Reshaping our food systems: a tale of two chefs

9 September 2014

We chat to Ben Barton and Mike Van de Elzen about food systems and why they are involved with the Good Food Feast.

Mike Van de Elzen (MVE) is a TV celebrity chef who is gravely concerned about the welfare of his fellow Kiwis, especially children.  An ex-super yacht chef who became obsessed with food waste, Ben Barton (BB) returned to New Zealand, set up POPdining and started a Masters of Economics, in order to learn more about why food waste is incentivised.

We interviewed these top chefs to gain an understanding of the current state of our food system and the challenges and opportunities that exist around it.

What is wrong with New Zealand’s food system?

BB: We are living in a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone, but we waste around a third of food produced (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes worldwide).We’ve got a system set up to deliver cheap calories to people, but this is costing us our health and the health of our environment. The way we are producing food is exploiting animals, humans and degrading our land.

MVE: I see four problem areas: processed foods, sugar in everything, portion sizes and the fact that families don’t sit down to eat together anymore, but eat in front of the TV or a computer instead.

BB: It’s all compounded by the fact that not many people are eating real food anymore! In the USA, people spend more time watching food TV than they do preparing and eating it. We’re looking at a situation where there is a loss of knowledge, which is aggravated by a lack of confidence in cooking.

Why are you interested in food systems?

BB: Great food starts with the best produce: this is the prevailing attitude with most chefs. We need to reframe this attitude. I’m interested in food systems because I am interested in eating!

MVE: Per head of population, New Zealand is now one of the most obese countries in the world. I am interested in food systems because I believe that the more people who cook their own food, the better the health of the family unit, society and our environment.

How do chefs and ‘food trends’ influence how our food system works?

BB: Food trends shape our food system by creating demand. When I was growing up, lamb shanks were cheap as chips, and regarded as peasant food. In the last decade, they have become a common feature on domestic and restaurant menus, which has driven both the demand and the price up.

Another example of how food trends shape the market is so-called ‘super foods’. I’ve served a dish called ‘Controversial Quinoa’ a few times now. Quinoa has become popular because of its health value, yet some quinoa growing regions are the most malnourished in South America, because the farmers can’t afford to eat their own crops. They sell their higher value quinoa and buy cheaper, less nourishing foods like wheat and rice.

How does economic growth change people’s diets?

BB: As soon as people earn more money, meat consumption rises. We need to change people’s perceptions, and create a shift from the prevailing Kiwi attitude that ‘it’s not a meal if it doesn’t have meat’. There are plenty of plant based proteins which can be used to form the basis of a healthy, balanced diet. We don’t need to eat meat once or twice a day – a few times a week is enough. 

If there was one change you could make to the NZ food system, what would it be?

BB: I’d make composting compulsory. When waste is separated out into organics, recyclables, and waste to landfill, you become conscious of how much, and what you’re throwing away. We need to be looking in our fridges and pantries and asking ‘what should I eat?’ not ‘what do I want to eat?’

MVE: I’ve been involved with a few initiatives to change our food system. My most recent book, FAST is designed to show families how to cook simple, healthy meals. I’ve also opened a healthy restaurant, Boy & Bird, which uses 100% free range chickens with healthy side options. In 2015 I’ll be on a nationwide school and community tour, showing kids what food is, where it comes from and how to eat it.

Why the Good Food Feast?

BB: I’m involved in the Good Food Feast because we’re creating recipes that will literally change the world. Using TAG 2 (secondary grade) produce that has been sourced seasonally and locally, accompanied by sustainably harvested seafood and yesterday’s bread, I’m going to show you that something that can be regarded as ‘waste’ can form the basis of a delicious, sustainable meal.

What is a recipe to change the world?

BB: A recipe is a set of instructions for preparing food. But recipes can be used to promote better health for people and the planet. Take Nobu for example: a dish on their menu, Black Cod Miso, has been reinterpreted and replicated all over the world. This shows the impact that one recipe can have, by single-handedly changing the market to create demand for a fish that was previously regarded as low value.

How can we change people’s perceptions?

BB: With POPdining, we ran dining events which aimed to change people’s perceptions of what is usable, edible and tasty. By showing people that they can enjoy nose-to-tail eating, where the pig’s head and feet are used as well as the more traditional cuts, we made it fun, interesting and engaging. Story-telling is a good way to change the way people think about food: our diners leave our events and go home to rave about the ‘amazing risotto made out of kale stems’ they shared. 

MVE: It’s about changing people’s perceptions of what is good food, and what is healthy. By showing people that there are healthy alternatives to restaurant food, bolstering their confidence, and making it easy for people to cook healthy food at home, we can change the way people think about food.

What causes us to waste so much food?

BB: There are so many reasons you can point to when you look at what causes food waste. Yesterday’s bread can be a culinary resource, if you know what to do with it. We’ve been conditioned to demand the freshest bread, the perfect apple, but we also don’t value food enough. We’re looking at a system where highly perishable products like milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, go from being a full value product to a no value product, often overnight. Our standard of living has increased, and food has become cheaper, so it’s not as big a financial loss to waste it, because we haven’t spent as much.

What initiatives can be set up to improve our food system?

BB: Longer-term thinking and a shift in how we measure progress will help with this. We need to start thinking about how high intensity farming affects the land and water. It’s time to start looking at how we can maximise the value of the resource, instead of the profit that can be made from the resource. The true value should be measured by the productive capacity of the land. For example, we should be striving for high yields off the land, but we need to be adding value to the land as well. Biodynamic farming is a really good example of how to do this.

MVE: Education is the key here. We need to teach kids how to grow or source healthy food, and teach them the skills to be able to prepare and eat it too. We need to get people sitting around a dining table again, sharing food and talking to each other.

Mike Van de Elzen is speaking at the Good Food Feast. If you’re interested in finding out more about how SBN is going to tackle some of the challenges and opportunities in our food system, click here. To purchase a ticket to the Auckland Good Food Feast, click here.

The Good Food Feast is coming to Wellington on Wednesday 8 October, featuring Nadia Lim, winner of MasterChef NZ 2011 and co-founder of My Food Bag, and Marion Wood from Commonsense Organics. Click here to get your ticket.