As a longstanding Triodos customer, the business has values at the core of everything it does. Initially established as an organic delivery service, Better Food has since evolved into an award-winning retailer, operating three sites across Bristol. In response to Covid-19 it has partnered with Good Sixty, a sustainable independent food delivery service, to make online grocery shopping easier for local residents.
This year Phil has also written a book Food for Thought as a celebration of life, good food and nature. The Colour of Money had the opportunity talk to him about a life fighting for food justice and why these topics could not be more relevant today.
What was your inspiration for writing the book?
It all started three years ago. Having never thought I’d want to write anything, I actually realised the value in putting my story down. It is full of so much that I feel leads us to contemplate how we live on our planet. I want it to be an invitation to look at how things might improve. So the book uses my own personal story to highlight a number of issues, points and experiences.
You’ve been fighting for food justice and equality for over 35 years including setting up Better Food 26 years ago. What are the trends that stand out over this time?
In terms of the consumption of organic food, I think the move has been a very slow and gradual one from ‘what is in it for me’ to ‘how can I do my bit for a better and more just world’. That shift has really been exaggerated by Extinction Rebellion and then Covid-19. People are waking up – there is a step-change going on right now and that is what we need. There is a lot of anxiety in that, of course, but these really are step-changes that need to happen.
Better Food specialise in organic, local and ethical food. How do you actually decide which products to stock on the shelves?
We ask every prospective supplier to complete a detailed sourcing questionnaire, which helps us benchmark how they fit in with our organic, local and ethical values. The questions cover everything from ingredients, to packaging, to the ownership structure of their brand, but overall what we’re looking for are products that have a strong ‘net benefit’ to the environment and to people. Our sourcing team considers carefully what should and shouldn’t be stocked, and we will de-list products that no longer come up to scratch. It is important we work with small, independent suppliers, and as local as possible; if we find a local brand we love, we’ll work with them and organisations like the Soil Association to help them on that organic journey.
It is a common refrain, but one that remains more important than ever. How can organic, high-quality and ethical food choices, also be socially inclusive?
There is no doubt I’m asked a lot about the affordability of organic and ethical food. The answer is the same as it has always been over the years – good food simply cannot be cheap. So-called ‘cheap food’ is very expensive when you factor in the externalities and dehumanising elements of it. I feel that injustice at the level of our whole capitalist society and it is so important that we tackle that.
In the meantime, we need to have a solidarity approach to this, rather than a charitable approach. If we reduced the prices we charge, it passes on to the suppliers, it means we have to pay our staff less. This is the game the food system has played for so long but the game’s over. Although of course some people don’t have enough to feed themselves on anything let alone organic food, it is the people with reasonable incomes that are spending a very small percentage of their disposable income on food and that could change.
Last year Triodos set out a vision paper that suggested a complete overhaul of our food and agriculture systems. However, the recent defeat of the UK Agriculture Bill is a blow to the many who believe Britain could lead the world in sustainable farming post-Brexit. Are you optimistic that those focused on working with nature rather than against it can actually win this battle?
I’ve got to a point where I’m not surprised by a vote like that, however sad I feel about it. I now think it is down to citizens to build alternatives as governments are not going to do it. Take the recent exposure of the avocado supply chain by The Sunday Times. This is a classic example of the terrible de-humanising cost of our current food system. In the years I’ve been involved in food justice and organic food, there has been one story after another – salmonella, BSE, foot-and-mouth disease or the horsemeat scandal. This is all off the back of our so-called ‘food system’ bringing our food to us, when we want it, at the price we want.
The UK government has been developing a National Food Strategy. What do you make of this work so far?
Anything the government does on this has to be welcomed, but I think it does tend to be watered down and lacking enough holistic thinking. It is time for a huge rethink of our entire food system. The latest National Food Strategy feels like tinkering around the edges of ‘business as usual’, and frankly that is simply not going to be enough.
You have some interesting contributors in the book. Can you give a flavour for some of those and what they are saying?
The idea is that I have an ‘elder’ and a ‘pioneer’ to bookend each chapter. There are six chapters spread across Nature, Cook & Eat, Farm & Grow, Community, Business and the Future and I looked for people to represent each of those themes. For example, Mya Rose-Craig, who is only 18 years old, has given a wonderful contribution. And one of the elders is my dear brother Barny Haughton. He was recently awarded an MBE for his work. He’s been an inspiration to me since I was a teenager. He brings real wisdom to how we approach food and our curiosity around food and cooking. I’ve tried to bring that in throughout the book, with different voices to bring about a balance and sense of celebration. It is my book, but the contributions bring in lots of different threads and thoughts. I was also delighted to have fellow Triodos Bank customer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall provide the foreword.
As a big food enthusiast, you have also included some recipes in the book. Which is your favourite?
My favourite is the hearty ‘Beef in the Bog’ bourguignon dish. It is slow, gentle and nourishing. I talk about the choice to eat and sell red meat and dairy in the book as I’m aware of the ethical issues here. I also look at the choices we are making and encourage us to be holistic in our thinking. I think being kind with one another about the choices that we make and we should do what each of us feels is best for our planet. I do say that red meat has had a bad name for some of the wrong reasons. Beef and sheep when reared really well on just grass can form an important part of UK farming and brings a lot to our environment and biodiversity that won’t necessarily be achieved with no cows grazing in the UK.
The ‘Beef in the Bog’ bourguignon dish recipe is available to download here.
About Phil Haughton and Better Food
Phil is the founder of the award-winning retailer Better Food. With more than 40 years’ experience of living and working with organic food he’s now sharing his unique passion, philosophy and story through Food For Thought.
Better Food is an independent organic food store and café, with three sites across Bristol. Established by Phil Haughton in 1992, Better Food’s ambition is to support local and rural communities through responsible and thoughtful retail. They pride themselves on stocking local, organic and ethically-sourced products, and on being a force for good in the communities they serve.
Why we finance organic food and farming
Triodos Bank has 40 years’ experience in financing organic, biodynamic and sustainable agriculture. Organic agriculture recognises the relationship between our environment, our health and the food we eat. We have published a vision paper on food and agriculture systems that calls for a radical systemic transition from the current production-focused systems towards one that is ecologically and socially resilient and based on balanced ecosystems, a healthy society and inclusive prosperity. Find out more about why Triodos Bank supports organic.