Diversifying our Dietary Portfolios

What a sustainable food future really looks like—an interview with Richard Horsey

Chicken feet (Tanya Ghosh)

By David Grabowski

Google “food sustainability,” and you’ll soon find yourself wading in an ocean of information — which isn’t so surprising. Food waste is a complex problem, and its footprint overlaps the boundaries of hundreds of related issues: sociology, supply chain management, philosophy, ethics, education . . . It would be folly to think that a problem this massive could have a singular solution.

That’s why it’s time to start thinking way outside the box. We may not have a finger on a complete solution yet, but radical changes in the ways we think about food and sustainability are guaranteed to be a part of that solution.

Richard Horsey is at the forefront of out-of-the-box culinary thinking. He’s the co-author of Ugly Food: Overlooked and Undercooked, which challenges why we eat what we do — why we shy away from certain “ugly” foods like octopus, pig feet and head, goat, rabbit, squirrel, giblets, and more.

To be truly sustainable, shouldn’t we diversify our dietary portfolios, so to speak?

What follows is an excerpt from an interview with Richard Horsey that partly served as the basis for my article “Camera Cuisine — Wasted food, ugly food: repairing and rethinking our culinary culture.” Richard describes his maxim of sustainability and how it can be applied globally, how we can eat and shop more sustainably, why we need to view food’s costs differently, why we need to shift our collective focus to quality and taste, and why he believes change is afoot.

The future is in our kitchens, so let’s take a hard look at what we should be cooking in them.

David Grabowski: A big focus in my article is eating sustainably, not wasting food. If we live in a world where we eat all of an animal, we’re going to be wasting quite a lot less of it, which is great. Can you talk about the Maxim of Sustainability you describe in Ugly Food, and how it could be applied at a global level?

Richard Horsey: A lot of it comes down to education. In the UK these days, thankfully, children get a lot of information given to them that tortle on about environmental issues about sustainability. This is really a mainstream part of the curriculum. I’m sure it is in the States as well, but at lunch time they still serve chicken nuggets, you know? Go figure. On the one hand, the school curriculum is promoting sustainability, is teaching children to understand the environment, the planet we live on, the limited resources we have — and on the other hand, the school canteen is not putting that into practice. We have to be more willing to live by what we teach.

If we fix that relationship with where food comes from—if we buy more locally, buy more whole animals, buy different parts of the animal—immediately, we get more sustainability as a byproduct.

It doesn’t have to be that difficult. The idea that being environmentally sustainable means you have to in some way eat more poorly, it’s all much more difficult — it’s really not. We see how easy it can be. For example, fish in the UK — I know in the US, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other organizations are doing the same thing — every time you go into the supermarket or you go into the fish shop, there’s a little pamphlet there grading the different species of fish: red — don’t eat, or at least rarely eat it; amber — it’s okay, but just watch where it comes from, check that it’s been caught with a line rather than a trawl; and green: basically, highly sustainable fishing, go for it. That’s really easy to implement, and it’s really easy to live by, because it doesn’t mean you can’t eat fish; it doesn’t even mean you have to become an expert on fish production. It just means you use the “traffic light” system. That’s about education. It’s about consumer demand. It’s a little bit about regulation, but not all that much, probably. So there’s one example of how sustainability can be improved, just with a very simple traffic light system.

Ugly Food is a book “about ingredients that are neglected, overlooked, forgotten”—but that happen to also be “tasty, sustainable and cheap, and easy to cook when you know how.”

As you say, eating all of the animal immediately means that we get more from the same resources — tackling waste. It’s the same thing, right? If you raise chickens in your backyard, and you kill one, and you pluck it, and you take it into the kitchen, you have a lot more respect for that animal. I don’t mean respect in the hippy way. You just feel like, This is something I produced. I’ve only got a few of these. I’m going to use it. You don’t put it in your fridge, forget to cook it in three days, chuck it out, and go and buy another one, right? You try to use as much of it as you can, because you see what’s being wasted if you only eat the breasts, whereas in our modern food chain, we don’t see any of that, right? We can all go out and just buy chops and tenderloin, and be completely blissfully unaware of what’s happening to the other 98 percent of the animal. If we fix that relationship with where food comes from—if we buy more locally, buy more whole animals, buy different parts of the animal—immediately, we get more sustainability as a byproduct of that.

The last thing is cost. The cost of an ingredient is an economic signal of the cost of production. We should be more sensitive to those signals. Those signals have been obscured by supermarkets forcing farmers to push down the price of production, whether it’s milk, whether it’s eggs, whether it’s meat, to fulfill this myth that food can be cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. Now, if you start buying from farmer’s markets, if you start buying locally, if you start buying whole animals, whole chickens, whatever, you suddenly realize where the quality is. You suddenly realize, well, actually I want to buy the pork from this local producer, because it tastes great, right? It doesn’t taste great because it’s been injected in the abattoir with a brine solution — it tastes great because it was a happy, healthy pig.

As soon as we shift our focus to taste and quality, we suddenly shift our focus to better-produced animals. We’re suddenly ready to pay that little bit more. We’re not tasting the salt, and the monosodium glutamate, and the additives and the fat that go into KFC or Chicken McNuggets or whatever; we’re tasting the meat. The realities of global food production, the realities that we’re running out of land, we’re running out of resources to keep on producing more and more food, will start to impact on price, and we’ll suddenly start to eat the things that are a bit cheaper. And in many cases, those will be the overlooked parts of the animal. Those will be locally produced things, rather than the things that have been produced out of season halfway around the world and flown over to us.

DG: So, could a potential answer to the problem of how to eat sustainably actually lie in diversifying our portfolio?

RH: Absolutely.

DG: The only concern that I have with this idea is if it’s a long-term solution. If we’re eating more of more things, could it actually, as our populations explode, just endanger more species? For example, if octopus become as commonplace in the US as a hamburger, do we run the risk of repeating the same pattern, but just with a different species? Or with both at once, where we’re mass-producing cows and chickens and octopus?

RH: Yeah, that’s where I think we have to focus on not chasing the latest stock of fish that happens to be plentiful but with the same unsustainable fishing techniques. You know, Patagonian toothfish, or whatever euphemism it’s known by wherever you are, you know, black cod or whatever, this is a deep-water fish in the Antarctic which wasn’t commercially produced much twenty years ago, where suddenly fleets got access to these areas, they had the technology to get these fish out, they were abundant. But now they’re unsustainable and endangered, right?

There’s been a sort of cultural shift, and that was really rather quick. It didn’t take all that much.

So, diversification isn’t just about going after the things that haven’t been caught yet. It’s about going after the things that are inherently more sustainable, and octopus is one of those things. There are many others, right? Game, which isn’t rare wild beasts, but game which is quickly reproducing “pests” is going to be much more sustainable than the highly sought-after game meats. To take rabbits as one example, rabbits are at pest levels in many, many places, and hunting them for food would be very unlikely to make a huge dent in the population. And in some areas, if there was a huge dent made in the population, that would be ecologically an extremely good thing — Australia being case in point. So there’s an ingredient that there is really no threat of extinction or whatever. If we eat wild rabbits in Australia and Europe and so on, we’re not creating a potentially endangered animal. Gray squirrels are the same thing.

And not coincidentally, these are animals which aren’t sort of niche parts of ecosystems; they’re the generalists, right? Much more than eating wild boar or venison or sturgeon, all of which could be hunted out or fished out extremely quickly.

DG: Got it. So it’s about choosing what we eat because of how sustainable they are, not necessarily eating them because there are more of them because we haven’t been eating them so far.

RH: Yeah, exactly.

DG: There’s no doubt that the methods that we raise our livestock with are really fairly flawed. I couldn’t believe this when I looked it up, but in the US, 99.9 percent of chicken meat actually comes from factory farms, which is mind-blowing to me. I wonder how we got here, but more specifically, what do you see as solutions to bringing that percentage down to something less horrifying, and how does ugly food inform that discussion?

RH: As I was saying before, modern supermarkets have created this idea that food can be, that meat particularly can be cheap, and consumers have come to demand low-cost food. Whether that’s fast food meals, whether that’s packaged food in supermarkets, the expectation is it should be cheap, rather than it should be high quality and tasty.

Richard Horsey

There are other things that we buy where we don’t necessarily always go for the cheapest, right? We go for Apple products because we really like them, and we think they’re high quality, and they really make us feel good when we hold them in our hands: “Wow, this is great!” There are signs that this is happening in some places with food as well.

The factory farms aren’t there by accident. They’re there because they serve a demand, and that demand comes from consumers and supermarkets.

I think the last few years have seen a revolution in many Western countries around food, where increasing prominence of TV food programs, the fact that Master Chef in Australia and the UK is one of the most popular programs on television, and the rise of the celebrity chef as a marker. All of this has started to change our approach to food, and I think in the UK at least, it’s revolutionized the quality of the food that’s available. You don’t have to go to one of the rare fine dining restaurants to eat well anymore. You can eat well in pubs; you can eat well in cafés; you can eat well in any number of local restaurants.

There is change afoot, and people are starting to appreciate food not for its cheapness or its convenience, but actually for its taste. I think the more that can be pushed, the more that we will come to see meat as a special thing that should taste fantastic. That will require that that meat is produced better, because guess what? The stuff that’s gone through factory farms doesn’t taste good. It can be produced into sausages and nuggets that still taste fine because they’ve got all kinds of additives put into them, and the taste of the meat has been disguised, but if you try and cook a chicken breast very simply with a bit of salt and lemon, and it’s a factory chicken breast, it won’t taste good. It’ll taste of cardboard.

That’s part of what this is about. The factory farms aren’t there by accident. They’re there because they serve a demand, and that demand comes from consumers and supermarkets.

DG: This brings us back to me and you and everyone we know as shoppers, as food consumers. How do we shop more sustainably, and how do we help to not just inspire that same action in others, but inspire our supermarkets to provide more sustainably for us? Is the answer political action? Is it just being conscious of where we’re shopping?

RH: It’s all of that, right? It’s about changing the way we think about what we cook at home. We really do think that if you can make a change to what people are putting on the table every evening, that’s where the numbers are, that’s where the quantity is. That’s where you can make real changes. It doesn’t change very much for people to be willing to eat some of these things, or for chefs to think about pushing restaurants that are locavore, or sustainable/local, whatever. That’s fantastic. It helps educate people about how important that is, about what wonderful things are available locally, but in terms of sheer numbers, it doesn’t change very much. Changing what people put on their dinner table in the evening does change an awful lot.

Television does have a role in that. The food industry has a role in that. The supermarkets have a role in that. The government has a role in that. Activists have a role in that. We’ve seen campaigns in the UK to improve the quality of school meals pushed by a celebrity chef. It’s had a dramatic impact. It’s had a dramatic impact not just because the local government authorities that run the schools have decided to change what is on the menu; it’s changed because parents are now demanding that different things be available. They’re demanding that fruit be available. They’re demanding that hamburgers not be what’s on the school menu. There’s been a sort of cultural shift, and that was really rather quick. It didn’t take all that much.

The global movement, which is also very young, against food waste, and particularly against misshapen or blemished fruit and veg — that’s had a huge impact. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if the supermarkets agrees to sell bags of cheaper apples, ugly but still tasty. They’re still perpetuating the myth that the more desirable fruit and veg should be more attractive. In fact, what supermarkets need to be doing is they need to be changing the instructions to the farmers they buy from to say, “We want you to grow not for cosmetic beauty; we want you to grow for taste.” That will change.

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