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Posts tagged ‘agriculture’

Occupy Philippi

Cape Town is unusual in that half of the fresh produce consumed by its residents is grown within the boundaries of the city. Cauliflower, lettuce, beetroot, onions, tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables have been grown in the sandy soil of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) since the end of the nineteenth century.

Today, the area encompasses about 2,370 hectares, and is split between smallholdings and larger commercial farms, which produce around 100,000 tonnes of produce every year. Some of these have embraced sustainable, organic farming. While most of the produce goes to supermarkets, a portion of it is sold to the surrounding, desperately poor communities who live in Philippi – to people who would not otherwise have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. In other words, the PHA is absolutely essential to ensuring that these households remain food secure:

According to a survey of 1 060 low-income households [in Cape Town] conducted by the African Food Security Urban Network in 2008, 80% of respondents were food insecure. The study looked at various indicators of food insecurity, such as whether respondents went to sleep hungry, or whether there were times when there was no food in the house.

A 2012 study by Rooftops Canada-Abri International and the African Food Security Network that examined the horticultural area’s significance in sustaining food security within the Cape Town municipality found that without it the city would be ‘place[d] in extreme risk’ of food insecurity, with low-income households suffering the most. A 2009 report commissioned by the city had similar findings.

As Rob Small of the respected urban farming project Abalimi Bezekhaya notes, Cape Town is ‘a farm with a city in it.’

A vegetable box packed at Harvest of Hope's shed in Philippi.

A vegetable box packed at Harvest of Hope’s shed in Philippi.

As I wrote a while ago, this farm is under threat. Last month, Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee (Mayco) approved an application from the private property developer MSP Planners to have 280 hectares of the PHA rezoned for housing. This isn’t the first time that parts of the PHA have been identified for rezoning: in 2011, an application from Rapicorp to develop 472 hectares of the PHA was also approved, but nothing came of this because the company soon went into administration.

There are compelling reasons to oppose this development. Two studies have demonstrated not only that local people depend on the produce grown in the PHA, but that farmers are keen to extend the area under cultivation. Investing in the PHA – helping to increase the number and size of farms instead of reducing or threatening them – would create jobs and attract business to the area. As a group of academics at the University of Cape Town’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Geomatics argue:

The decision to allow development represents the not-so-thin edge of the wedge. There are three aspects to this. First, remaining farmers are unlikely to invest in the land if there is a sense that they may have to move. Second, it will become increasingly difficult, on the ground of administrative fairness, to reject future speculative applications if this one is approved. Third, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the provision of extensive urban infrastructure in the area will attract further development, both formal and informal. Infrastructure has a strong ‘lock-in’ dimension. In short, it’s a poor, short-sighted and dangerous decision.

What are Captonians doing about this? There is an Avaaz petition – and it’s worth signing it. But other than lobbying from NGOs and some PHA farmers, the lack of interest from Cape Town’s bloggers and foodies is palpable.

I wonder why? I mean, after all, these are the people who profess to love local produce, and who argue that their interest in food and cooking has the potential to do good in the world. These are people with clout: who appear on television programmes, who write for newspapers and magazines with large circulations. These are the people who have the power to shame Patricia de Lille and other members of the Mayco into rethinking their decision. They have, I would argue, a moral duty to use their position to save the region that produces the vegetables they cook with, and which they eat at restaurants.

And what are they doing? Is their lack of interest in the PHA to do with the fact that it’s in a poor part of Cape Town? That there aren’t any high-end chefs with restaurants in Philippi? That they can’t find the same sort of meaning in the PHA as they do in baking brownies? If they’re really serious about supporting small agriculture in Cape Town, then, surely, they’ll pay as much attention to the PHA as they would to the garden at Babylonstoren.

So. Foodies and food bloggers of Cape Town. What are you going to do to save the PHA?

For more information on the Save the PHA Campaign, see here.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A farm with a city in it

A few years ago I spent boat race day in London at the first of what has since become a major annual event: the Oxford and Cambridge goat race. Arriving early to size up the relative strengths of the two racing goats, punters placed bets on the likely winner, and then lined the course, waiting for their champions to canter by. Unfortunately, Cambridge – who, when I placed my bet, had seemed friskier as his minder had attached his number to him – lost interest, and ambled part of the course. Smaller, more ambitious, and, frankly, faster, Oxford won the day by more than two lengths. (Which says rather a lot about the relative usefulness of university league tables.)

The purpose of the race was, and is, to raise funds for the Spitalfields City Farm, a wonderful institution just off Brick Lane. It’s one of several city farms in London – the best known probably being the larger, well-established Hackney City Farm – whose purpose is to bring the countryside and the farm into London. There, Londoners can pet farm animals – including goats – and some farms have fruit and vegetable gardens too. All operate projects and events aimed specifically at children.

Cape Town’s first city farm was opened at the end of last year, in the leafy inner city suburb of Oranjezicht. It’s been established on the site of a former bowling green and, as its slogan – From Bowling Green to Bowl of Greens – suggests, its work emphasises food growing. But although the Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF) will eventually produce organic vegetable boxes, its primary purpose is not, oddly, to produce food. In a suburb where no one goes hungry willingly, and where most properties have gardens large enough to grow vegetables, its aim is to foster community.

OZCF has grown out of the Oranjezicht Neighbourhood Watch. Based on the Rudy Giuliani principle of fixing broken windows, it keeps an eye on parks and open spaces, and helps to ensure that public buildings are well maintained. OZCF is part of an initiative that uses areas which would otherwise become run-down and crime ridden.

At the community garden adjacent to the Fezeka municipality building in Gugulethu.

At the community garden adjacent to the Fezeka municipality building in Gugulethu.

OZCF isn’t the only food-growing initiative in Cape Town’s middle-class suburbs. Based in Constantia, Soil for Life teaches people from all communities how to establish community gardens along organic lines; the Woodstock Peace Garden aims to bring the community together and to produce food; and Touching the Earth Lightly is pioneering rooftop gardening.

There is a strong link between urban agriculture and economic recessions. The example most frequently cited today of how community gardening can help unemployed, impoverished communities cope with the effects of the recession is Detroit. But this city has a long history of using urban farming to deal with depressions. In the 1893 depression, Detroit donated small lots of vacant land – known as Pingree Potato Patches – to the unemployed, who were able to grow enough to feed themselves, and then sell their surplus produce for cash. The project was so successful that it spread to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere.

There were resurgences of interest in urban gardening during the two world wars, the 1930s, and the 1970s, as Laura Lawson explains:

In the 1970s, new interest in community gardening grew as an expression of urban activism and a new environmental ethic. Garden programmes emerged, such as New York’s Green Guerrillas and Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG). In 1976, the USDA sponsored the Urban Gardening Programme that established urban offices to promote vegetable gardening and community gardens in 16, later 23 cities. In 1978, activists from around the country formed the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) as a non-profit membership organisation.

Guerrilla Gardening – where vacant public land is planted without the permission of the authorities – was a product of the economic downturn of the 1970s.

Contemporary interest in community gardening and urban agriculture stems both from the recession as well as from a set of interconnected concerns about food safety, sustainable food production, the creeping power of Big Food to control every link in the food chain, and slowly rising food prices.

Turnips grown in Gugulethu.

At Harvest of Hope – a vegetable box scheme run by Abalimi Bezekhaya, an urban farming project based in some of Cape Town’s poorest suburbs – this interest in the provenance of food has translated into increased demand for organic produce.

Urban agriculture is nothing new in Cape Town. Abalimi was established in 1982 to provide support to community gardens in Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Gugulethu and surrounds. Today, in exchange for R100 from each gardener, it supplies training, compost, seedlings, and tools to around 2,500 individuals and between 55 to a hundred urban farms every year. These are run overwhelmingly by elderly, female pensioners, most of whom support five to six relatives. Those gardens which produce a surplus of vegetables – after the women have taken what they need and sold some over the fence – can become suppliers of Harvest of Hope. At the moment, between twenty and thirty gardens send vegetables to the project’s packing shed in Philippi.

Cabbages with pest-deterring marigolds.

Cabbages with pest-deterring marigolds.

The genius of the Harvest of Hope model is that it guarantees community gardeners a monthly income of R3,000 for as long as they supply vegetables for the box orders. They aren’t Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga, and Langa’s only small farmers, though. Abalimi’s Rob Small reckons that there around three hundred community gardens in these suburbs, of varying size and productivity.

Importantly, what they do is to make vegetables cheaply and readily available in areas where fresh produce is difficult to find: small spaza shops tend not to sell fruit and vegetables. Those wanting to eat varied diets need to stump up the cash to travel further into the city, to large, expensive, supermarkets.

Peas.

Peas.

Most of the vegetables grown in these gardens remain within the communities. But close by – in the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) – half of the city’s vegetables are cultivated. Cape Town is unique in South Africa in that such a large proportion of its fresh produce is actually grown within the city. Farmers have grown fruit and vegetables in the sandy soil of the PHA since the late nineteenth century. Today, the area encompasses about 2,370 hectares, and is split between smallholdings and larger commercial farms, which produce around 100,000 tonnes of produce every year. Some of these, like Skye Fehlmann’s Naturally Organic, have embraced sustainable, organic farming.

The area is, though, under threat. In 1988, 3,200 hectares of land were designated to horticultural use. Sand mining, illegal dumping, and encroaching informal settlements are all eating up land which could be used to farm. But all this pales into significance against the proposed development of a 472-hectare area. Heidi Swart explains:

In 2008 a company by the name of Rapicorp 122, in whose name the land is registered, lodged an application with the provincial government to change the land-use designation of the 472 hectares from horticultural to urban. Rapicorp proposed about 172 hectares of 20 000 mixed-density housing units, 41 hectares for industrial use, 26 hectares for mixed use and 157 hectares for open space and conservation.

Although the City of Cape Town turned down the application, in 2011 the Western Cape provincial government approved it. Luckily, though, the Rocklands group, of which Rapicorp is part, is now under curatorship following a Financial Services Board investigation. Only when that is resolved can the development of the PHA take place.

At the Harvest of Hope Packing Shed in Philippi.

At the Harvest of Hope Packing Shed in Philippi.

Preserving – and, indeed, extending – the PHA is important not only to keep the price of fresh produce low in Cape Town, but also because it is surrounded by desperately poor communities which would not usually have access to fruit and vegetables. Although still more expensive than staples like maize meal, white bread, and sugar, it is considerably cheaper to buy vegetables off the back of farmers’ trucks than in supermarkets. In other words, the PHA is absolutely essential to ensuring that these households remain food secure:

According to a survey of 1 060 low-income households [in Cape Town] conducted by the African Food Security Urban Network in 2008, 80% of respondents were food insecure. The study looked at various indicators of food insecurity, such as whether respondents went to sleep hungry, or whether there were times when there was no food in the house.

A 2012 study by Rooftops Canada-Abri International and the African Food Security Network that examined the horticultural area’s significance in sustaining food security within the Cape Town municipality found that without it the city would be ‘place[d] in extreme risk’ of food insecurity, with low-income households suffering the most. A 2009 report commissioned by the city had similar findings.

Cape Town’s official policy on urban farming commits the city to ensuring that urban agriculture will ‘fill form an integral part of future development planning’ and to supporting community groups involved in community gardening. It seems to me that not to protect the PHA contradicts this policy.

Rob Small describes Cape Town as ‘a farm with a city in it.’ Cape Town has a population of about 3.7 million, slightly more than half of whom live in the city’s informal settlements. When people speak of ‘Cape Town’ they tend to mean its older suburbs with their – still – mainly white inhabitants. It strikes me that so much of the city’s problem with urban agriculture is that its community projects maintain the distinction between the historically ‘white’ and wealthy, and ‘black’ and poor parts of the city. Projects based in Constantia, Woodstock, and Oranjezicht ‘reach out’ to ‘educate’ and ‘uplift’ the ‘poor’ (whoever they may be), ignoring the fact that so much of the city’s informal settlements are being farmed – and are exceptionally productive.

It’s old women in Nyanga and farmers in Philippi who are the key to ensuring the city’s future food security. They are the ones who should be deciding Cape Town’s urban agricultural policies.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Beet the System

Omnivorous readers! This week’s blog post is over at Eat Out magazine, and it’s on urban farming in Cape Town.

Part two – longer, in greater detail – follows next week.

Food Links, 24.04.2013

Why 20,000 pigs turned up in a Chinese river.

The implications of Britain’s long winter for farmers.

Should China consume less pork?

The migrant labourers who grow America’s vegetables.

Why America is experiencing a food stamp boom.

The coming Weetabix shortage.

The return of mutton.

On Big Soda in the US.

Mexico City’s anti-salt campaign.

Rehabilitating prisoners through…chocolate.

A tribute to Jocasta Innes.

A food tour of Japan.

Jeremy Bentham’s apple pudding.

David Foster Wallace’s ‘Consider the Lobster.’

Thoughts on A Taste of Dubai.

On flexitarianism.

Sam Clark of Moro’s favourite restaurant.

Shakespeare, illegal food hoarder.

The growing appeal of guinea pig meat.

Sylvia Plath‘s favourite cake.

A croissant-shaped handbag.

Bacon-flavoured mouthwash.

Food in Quentin Tarantino‘s films.

A brief history of the tin can.

Are twenty-first-century cookbooks socially conservative?

A guide to the Mexican pantry.

Will Self on Byron‘s burgers.

Candy floss art.

The rise of gourmet tea.

A walking tour of Paris, with food.

The rise of gourmet chocolate.

Grammar, food, photography.

A fruit- and vegetable-growing building.

A recipe for scones.

Trinidad’s Chinese cuisine.

On Darjeeling tea.

Cuisine de Meuh.

Ramen hunters.

Maple sugaring.

The origins of gefilte fish.

Rice sculpture.

Biscuits should always be dunked.

Food Links, 10.04.2013

The Food and Agriculture Organisation must do more to promote food as a basic human right.

The feminisation of farming.

Processed meat is really not good for you.

Coke – a global product.

Food security cannot be left to the private sector.

The sugar hiding in everyday foods.

A history of eating horsemeat.

The fashion for horsemeat in Paris.

The rise of roadkill cuisine.

Silk teabags are made out of…plastic.

A software engineer has created Soylent (not out of people, though).

Coca Cola, the ‘healthful‘ choice.

A history of food photography.

How food ages in tins.

Kafka’s mushroom and potato soup.

The twenty most important restaurants in the US.

London food bloggers’ favourite food in London.

Vexing: Francois Hollande’s camel was eaten, accidentally.

The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

The comment section for every article ever written on food allergies.

An ambient coffee shop noise generator.

A history of the pestle and mortar.

The kitchens of Havana.

The return of lard and schmaltz.

The wild popularity of Nutella at Columbia University.

Vintage menus.

The joy of garlic.

The return of the Irish Lumper. (Thanks, Feargal!)

Someone has stolen rather a lot of Nutella.

Using an iron to make a toasted cheese sandwich.

Making bourbon in New York.

The importance of umami.

Helpful kitchen tips from 1915.

Odd food jobs in New York.

How to photograph a tossed salad.

Mispronounced food.

Vegetable literacy.

It is the end times: the Milf Diet.

Appalling food ads.

Potato parties.

Mind Your Own

My parents moved house last week. They weren’t, though, the only inhabitants of their property to relocate. During their final few days of packing, a swarm of bees took up residence in my sister’s old tree house. Unfortunately for the bees, there was no way that they could safely establish a hive there, so my mother called Gerald the Bee Man, who put her in touch with a couple of local beekeepers. They lulled the bees into submission with smoke, and then coaxed them into a new hive over the course of two days. The queen and her underlings will spend the rest of their lives pollinating fruit trees, far away from the temptations of suburban tree houses.

Deciding to remove, rather than exterminate, errant bee colonies has implications beyond the ethics of killing animals and insects. Bees exist not only to make a cheerful buzzing in our gardens and to provide us with honey. Einstein remarked, famously: ‘if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live.’ Although this is something of an exaggeration, I can understand his terror at the thought of the disappearance of bees, both culturally and ecologically.

Bees are invoked, frequently, as metaphors for our societies – the way we live, the way we organise ourselves – and for how we should be. One of the most striking features of researching the Victorian period is the number of references to bees and beehives. During a debate on a new Bees Regulation Bill in the Cape Colony’s House of Assembly in July 1894, one MP objected to the legislation which, he believed, would limit beekeeping in the Cape on the grounds that bees provided the poor with an example of hard work and co-operation:

Yesterday they were treated to various dissertations on the abject misery of the poor white population, and yet they were now asked to consent to the second reading of a measure which would deprive the poor white population of the country of one of the most useful object lessons they could possibly be afforded them.

Describing colonial society as a beehive, Henry de Smidt, the Director of the Census in the Cape, argued for the inclusion of ‘idle’ children in the Census because they formed ‘an integral portion of the human hive, drones though they might be.’

Both men echoed Isaac Watts’s tremendously popular poem ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’:

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

(I prefer Lewis Carroll’s version, ‘How doth the little crocodile?’)

For the Victorians, the appeal of the beehive lay in its tightly organised and maintained social structure, its strict hierarchies, and its efficient productivity. It was at once a metaphor for a harmonious society and a well-run factory.

Bees are also useful for describing our often fraught relationship with nature: I think of the periodic, National Enquirer-esque hysteria around killer African bees invading the United States. I wonder if the horror of Roald Dahl’s story ‘Royal Jelly,’ where a beekeeper accidentally turns both himself and his baby daughter into bees, was reflective of wider anxieties about the implications of human tampering with nature during the early 1980s.

The decline of bees says as much about us, as it does about bees. But other than providing a series of handy, mutable metaphors, bees and, indeed, other pollinators both wild and farmed, are absolutely essential to our food chain. Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain:

honeybees are vital for the pollination of around 90 crops worldwide. In addition to almonds, most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are dependent on honeybees. Crops that are used as cattle and pig feed also rely on honeybee pollination, as does the cotton plant. So if all the honeybees disappeared, we would have to switch our diet to cereals and grain, and give our wardrobes a drastic makeover.

The disappearance of the world’s bees has significant implications for our food security. Ensuring that we have enough to eat is linked to health of our pollinators.

The decline in European bee populations began in the 1960s, but since the late 1990s, this has both accelerated and spread around the globe. Between 1985 and 2005, managed honeybee populations declined by 20 per cent across Europe, and 54% in England. In the United States, four of the main bumblebee populations have diminished by up to 96%. In Britain, three of the region’s 25 bumblebee species are now extinct, and half of the remainder have declined significantly, some by as much as 70% since the 1970s.

A paper published last month in Science

showed more than half the wild bee species were lost in the 20th century in the US. It made use of a remarkable record made of plants and pollinators at Carlinville, Illinois between 1888 and 1891 by entomologist Charles Robertson. Scientists combined that with data from 1971-72 and new data from 2009-10 to discover the changes in pollination seen over the century as widespread forest was reduced to the fragments that remain today.

They found that half of the 109 bee species recorded by Robertson had been lost and there had been a serious degradation of the pollination provided by the remaining wild insects, with their ability to pollinate specific plants falling by more than half. There was an increasing mismatch between when plants flowered and when bees were active, a finding consistent with climate change, according to the researchers.

So it’s not just various species of honeybee which are dying, but bumblebees and wild bees too. So why are they disappearing?

Bees on a wall in Woodstock, Cape Town

Bees on a wall in Woodstock, Cape Town

Scientists all over the world are still trying to answer this question. Initially, the dramatic decline in bee populations from around 2005 were ascribed to a mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder – also called Marie Celeste Syndrome – where whole, apparently healthy, beehives seemed to die overnight. In 2007, a third of beehives in the US were wiped out in this manner. In the same year, ten million bees were reported to have died in just a fortnight in Taiwan. In the winter of 2007/2008, a fifth of British beehives disappeared too.

It’s unlikely that there is a single cause for CCD. A combination of factors arising from climate change, depleted habitats, decreasing biodiversity, and widespread pesticide use, have placed ever more stress on the world’s bee populations. Last year, the varroa mite was linked to the global decline in bee numbers:

Varroa destructor has spread from Asia across the entire world over the past 50 years. It arrived in the UK in 1990 and has been implicated in the halving of bee numbers since then, alongside other factors including the destruction of flowery habitats in which bees feed and the widespread use of pesticides on crops. Bees and other pollinators are vital in the production in up to a third of all the food we eat, but the role the mites played was unclear, as bacteria and fungi are also found in colonies along with the viruses.

But the mite’s arrival in Hawaii in 2007 gave scientists a unique opportunity to track its deadly spread. ‘We were able to watch the emergence of the disease for the first time ever,’ said Stephen Martin, at the University of Sheffield, who led the new research published in the journal Science. Within a year of varroa arrival, 274 of 419 colonies on Oahu island (65%) were wiped out, with the mites going on to wreak destruction across Big Island the following year.

The European Union has proposed a partial, two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops to limit the decline of European bee populations:

Scientific evidence has mounted rapidly since March 2012, when two high-profile studies found that bees consuming neonicotinoids suffered an 85% loss in the number of queens their nests produced and showed a doubling in ‘disappeared’ bees who got lost while foraging. Neonicotinoids have been fiercely defended by their manufacturers, who claim there is no proof of harm in field conditions and by farming lobbies who say crop yields could fall without pesticide protection. Some neonicotinoid uses have been banned in the past in France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany, but no action has yet been taken in the UK.

The removal of the hive from my parents’ garden made me wonder to what extent CCD has affected South African bee populations. And the answer – I think – is that local bee numbers appear not to have declined as dramatically as those abroad. I’d like to qualify this statement heavily: this is the conclusion I’ve drawn after a morning’s worth of fairly thorough research. I’m not a melittologist (obviously) and I may well have missed a few vital and obvious studies.

Bees are certainly under threat in South Africa. As the South African Bee Industry Organisation notes, habitat loss and the arrival of foreign parasites have taken their toll on bee populations.

Also since 1990 a problem has emerged caused by the movement within South Africa of colonies of the endemic Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) to regions outside its natural distribution. The interaction between these Cape honeybees and colonies of the other honeybee species in South Africa proved to be disastrous. The so-called Capensis Problem caused extensive damage in the beekeeping industry in South Africa.

Interestingly, though, South Africa’s bees seem to be more resilient to the threat posed by the varroa mite. The mite was first identified in the Western Cape in 1997, having probably entered the country in contaminated hives offloaded at Cape Town harbour. It then spread around the country, even infecting wild bee populations. But only a small minority of bee colonies have collapsed so far.

Why? Well, local bee species may have developed ways of repelling or resisting the mite. Also, South African bees, although under increasing stress, don’t have to contend with the same range of threats as do those abroad. A 2009 survey of the density of bee populations all over the world concluded that ‘Genetic diversity and colony densities were highest in South Africa and lowest in Northern Europe’. The authors of the study suggest that these differences correlate with climate – bees in more temperate regions tend to be healthier than those that are not – but also with the fact that South African bees are able to roam across far bigger wild habitats:

African subspecies disperse via long-distance migratory swarms, leave the nest in response to disturbance or disease (absconding) more readily, and have a faster generation time and smaller colonies than European honeybees. These traits promote population gene flow and high genetic diversity, boosting effective population sizes in Africa.

Agriculture, with its pesticides and low biodiversity, seems, then, to have an impact on the health of European bee populations.

We’re already beginning to feel the impact of the decline in bee populations:

The most dramatic example comes from the apple and pear orchards of south west China, where wild bees have been eradicated by excessive pesticide use and a lack of natural habitat.

In recent years, farmers have been forced to hand-pollinate their trees, carrying pots of pollen and paintbrushes with which to individually pollinate every flower, and using their children to climb up to the highest blossoms. This is clearly just possible for this high-value crop, but there are not enough humans in the world to pollinate all of our crops by hand.

Looking at the comparative good health of South African bees suggests ways in which the global bee population could be increased. Limiting the use of pesticides, increasing habitat for bees by planting wild flowers and leaving areas of uncultivated vegetation on farms, and finding ways of preventing the spread of parasites, will all assist in encouraging healthier bee colonies. All over the world, campaigns and organisations have emerged to lobby for the protection of bees, and the coolness of urban beekeeping is linked, I’m sure, to wider concerns about declining biodiversity.

A world without bees, is a world which will struggle to feed itself.

Further reading

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, A World without Bees (London: Guardian Books, 2008).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A Cup of Coffee

One of the best articles explaining the context in which the recent Western Cape farm workers’ strike occurred, notes that even the new minimum wage introduced as a result of the action is

not enough to make ends meet, some Western Cape farmworkers subsist on little else but black coffee during the last few days of each month.

This piece in the Mail and Guardian drew my attention because it resonates with another description of poverty in rural South Africa. During the early decades of the twentieth century, C. Louis Leipoldt – medical doctor, eugenicist, food anthropologist, proto-Afrikaner nationalist, writer, Buddhist, and poet – worked as the Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal province of the newly created Union of South Africa. He described his experiences of working in the lowveld – the hot, humid and, formerly, malaria-infested region in present day Mpumalanga – in Bushveld Doctor (1937).

Much of the focus of this collection of essays is a description of the everyday life, beliefs, and struggles of a population of impoverished whites scratching a miserable existence in a disease-riddled area. He ascribed the poor health of the children to endemic malaria and bilharzia, and also malnutrition. Leipoldt described one nine year-old patient:

When he left home in the morning his father gave him an inch of twist tobacco which he put into his mouth and chewed on his way to school. That and a cup of coffee (made from the root of a Bushveld tree) constituted his breakfast. There were other lads in the school who did the same to stay the pangs of incipient hunger.

Leipoldt observed that these Bushveld children were shorter than their better-fed and altogether healthier urban contemporaries. The problem was that good, nutritious food was in short supply. These subsistence farmers simply could not afford to eat well:

Malnutrition is prevalent because food is scarce in the Bushveld, where fresh fruit and vegetables are difficult to obtain, and because the children exist on an unbalanced diet. Their staple food is mielie meal, which has a low nutritive value. Milk and fresh meat are scarce. Wheaten bread is common enough, and of fair quality when obtainable, but it is not a staple article of diet. Fats are rarely included in the diet, and fresh butter is a comparative rarity.

In today’s language, these families were food insecure. Indeed, as are the farm workers described by the Mail and Guardian:

many farmworkers … are dependent on on-the-farm stores for food. Many farmworkers and NGOs accuse farmers of pricing foodstuffs higher than commercial shops.

This, compounded with low wages, further promotes food insecurity. ‘Prices in rural areas are always slightly higher than they are in urban areas. So if farmers are charging more than the market price, which is already high, farmworkers just can’t afford food,’ says [Colette Solomon, of the NGO Women on Farms], and explains that average household income is R1 500 a month. ‘Many farmworkers buy on credit, but the prices are so high that … when they get paid, they have to pay their debts back and basically don’t have money left.’

As a result of this

Stunted growth is not unusual: a study done by the University of Cape Town in the 1990s showed that farmworkers in the province are, on average, an inch (2.5cm) shorter than city dwellers.

In November last year, grape pickers in the Hex River Valley went on strike. Demanding higher wages – R150 an hour, rather than the minimum wage of R70 – the strike spread from De Doorns to Robertson, Wolesley, Ceres, Prince Alfred Hamlet, and elsewhere. Hundreds of strikers marched, gathered, and erected barricades. In some townships, the stand-off between strikers and police turned violent, as protestors pelted cops with rocks, and the police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water canons to disperse the crowds. Shops were looted, and vines set alight. Two people were killed. There were allegations of police brutality.

The strike was called off in December and then resumed in January this year. In the meanwhile, efforts to mediate between farm workers, farmers, and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries were not productive. The Department’s decision to raise the minimum wage to R105 – thus ending the strike – was met with a lukewarm reaction from nearly everyone connected to the strike, with some farmers arguing that higher wages will force them to retrench workers.

What was so surprising about the strike was that it happened at all. Alongside domestic workers, farm labourers have one of the lowest rates of union membership in South Africa. When the strike began, both the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance – which controls the Western Cape – accused each other of organising the workers. The union alliance Cosatu was caught unwares and scrambled to take control of the strike, but with limited success. The strike in January was more formally organised by both Cosatu and the more radical Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa led by Nosey Pieterse, but, even so, these two organisations’ mandate for representing the strikers is shaky. (Pieterse is currently under investigation for intimidating non-striking workers. He is also suing the Cape Times for describing him as a member of the ‘lumpenproletariat.’)

This is a very cursory overview of the strike. As Rebecca Davis’s excellent reporting for the Daily Maverick shows, workers went on strike for a range of reasons – from genuine anger at low wages, to disputes around municipal politics.

It’s partly because of the complexity of the strike that I’ve avoided writing about it. Also, I’ve been concerned that I am too close to the issue to view it dispassionately. I grew up in Paarl and Stellenbosch, two towns in the Boland’s wine-producing area. I went to school with the daughters of farmers and, later, farm workers. (Our primary school opened to all races in 1992.) On Saturday mornings in the early- and mid-1990s, my father used to take my sister and I around local wine estates. We fed oak leaves to the goats at Fairview, and chatted to old Mrs Back in the cheese shop.

As daughters of politically aware and active parents, we knew how to identify ‘good’ from ‘bad’ farmers. We could spot which farms allowed labourers to live in damp, tumbledown cottages without running water and electricity.  We saw which farms had legions of children not in school. It’s likely that those farmers may still have paid their workers in the form of alcohol, usually cheap brandy. The ‘dop’ (or ‘tot’) system originated during the nineteenth century on wine farms in the Boland as a means both of paying workers, as well as ensuring their dependency on farmers: alcoholic labourers would be less likely to move to Cape Town in search of better-paid work in the Cape Colony’s burgeoning industry.

Since 1994, the dop system has been banned, legislation restricting child labour introduced, and a minimum wage – now raised as a result of the strike – enforced. But these new laws have had a limited impact on farm workers: they have not reduced astronomically high rates of alcoholism which have caused the region to have one of the highest incidences of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in the world; they have not compensated families for the loss of income brought in by children; they have not ended the cycle of domestic violence which disproportionately effects women on farms; many workers still live in appalling conditions, often with no access to electricity and running water. NGOs like Women on Farms have collected horrific testimony of women raped by their employers; of families being turned out of houses without warning and for, apparently, no reason; and of labourers overworked and maimed by machinery.

I began by drawing attention to two examples of South African rural poverty – one from the beginning of the twentieth century, another a hundred years later – to demonstrate the relative usefulness of understanding contemporary events in historical context. I don’t pretend to know enough about the wine and fruit industries in the Western Cape to be able to account for the strike itself, but I was struck by how often journalists, strikers, politicians, and others referred to slavery and apartheid when trying to understand the strike and the unique relationship between farmers and their labourers in this region.

The South African wine industry was profitable during the twentieth century partly because it could rely on a steady supply of cheap – even free – labour. Farmers could justify labourers’ exceptionally low wages on the grounds of the paternalistic system of employment which existed – and still exists, to some extent – on the farms:

The relationships between farm-owners and workers have not been simply exploitative, but were shaped by the discourses of paternalism. The notion of themselves as benevolent but firm protectors and disciplinarians of a grateful and appreciative population of on-farm servants has been an important part of the self-conception of farmers in the Western Cape and elsewhere in South Africa since the eighteenth century. Ultimately, however, it was a hierarchical relationship, marginalising and silencing the voices of those whose labour helped create the wealth of the sector.

Although it’s debatable if the Cape Colony’s system of slavery could accurately be described as ‘paternalistic’ (and this is still the subject of some debate among historians), it was certainly the case that an inherently unequal, dependent relationship developed over time between farmers and farmworkers. Although paid and treated appallingly badly, farmworkers were usually provided with (rudimentary) housing, some food, and other basics.

Boschendal, Stellenbosch

Boschendal, Stellenbosch

My point is that however terrible the circumstances in which farmers may work and live – and Human Rights Watch released a damning report into them in 2011 – to argue that we need to understand the relationship between farmers and their workers in the context of nineteenth- or, even, early twentieth-century labour politics is mistaken. We need to look at the more recent past.

The South African wine industry has changed significantly since the mid-90s, from selling what was, often, so-so plonk to the locals, to a massive tourism concern and export business. As Joachim Ewert and Andries du Toit have demonstrated, since the beginning of the deregulation of the industry in the early 1980s, South African producers have become subject to the vagaries of the international export market, new estates have emerged as new wine growing regions have been planted, yields have increased, and previously powerful co-operatives have amalgamated and disappeared.

Although there were efforts to reform labour relations during the 1980s, led largely by the Rural Foundation, and in response to changes in the wine industry, it was only after 1994 that there was adequate political will radically to do away with the old paternalism:

A paternalist state has stepped in to push back the paternalist authority of the farmer, and has created new limits to farmers’ control over workers’ lives. These changes seriously challenge the legal and formal underpinnings of traditional farm paternalism.

But challenging paternalism is not the same as replacing it. There is considerable evidence that many farmers are reluctant to comply with labour legislation, if not downright hostile to it.

There has been a major change in how wine, and also fruit, farmers employ labour since the end of the 1990s. This is partly the result of mechanisation and more efficient farming methods, but it is also the product of farmers’ resistance to legislation which raises the wages and living standards of workers:

Facing a sustained challenge to their power as employers and feeling increasing competitive pressures, many farmers seem to be opting for the one measure sill within their power: restructuring their businesses. Many are resorting to casualization, externalisation, and contractualisation, deepening an already segmented labour market and further deepening the divide between ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’

Johan Fourie has shown that the numbers of workers employed on farms in the Cape Winelands District Municipality has declined dramatically since 1995:

even while output has increased by 1.4% annually over the entire period …, employment has fallen from more than 120 000 jobs to fewer than 50 000 today.

Loss of permanent jobs on farms also means eviction, and over the past decade or so, the numbers of employed former farm workers living in desperate poverty in shacks or overcrowded homes on the fringes of picturesque winelands towns and villages, have swelled. They are dependent on seasonal work and on social grants. Alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and child abuse are rife.

The recent, horrific rape and murder of Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp – one of these pretty rural towns – has drawn attention to the social implications of this change in rural employment.

There are many progressive wine farmers who have established crèches and primary schools, founded organisations to eradicate FAS, provided transport and bursaries to get farm children to school, and attempted to find ways of reducing alcoholism and domestic violence.

For instance, the Fair Valley Association was founded by Fairview workers in 1997, with the assistance of Charles Back, the owner of the wine farm. It helps labourers to buy land and build houses, and includes these workers in the day-to-day running of the estate. Similarly, at Solms Delta in Franschhoek, neuroscientist Mark Solms

organise[d] a loan, with his land as collateral, that allowed the 180 workers connected to his farm to buy 30 hectares connected to Solms’s land. Solms, along with his neighbour Richard Astor, joined forces with the farm workers, each a one-third partner in the Solms-Delta wine venture.

Through the Wijn de Caab Trust established in the workers’ names, Solms-Delta provides comfortable housing, health and dental benefits, plus Internet access, a full-time social worker and an afterschool teacher to help kids with their homework. One of Solms-Delta’s most successful ventures beyond the vines has been their music program: There are four bands on the farm, including an 80-person marching band. ‘A friend of mine likes to joke,’ says Solms, ‘that we don’t only farm wine, we farm music.’

The single biggest allocation from the workers’ trust has gone towards improving education.

Solms Delta is, truly, a beacon for other wine farms in the region. Its transformation is grounded in Solms’s realisation that he had no more claim to owning the farm than the generations of workers who have lived on it. The estate has acknowledged its slave past in an excellent museum, and workers’ pride in their involvement in the farm is palpable. (Do go, if you can.)

But the trouble with these – and other – laudable efforts is that they are aimed largely at those workers who remain on farms – and not the legion of unemployed, and potentially unemployable, labourers who have been pushed off farms since the late 1990s. These casual labourers constituted a significant portion of the strikers in November and January.

This returns to my original point about using the past to illuminate the present. Although slave pasts don’t really help to understand contemporary systems of employment, I think it’s worth thinking about rural poverty in the twenty-first century to that a hundred years earlier.

The emergence of a substantial population of ‘poor whites’ – like the people documented by Leipoldt – occurred as a result of many factors, including the transformation of agriculture into a capitalist enterprise. Poor white tenant and small farmers moved into towns and cities in search of work, while others lived in poverty in the countryside.

By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.

In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.

I don’t want to draw glib parallels between the 1920s and 1930s and the 2010s – after all, white poverty was eliminated by the 1960s because of the systematic marginalisation of black workers. But I think that it’s worth noting that South Africa managed to eradicate one form of rural poverty during the twentieth century. By historicising poverty, we understand that it is not the fault of the impoverished – that poverty is the product of massive social, political, and economic change. More importantly, we see that with political will, it is not impossible to do away with it. It is eminently possible to stop people from having to live on black coffee.

Sources

Joachim Ewert and Andries du Toit, ‘A Deepening Divide in the Countryside: Restructuring and Rural Livelihoods in the South African Wine Industry,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 31, no. 2 (June 2005), pp. 315-332.

Bill Freund, ‘The Poor Whites: A Social Force and a Social Problem in South Africa,’ in White but Poor: Essays on the History of Poor Whites in Southern Africa 1880-1940, ed. Robert Morrell (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 1992), pp. xiii-xxiii.

C. Louis Leipoldt, Bushveld Doctor (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, [1937] 1980).

Robert Ross, ‘Paternalism, Patriarchy, and Afrikaans,’ South African Historical Journal, vol. 32 (May 1995), pp. 34-47.

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It’s Politics, Stupid

One of the most interesting blogs I’ve come across recently is written by the disgraced Labour spin-doctor Damian McBride (who was fired for planning to spread scurrilous rumours about the Tories). His blog offers insight not only into Labour’s last years of power, but also into the functioning of everyday business in Downing Street.

His most recent post, though, is about what he’s giving up for Lent. As someone who’s not at all religious, I’m always taken aback by friends’ declarations of what they won’t be doing or, more usually, eating until Easter. Every now and then I play along, more out of curiosity than anything else. It was rather useful a few years ago for nipping in the bud an incipient addiction to fruit pastilles, but this year I doubt I’ll be joining in.

McBride has pledged to give up the ‘staples of [his] diet’: meat, wheat, and potatoes. Other than the obvious health benefits of drinking less beer and eating less red meat, he’s doing this in solidarity with millions of people living in hunger. He’s not eating meat to draw attention to land grabs; wheat to protest the small number of multinationals which control the trade in grains; and potatoes to show the link between famine and food shortages and big food companies’ refusal to pay their taxes in low- and middle-income nations.

His Lenten self-denial is partly in support of the new anti-hunger If Campaign, launched with some fanfare last month:

As well as more money for nutrition programmes and small-scale farming, the coalition, which includes Oxfam, Save the Children, One, Christian Aid and Tearfund, is calling on the UK government to close loopholes that allow companies to dodge paying tax in poor countries; stop international land deals that are detrimental to people and the environment, and lobby the World Bank to review the impact of its funding for such deals; launch a convention on tax transparency at the G8 to ‘reinvigorate the global challenge to tax havens’; and force governments and investors to be more open about their investments in poor countries. It also wants the UK government to bring forward legislation to enshrine the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.

The Campaign is aiming to take its ambitious programme to this year’s G8 Summit, to be held at the luxury golf resort Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it deliberately compares itself to another campaign taken to a G8 meeting at a golf hotel in the northern British Isles: the celebrity-studded Make Poverty History Campaign, which demanded an increase in aid and the writing off of the debt of some of the world’s poorest countries, at Gleneagles in Scotland in 2005.

I am no fan of Bob Geldof, however well-placed his heart may be. I and many other South Africans were irritated by the Campaign’s simplistic characterisation of Africa – that it is a culturally, socially, and politically homogenous place of suffering and disaster, waiting for the benevolent ministrations of a white-suited Geldof and his similarly saintly fellow celebrities. Why were there no African performers at Live 8? Why did poor dear Peter Gabriel feel the need to organise an alternative event at the Eden Project in Cornwall, featuring only African artists?

That said, MPH did achieve some of its goals:

The G8 summit committed to spending an extra $48bn (£30bn) on aid by 2010, and cancelled the debt to 18 of the most indebted countries. Member states recommitted their pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, although none has yet achieved the magical figure. The UK government has promised to do so this year.

But poverty has not become history. Early analysis of the If Campaign suggests that with its focus on changing policy, rather than on increasing aid, its chances of success are far higher than MPH. Leni Wild and Sarah Mulley note:

The range of issues it covers – from transparency to tax to agriculture – also look and feel different to the more ‘traditional’ development issues which were the focus of Make Poverty History. The UK public wants to hear more about the role of big business and international corporations – including their tax responsibilities. This is a major plank of the new IF campaign which sets out some clear calls for action and does a good job of communicating these in accessible ways.

I also welcome a campaign which tries to eradicate ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that) by focussing on political solutions: ending tax evasion, preventing land grabs, and drawing attention to the fragility of the international food chain, are all excellent strategies for reducing food insecurity. Making links between poor governance and the functioning of multinationals and malnutrition is a far more effective way of ending famine than generalised campaigns to ‘raise awareness’ about the fact that children go to bed hungry at night. But some have expressed concerns about the campaign.

As Bright Green revealed, the If Campaign was organised by the British Overseas Aid Group (Oxfam, Christian Aid, ActionAid, Save the Children and CAFOD) in close collaboration with the UK’s Department for International Development:

The real scandal of the IF campaign is that it appears to have been shaped more by the desires of the target department than by those of its members, and not at all by the views of its supposed beneficiaries in developing countries. It is constructed around a ‘golden moment’ pro-government PR event intended to ingratiate aid agencies (a large portion of whose funding comes from DfID) with the present rulers, never mind that the agenda of those rulers is implacably opposed to reducing inequality or moderating the global capitalism that causes it.

War on Want has been clear about its reasons for not joining the If Campaign, arguing that that it’s hypocritical for charities to work alongside a government whose ‘austerity programme is driving unprecedented numbers to food banks in Britain’. It notes:

War on Want understands hunger, like all forms of poverty, to be the result of political decisions that are taken by national and international elites, and contested through political action. In this context, the IF campaign is promoting a wholly false image of the G8 as committed to resolving the scandal of global hunger, rather than (in reality) being responsible for perpetuating it. The IF campaign’s policy document states: ‘Acting to end hunger is the responsibility of people everywhere. The G8 group of rich countries, to its credit, shares this ambition and accepts its share of responsibility, having created two hunger initiatives in recent years.; This is a gross misrepresentation, seeing that the governments of the G8 have openly committed themselves to expanding the corporate-dominated food system that condemns hundreds of millions to hunger. Even on its own terms, the IF campaign notes that the G8’s existing initiatives on hunger ‘fall far short of what is required’.

Instead, War on Want advocates a stronger focus on food sovereignty – ensuring that nations are able to feed themselves, and partly through supporting small farmers. (War on Want works alongside La Via Campesina, for instance.) Its point that G8 countries and big business have little interest in food sovereignty is borne out by recent comments made by Emery Koenig, executive vice president and chief risk officer of the massive agriculture business Cargill. He argues that it is food sovereignty that is the ‘true threat to food security’. It’s worth noting that in a time of food crisis, Cargill made profits of $134 billion last year.

In other words, we need far more radical solutions if we’re intent on ending food insecurity. I agree with War on Want’s reservations, and I’d like to add one, further, concern: like MPH, the If Campaign excludes the voices of those in the developing world – those whom it purports to help. Here is no partnership between a consortium of charities and food insecure nations, but, rather, an old-fashioned characterisation of the developing world – Africa in particular – in need of wealthy nations’ charity. This is no attempt to hold African – and other – governments to account for allowing corruption or mismanagement to contribute to malnutrition, nor does it engage with the farmers, producers, and businesses in developing countries involved in the food industry.

if-campaign

In a recent, well-meaning, but disastrous, campaign, Oxfam acknowledged that characterising Africa as a perpetual basket case helps neither African nations, nor those charities working on the continent. It called for Africa’s image to change in the western media. Amusingly, it suggested that Africa should be ‘made famous’ for its ‘landscapes’ rather than ‘hunger’ – indeed, rather than its cities, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, footballers, writers, researchers

Nigerian blogger Tolu Ogunlesi writes:

who – apart from Oxfam, obviously – really cares, in 2013, what the British public thinks about a continent from which they fled in varying stages of undress? What’s that proverb about crying more than the bereaved? In the 21st century are people still allowed to be zombies gobbling up everything they’re fed by a collaboration of powerful media and NGOs?

I wish … Oxfam the very best. Must be awful to have to take on that job of saving people from self-inflicted ignorance. In an age in which Google, Twitter and the news media lie at most fingertips, delivering, alongside stories of African suffering, narratives of determined recovery from tragedy and technology-driven change and emboldened youth and rising political awareness and growing intolerance for tyranny – is there still room for getting away with blaming [and] with fixating on photos of begging bowls and the oxfamished children attached to them?

His point is that if charities want to make a difference in African countries, they should work alongside African organisations and governments, using African expertise and knowledge:

I think that somehow, the Oxfams of this world get so carried away by the salvation they bring to the helpless peoples of Africa, that they lose sight of the concept of African agency. Once you realise this you understand why Oxfam appears trapped in that irritatingly paternalistic mode of thinking. Saving Africa’s starving children (by providing food) and saving Africa’s saddening image (by providing images of epic landscapes) have this in common is this: they both rely largely on an obliteration of a sense of African agency.

It’s time for the If Campaign to allow Africans – and, indeed, people from other parts of the developing world – to speak, and to help shape foreign interventions in their own regions.

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Eating Like Horses

I spent most of January in the UK, accidentally timing a rather unexpected visit to coincide with the scandal over the presence of horsemeat in some meat products sold in British and Irish supermarkets. For most of my stay I lived near The People’s Supermarket – a co-operative supermarket run on strictly ethical lines – in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Its response to the hysteria that the news seemed to provoke was to write on the sandwich board which stands outside the entrance: ‘Come in! Our meat is completely horse-free.’

Although much of the recent fuss has focussed on the presence of horse meat in some Burger King meals, and in budget burger patties and ready meals at Tesco, Iceland, and a few other supermarkets, as several reports have made the point, Irish and British inspectors also found traces of pork in the same products:

A total of 27 burger products were analysed, with 10 of them containing traces of horse DNA and 23 containing pig DNA.

In addition, 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

I’ve been interested in the fact that the furore which followed the announcement of the discovery has focussed on the fact it was horse – and not pork – found in these meat products. Considering that some religions actually ban the consumption of pork, and that, as Tesco and others have made the point, eating horsemeat poses no threat to human health, this hysteria about horse struck me as misplaced.

I know that a lot has been – and is being – written about the horse meat saga, but I’d like to draw attention to a few trends in this coverage which suggest a few interesting things about our attitudes towards what we deem to be acceptable – socially, morally, ethically – to eat, and how we judge others whose habits differ from ours.

Unsurprisingly, a number of columnists pointed out the hypocrisy of happily eating dead cows, sheep, and pigs, but of being too squeamish to eat horses. Not only was horsemeat available in Britain until the 1930s, but it is eaten in France and other parts of the world. Lisa Markwell wrote in the Independent:

If you eat meat (and my lifelong-vegetarian colleagues are feeling pretty smug right about now), why is horse less palatable than cow or sheep or pig? It’s no good hiding behind ludicrous ideas that horses are in some way cuter or more intelligent. Or that we have a special relationship with them because we ride them. If horses weren’t herbivores, I can imagine a few that would have no problem biting a lump out of their rider.

I agree: there is something fundamentally illogical about agreeing to eat one kind of animal, but being disgusted by the thought of eating another. But our ideas around what is – and what is not – acceptable to eat are socially and culturally determined. They change over time, and differ from place to place. Whereas swan and heron were considered to be delicacies during the medieval period, we now understand these as birds to be conserved and protected. Even in France, people have fairly mixed feelings about eating horse.

In other words, our definition of what is ‘disgusting’ is flexible. It’s for this reason that I’m relatively sympathetic to those who are appalled by the prospect of horsemeat. Despite having learned to ride as a child, I think I could probably bring myself to eat horse or donkey, but I know that I could never try dog, for instance. In the same way, I wouldn’t try to feed rabbit to my bunny-loving friend Isabelle.

The more important issue is that we should be able to trust the businesses that sell us our food. As Felicity Lawrence commented in the Guardian, the presence of horsemeat and pork in beef products is simply one in a long line of food safety scandals:

The scandal exposed by the Guardian in 2002 and 2003, when imported pig and beef proteins were detected in UK retail and catering chicken, started with similar attempts to reassure shoppers that there were no safety issues, that amounts detected were by and large ‘minute’, and a reluctance to admit that a large part of the food chain was probably affected. History repeated itself with the Sudan 1 food crisis, when illegal dye was found in a huge proportion of supermarket ready meals.

The reason for this failure of food regulation is both complex and devastatingly simple. On the one hand, the food chain has become increasingly difficult to regulate. It is now controlled by a handful of big supermarkets and food companies interested in cutting costs during a period of sky-high food prices. It becomes inevitable, then, that the quality of meat and other produce will be compromised:

Because supply chains are so long and processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice, it is all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality, or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted for what is specified in big abattoirs and processing plants.

And on the other hand, regulators themselves are less efficient:

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was stripped of its role as the body with sole responsibility for food composition and safety in the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos‘; shortly after the coalition was elected in 2010.

Since then responsibility for food labelling and composition has been handed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while food safety has remained the responsibility of the FSA.

There are also – justified – concerns about the FSA’s closeness to business, which has been lobbying hard for looser regulation. After all, the previous chief executive of the FSA, Tim Smith, is now Tesco’s technical director.

Unsurprisingly, this combination of unscrupulous, cost-cutting business and dysfunctional and light-touch regulation has allowed food safety to be compromised. When the first attempts to prevent food adulteration were introduced in Britain and in the United States – Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) – these were in response to concerns raised by campaigners, most of them middle-class women, about the safety of food produced by the relatively new, industrialised food producers. As we have seen over the past century or so, any loosening of those regulations has resulted in a decline in the quality of food.

And this brings me to my final point. One of the most striking features of the coverage of the horsemeat scandal has been the number of commentators who’ve asked their readers: ‘what else do you expect?’ Giles Coren was particularly withering in his scorn for consumers of cheap food:

What on earth did you think they put in them? Prime cuts of delicious free-range, organic, rare breed, heritage beef, grass-fed, Eton-educated, humanely slaughtered, dry-aged and hand-ground by fairies…?

The food products contaminated with horse and pork were in the ‘value’ ranges of cheap supermarkets. As the BBC reported, these contain considerably less meat than more expensive products:

An eight-pack of Tesco Everyday Value Beefburgers, one of the products cited as potentially containing horse flesh, contains 63% beef, 10% onion and unlisted percentages of wheat flour, water, beef fat, soya protein isolate, salt, onion powder, yeast, sugar, barley malt extract, garlic powder, white pepper extract, celery extract and onion extract.

Asda‘s Smartprice Economy Beefburgers – not among those identified by the Irish testers as containing horse or pig DNA – contain 59% beef along with other ingredients such as rusk, water, stabilisers (diphosphates and triphosphates) and beef fat.

Both products cost just £1 a box, as do similar frozen burgers sold by Iceland. The Oakhurst 100% Beef Quarter Pounders, sold by Aldi and implicated in the scandal, cost £1.39 for a box of eight.

Like Coren, other columnists and food writers argue that ordinary British people have become ‘disconnected’ from the food chain, having little knowledge of how their food travels from farm to supermarket. More interest on behalf of the public, they seem to imply, would in some way prevent these kind of scandals from occurring.

I disagree. Not only does this display an astonishingly naïve understanding of how big food businesses work, but it fails to take into account the fact that the people who tend to be most at risk of consuming adulterated food are those who are poor: those who buy cheap food – the value products – from big supermarkets. There is a vein of snobbery running through much of the argument that consumers of cheap food only have themselves to blame if they end up inadvertently eating horse, or other potentially harmful additives.

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What this debate reveals, I think, is an odd attitude towards food, particularly meat, and class. Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.

But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably.

If we are committed to the idea that everybody, regardless of wealth, should be able to eat a reasonable amount of meat – and it is true that definitions of sustainable diets do vary – then we should not ask why people are surprised to find that cheap meat is adulterated or contaminated, but, rather, why so many people can’t afford to buy better quality meat.

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Food Links, 16.01.2013

A world map of organic agriculture.

How to make farming more sustainable in India.

The incredible value of Meals on Wheels.

Americans are drinking less milk.

The problem with taking dietary supplements.

Foods with the greatest pesticide residue.

How much should bread cost?

The astonishing amount of food wasted by Americans.

Cooking like a man.

A brief history of ersatz ingredients.

Drink as much coffee as you like.

In pursuit of snackability.

Sausage and haddock. (Thanks, Mum!)

South Africa’s Come Dine with Me as a form of social commentary.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s guide to the food of Taipei.

Novelists who’ve sobered up.

Celebrations at the end of Prohibition in the US.

Why drinking tea was once considered a reckless pursuit for women.

Havana‘s new restaurant scene. (Thanks, Ricardo!)

A review of the French version of Great British Bake Off.

Apples as art.

Öküzgözü. Boğazkere. Xynomavro. Zalagyöngye.

The Pudding Club.

Why grapefruit is appalling. And why it’s amazing.

A newish way of cooking pasta.

How to make your own extracts.

On Lesley Blanch’s Around the World in Eighty Dishes.

Brock Davis’s food art.

Marks and Spencer’s Head of Cake.

Fifteen revolting recipes.

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