The Green Man
Words Mark Hooper
Photographs and Archival work John Balsom
Not content with revolutionising our diet, now he wants to save our soil. Welcome to the gospel according to Craig Sams… Craig Sams has lived a Zelig-like life, having been at the centre of countless landmark moments in the history of the green and countercultural movements since he opened Europe’s first macrobiotic restaurant in London’s Paddington in 1966. Charismatic and not unlike Norman Mailer in appearance – if not demeanour – Sams has been described as ‘one of Britain’s greenest men’. So it’s no surprise to find that a chat with Sams is a holistic affair: engaging him in conversation is to partake in a whirlwind tour of fascinating subjects, from the government’s policies on diet to Genghis Khan to Pink Floyd. A discussion about how Sams launched Britain’s first Fairtrade product somehow leads us to how he saw a UFO from the top of Glastonbury Tor with Brian Jones. Similarly, while talking us through his veggie patch, he casually mentions that he may have Shakespeare’s tree growing in his back garden.
We’re here to discuss a life dedicated to the organic, but when we meet at his stately Georgian home – a former rectory in Hastings Old Town – Sams is more interested in enlisting my help in hooking up his DVD player to a vintage arcade game.
For a man of his stature and reputation, there’s something disarmingly Heath Robinson-esque about the scene. The game itself, a classic coin-operated affair called Prop Cycle dating from the 1990s, relies on pedal power as you navigate through a course while mounted on a static bicycle. It’s typical of Sams that even the video games he plays are good for you. Equally typical is his competitiveness over something essentially so trivial. He is fairly certain he has got the world’s top score – his best is over 19,000 points. There’s someone in Pakistan who claims to have broken the 20,000 barrier, but there’s no proof, hence Sams’ determination to record himself doing it on DVD.
But we are not here to talk about his prowess at obsolete arcade games. We are here to detail an extraordinary life that has seen Sams build an eco-empire that began with a solitary restaurant. Since then, he has built and sold two giants of green consumerism: Whole Earth Foods and Green & Black’s, the chocolate company he launched with his wife – author, journalist and entrepreneur, Jo Fairley. He’s also been chairman of the Soil Association and was instrumental in supporting the Fairtrade Foundation – Green & Black’s Maya Gold chocolate was the UK’s first certified Fairtrade product. Right now, his attention is chiefly focused – SCART leads notwithstanding – on promoting the potential of biochar as a solution to climate change. But more of that later. There are so many fascinating and tangential strands to the Craig Sams story that it seems the only thing to do is to sit down in a patch of spring sun in his garden and start at the very beginning.
‘I just sat in that restaurant and thought, “This is what I really want to do…”’
Sometimes, you only really notice the speed of progress when you take the time to look back. In his first year at the University of Pennsylvania, Sams, who had been brought up as a vegetarian in Nebraska, had to get a letter from his headmaster, his parents and his family doctor before he was allowed to eat in the canteen ‘and not just have to push the meat aside from the food I was given’.
If that experience provided motivation enough to tackle Western attitudes to diet, the insight and the opportunity was to come soon after. Taking a year off in 1964 – first in Ibiza and Formentera – and immersing himself in the emerging beat and alternative cultures, Sams’ travels soon took him further afi eld. Having hitchhiked across Turkey and into the Middle East – taking in Adana, Aleppo, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Kuwait, Basrah and Karachi – and ditching a fellow American in Bam – ‘he was into traveller’s cheques fraud and I got nervous being around him’ – Sams moved on to India, but developed hepatitis when a dose of amoebic dysentery he’d picked up in Bushehr in Southern Iran got into his liver.
‘I was really, really ill,’ he says. ‘I was lying on a roadside in Delhi thinking I was going to expire, and worrying about my parents never really knowing what had happened to me. I stayed a night in Delhi general hospital and it was so horrible I thought it would be better to die outside of this place than in it.’
Eventually he made it to Kabul in Afghanistan, where a diet of nothing but unsweetened tea and wholewheat flatbread cured the dysentery and improved his hepatitis. Even so, having returned to university, Sams found himself ‘getting into heavy pancakes and syrup and all that crap’. The penny didn’t finally drop until a sympathetic couple gave him a hard push in the direction of macrobiotics – ‘they came over with a bag of brown rice and a bottle of tamari and some sesame seeds and took away my Log Cabin Pancake Syrup and my Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix and within a couple of weeks, I felt so much better’. All of a sudden the lessons of his stay in Kabul struck home. ‘That’s what made me think this is the magic stuff . If you’re way below par then you really notice the difference. I was fairly unhealthy so I really got the bug.’
Falling in with a group of like-minded souls in Philadelphia, Sams would take his turn driving to New York to buy food that was impossible to obtain elsewhere. ‘We went to the macrobiotic bookshop and, lo and behold, they’d just been busted by the FBI. They’d been accused of being a bunch of frauds because they said a healthy diet could prevent cancer and possibly even cure it – and that was quackery as far as the American Medical Association were concerned… But now it’s government policy!’ That evening he went to a restaurant called the Paradox and everything changed.
‘I just sat in that restaurant and thought, this is what I really want to do,’ he says. He wrote to the Peace Corps, to whom he’d committed the next two years of his life, and told them he wasn’t coming after all. Instead, he moved to London in 1966 and ‘set about importing macrobiotic books and looking for a place for a restaurant’.
As luck would have it, he chanced upon the perfect opportunity to build a willing clientele. ‘We’d go to the UFO Club and I’d supply the food. We’d collar people between Pink Floyd and Soft Machine sets or Crazy World of Arthur Brown and talk about macrobiotics. We were like Christian Evangelists in a way. I found it slightly mortifying, but the others were very convincing. Plus, they weren’t American so it was slightly more acceptable coming from people who dropped their aitches!’
Sams’ first step was to start a macrobiotic study centre and cooking class in Britain’s first New Age centre on Camden Hill Road. ‘But that rapidly morphed into a restaurant. And it became a really groovy restaurant because it was the only place that the emerging hippy population in London could go and hang out with their peers. I found out several years later that the guy who washed our dishes was one of the main LSD dealers on the scene at the time, so a lot of the visits were to do with that as well!’
Things got a little too groovy and, following one too many impromptu late-night gigs, complaints from residents prompted Sams to seek out new premises. Eventually he set up a new macrobiotic restaurant, Seed, in Paddington with his brother, Greg, in 1968. The next year they launched Ceres Grain, a macrobiotic food shop. In 1970 they launched Harmony Foods, followed in 1971 by Seed magazine, which preached the macrobiotic life until its close in 1977. From the very start, the Sams brothers enjoyed the patronage of 1960s London’s most swinging characters. John Lennon penned a cartoon about their restaurant, while Terence Stamp graced the second cover of Seed magazine.
Even so, Sams must pinch himself over how his one little restaurant in Paddington has resulted in a green empire. ‘Well, yes, on the one hand – but on the other when we started this little restaurant, we registered the name Yin Yang Limited and we thought, “Yes, we’ve got it! Because in a couple of years everyone’s going to be organic and eating brown rice”.’
Accidentally inventing the Isle of Wight Festival
Having barely survived his bout of dysentery in India, Sams returned to the UK and planted the seeds for the Isle of Wight Festival. ‘I spent most of the summer on the Isle of Wight promoting bands from London on Shankland Pier three times a week – Chris Farlowe, The Thunderbirds, The Action, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds. All the bands from the Flamingo and the Marquee would be farmed out to Brighton, Scarborough and Blackpool in the summer. But the Isle of Wight didn’t have that. We booked all the ferries for the vans, we found houses so the bands could stay, we squeezed everyone in. So it was kind of a jolly for the bands. They didn’t have to drive back at midnight on some horrible road to get back to London – they could stay over and have a day at the seaside.’
‘ People used to drive from Wales and Norfolk to buy brown rice in our shop. Now you can get it in Asda…’
LSD and the macrobiotic diet
‘Certainly, going to the UFO Club, everyone was tripping, so when you gave them the message about macrobiotics, it registered at a visceral level. The greatest thing about that for macrobiotics was that people would go out and buy a hot dog out of habit and suddenly they could see the gruesomeness of it all. They could see beyond the packaging. ‘But of course acid was made illegal in the August of 1967. It was dodgy even before then. ‘Jonathan Aitken, bless him, wrote an article in the Evening Standard – he took an acid trip the day before it was made illegal and said, “Thank God this drug is being banned because I had all these horrible visions…” and you just thought, “My God, what’s going on in his mind?”’
While progress may have been slower than he’d hoped, there’s no doubt that Sams planted the seed of an organic lifestyle that is now accepted as the norm. ‘Well, the big fast-food chains have made much more progress than we have over the past 30 or 40 years,’ he points out, ‘but what we do know is that we’re right and they’re wrong. And the proof is in the catastrophic decline in health in America that is now being echoed everywhere that the American diet is reproduced. The real tragedy is that in America it started in the 1950s. What we’re seeing now is the epigenetic result that if your grandma eats badly, it doesn’t affect your mum, but it affects you, the next generation; it becomes imprinted in your DNA.’ But there’s no doubt that there have also been incredibly positive changes in that time. ‘It’s now a lifestyle choice,’ Sams says of the diet he was instrumental in introducing to the West; ‘and the choice is free for anybody. It’s an easy option. It used to be really, really diffi cult. People would drive down from Norfolk or Wales to buy brown rice in our shop because it was the only place in Britain where you could get it. Now you can get it in Asda.
‘People no longer laugh at you or call you crazy. I mean, you still get snotty journalists, the Jeremy Clarkson, AA Gill school who will fight to the last against anything that smacks of wussy vegetarianism or sentimentality, but at the end of the day, the proof of the pudding is in how many people make those changes.’
When you think about it, even when the green lifestyle is being used as a cynical marketing ploy by multi-nationals, that’s a reason to feel cheered: because they’ve identified a genuine, thriving market of people who now care about these issues. And Craig Sams was the first man to spot it.
‘We could see where it was going…’
Where Sams differed from so may other entrepreneurs and – let’s face it – hippies with limited ambition, was in his ability to spot an opportunity to grow. He soon sold the restaurant to concentrate on the wholesale business. ‘That’s where the possibilities were endless. The shop’s catchment area was ever shrinking for us because people were opening shops in Brighton and Norwich and Bath and Bristol, so the customers who came in on a Sunday to stock up didn’t come any more.’
Instead they developed Harmony Foods, which eventually became Whole Earth Foods. Even then, hard business decisions prompted them to consolidate and move on wherever possible. After his brother Greg launched ‘something called the veggie burger’ in 1982, cash-fl ow problems prompted him to take his invention out of the family business, while Craig was forced to engage in asset-stripping, concentrating on two core products: crunchy peanut butter and the first no-added-sugar jam. ‘We then started adding soft drinks, ketchup, baked beans… and that became the Whole Earth range.’
Again, Sams kept moving on, a shrewd business head helping to bring his dietary philosophy to an ever-wider audience. In 1991 he launched Green & Black’s with his wife Jo. ‘That again was robbing Peter to pay Paul – the Whole Earth brand was by then the cash cow that fed chocolate. Then our co-producer, the guy who looked after the supply chain, went bust in France, so we had to finance his business as well, and the only way I could do that was to license our contract packer of peanut butter to own the brand for four years. He gave us £350,000 for that privilege, and that gave us enough money to finance the chocolate business. We could see where it was going, it would have been terrible to strangle it at birth.’
Green & Black’s was a watershed in the food industry. Being a Fairtrade product meant that Maya Gold helped to guarantee a fixed price for the Belizean cocoa bean farmers regardless of external market forces and artificial subsidies imposed by the West.
‘Green & Black’s Maya Gold chocolate was the UK’s first Fair-trade product…’
Of all his achievements, this seems the one that Sams is most proud of. Unlike many who seem to take an unnecessarily protective approach to patronage in the developing world, he is evangelical about the need to promote change. ‘The Belizean farmers until recently didn’t have telephones. Now they’ve got satellite broadband – they’re connected. And you can’t ask kids with Facebook friends to live in a village that hasn’t got running water, electricity and broadband. These are the fundamentals.’
Green & Black’s also helped to instil fundamental change among the unsophisticated British chocolate consumer. Until they arrived on the scene, the highest percentage of cocoa available commercially in the UK was around 50 per cent. ‘There was a cooking chocolate called Menier that was 49 per cent cocoa solids. Bourneville was 34 percent. Lindt had something that was 49 or 50 per cent. But cocoa solids can be cocoa butter as well as the actual cocoa bean. Our 70 per cent was 70 per cent of the cocoa bean. So it wasn’t slicked up with cocoa butter, which makes it more melt in your mouth, less bitter. So ours was the most intense chocolate on the market.’
Sams has attracted criticism for subsequently selling Green & Black’s to Cadbury, which was in turn acquired by Kraft Foods. But he is adamant that selling out to The Man has only helped him to further the Green & Black’s ethos. ‘When Cadbury bought the brand originally, everyone said, “Oh God, there goes Green & Black’s”,’ but actually Cadbury put £43 million into what they called the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership. They were fantastically helpful. There was a terrible hurricane called Iris that set the farmers back in Belize, and Cadbury got in there and helped to rehabilitate them. And Kraft were the same. There was an attempt to buy the brand out and Kraft said, “No, we are committed to this, it’s a fundamental part of our strategy”. They’ve learnt a lot from it but they’ve also put a tremendous amount into it. It’s doing really well now, it’s profitable, its sales are going up. And if things are going well, they’ll build on that success.’
Returning Shakespeare’s Tree
There’s an impressive mulberry tree in Craig Sam’s garden. There’s another one on the slopes of East Hill, overlooking his home in Hastings Old Town. ‘David Garrick, the Shakespearean actor, used to come here to visit Edward Capell, who took all the directors’ versions of Shakespeare’s plays – because there are hundreds of variations of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth floating around – and made it his life’s work to get as close to the Shakespeare that Shakespeare actually wrote. Garrick would visit him, and one day he brought a cutting from the mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s garden in Stratford-upon-Avon. And that’s the tree over there [on East Hill]. ‘Mulberry trees don’t grow by seed, they grow by cuttings. So ours is a cutting that allegedly came from that tree. But a builder killed the tree in Shakespeare’s garden. So the plan is to take a cutting from this tree – first we have to make sure the DNA of this tree is the same as the other one – then we can give it back to Stratford-upon-Avon. We’ll give it to them in a pot of biochar compost and try to squeeze a bit of PR out of it!’
Sams still maintains an honorary role on the brand. ‘Jo and I are both invited to speak. She gets paid more, I tend to go to The Economist conferences at universities where they think I should be grateful that they invited me! But we represent the brand. We’re kept in the loop on new products, we meet with the marketing and business leader at least once a quarter. So I have a role. My role is more as an enzyme than anything else.’ As for any qualms about the company being in corporate hands, he’s confident that they are better placed than he ever was to realise his vision.
‘They announced a $400 million Cocoa Life Plan to really enhance cocoa farmer income, make cocoa production sustainable and environmentally positive. They teamed with Anti Slavery International to drive out the causes of child slavery and address the root causes of child labour, and also gender issues, women’s rights. So they’ve put a budget on the same things we launched Green & Black’s off the back of in 1991. Whether they’re doing it out of the kindness of their hearts or for cynical reasons, the fact is that if you don’t want the next generation of cocoa farmers to be driving taxi cabs in Aberjan or Accra, you have to make it worth it.’
‘Shall we head for the woods…?’
Which brings us right up to the present, via Genghis Khan. Sams borders on the evangelical when it comes to biochar: the programme of using charcoal to encourage carbon sequestration into the soil: essentially returning vital nutrients to whence they came, while simultaneously tackling the vicious circle of climate change. And, having been chair of the Soil Association from 2001-2007, he knows what he’s talking about.
‘Biochar does two things: it restores the soils that over-farming has depleted over the past 150 years, and at the same time it contributes to reducing the breaking of the carbon cycle, where plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and then it goes back either through burning or decomposition of woody bio-mass.’
Hugely critical of government-sponsored schemes that attempt to tackle climate change while contributing to its root causes, Sams takes a long-term view on his pet project. ‘In the larger historical context, we’ve shown that plants can affect climate change dramatically in a very short timescale. If you look back to the 14th and 15th century, you had Genghis Khan sweeping across from Asia, wiping out all the agrarian civilisations: they didn’t just hate cities, they hated the farmers who were their economic base. Then the plague came along and wiped out a quarter of rural and urban populations. So suddenly, all this land that was being cultivated in Europe and Asia was uncultivated – it reverted to nature, and principally trees.’ The same, Sams points out, happened in the Amazon basin when the agrarian civilisations died off ‘through smallpox, measles, colds and conquistadors’.
A dedicated follower of fashion
Ever the entrepreneur, Sams used his travels to launch a fledgling fashion imports business and nearly started glasnost 30 years early… ‘I had some Afghan coats I’d seen in Kabul when I was there, kaftans from Tunisia and silk from China that a guy called Aidan Kelly would then dye with blotchy, wishy-washy patterns and we’d sell it to Dandy Fashions and Granny Takes A Trip and they’d make shirts and dresses out of it. ‘I imported posters from India – Vishnu and Kali and those big religious posters, and they sold very well. I also imported Tibetan stuff. I saw these shoulder bags and it was just the right look for what was happening. At one point the guy who owned Hung On You said, “Can you get me Russian stuff?” So I went to the Russian embassy and spoke to the attaché there. The guy at the embassy thought it was a good idea – peaceful co-existence with all these Western kids – but it went back to Moscow and it was a great big “Niet”, so that was the end of that. It was a shame really.’
The result was ‘an eruption of biomass all across the planet, sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere – and lo and behold we had a little Ice Age from about 1700 to 1800, where the Thames froze over and people starved because the summers were so short and the winters so hard. And then we discovered steam power and coal and we kind of burnt our way back to climate balance. But we also got tractors and chemical fertilisers and we depleted all the carbon that was in the soil from that period of massive biomass accumulation and carbon sequestration, and we’re over-shooting in the other direction.’ Biochar is, as he sees it, the solution to capturing carbon and beginning to redress the balance.
‘I was born in Nebraska on a farm that my great grandfather ploughed in the 1880s. It was virgin prairie, it had 100 tons of carbon per hectare: now it has five. The other 95 went up into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The answer is not to grow bio fuels and corn using chemical fertilisers and nitrates that turn into nitrous oxide, which is 300 times worse than carbon dioxide: from the Mid-West of America and the Amazon to the Steppes of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan – the answer is to plant trees!’
Inspired by that thought, Sams declares, ‘Shall we head to the woods?’ – and we make our way to the nearby working biochar kiln – fed by branches from the small private wood overlooking it – which in turn provides nutrients for a field of newly planted trees. It clearly holds a special place in his heart – and it sums up his vision in a nutshell. For all his grand achievements and his government-baiting pronouncements, you get the sense that Sams would rather be here, the master of his own little self-sufficient ecosystem. And he just wants everyone else to feel the same.