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FFS: The Importance Of Soil Health On Food And Flavour

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FFS: The Importance Of Soil Health On Food And Flavour

Eat & Drink

The quality of ingredients you cook with starts with the soil.

Chef Ivor Peters of Urban Rajah talks to pebble about why soil health is so key for food and flavour.

Francesca Brooking

Wed 23 Mar 2022

As a development chef (Urban Rajah), creating menus and food products, I’m all about flavour - creating exciting combinations with ingredients involving spices, herbs and seasonings ultimately to spark a moment of gastronomic pleasure and experience food in a transformational way.

However, in my quest to keep innovating with world food flavours, something has become abundantly clear.

Flavour is inextricably linked to nutrition, the health of the ingredients we consume.

Man standing in a kitchen with plates of Indian food in front

Flavour and food quality depend on soil health

The nutrition of those ingredients depends on the health of the soil.

Healthy soil, healthy ingredients, healthy humans and for chefs like me, innovation in food production relies on the quality of the ingredients.

The triumvirate of taste is flavour, food and soil.

Why soil health matters

The Soil Association was founded by Lady Eve Balfour who was inspired by Sir Albert Howard, who was sent to India at the height of the British Empire by the British Government to encourage Indian people to adopt western diets.

He soon realised he had little to offer.

On the contrary, he recognised that the healthiness of the Indian population wasn’t just about the delicious Indian cuisine (I surrender my obvious bias) but it was the way their food was grown in soils that produced nutritionally dense crops.

This was largely due to farmers who farmed like their ancestors in harmony with nature; they looked after the soil biome through biology rather than chemistry.

Food didn’t travel very far and was often produced in a community fashion. It was largely a permaculture diet.

Read more: Let’s Get Dirty: 3 Reasons Why Soil Health Matters

Man in a yellow t-shirt and red apron standing with his arms crossed - the Urban Rajah
“Flavour is inextricably linked to nutrition, the health of the ingredients we consume”

We’ve heard for a long time about the importance of eating seasonally, sourcing more locally and leading more regenerative lives rather than unsustainable ones.

Rather than paint an all too familiar dystopian picture of food consumption and production, there is hope.

It involves consumers, retailers and producers.

As consumers, we have a choice of where to shop, who to spend our money with and what we buy. It’s called 'Consumer Power’.

Retailers like Co-Op have been very vocal about their commitment to responsible sourcing and how they’re doubling their efforts to support and source from local producers.

But what does this actually mean?

Well, local production often means smaller, less intensive forms of agriculture with greater attention on the craft of production, better conditions for the soil rather than industrialised production and as a result better-tasting ingredients.

Plate of chillies, garlic and ginger

Local food often means less intensive forms of farming

Globalised production

Globalised production is a thorny issue when it comes to accessing specialist ingredients, such as spices…there aren’t turmeric farms in the UK!

It is however a staple ingredient that I use virtually every day in my home kitchen and professionally.

It comes from India. That’s a lot of miles. I don’t have all the answers here at a micro-level.

Flavour hacks

I have found that flavour hacks can help.

Such as substituting turmeric for saffron (harvested in Europe) for colour or using ground ginger to provide that earthy, bittersweet profile.

Many spiced ingredients such as paprika are commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine and therefore cultivated on the continent, which isn’t as heavy on the food miles. Simply check the label for ‘country of origin’.

However, using some other Indian food basics can be cultivated in the UK, such as coriander, chillies, garlic, ginger (simply soak and plant the rhizomes), cumin, fennel and mustard seeds.

Learn more about UK-based herbs: DIY Wellness: 3 Easy Foraged Herb Recipes

Man standing in a black chef's over all with a plate of food - the Urban Rajah

You can substitute key herbs and spices with different versions closer to home

Another place to kick-start the self-cultivation process is to buy or gift edible plants from Plants 4 Presents where you can source cardamom, yuzu, kaffir lime plants.

What I am aware of at a global macro level, is that we consume commodity ingredients, like grain on a daily basis. One simple fact highlights the flavour, food and soil crisis.

In the UK, our wheat imports have soared over the past two years at 40% above the 5-year average.

We’re buying in more milled wheat than before because homegrown wheat production has reduced, as has the quality with just 31% of samples meeting the UK high-quality bread milling specifications.

Here’s the ‘whoa’ moment.

In the US (we import grain from) it takes more nitrogen fertiliser to raise a bushel of grain now than it did in 1960.

Take a moment.

That means more chemicals, more intensive farming to further erode the soil to generate less grain.

Season that with a heavy dose of food mileage and none of it makes sense.

The food industry, which is largely based on using industrialised methods, is the key driver for soil health and it also holds the key to climate change.

Continual tilling of the land releases carbon into the atmosphere, which ultimately leads to desertification, about two-thirds of the world is desertifying.

Soil and the planet and the climate are connected.

By 2050 it’s estimated that 1 billion people will be refugees of soil desertification.

Plates of different curries and Indian food with a hand holding a spoon
“In the US, it takes more nitrogen fertiliser to raise a bushel of grain now than it did in 1960”

There is hope

It’s in the hands of the people. It requires a change in our lifestyle, in our lifetime.

Agriculture is the biggest way humans impact our planet.

The food industry, that means retailers, manufacturers and producers need a co-ordinated approach to regenerative methods of farming.

Change is possible.

Look at the Fairtrade movement.

It all started with coffee, now there are over 30,000 products with the Fairtrade mark, available in 150 countries, working with more than 1.6million farmers across 75 countries.

The growth in demand for Fairtrade products is the result of consumer demand and retailers playing their part to source responsibly.

The same principles apply if consumers, like you and I demand and shop for products with certification around soil care such as, The Soil Association mark.

Helen Browning, CEO of the Soil Association, advocates that the right incentives and disincentives for farmers need to be in place to tip the balance when it comes to the cost of organic produce which can often be seen as too expensive.

Man in a yellow t-shirt wearing an apron with his arms crossed

Living a permaculture lifestyle makes sense for your health and the planet

Living a permaculture lifestyle makes sense.

A good place to start is to ask: "what is it that I buy most days from the supermarket, and instead of waiting for it to be shipped from around the world, what can I grow myself or with others."

That’s a regenerative way of living and eating.

Bill Mollison, often referred to as the Grandfather of Permaculture, put it very simply: "Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solution remains embarrassingly simple."

FFS (flavour, food, soil).

For me, a chef and food brand owner I’m challenged by food production methods and how best to influence the supply chain.

However like most of us it all starts with flavour, the best flavours come from nutritionally dense food and that food can only come from healthy soil.

Visit Urban Rajah to find out more about Ivor Peters.

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