Joanna Blythman was in Belfast, appearing at a Soil Association event as part of the inaugural Restaurant Week, an initiative of Belfast City Council. A sold–out audience of forty lucky people had enjoyed the splendid hospitality and exquisite local organic food provided by Niall McKenna at his celebrated restaurant and heard Joanna talk about her latest book, What to Eat.
She had explored the importance of fresh food, using time–honoured raw ingredients to cook meals from scratch and, by corollary, reducing that unhealthy dependence on ready–meals and other processed food. She had lauded the benefits of local produce, drawing on her experience of the very successful Fife Diet initiative. She’d discussed seasonality, suggesting that people should get their food variety over the year, rather than in a week. And she’d given a host of reasons for choosing organic, noting the effectiveness of the rigorous inspection regime that ensures the high standards associated with certified organic food.
Along the way, Joanna had been deliciously forthright, sometimes provocative. She cast a healthy sceptical eye over the government’s mantra on nutritional advice, suggesting that its steer to avoid animal fats and cholesterol was outdated, citing some interesting new evidence. In celebrating the role of small independent retailers, Joanna examined some of the less attractive practices of the big supermarkets. And in a stout defence of the place of organic, grass–fed meat in our diet, Joanna found plenty of support among this carnivorous Belfast audience.
Earlier, we had launched the Belfast Food Network Charter, created as part of the Soil Association’s Sustainable Food Cities project in Northern Ireland. Aimed at building support among restaurateurs, retailers, growers, producers, caterers and other food providers, the network will grow over the next six months to enhance the city’s reputation as a great food destination.
Back to that GM question, then. As Joanna explained, she’s been opposing the genetic modification of food for 15 years and she left our audience in no doubt about her reasoning. Running through a plethora of well–rehearsed arguments – GM doesn’t increase crop yields; GM impoverishes farmers; GM leads to increased pesticide use; GM won’t feed the world, among others – Joanna inspired as much as she impressed and, in the best tradition of public speakers, left them gasping for more.