the lives of a million cocoa growers and ensure that the next generation would rather grow cacao than go and drive taxicabs in Accra or Abidjan.

The cynic in me says this is naked self-interest.  The average age of a cocoa farmer is 60 and you can’t make chocolate (or money) without cocoa beans.  But it’s kinda nice that it is happening in 2012, when the Maya calendar says we are going to embark on a new, more spiritually enlightened age of connectedness and shared mutual interest in each other’s well-being.

Fetishist? No, just enjoying food and having fun

You Aren’t What You Eat takes pot shots at fetishistic ‘foodists’ while eulogising genetic engineeringists. I can only despair at its author’s warped logic.

Stephen Poole writes for The Guardian and has authored a fascinating book on video games in which he explores and describes video games as ‘semiotic systems that provoke aesthetic wonder.’

Time to confess.  Not many people know this, but I am in the very highest rank globally of players of the Raw Thrills arcade game ‘The Fast and the Furious.’ I am also (blush, blush) the world’s number one in Namco’s classic Propcycle game.  So I am well into the aesthetic wonder of arcade games, in the true Clive Bell sense of emotional immersive aesthetic experience. I get the buzz. Poole articulates what gamers like me feel when they play and gives intellectual backbone to what shallower souls would condemn as adolescent time-wasting.

So I Kindled this book with high anticipation.

His new book You Aren’t What You Eat sets out to debunk wide swathes of food culture.  Its basic premise is that we have ponced up food ridiculously, taking something as boring and fundamental as keeping alive and turned it into a recreational obsession.

With a title like that you’d think that he might have a proper go at Gillian McKeith. Indeed, he does, but she is a small player: he’s after much bigger game in his shooting gallery of culinary and gastronomic targets. In fact the people who get put down in this book are so admirable that I feel somewhat humbled to have been elevated to their company. Gwyneth Paltrow, the Prince of Wales, Heston Blumenthal, the Soil Association, Nigella, even the saintly Delia, all wither before his fire.  Even Elizabeth David gets a barb or two. But, when he finally gets to the subject matter of his title, it is Craig Sams that gets the kicking.

In this book the starving poor are dying because rich middle class liberal ‘foodists’ won’t let them enjoy the abundance and benefits of GM crops that will resist drought, insects and grow like billy-o.    There is a several page paean to Monsanto and the wonders of genetic engineering that could have been written in 1996, so naïve and credulous does it read.  The Soil Association care more about a ‘hunk of rock’ in space than they do about the people on it.  If vegetarians care so much about living things, why do they chop up innocent carrots?  Don’t look for logic or rationality here, this is a fogeyish rant.

I wondered at first what this book reminded me of and then I remembered: Kraft-Ebbing, author of Psychopathia Sexualis.  This was a 19th Century tract that pruriently described case histories of sexual antics of all kinds and then condemned them one by one as deviant and perverse.  In the days before freely available internet porn, i.e. back in the 50s when I was a lad, this sort of stuff was where adolescents got their sex education. We’d just skip that last tedious moralising bit at the end of each of the 238 case histories. You Aren’t What You Eat is the gastronomic equivalent.  There are lurid case histories of every aspect of ‘gastroporn,’ covering everything from the gluttony of ancient Rome and Mesopotamia right through to the latest blow-torched culinary excesses of Heston Blumenthal.   Each drooling description of foodie antics concludes with a sharp moralistic condemnation.  As with Kraft Ebbing, you get the voyeuristic thrill, then the shutters close and you get the moralistic lecture about the evils of letting things get out of hand.

This book is scatological and jizzological. The book is peppered with unattractive images of bulging fat gourmands dribbling over their food while people starve in the developing world.  We read of dung adulterating food in Victorian England, film scenes where poo featured (“Brazil”).  We see Nigella Lawson compared to a bukkake star with globs of glutinous caramel dripping from her lips onto her breasts.   Then, just when he gets you going, the cold water of moralisation puts out the fire. Again.  And again.  Sheesh!

I’m not sure that Poole gets the point of foodiesm.  He tries to take it too seriously. Food is fun. We love it.  It’s a chance for us to let our hair down and get a bit frisky and to get out of our ruts.  We eat to live and we live to reproduce.  We love food and we love sex.   We love them because they are F-U-N.  Serious fun. As long as nobody gets hurt, what’s the problem?

Perhaps the answer lies in his attack on me.  Like every faithful reader of NPN, he has read my article on Epigenetics, which sets out the diametrically opposite argument to the title of his book.   You remember, the one where I wrote about the recent discoveries by molecular biologists that your DNA changes in response to dietary and environmental factors and that these changes become ingrained in your children and grandchildren.   So I wrote

“There is a responsibility here, too – we owe it to future generations to do right by them.  We may have bankrupted their financial future, but we shouldn’t plunder their piggybank of health as well.”

Sorry, I know this review is about Poole’s book, not about me, but you’ll see where I’m going with this.

He goes on to acknowledge (he must have read the same Guardian article last year that I did) that this food-changes-your-DNA thing does make sense.  So…you are what you eat.  Ah, but the trials were with rats, Poole writes, so let’s not jump to any premature conclusions abjout whether food will change human DNA. Well, I’m as sensitive as the next anti-vivisectionist, but if you believe the science then what happens to lab rats is a pretty good indicator of what happens to people.  He knows he’s on weak ground here, so he changes tack and goes after me for guilt-tripping parents to make them enjoy delicious wholesome food instead of whatever Poole would have them eat.   Nobody likes a blackmailer and Poole’s response to my  ‘moral blackmail’ is presumably to eat a Mega Mac and chips just to show his grandkids that they can’t intimidate him about their heredity.

But this is the heart of the matter. Either you are or you are not what you eat. You can’t be both. Poole admits that you indeed are what you eat but then says that we shouldn’t feel morally blackmailed by future generations to pass healthy DNA to them. OK, screw future generations, but I still want my DNA to be pretty healthy. If there are genetic causes of disease and food changes your genes for good or for bad then food can be a cause of disease. This is the ‘You are what you eat’ argument proved by the science of epigenetics, begrudgingly agreed by the author of a book that has a title that states the opposite.

Confused? Just keep eating the GMOs and for goodness sakes, don’t have any fun while you’re at it!