Journo Resources Fellow

July 2, 2024 (Updated )

We’ve all been there, scrolling through lists of recipes looking for inspiration, or sitting hungry at home, searching for the ‘top takeaways near me’. We all eat. So, naturally, we all read about food. But, for the most part, food writing has long been thought of as an art. Is it time to mix in the science too?

To be blunt, the world of food writing is saturated with content that props up a wholly unsustainable, unethical, and unjust food system which contributes to more than a third of human-made greenhouse gases.

From recipes to restaurant reviews, commentary on food trends to diet fads, in a world of climate breakdown, why don’t we hear about our food within food systems, rather than separating the deliciousness of what we eat from the devastation of where it comes from?

A Place For Pleasure, Invention And Empowerment

Since the days of Fanny Cradock and the rise of the 1950s celebrity chef, we’ve indulged in the ignorance of deliciousness, crafting dinner party meals that grow collections of random one-time ingredients that linger, gathering dust at the back of the cupboard.

Food journalism in the 20th century was a place for pleasure, invention, and empowerment for the home cook; not a place for political and social commentary.

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Sheila Dillon, journalist and BBC Radio 4 presenter (L) and Tom Hunt, chef and author (R)

“When I started, there was hardly anybody making those connections — it was bleak, actually,” says Sheila Dillon, a journalist and presenter on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme. She started writing about the politics of food in New York before she returned to the UK in the mid-eighties.

Fast forward to today and there is a general awareness that the food we eat has an impact on the world around us. There’s even the invention of new climate-focused diets: enter ‘climavore’ and ‘locavore’, where individuals eat according to the climate or local produce.

But not all food journalists have joined the dots yet. “That’s what surprises me after all these years; it’s still startling to [other] people that you make the connection from farming, to health, to your plate,” Sheila adds.

And she’s right. While there is a growing awareness that our food has an impact on the planet, it barely scratches the surface. When was the last time you read about how our industrialised food systems are not only one of the biggest contributors to climate change, but also the single largest cause of biodiversity loss? They have a devastating impact on the health of communities due to deforestation, heavy use of chemicals, overfishing, and more – but it’s unlikely you read that in the latest restaurant review.

‘People Are Scared Of Making Mistakes’

“I do feel a bit on the edge,” says Anna Turns, an environmental journalist who writes about food and the author of Go Toxic Free. “A lot of the stuff I write about is food, but it’s not ‘foodie’. I’m not a cook, I don’t make recipes. It’s very much about supply chains, where stuff is from, the provenance, the food system, sustainable diets…”

“I do feel like that does get shunted out into a bit of an environmental section. I’d love to see that lens being used more in all food writing.” It’s this categorisation of pieces into ‘food’ or environment’ that segregates audiences and keeps conversations separate.

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"A lot of people are scared of making mistakes and not knowing the answer. So the veer away from the subject. We don’t know all the answers and there’s no such thing as perfect, so let’s just have this conversation.”
Anna Turns, journalist and author of Go Toxic Free

“A lot of book publishers are still wary of [climate-focused cookbooks]; I don’t know if it sells,” explains eco-chef Tom Hunt. He’s the owner of Bristol restaurant Poco’s and author of Eating for Pleasure, People, and Planet. Despite this wariness, this more-than-a-cookbook, which advises how to eat environmentally without sacrificing pleasure, taste, or nutrition, has been extremely successful.

“I think a lot of people are scared of making mistakes,” adds Anna, “and not knowing the answer. So they veer away from the subject.” In short, because food writers worry about getting it wrong they simply don’t touch it and end up perpetuating the divide.

Anna calls for a more lighthearted approach: “We don’t know all the answers and there’s no such thing as perfect, so let’s just have this conversation.”

Mind Your Language

So, what is the potential of a new style of food writing, for change? Is it offering a “shepherd’s pie to save the planet”, “climate-conscious carpaccio”, or an “Earth-friendly enchilada”?

The realities of our food systems don’t paint a pretty picture and the complexities of linking what we eat in our kitchens to the rest of the world can be daunting. But a lot can be achieved by simply thinking about the language we use.

“The conversations I see happening around sustainability in terms of food can be quite restrictive,” explains Anna. “Like ‘don’t eat as much of this’, ‘don’t do this’, and ‘stop doing that’. That puts people off. It’s disempowering.”

Shelia expresses the same concern when it comes to language: “[We] need to stop using [terms] like ‘sustainable food systems’. [We] need to write good stories that engage with people and don’t use those ‘sustainable’ and horrible brain-turning-off [words].”

Food For Thought? Here Are A Few Ways To Get Creative When Writing About Food

• Writing a recipe? Think about where each ingredient comes from — can you suggest substitutions or links to local produce?

• Why not review a restaurant based on its environmental credentials? Always make sure to ask the question when interviewing.

• Consider including recipes that combat food waste that might be created through making the dishes you suggest, such as pickling fruit and veg cuttings.

• Think about where you could weave in storytelling about the food system — without actually saying it. Make it a baseline, not a topic.

• Look for positive stories — is there an influential changemaker or inspirational idea you could focus on rather than an issue?

Food interacts with every aspect of human life and plays a huge part in forming and expressing our identities. It spans cultures and religions, politics and ethics, and even socio-economic positionings. If we get the tone of our reporting wrong we open the door to preaching and polarisation.

If all we do is engender feelings of guilt and judgement there can seem only two conclusions: heralding global veganism or giving up and eating three McDonald’s a day as it’s all doomed either way.

So, as food writers and journalists, it’s our responsibility to frame climate-conscious food away from guilt. It needs to be an approachable topic that isn’t just for climate activists, food system experts, or middle-class readers of broadsheet environment sections.

This isn’t to dismiss the need for in-depth analysis, but to realise that there’s an opportunity being missed in our everyday food writing to engage wider audiences in the impacts of our food choices.

Get Creative – Prioritise Positive Action

Taking a solutions-focused approach, by looking rigorously at what we can change and how it makes a difference, is a good place to start. “I write about very tricky subjects, but it’s usually about the progress and the innovation and the changemakers who are doing really cool stuff,” says Anna. “I think that’s a better way to attract people’s attention and inspire action.”

Our reports should also be approachable and jargon-free, offering practical solutions that we can all try at home, turning us from passive eaters into food system champions.

“Maybe in a shepherd’s pie recipe, say that you could replace half the meat with lentils,” she adds. “Have options so that people can make interesting choices. [If] an ingredient isn’t in season, what are the alternatives? [Talk about] wider issues like lentils grown in Norfolk, and having options for leftovers.”

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“I write about very tricky subjects, but it’s usually about the progress and the innovation and the changemakers who are doing really cool stuff. I think that’s a better way to attract people’s attention and inspire action.”
Anna Turns, journalist and author of Go Toxic Free

By being creative in the way we talk about food, we get readers to think about the impacts of eating meat or their household food waste without actually saying it.

Tom adds: “A recipe is nice because you can focus on one area at a time, to help demonstrate how you might be able to support better food systems. People can’t always relate to food policy professors or academics. I do think [chefs] have a responsibility as people who feed people.”

“Food is the biggest contributor to climate change and biodiversity loss; it’s therefore the biggest opportunity. We, as chefs, feed a lot of people, so our impact is multiplied by the number of mouths we feed,” The same could be said about food writing.

“It’s people, writers, broadcasters, television people making those connections all the time [that matters],” says Shelia. “ Stop self-selecting yourself into the person who talks about sustainability [or] the person who does the recipes. Just make that dot-joining.”

Often, as journalists, we underestimate the power we have. But by informing ourselves, building our networks, and talking about food and climate in a clear and approachable way, there’s a real opportunity to remove the veil between society and its food chains.

Anna concludes: “I think food can be a catalyst in that way — [you can] spark conversation through it. It might not be about everyone suddenly making a change, but a piece of journalism could trigger those conversations and then change behaviour or get someone in the system thinking differently about how they do something.”

Most of us started out wanting to make a change — food writing is a chance to really do it.

Georgie Styles
Georgie Styles

Georgie has a background in food anthropology, holding an MA in the subject from SOAS, University of London. Her journalism focuses on food, farming, climate, and social issues.

In particular, she wants to tell intimate stories that tackle big issues, raising the voices of those often left unheard. Her work for Journo Resources will look at changing the way we talk about food and farming in journalism, from our recipe pages to restaurant reviews.

Georgie also has experience working as a podcast producer and host and is also a 2023 Churchill Fellow.

You can follow Georgie on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Header image courtesy of Markus Spiske via Unsplash