A surprise consequence of writing a book about food was that we lost our
appetite. A month in, we realized we had underestimated just how devastating
the effects of our industrial food systems are on our health, animal
welfare, climate change and the earth's resources.
Thankfully, a few trips to some farmers markets with their good news story of
artisan baking, handmade cheeses and fresh-from-the-ground veg offered the
escapism we needed and helped provide a sense of perspective.
Food, lies and red tape
Overwhelmingly we found that most of us simply don't know much about food,
having grown up knowing only supermarkets. In our confusion we are at the
mercy of food manufacturers' aggressive marketing campaigns, especially for
highly profitable "healthy" foods.
The Food Standards
Agency and the EU are now challenging manufacturers' health claims.
Yakult, we discovered, is essentially overpriced sweetened water with added
bacteria marketed as a probiotic health drink (check the label: we naively
assumed it was diluted live yogurt!). Why spend your money on foods that
are not all they're cracked up to be? Become a label checker and edit your
shopping list: a good rule of thumb is the fewer and simpler the ingredients
We knew animals had a pretty bad time in order to provide us with ever cheaper
meat; but we were shocked that their lives were literally not worth living.
Despite our national attachment to Jemima Puddleduck, 98 per cent of the
duck we eat comes from mass-produced, often mutilated animals which are
packed into vast sheds and only see the light of day on their way to the
slaughterhouse. Ducks have nowhere to swim.
Beware of misleading labels implying "freedom"; only the Soil
Association accreditation offers any real guarantee of a decent standard of
animal care. Top supermarkets for animal welfare are Waitrose and M&S -
see Compassion in
World Farming's annual welfare league tables.
We set out believing supermarkets were where power was concentrated in the
food system, so it was a surprise to learn about the handful of
mega-powerful transnational corporations which control most of the links in
the food chain. Giant among giants is Cargill,
whose $120bn turnover in 2008 was bigger than the GDP of two-thirds of the
world's nations. Cargill controls almost half of all the world's grain trade
and has, in the words of one commentator, "its tentacles in every
aspect of the global food system" from meat and sugar to animal feed
and fertilizer. This is worrying because it gives them incredible power over
what we eat and our future food supplies.
The extent of child labor in the cocoa industry came as a shock. It's especially prevalent
in the world's leading producers in West Africa. Côte d'Ivoire, the biggest
grower, has more than 100,000 child workers often enduring slave labor
conditions involving the use of dangerous pesticides and machetes. There's
also cross-border child trafficking. The multi-billion-pound "Big
Chocolate" industry hasn't shown much interest in cleaning up its
supply chain. Another good reason to choose Fairtrade.
Reading The Grocer
magazine regularly has been a bit like eavesdropping on the food industry's
private conversation. It was eye-opening to witness its determination to
flog us syrupy drinks and salty snacks backed by seven-figure marketing
campaigns. A cynic might quickly form the view that the industry's ideal
consumer never cooks, never reads the back of a packet and instead relies on
it big processors' corn, soya and sugar alchemy to cater for all their "meal
and snack occasion" needs.
Our daily bread
As a nation we munch our way through 11 billion sandwiches a year (that's 200
each). But popularity is no guarantee of quality. Glance at most bread
wrappers and you'll find a gruesome list of emulsifiers, preservatives,
sweeteners and fats. These ingredients make for depressing spongy loaves
with long shelf lives, even if they've got fancy French or Italian labels.
One of the greatest pleasures of writing the book was discovering artisanal
bakers who achieve miracles with nothing more mysterious than good flour,
water and yeast - plus skill.
Before writing this book our engagement with Fairtrade food was pretty
half-hearted: a tendency to Divine chocolate and easily available bananas.
Harriet Lamb, Director of the Fairtrade
Foundation changed all that. She encouraged us to avoid out-of-season,
air freighted green beans arguing that in comparison with the Kenyan bean
farmer, who creates about 0.9 tons CO2 emissions per annum, our carbon
footprint (at an average of 9.8 tons p.a.) was through the roof and that
the free healthcare and education we take for granted has to be paid for in
Kenya. Soberingly, it is the developed world's predilection for meat and
dairy products which accounts for half the carbon emissions associated with
Plenty more fish in the sea?
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that half of the world's fish stocks are already
being exploited to the hilt and a further quarter are now fished beyond
maximum sustainable levels. But fish are tricky to monitor. Sustainability
can depend on where and how a fish was caught as well as its species. Enough
to induce paralysis at the fish counter. Fortunately, the Marine
Stewardship Council's certification scheme takes into account the full
environmental impact of fishing. Look for their "tick-mark" logo
on the fish, or even better, ask your fishmonger if you are lucky enough to
still have one.
The UK has the highest obesity levels in Europe with more than 60 per cent of
us now officially overweight or obese. But obesity is rather euphemistic,
isn't it? What we're really talking about is people consuming far too much
overprocessed foods and soft drinks: we can't find the "off"
switch. Thirty years of artificial sweeteners have not helped; in fact
they're part of the problem, creating ever-sweeter foods and encouraging
cravings. It's not just airline seats and hospital beds that are feeling the
strain; health service budgets are threatened by the costs of a heavier and
sicker nation as a result of obesity.
The upside of the credit crunch
The food landscape changed dramatically while writing this book: organic
purchasing levelled out after high year-on-year increases; many are finding Farmers'
Markets and vegetable box schemes such as Riverford's
are cheaper ways of shopping and less stressful too; growing your own and
cooking from scratch increasingly look like good ways to save money and rediscover the pleasures of food.
Click here to buy The Rough Guide to Food