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On the Table


By Alice Ryan


Want to help save the planet? Cambridge Cookery’s Tine Roche says farming small-scale, shopping local and cooking from scratch are all key

Cambridge Cookery School Café - Tine Roche, Managing Director of the Cambridge Cookery School. Pic - Richard Marsham (6930350)
Cambridge Cookery School Café - Tine Roche, Managing Director of the Cambridge Cookery School. Pic - Richard Marsham (6930350)

One of my all-time favourite films is the 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors. Every line and every song is wonderfully witty and whacky, and Steve Martin’s unhinged, sadistic, laughing-gas-guzzling dentist might well have done for dentistry what Jaws did for swimming in the sea.

I increasingly find myself humming some of the catchy tunes or quoting the lyrics. In my line of work, there is no lack of opportunity to exclaim “Feed me!” and the little sarky remark “No sh** Sherlock” has come in handy lately when I listen to or watch the news.

If you’re not familiar with the story, Little Shop of Horrors is a musical about young love, a flesh-eating plant and a wicked dentist. Audrey II, the flesh-eating plant, is the first of many sent to conquer the world. In order to do that, it needs humans to feed it until it is strong enough to feed itself. And human flesh is what it hungers for.

A plant that is a carnivore of monstrous proportions is a great theme for a dark fairytale, but to my mind it’s also uncomfortably akin to the latest wave of plant-based fast foods: imitations offering the same as meat-based fast foods, only with no meat.

In many fast-food cases, there wasn’t much meat in the product anyway, and all the imitation offers is a product where that final vestige of animal protein has been removed, leaving all the fat, salt and additives in. We seem to be replacing animal-based unhealthy fast food with plant-based unhealthy fast food.

A couple of years ago about half a million Britons declared themselves vegan. Latest figures point to a figure close to 3.5 million, with most new vegans stating concerns about global health as the main reason for turning away from animal protein.

Cambridge Cookery Cafe counter (6930329)
Cambridge Cookery Cafe counter (6930329)

As a life-long advocate of healthy and sensible eating, I believe the only way forward is a return to small-scale, organic, sustainable farming with animal and plant-based produce sold, cooked and eaten locally. It’s the method, not the matter, that has become the downfall of a sustainable food production system.

The call for a stop to all animal farming is ignorant and ill informed. At the core of the debate is the matter of methane emission of livestock. However, very little is said about the fact this is much lower in bio-diverse landscapes, where common wild plants such as angelica contain fumaric acid, a compound proven to reduce methane emissions by 70 per cent when added to the diet of sheep.

Largely ignored too is the carbon cost of ploughing: according to the journal Nature, up to 70 per cent of the carbon in our soil has been lost to the atmosphere. The erosion of top soil in the UK is now so acute, the Nation Farmers’ Union predicts that we have less than 100 harvest left.

Less than 100 harvests - I can’t think of a sentence which more chillingly sums up ‘unsustainable’. Unless all grains produced to sustain an increasingly vegan population are organically farmed using a no-dig system, it will only contribute to speeding up that soil erosion.

Factory farming, whether of animals or plants, is killing our planet. We need omnivores, flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans to unite in a well-informed campaign against mass production, not against small-scale, local farmers.

We need to reconnect and take responsibility for our daily food by buying local, seasonal and organic, and cooking our own meals. We need to move away from our “Feed me” fast-food dependency to a “I can feed myself, thank you very much” approach. As Seymour said when facing his final showdown with the monster plant: “Wait for me Audrey, this is between me and the vegetable.”