Seeds — Behind the scenes. Podcast interview with Kate Cooper

Nick Pitt interviewed me as part of the background story to the No Stone highly acclaimed podcast series Seeds, which tells the remarkable story of the world’s first seed bank set up by Nikolai Vavilov in St Petersburg.

The interview is now on line here, also on their YouTube channel which has interviews with the cast, the production team and other advisors.

This blogpost provides background info on what I said, picks up on a few matters which I expressed badly and, in three instances, simply got wrong.


1 min 12 secs: NHS, Public Health, City Council
It’s true to say that the request from Public Health to set up the Birmingham Food Council happened when their services were were still part of the NHS. This transfer happened under the 2013 Health and Social Care Act, so by the time of our incorporation in March 2014, Birmingham Public Health services were the responsibility of the City Council.


2 mins 34 secs: Unprepared for Covid-19
To summarise, crisis management is no substitute for a preparation strategy.

The UK food supply system was, as I said, utterly unprepared for Covid-19, despite the Government reporting to the EFRA Commons Select Committee that they knew disruptions would happen as early as January 2020.

The traditional threat matrix measures impact risk on the vertical axis and the horizontal axis tracks emergence risk. Of equal importance, if not more, is a matrix with a horizontal axis tracking the potential severity of the crisis, and a vertical axis measuring the degree of preparedness; for more on this, see Chapter 4 of Michael Osterholm & Mark Osler’s book: Deadliest enemy: Our war against killer germs.


2 mins 53 secs:  1 in 4 adults and [not quite] half our children going hungry
For the 1:4 figure for adults, see this June 2020 report by Feeding Britain & Northumbria University.

I said that half our children had gone hungry. This is a rough assessment, though reasonable enough.

There are ~11.7m children under 16, of whom 5.1m live in low income or ‘absolute low income’ households before Covid, i.e. 42.8% of our children; see ONS stats here. In August 2020, Government stats reveal 4.6m households on Universal Credit, and increase of 1.9m since the first lockdown in March 2020, an increase of 41%. In this Guardian report about UNICEF sending food parcels to UK households, it says an extra 900,000 children had registered for free school meals between May and October 2020.

note: The inadequacy of Universal Credit to provide enough money for people to meet their basic physiological needs of food, warmth and shelter is highlighted by the £15 voucher scheme for school dinners five days a week. Three meals a day per week at £3 each is £273 per month.

Compare that amount with the amounts paid for the first and second child in a family (see screen-grab from the Government Universal Credit webpage). There is no payment for three or more children,  multiple births and disabled children excepted.


3 mins 38 secs: Cities import their food
I didn’t make it clear enough that all cities import all but a tiny fraction of their food.

In the case of UK cities, the figure is 99.9% or more; see the second section in  blogpost: Food System Transformation #8: The geometry of the box [we need to think outside of].


3 mins 52 secs: UK food imports
Stats and other info about UK food imports are in the fifth section in  blogpost cited above: Food System Transformation #8: The geometry of the box [we need to think outside of]


4 mins 37 secs: The food system is a complex adaptive system
The world is comprised of squillions of complex systems, all interacting dynamically. All living entities have evolved robustly competent ways of accessing sufficient food. The trouble with our now-global food system is that we humans simply can’t compute much that’s useful about the food network than provides us with what we need.

And that’s where the ‘science of surprise’ (aka the study of complex adaptive systems) comes in; for a useful starter on the subject regarding the food system, there’s this useful adage: Questions should be complicated and answer simple, explained further in this blogpost.


5 mins 30: What lockdown did to our food supply system
From early March to June, we documented what was happening in our Covid-19 Commentary series of blogposts.

(From June onwards, we focussed our attention on how the UK could be better prepared for future food shocks; see our report: One Scenario: Buffer contingency food stocks.)


6 mins 21 secs: An apple a day — evidence that this human is really bad at understanding huge numbers
First factoid that’s wrong: An apple a day is actually only (only!) about 24 billion a year as this cheery little video explains:

The figure (of over 120 billion) I stated probably came because that figure had lodged in my brain, but with the wrong attribution.

It is, roughly, the figure required for everyone in the UK to get their five a day.

note: Five a day is about half of what we need for an optimal diet: see footnotes 2 and 3 in this blogpost: Food System Transformation #5: The scale needed for our five-a-day which give relevant links to research showing we actually need about ten portions of fruit’n’veg every day.

Since Nick Pitt interviewed me, I’ve found a useful ploy to compensate for our naff intuitions about big numbers. It’s in a tweet from the brilliant @Rainmaker1973, replicated in this screen-grab.


7 mins 20 secs: Calories
It’s reasonable to say, as I did in the interview, that the average requirement in terms of energy input is 2000kcal/day. Thus for  Birmingham’s 1.2m citizens, that means importing 2.4 billion kcal per day.

That’s 876bn a year, so well over three-quarters of a trillion  . . . and so we’re back in @Rainamker1973 territory again, just for Birmingham! (UK annual requirement is 48.5 trillion kcal.)

The scale of it all matters. And there’s another issue: What foods make for an optimal diet to give us these calories?

Calories in, calories out — this simple rubric defines the weight-loss strategy for hundreds of millions of people across the world. The diet industry is based on this simple idea, but contemporary research is beginning to show that what we see as fundamental to a healthy lifestyle could be wrong — and even dangerous. 

That quotation is from Chapter 3 of Tim Spector’s book Spoon-Fed: Why nearly everything we’ve been told about food is wrong. The chapter heading is Calorie counting doesn’t add up with the subheading Myth: Calories accurately measure how fattening a food is.

David Raubenheimer and Stephen J Simpson came up with and tested an intriguing hypothesis about calorie intake with regard to protein. Every living critter is made of proteins and, because none of us, from slime mould to human, can store them, we need a daily intake — and will eat until this requirement is met. Their book, Eat like the animals: What nature teachers us about healthy eating is an account of their Protein Leverage Hypothesis, a summary of which is recounted in the info-graphic below, part of our work on buffer contingency stocks —  and yes, they did help us put it together:


8 mins: Value and activity between farm gate and retail shelf
This is not to say that primary production isn’t important. It’s vital, crucial. Without it, we haven’t got any food to eat. With the world’s growing population, plus the ravages climate change and resource depletion are playing on primary production, attention is rightly focussed on farms and farming.

It’s the vast bit between farm gate and retail shelf that is, for me, the most interesting. I’m intrigued by complex adaptive systems because they often behave so counter-intuitively to the human mind; later in the podcast, I say all complex systems are opaque. In other publications, I’ve put forward a few ways to think qualitatively differently about the food supply system, perhaps better understood as a food network system (see, for example, here).

It’s true to say, too, that most of the value lies between farm gate and retail shelf. Our lives depend on this vast middle bit more than most imagine. And it’s little understood. Take, for example, this simplified, animated ‘map’ of how fresh produce gets to you.


10 mins 40 secs: Disruptions to the system
The instances I gave, of a plane landing on a motorway (that was Kegworth, and I happened to be caught up in the traffic jam), or a fire in a supermarket depot, both happened. The fire incident, along with a couple of other risk scenarios to our food supply are described in a blogpost supporting our response to the National Food Strategy Call for Evidence #9: Three scenarios and their risks to the supply chain.


13 mins – 15 mins: Drug foods and the importance of UK VAT system
One aspect of drug foods that I didn’t mention was that they are all subject to UK VAT at the standard rate.

Food is zero-rated, and has been since its inception as Purchase Tax during World War II. The exceptions are the drug foods, all of which don’t contain any nutrients or have very low nutritional value.

We have long argued that the activities of the corporations that make and promote them should be curbed: see this BMJ Rapid Response by myself and Professors Jim Parle and John Middleton to an article by Professors Tim Spector and Chris Langham on nutrition.

See also this blogpost giving more detail on the costs of drug foods on human and planetary health: What does this food sector ‘balance sheet’ tell us?

fyi: I mentioned McCains frozen chips in the same context as PepsiCo’s Walker’s crisps. Note that fozen chips do not carry VAT. I stand by my query about whether or not 30% of the UK potato crop should do on just these two products. And who knows the full use of spud and veg fields to make other crisp products that fall under standard-rate VAT?


16 mins 14 secs: Coca Cola sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympics
Second wrong factoid: I took the 100m figure from this BBC data  blog. As you can see from this webpage, they put the company’s sponsorship at $100m, not GBP. (Notice two other drug food manufacturers are there, too; Cadbury’s at $31m and Heineken at $15m.)

Despite this error of mine, the sums the company pay out in advertising are staggering, $100 million but a drop in their vast ocean.

This Business Leader article on Coca Cola’s advertising published in March 2020 includes these two of many illuminating factoids about their advertising and its impact: Firsti, the average adverting spend over the last six years is $4 billion. Second, the highest annual net operating income for the company was $48.01 billion recorded in 2012.


16 mins, 38 secs: Nick’s words “Catastrophic and therefore quite unlikely”
Nope. Not logical.


16 mins 55 secs: Close to catastrophic . . . cereal crops
Since the advent of agriculture some 10K years ago, humans have been dependent on cereal crops to keep mass starvation at bay; for that story, see this blogpost, section 2: The ‘barbarians’ lose out against the grain.

Lloyds of London published  Food system shock: The insurance impacts of acute disruption to global food supply, based on a scenarios exercise, led by  Molly Jahn (on our Panel of Experts) and Professor Aled Jones in which drops in cereal crop production led to significant and long-lasting effects on populations and geopolitics.

fyi: The 2020 UK wheat yields were down 40% on the 2019 harvest; see this Defra report dated 22nd December.


18 mins 05 secs:  Advantage of old age
I often say that I dodn’t have a career to lose. An advantage, sure. A thought that I only had when listening to this part of the podcast is that, as you get older, you have less of a lifetime to lose. Because you’ve lived well-nigh most of it.


18 mins 33 secs
The third factoid I got wrong: It was the prospect of mass starvation during World War II that so worried the wartime Coalition Government, though no doubt some people went hungry then, as they are now.

The last time there was famine in England was in the 1741s; see this webpage from Max Roser’s brilliant (and reliable) Our World in Data. That’s not to underestimate the endemic malnutrition and hunger  Engels wrote about in Manchester in the 1840s, or what drove the Jarrow March nearly a century later.

For territories under British control, famines are more recent than the 1740s, even within the British isles itself. In the 1840s, over a million died of starvation in Ireland and Scotland, many more forced to flee — including some of President Joe Biden’s forebears, a fact our food trade negotiators are, we hope, acutely aware.

note: Successive Westminster governments have form in disregarding malnutrition among even the local masses. It was reported that between 40% and 60% of recruits to the British Army for World War I were turned down as physically unfit for service. And we know today, some 60% of our Year 7 children are obese, a modern-day sign of malnutrition.


20 mins 30 secs: Humans eating their way out of their niche
Earlier in the podcast, I’d mentioned that all animals, ‘from slime mould to mice, including us’ eat their way out of their niche, causing environmental damage. What I didn’t say and is particularly relevant as Nick and I conclude, is that the human niche is just about the whole planet.



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