In your own words please introduce yourself and your work.
My name is Bronwen Percival and I work with cheese and cheesemakers. My ‘day job’ is as the buying and technical manager for Neal’s Yard Dairy, a company that sources and sells British and Irish cheeses. But in the broader sense, I am also working to increase collaboration between cheesemakers, scientists, and regulatory bodies in an effort to strengthen and ultimately grow the potential for sustainable farming and the production of amazing raw-milk cheeses.
What does “sustainable food” and "a resilient food culture" mean to you?
When it comes to food, we often talk about sustainability in its most narrowly-understood guise, i.e., environmental impact. Growing food in a way that doesn’t release excessive carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that builds soil health and microbial diversity, is absolutely critical to the future of our food system, but we can’t attempt to change the way that we as a society grow the majority of our food in a vacuum, without looking at the larger context.
Cheese is a perfect microcosm to illustrate this point. Extensive, environmentally-sustainable systems (featuring, for example, dual-purpose breeds suited to marginal land and biodiverse, largely-grass-based farming systems) enhance the environment, but by dint of the way that they’re made, they also have the capacity to produce meat and cheese with unique and complex flavor, and with added nutritional value as well. However, farmed in this way, yields are significantly lower, and because of limitations on scaling up while respecting the ecological constraints of the system, it is impossible to achieve the economies of scale (low labour and equipment costs per unit produced) that we have come to expect from modern agriculture. Therefore, these foods are necessarily more expensive, often several times the price. Unless the market rewards these producers with strong demand for their goods at their real price, we will never see this type of food production take hold more widely.
A very few idealistic farmer-cheesemakers are willing to work tirelessly for very little return out of the joy that the work brings them, but such an industry is by definition not sustainable. While such businesses may eke by for a generation, the people who might otherwise carry it on will—quite rightly—look to escape and make their livings in ways that provide more secure rewards, while the best and brightest graduates from agricultural colleges will never be encouraged to pursue sustainable, small-scale farmhouse cheese production for the same reasons. Under these circumstances, the industry will struggle and ultimately dwindle over time. Critics will say that pastoral farming is--by definition--destructive to the environment, because only destructive practices, with their uncosted externalities, are capable of turning a profit in a world where prices for farmhouse products are benchmarked against industrial production.
Therefore economic sustainability is critical if we want to achieve environmental sustainability in our food system. And this is where food culture comes in. We live in a society where food is unprecedentedly cheap and where value is almost universally equated with low prices and large quantities. If we continue to shop according to those values, we have seen where it will take us. Only when people begin to recognize a different kind of value—and are willing to pay the real cost of sustainably-produced cheese and other agricultural products—will a sustainable food system start to look achievable. Of course, not everyone can afford to spend more on their food—food insecurity is unfortunately very real, particularly now. However, that is not a good excuse for starting tht change now: many of us can afford to spend that extra money to live our values, while working for the broader social changes that will guarantee every person a living wage and the opportunity to spend their values as well. The reward is not just the knowledge that those purchases support rural communities and environmental stewardship, but also that the intrinsic eating and nutritional properties of the foods are superior. This is a story that we can taste.
What are your visions/dreams for a more sustainable, responsible and resilient food culture?
Little over a century ago, the UK had thriving communities of hundreds if not thousands of farmhouse cheesemakers, supported by a technical infrastructure of consultants, scientists, technicians, and schools that disseminated knowledge. Each of those farmhouse cheeses was made with native microbes—no pasteurisation or commercial starters existed for cheese at the turn of the 20th century—and was thus a unique reflection of a biodiverse, extensive farming system, local knowledge, and native breeds of animal. The selective pressures of the 20th century—the demand for liquid drinking milk, two world wars, downward pressure on price, and consumers’ buying choices—have extinguished these communities, but as the pendulum swings back and more people begin to realise the myriad advantages of this sort of production system, my dream is that we might be able to create a new system that draws on the best of the old: small farms, unique products sold at a sustainable prices, the technical support to help producers succeed with minimal financial or safety risks, and the resurrection of a biodiverse, healthy landscape.
How is your work connected to this vision?
The cheese industry is in a real chicken-or-egg situation right now. Without that technical infrastructure (and consumer demand) mentioned above it is extremely difficult for new entrants to get up and running and make commercially viable cheeses with absolute integrity. And with very few benchmark cheeses already on the market that are produced in this way, taking this conversation to the industry and to customers also becomes very difficult.
My work is largely about developing technical capacity, both working directly with cheesemakers to better understand the ‘buttons and levers’ of their cheese production processes and how to optimize them to get the best possible, most milk-expressive cheeses, and working with the regulatory sector to make the case that more ‘natural’ approaches to cheesemaking—for example, the use of raw milk and native milk microbes rather than commercial starter cultures—can be very safe, consistent, and effective provided that the proper controls are in place. With these goals in mind, in addition to my work at Neal’s Yard Dairy, I run a biennial conference on the Science of Artisan Cheese in Somerset every two years. I also convene the technical committees of both the Specialist Cheesemakers Association (the industry body for artisan cheesemakers in the UK) and the new Raw Milk Producers’ Association, both of which are working proactively and positively with our regulatory bodies to establish best practice that leads to great public health protection and supports the development of the industry and small producers.
In your eyes, where lies the biggest potential for us as consuming humans to impact change and help shape a more sustainable food culture?
The answer is right there in the question: being alive means consuming, and the purchasing decisions that we make for ourselves every day are the most fundamental and powerful way for us to vote for the kind of society that we want to live in. Visit independent shops; buy as directly as possible from farmers. We as consumers need to ask tougher questions about provenance, about farming practices, about the way the cheese is made and whether it makes full use of admirably farmed raw materials.
One big challenge is that farming and cheesemaking are both complex processes, and greenwashing is so incredibly easy. A common example is the way in which the term ‘grass-fed’ is bandied about as a marketing term, neatly neglecting to mention anything about how much grass is being fed: are the animals getting most of their energy from grass, or are they being stuffed with starchy foods for energy before being turned out to a picturesque field to wander around for a while? To bring about the change we want to see depends on consumers who care taking the responsibility to learn, and then holding producers, sellers and marketers to account.
Where can people learn more about your work and engage with it?
My husband Francis and I wrote a book called Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese (Bloomsbury, 2017), in which we look at how cheese and dairy farming have changed over the last 150 years, and how a new generation of cheesemakers are going back to their roots and, with the help of cutting-edge science, showing how the cheesemaking practices of our great-grandparents were actually incredibly sophisticated. More than anything else, this is the template for the world that we would dream to see.
Those with a more extensive interest in the nuts and bolts may be interested in attending the Conference on the Science of Artisan Cheese held every second year in Somerset. We bring together scientists and cheesemakers from around the world for presentation of current research findings, from work on reseeding pastures with biodiverse seed mixes and the impact that has on cheese flavor and texture, to work being carried out that may help cheesemakers create more reliable starters from their own raw milk.
Finally, I recommend microbialfoods.org to all fermentation enthusiasts. My friend and colleague Dr Benjamin Wolfe of Tufts University and I set up this site as a resource for amateur and professional fermented food producers, aiming to ‘digest the science’ into a format that is easily accessible to the non-scientist.
Where else would you encourage people to go and learn?
Here are three books that I have enjoyed recently:
The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, by David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, is a fascinating exploration of the role of microbes in gut and soil health, and the surprising functional similarities between what seem superficially like disparate systems.
Green and Prosperous Land, by Dieter Helm, is a treatise on the need for policymakers to take substantive action now to protect and restore our environment, argued from the perspective that this so-called ‘natural capital’ has a significant and quantifiable value, and that this way of reckoning may help governments justify significant efforts to protect and enhance it starting now, before it’s too late.
The New California Wine by Jon Bonné, documents a new movement taking place in a region once dominated by lots of technical intervention and identikit flavors. This movement highlights the tremendous potential for cheesemakers to take a similar journey, and embrace the added interest and value that comes with producing foods that are unique and true to their agricultural roots.