Member in Focus: Joanna Blythman

Each month, newsletter editor Kristen Frederickson meets a Guild member with a story to tell. This month: Joanna Blythman who won the Guild’s Food Writing Award in 2018. Joanna will be on the panel for the Guild’s Autumn Debate: What Should We Eat Now? on Wednesday 20 November, 6.30pm to 9pm at SMEG Demonstration Theatre, SMEG Flagship Store, 14 Regent Street, London SW1Y 4PH.

When did you join the Guild, and why?

I joined back at the beginning when it was set up by Derek Cooper and Colin Spencer.

They thought that food writers should be taken seriously as journalists with a deep expertise and lively knowledge of food in its broadest interpretation. Recipes, yes of course, but also politics of food, restaurant reviewing, and so on. 

I’ve been an on-and-off member ever since. The ‘off’ bit is symptomatic of my administrative shirking. Everything from preparing my accounts for HMRC, invoicing, the logistics of attending events, signing up for things etc is my pet hate. I’m not bad at getting down to writing – I’ve never missed a deadline – but put off getting down to all the money and organisation stuff until the eleventh hour.

Were your hopes of Guild benefits met, or not, and how did you experience that situation?

When I lived all the time in Edinburgh, I found it frustrating that most events were so hard/expensive to attend because of the distance. But I was always glad to see that the Guild was holding them. Now I live part of the time in Edinburgh and spend much of the month near London so I can be closer to my family. So I mean to get my act together to come to more events. 

How would you describe your area of special expertise, if you have one?

I suppose I’ve made food issues – everything from salmon farming and GM through food additives and animal welfare – my broad area of knowledge. I try hard to keep up with all the technological ‘developments’ in food production, such as nanotech and watch the emerging public health concerns, things like antibiotic use in livestock, declining biodiversity. I’ve written 7 books, and my journalism is generally either opinion pieces or features arguing a case. All this can make your head nip after a bit, so that’s why I really enjoy my work as a restaurant reviewer: it’s a refreshing contrast and light relief from the macro-debates around food.

Tell us just a little about the upcoming debate, please.

I think we’ve seen the emergence of a plant-based (often essentially vegan) narrative that portrays animal foods as planet-wrecking and, in its most extreme expression, seeks to outlaw/discourage consumption of meat, eggs, fish, and dairy, though emotional pressure or even ultimately, fiscal measures.

I’m an omnivore and find this view frighteningly extreme and authoritarian, potentially dangerous. It’s predicated on flimsy science, and the lumping together of factory farmed and grass-based farming methods.

I’m looking forward to an opportunity to talk about the role of livestock in the traditional mixed farm system, the regenerative role animals can play by locking carbon into the soil and building soil fertility. I’ll be stressing the nutrient-density of animal foods and the health risks of eliminating them in our diet. I’ll also be looking at the cultural importance and significance of animal foods amongst diverse populations worldwide.