Christopher Dawson is Chairman of UK-based organic food pioneer Clearspring, which he founded in 1993. He has dedicated his life to the study, promotion and distribution of certified organic foods, produced through organic agricultural and traditional processing techniques. Today, Clearspring has over 280 certified organic products, contract-produced by 88 food producers in 15 countries and exported to over 60 countries.
Clearspring itself now has a long heritage, stretching back to 1993. But your personal journey started earlier. How did a passion for organic and traditional food culture first develop, and then grow into a life project?
It all started back in 1972. I was born and raised in New Zealand and it was there at the age of 19 that I came to a stark realisation; the country at the time had a population of just three million people but there were nearly 60 million sheep. I questioned that, if we humans were at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, with the ability to digest a diverse range of cereals and legumes, why were we “cultivating” animals purely for our consumption and destroying the natural landscape in the process. It was also the time of the brutal Vietnam war with a civilian death toll equal to the population of New Zealand and massive ecological damage. I questioned as to how human slaughter can be a prerequisite for sustainable world peace and spiritual development.
I wanted to learn more, so, in 1973, I spent 12 months visiting and working on Organic farms in four different agricultural sectors in New Zealand.
In 1974 I took the then 36-hour flight to the UK, to continue my studies and understand Organic farming and sustainability from an international viewpoint.
It was in London that I discovered the power of traditionally fermented Japanese foods, initially with a humble bowl of Miso Soup. In 1979 I travelled to Japan to learn more and ended up falling in love with their hospitality and their food culture. Making Japan my home there for the next 18 years, I dedicated my time to helping conventional farmers and food producers convert to organic.
Fuelled by the desire to take what I had learnt from Japan and the products I had helped convert to organic to a much wider international audience, I decided to move back to the UK and directly manage Clearspring, a company I had established in 1993. Today, more than 28 years on, we have over 280 certified organic products, contract-produced by 88 food producers in 15 countries and exported to over 60 countries.
How would you describe the Clearspring ethos?
Every week, at our Monday morning meeting, I remind the Clearspring team that our prime focus is to ‘constantly work and play to convert one more acre back to organic each day.’ Whether this be supporting our producers or championing and promoting Organic, Biodynamic, and sustainable foods to our shoppers, I will aim to keep this at the forefront of our activities.
This principle taps into our bigger mission, which is summed up by the Clearspring three visionary P’s:
- Provide for future generations
- Protect the eco-system and the world we live in
- Promote traditional and sustainable foods with integrity
Together with these 3 P’s, we make a promise to our customers that all our products are primarily organic, 100% vegan, non-GM, with no artificial additives, MSG, colourings, preservatives or added refined sugars.
“Our prime focus is to ‘constantly work and play to convert one more acre back to organic each day”
A central part of Clearspring’s mission has been to support organic agriculture, but also traditional food cultures. How can we continue to nurture these traditions?
In a world of fast, cheap, and processed food, it has been a challenge to get the organic, traditional, and sustainable foods message across to a mass audience. However, things seem to be finally changing, if rather slowly. Easier access to good information, particularly the internet and social media, along with the efforts of brands like ours and the organic industry are bringing more people to the cause.
However, we need to do more, much more, collectively. The pandemic has made people more conscious and concerned about the food they eat and questioning where it comes from. The climate emergency is also at a critical stage. It is something we can no longer ignore; we all need to make the personal changes that will make a positive impact and secure a good future for generations to come. Choosing organic and choosing plant-based are two important ways individuals can make these personal changes. Clearspring is doing more than ever to engage people, particularly online and on social media, to take that message about traditional food cultures and sustainability to a much wider audience.
You have had a long and deep relationship with Japan. How has that influenced your own personal development, and that of the business?
Japan has had a huge impact on my life – not least because my wife is Japanese. The culture and history of the country has also had a huge influence on me. When I was living and working there, I learnt about the Edo Period between 1603 and 1868. During this period of self-imposed isolation, the Japanese had to adapt to making their food production more sustainable and nutrient rich. They sustainably cultivated foods both on the land and on the coastal seas and derived maximum nutritional benefits using methods like long-time bean and cereal fermentation and short-time fresh vegetable fermentation. It might be one of the reasons why international surveys regularly report that Japanese people live the longest.
A large part of Clearspring’s range is Japanese. The producers and farmers I work with today are the very same ones I spent a lot of time working with during my years in Japan. It gives me great pleasure to see traditional, authentic, and sustainably produced Japanese products appear in shops and on dining tables all over the world.
“In a world of fast, cheap, and processed food, it has been a challenge to get the organic, traditional, and sustainable foods message across to a mass audience”
Clearspring has been a ‘plant-based’ food company for much longer than the term has been in common use. How do you view the rapid expansion of the plant-based food sector, and do you have any concerns about the highly processed nature of some plant-based and vegan food products?
On the one hand it is extremely exciting to see the plant-based diet take off in such a big way, considering all the years we have been advocating its benefits. On the other it is very important that nutrition be a big part of society’s evolution into plant-based foods. Fast and easy plant-based foods can help to make a difference in introducing people to vegan foods, but for the long term, they also need to be both nutritious and sustainably produced.
At Clearspring, we are extremely proud that the products we offer are not only plant-based but offer maximum nutritional benefit. We only use wholefood ingredients, with minimal processing and without the use of artificial ingredients and no added refined sugar. It is the long-term solution if we want healthier people and a healthier planet.
Clearspring is proudly a family business. What has it been like to see your children come into the business?
I am lucky and very grateful to have my own children’s involvement in building the Clearspring for the future, constantly turning one more acre of land back to organic cultivation on their journeys.
They can carry the Clearspring legacy long into the future, whilst remaining loyal and committed to our principles. As a family we have all grown up eating Clearspring products and we are confident in offering them to the world without hesitation.
The organic food market has grown spectacularly over the past 30 years. But still only around 2-3% of the world’s productive farmland is under organic systems. How can we achieve the step change we will need to restore balance in Nature and provide healthy food for many more people?
It has been heartening to see the growth of organic over the past decade, and how people have embraced the Clearspring brand and organic during the pandemic. However, you are right in saying that a big step change is needed. It is important that brands such as Clearspring continue to work hard and champion organic and its benefits. There is also work that needs to be done at a governmental level to make organic food production a priority. We are proud to be part of The Soil Association and the Organic Trade Board in the UK as well as international organisations such as IFOAM who are helping to take this issue further with policy makers. There is still a lot of work to do and the Clearspring team is daily acting on this challenge.
Author: Jim Manson, Journalist
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Bio Eco Actual, Independent European Organic Press
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