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Posts tagged ‘factory farming’

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

Brave New Food

The TV series which I most want to watch at the moment is Portlandia. Set in Portland, Oregon, it satirises and celebrates the city which originated the ur-hipster. It includes a scene in a restaurant – which I’ve watched only on youtube, alas – in which a couple questions their waitress about the provenance of the chicken on the menu. Assured that it’s free range, local, and organic – partly because their waitress provides them with its papers and name – they leave the restaurant to have a look at it:

This is hilarious because it so closely mimics reality: the menus which list the provenance of all the produce used in the restaurant; the farmers’ market stalls with photographs of happy animals pre-slaughter; the recipes which insist upon free-range, organic ingredients.

I laugh, but I’m as implicated in this hyper-sensitivity about where my food comes from, and how it was treated before it arrived on my plate. I don’t want to eat animals that suffered so that I can continue being an omnivore. I eat relatively little meat and am prepared to pay for free-range chicken, pork, and beef. (I’m not terribly fussed about it being ‘organic’ – whatever we may mean by that.)

It is a scandal how animals are treated in factory farms, and increasing demand for red meat is environmentally unsustainable. So how should we eat meat, without causing harm? If vegetarianism is as implicated in the meat economy – veal is a by-product of the dairy industry, for example – and veganism seems far too difficult, then one way out of this impasse is to consider synthetic alternatives.

I’ve been amused by the overwhelming response to reports about the apparent viability of lab-grown meat. ‘Eeew’ and ‘yuk’ seem to sum up how people feel about it. But lab-grown meat is only the most recent panacea to the world’s crisis produced by scientists – and our views on it say a great deal about our changing feelings about the relationship between food and technology.

The meat in question is being grown by Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University. He’s being funded by an anonymous donor who’s concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle farming. Using stem cells from cows, Post’s team have grown sheets of muscle between pieces of Velcro, which are shocked with an electric current to develop their texture and density:

Post said he could theoretically increase the number of burgers made from a single cow from 100 to 100m. ‘That means we could reduce the number of livestock we use by 1m,’ he said.

Meat grown in the laboratory could have several advantages, because its manufacture is controlled at each step. The tissue could be grown to produce high levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, or to have a particular texture.

He believes it will be a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation, since most of the technical obstacles have already been overcome. ‘I’d estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years,’ he said.

Post hopes to produce a burger by October.

When I read the earliest reports about Post’s work, I thought immediately of a scene in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where the protagonist visits a lab which grows chicken breasts out of stem cells. This is a dystopian novel which plays on our suspicion of food grown in laboratories. It seems strange, now, for us to consider synthetic, artificial, man-made food to be superior to all that is ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’. But this is a relatively new way of thinking about food.

During the 1950s, a decade when science seemed to offer the possibility of a cleaner, healthier, and better organised world, there was a brief, but intense enthusiasm for Chlorella pyrenoidosa, a high-protein algae which grew rapidly and abundantly and was fed by sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The post-war baby boom gave rise to anxieties in the 1950s that the world would be unable to feed its growing population. Of course, we now know that innovations in agriculture during this period – including the wholesale mechanisation of farming, the increased use of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, and breeding high-yielding livestock – and the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s produced the crops and farming methods which, at enormous environmental cost, still feed seven billion of us. But at the time, politicians worried that hungry nations would create a politically unstable world.

Algae looked like a sensible solution to the problem. Easy and cheap to grow, and apparently highly nutritious, this seemed to be the Brave New World of food production. Warren Belasco writes:

The alluring news came from pilot projects sponsored by the Carnegie Institution and conducted by the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park and by Arthur D. Little, Inc. in Cambridge. Initial results suggested that chlorella algae was an astounding photosynthetic superstar. When grown in optimal conditions – sunny, warm, shallow ponds fed by simple carbon dioxide – chlorella converted upwards of 20 per cent of solar energy…into a plant containing 50 per cent protein when dried. Unlike most plants, chlorella’s protein was ‘complete’, for it had the ten amino acids then considered essential, and it was also packed with calories, fat, and vitamins.

In today’s terms, chlorella was a superfood. Scientists fell over themselves in excitement: Scientific American and Science reported on it in glowing terms; the Rockefeller Foundation funded research into it; and some calculated that a plantation the size of Rhode Island was would be able to supply half the world’s daily protein requirements.

In the context of a mid-century enthusiasm for all that was efficient, systematic, and man-made, algae’s appeal was immediate: it was entirely usable and produced little or no waste; its farming was not dependent on variable weather and rainfall; it was clean and could be transformed into something that was optimally nutritious.

So why didn’t I have a chlorella burrito for supper?

Unfortunately, chlorella didn’t live up to the hype. Not only did the production of grains and soybeans increase exponentially during the 1950s, meaning that farmers were loath to switch to a new and untested crop, but further research revealed that chlorella production would be more complicated and expensive than initially envisaged. Growing chlorella in the quantities needed to be financially viable required expensive equipment, and it proved to be susceptible to changes in temperature. Harvesting and drying it was even more of headache.

On top of this, chlorella tasted terrible. There were some hopes that the American food industry might be able to transform bitter green chlorella into an enticing foodstuff – in much the same way they used additives and preservatives to manufacture the range of processed foods which bedecked the groaning supermarket shelves of 1950s America. Edible chlorella was not a world away from primula cheese.

Those who were less impressed by the food industry suggested that chlorella could be used to fortify bread and pasta – or even transformed into animal feed. But research demonstrated that heating chlorella destroyed most of its nutrients. Even one of its supporters called it ‘a nasty little green vegetable.’ By the 1960s, it was obvious that at $1,000 a ton, and inedible, chlorella was not going to be the food of the future.

All was not lost for chlorella, though. It proved to be surprisingly popular in Japan, where it is still sold as a nutritional supplement. The West’s enthusiasm for algae also hasn’t dimmed:

The discovery in the 1960s of the blue-green algae spirulina in the Saharan Lake Chad and in Mexico’s Lake Texcoco gave another boost to the health food uses of algae. Spirulina has a high-nutrient profile similar to chlorella’s but without…production problems….

Ironically, the food that was supposed to feed the world is now the preserve of the wealthy, health-conscious middle classes – those who suffer most from the diseases of affluence – who can afford to buy small jars of powdered algae.

I hope that Post’s project manages to create a viable product which can be used to supplement people’s diets. I’m not particularly revolted by the idea of lab-grown meat, and if means that it reduces the numbers of factory farms, then that can only be a good thing.

What concerns me more are the potential motives of the businesses which would produce lab-grown meat. If it is taken up by the global food industry – which has patchy records on environmental sustainability and social responsibility – will we be able to trust them to provide us with meat which is healthy for us, and ethically produced?

Source

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

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

Occupy Food

So. Farwell then, Occupy London? There’s nothing like writing a (relatively) topical blog to remind you of how fast news develops. When I began thinking about this post, the protestors at Occupy London outside St Paul’s had lost their appeal against their eviction. It seemed that this wing of the occupy movement had gone the same way as Occupy Wall Street when Zuccotti Park was cleared. But now the campers have found a new, fifth spot, still in the City of London: Roman House, an empty building in the Barbican.

I visited Occupy London in December last year. I had arranged to attend a drawing class presented by Baduade (this is her account of it, with some of our contributions) and was hopelessly early, so I decided to visit two of the protest’s other sites, in Finsbury Square and in the abandoned UBS building in Sun Street – now rechristened the Bank of Ideas. I was struck by the social and ideological complexity of the protest. Not only did the protestors represent a variety of opinions, but were a varied group of people who had decided to camp for different reasons. Laurie Penny’s recent article on Occupy London sums this up particularly well:

The people who live full or part-time in the camps can now be divided into roughly three categories: those who were homeless before the occupations, those who will shortly be homeless, and those who merely look homeless. Three months of sleeping in tents, washing in the bathrooms of nearby cafes and working around-the-clock to run a kitchen feeding thousands with no running water and little electricity will transform even the most fresh-faced student into a jittering bundle of aching limbs and paranoia.

In his account of a night spent at the St Paul’s camp, James Macintyre noted a class difference between the sites, with more middle-class protestors choosing to settle at Finsbury Park – the site which produces The Occupied Times. My experience certainly bore this out: as I arrived at the Finsbury Park welcome tent, the girl supervising it bounded up to me and exclaimed in tones which would cheer any elocution teacher, ‘oh I love your badges!’.

Part of the appeal of the camp, commented Macintyre, particularly for homeless people, is that it has a kitchen which provides food for free:

The campers, a multi-ethnic mix, are fed in the soup kitchen by volunteers, including several part-time chefs; they say they feed up to 1,500 people a day, most of whom are just around the camp during the day. The volunteers’ chief concerns are the need for more donations of vegetables, and the lack of storage facilities for meat, rather than the evils of global capitalism.

The same was true at Zuccotti Park which developed a reputation for the quality of the cuisine which its cooks – some of them professional chefs – prepared. In fact, the kitchen’s output proved to be so popular that overworked and apparently ‘underappreciated’ volunteers temporarily refused to make food. Indeed, there were even some reports that Occupy Wall Street decided to limit the kitchen’s output because of the numbers of homeless people the protest was attracting.

Whatever the politics of feeding so many protestors may have been, Occupy Wall Street’s achievements are worth celebrating: its kitchen relied entirely on donations, meaning that meal planning was almost impossible and relied on cooks’ inventiveness and ability to think quickly. Also, the kitchen was not allowed to use any form of open flame.

The kitchen at the St Paul’s protest was as heroic, and reminded me of the cooking done at the Climate Camps a few years ago (and I think that there’s more to be said about the overlap between the Climate Camp movement and Occupy London): using mainly donated produce and almost always vegan – a practical choice in terms of storage and dietary requirements – food was prepared using wood-fired rocket stoves and provided free to all people on the campsite. It was delicious – and I write this as one whose experiment with veganism lasted only a week.

In both cases, the food served at the camps was emblematic of the concerns and ideals of the protestors, as the New York Times described the Zuccotti Park protest:

The makeshift kitchen has fed thousands of protesters each day. Along the way, it has developed a cuisine not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement itself: free-form, eclectic, improvisatory and contradictory.

Requests for food go out on Twitter and various Web sites sympathetic to the protesters. And somehow, in spontaneous waves, day after day, the food pours in. The donations are received with enthusiasm, even when they are not precisely what the troops might have desired.

Robert Strype, 29, a protester from the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., area who was wearing a T-shirt that expressed his displeasure with Monsanto, said that anger about practices like factory farming and the genetic modification of vegetables was one of the factors that had roused him and some of his fellow occupiers. ‘Food plays a huge part in this movement,’ he said. ‘Because people are tired of being fed poison.’

Of all the various manifestations of the occupy movement – from the recent Occupy Nigeria, to Occupy Art and Occupy History (my favourite, obviously) – one of the most persistent has been Occupy Food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it began in the United States. The Occupy movement was produced by the inequalities of Obama’s America, and no country on earth has as powerful a food industry as the US. Whereas it’s an exaggeration to refer to Big Food in South Africa or Argentina, this is certainly not the case for America. As Strype makes the point, Americans ‘are tired of being fed poison.’

But the idea has had a worldwide resonance, despite the fact that ‘occupying food’ seems like an inherently illogical idea: how can you ‘occupy’ something which is so ubiquitous? The organisers of the first Occupied Food protest at the re-named Zucchini Park explained:

We started Occupy Big Food because we thought it was really important to bring the discussion of food to what is happening at Occupy Wall Street. The goals of OWS and OBF are totally aligned — we are against the corporate takeover of our food system.

The Occupy Food rally was followed a month later by a farmers’ march to Occupy Wall Street to ‘to ‘fight and expose corporate control of the food supply.’ Willie Nelson – yes, for it was he – writing in his capacity as the President of Farm Aid, urged his readers to Occupy the Food System:

From seed to plate, our food system is now even more concentrated than our banking system. Most economic sectors have concentration ratios hovering around 40%, meaning that the top four firms in the industry control 40% of the market. Anything beyond this level is considered ‘highly concentrated,’ where experts believe competition is severely threatened and market abuses are likely to occur.

Many key agricultural markets like soybeans and beef exceed the 40% threshold, meaning the seeds and inputs that farmers need to grow our crops come from just a handful of companies. Ninety-three per cent of soybeans and 80% of corn grown in the United States are under the control of just one company. … Today, three companies process more than 70% of beef in the U.S.; four companies dominate close to 60% of the pork and chicken markets.

In an article for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott elaborated on Nelson’s point. Firstly, the food system is dominated by a handful of very big businesses, whose reach is global: Monsanto has a virtual monopoly of the world’s seed supply; only four companies – including Cargill (which begs the question why the World Food Programme sees fit to do business with it) – control the grain trade; and Walmart’s reach is extending around the world.

Secondly, the size of these businesses allows them unprecedented power over the whole food chain. In an effort to drive down prices, farmers and suppliers are put out of business, wages plummet, standards of animal welfare decline steeply, and the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other poisons increases.

Thirdly, the growing involvement of hedge funds and banks in the commodities market – which now includes food commodities – has led to concern that speculation on wheat, maize, and other staples is driving up the price of food. The best known example of this occurred two years ago when hedge fund Armajaro bought up Ghana’s total cocoa crop – about 7% of global production – causing a 150% rise in cocoa prices and many Ghanaian farmers to go out of business. Several economists have drawn a link between high food prices and the origins of the Arab Spring.

Finally, the relationship between food companies and governments can be uncomfortably close. In the United States, intense lobbying from the food, agriculture, and beverage industries has caused already light regulation to crumble. In the UK, a collection of food companies – including PepsiCo and Mars – advise the government on how to curb obesity and have formulated a programme which helps to swell their profits.

In other words, the food system is controlled by too few organisations. A lack of regulation of both industry and the economic system has driven up prices, contributed to a decline in the quality of food, and undermined job security, animal welfare, and ethical farming practices. On its own, this is enough to compel us to occupy the food system by growing our own food, supporting small farmers and producers, lobbying supermarkets to stock sustainable and ethically-produced food, and taking action against the cosy relationship between business and government.

But beyond this, there are few more potent indicators of inequality than access to food. The Occupy movement came to prominence partly because of, as my friend Seb commented, one of the best slogans in history: ‘we are the 99%’. It’s catchy and, most importantly, accurate (even if it may be the case that we’re actually the 99.9%). We know that the poorer people are, the poorer their diets are. In extreme cases, they simply can’t afford food, and starve and suffer from extreme malnutrition. But for most of the 99%, good, fresh, ‘whole’ food – the food that the shrinking middle classes can afford to buy from Woolworths, Waitrose, and Trader Joe’s – is simply too expensive, or too far away. They rely instead on heavily processed food.

As a recent report published by the World Health Organisation indicates, obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases are now as much a problem in the developing world as they are in the developed. This is partly the result of prosperity – the new middle classes crave McDonald’s burgers and Coca Cola as indicators of status – but mainly because of shifts in eating patterns caused by high food prices and the greater availability of cheap, processed proteins and non-foods.

In an extract from his new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, Paul Mason responds to critics who argue that the Occupy movement – and, indeed, the other protests which dominated the news in 2010 and 2011 – had few clearly defined goals and viable alternatives to the social and political status quo. Referring to Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class (1980), he explains:

parts of the book now bear rereading, in particular Gorz’s definition of revolution: taking power implies taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice capable of bypassing and superseding it through the development of an alternative network of relations. By this definition we are in the middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the 20th century.

If this is so, the occupy movement signals a beginning in a shift in our understanding of how power should work in society, and particularly as regards inequality.

We are the 99%. And we demand to eat well too.


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

Food Links, 06.07.2011

Gordon Conway considers the global food crisis.

The Guardian lists the ten best literary picnics.

Although hugely successful, organic farming faces a range of challenges in India – despite the growing  evidence that organic farming can feed the world.

On Thomas Jefferson, food, and slavery.

How can cruelty to animals in American factory farms be prevented?

Border conflicts – between Isreal and Palestine, Mexico and the United States – are made worse by competition over water and food insecurity.

Behold Coralie Bickford-Smith’s beautiful covers for Penguin’s Great Food series.

One third of the world’s food is wasted.

‘Sponge cakes for all!’ Is baking a feminist act?

Why do Americans insist upon not using scales to measure ingredients when cooking?

Food Links, 15.06.2011

Tim Lang argues that twentieth-century attitudes towards food cannot solve our global food crisis (and makes the point that Walmart’s presence in South Africa is a Very Bad Thing indeed).

The Carbon Brief provides a useful overview of recent research on food, hunger, and climate change.

A ‘food desert’ is a region with limited access to healthy food – usually because supermarkets, accessible only by car, have been replaced by convenience stores selling mainly processed food. This map plots food deserts in the US.

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, argues that the food movement is not elitist.

Tom Philpott discusses Walmart’s ‘commitment’ to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move programme.

Life for the very poor in Guatemala shows how screwed up the world’s food system is.

The World Health Organisation takes on non-communicable, lifestyle-related diseases (and shows how bad big food companies are for our health).

On gluttony.

Consider honey.

The Great Trek 2.0 – South Africa’s white farmers move north.

In praise of asparagus.

The New York Times reports that farming tilapia on an industrial scale is a bad idea. How very surprising.

Food Links, 04.05.2011

John Crace digests Gwyneth Paltrow’s Notes from my kitchen table. Read and weep.

Is it cheaper to be a meat-eater, vegetarian, or vegan?

The New York Times argues against increasing efforts to prevent scrutiny of factory farming in the US.

This enterprising chef has written a recipe book about chillies and climate change.

Who should control the world’s seed supply: farmers or the evil empire Monsanto?

I don’t have much time for PETA, and this ad simply confirms my annoyance.

Adults’ height is a reliable indicator of childhood disease, nutrition, and poverty. Height improved all over the world after the middle of the twentieth century – but a recent study suggests that in the past two decades the average height of women in very poor countries has been falling.

The Guardian describes the royal wedding menu.

Disgust

One of my favourite books, and one to which I turn when I need comforting and amusing, is Julian Barnes’s collection of essays on cooking called The Pedant in the Kitchen (2003). It is wildly funny – there’s a particularly fantastic piece about cooking a Nigel Slater recipe for pork chops and chicory – and deeply wise about preparing and eating food. My favourite chapter is titled ‘Once is Enough’ and is about exotic delicacies which, once sampled, one is happy never to eat again. Some taste revolting, or are so closely associated with a particular event that eating them once more would raise far too many difficult memories. Others are simply too complicated to replicate:

I once bought an eel from a Chinese fishmonger in Soho, carried it home on the Northern Line, and then realised my next job was to skin it. This is what you have to do: nail it to a door-frame or other substantial wooden part of your dwelling, make an incision on either side of the neck, take a pair of pliers in each hand, grip the two cut pieces of skin, put your foot against the door level with the eel’s head, and slowly haul back the skin, which is firm and elasticated, like a dense inner tube. Afterwards I was glad to have done it. Now I shall know how to proceed if forced to survive somewhere with only an eel, two pairs of pliers, and a doorframe for company; but I don’t otherwise need the activity to be central to my life. Smoked, stewed, barbecued – eel is welcome on my plate in most forms; but from now on I’ll let others do the skinning.

I know exactly what he means. I feel much the same about pickling chillies: really, once was enough. But as to ordinary food – the sort found in supermarkets and the average recipe book – there are only two things which I refuse, absolutely, to eat. I don’t particularly care for mangoes, papaya, blue cheese, strawberries (yes, I know), and raw tomatoes, but I’ll eat them for the sake of politeness. Yet goats’ cheese and bananas are entirely beyond me. Even the thought of eating them makes me shudder with revulsion: for both it’s a case of pungent, unpleasant smell mingling with a sticky-soft texture and a gag-inducing flavour. I have only one friend who shares my antipathy for both foods, but I know at least three others who feel the same way about bananas, and my issues with goat’s cheese seem to be fairly widespread. So I refuse to feel that I should account for my antipathy.

It’s true that as our palates develop, what once revolted us as children ceases to do so when we’re adults. I remember the stomach-churning revulsion I felt when, as a child, I first smelled my father boiling artichokes. Now, I love them. And the same goes for olives and mussels. But our responses to food, as I noted in my previous post, are governed by a range of factors, several of which are irrational (so no chance of me ever willingly eating goats’ cheese or banana), while others are socially and culturally determined. Barnes writes:

No doubt in the future some of our eating habits will be high-mindedly condemned as shameful and disgusting and incomprehensible. Rather as we feel when we learn that they used to eat herons in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance; further, that they trained falcons to hunt them. The English roasted heron with ginger, the Italians with garlic and onions; the Germans and Dutch made them into pies; the French thought it bad form to serve heron without any sauce, and La Varenne further suggested decorating the platter with flowers to make the dish look more appealing.

As taste has changed over time, so has what we define as being too disgusting to eat. Medieval princes may have supped on lampreys; now these jawless fish are left largely to their own devices.

I’ve been reading a collection of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s journalism, Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All (2006), and was struck by an article in which he lists all the unusual – and usually disgust-inducing – food which he has eaten and, for the most part, liked. In ‘Taste Not, Want Not’, he moves from the relatively normal (brains) to the weird (goose barnacles) to the (to me) utterly revolting (maggots). I was surprised, though, by his inclusion of donkey salami. Donkeys, to whose sanctuaries the British donate millions of pounds every year, and whose apparent uncomplaining willingness to be beasts of burden, seem to be the last animals who should be allowed onto a menu. They are too good – too noble – to eat. And yet they are eaten in France – along with horses.

My discomfort at Fearnley-Whittingstall’s admission – and he adds that he was initially uneasy about the salami – turned into a contemplation of how easily we distinguish between two groups of animals: between those that we will eat, and those that we won’t. More importantly, we imbue these two categories with moral meanings. It’s not just disgusting to eat dog, but morally wrong too. Our shifting views on the acceptability of eating animals are determined by a range of factors, not least of which is how we think about our pets. Humans have domesticated animals for thousands of years, but it’s only relatively recently that we’ve begun to keep animals exclusively for our amusement. This is not to suggest that Xhosa herdsmen during the 1700s felt no affection for their cattle, but, rather, the idea that a family should include an adored pet originates in the West during the nineteenth century.

Along with our pet-keeping, our increasing concern for protecting wildlife has helped to diminish our enthusiasm for eating wild animals. It’s interesting how willing the employees of the Dutch East India Company stationed at the Cape Colony during the seventeenth century were to eat hippopotamus – and their enthusiasm was rewarded by the fact that it tasted ‘like calf’. Now, we eat neither hippopotamus nor calf. Indeed, veal is an interesting case: its popularity diminished substantially during the 1980s when the appalling conditions in which male calves were reared were made better known. I’ve never eaten veal mainly for this reason. But there is an excellent case for eating veal: bull calves are a by-product of the dairy industry and those which are not marked out for consumption as veal, are shot at birth. As an omnivore, I do have an obligation, then, to eat veal.

Veal: the ethical choice?

My disgust at eating veal is not because I am revolted by the idea of eating cattle or, even, young animals (I eat lamb, after all), but as a result of the fact that these calves had to suffer so that I may drink milk. I think it’s here that we could fundamentally alter the way in which we associate disgust and particular kinds of meat. With urbanisation and the industrialisation of food processing, we are no longer as familiar with the ways in which animals are raised for food: for someone brought up in a town and whose only close association with animals is the family pet, watching a chicken being killed is, understandably, horrifying. But we should not allow this distance between ourselves and production of food cause us to become too disgusted to think about how the meat we eat is prepared.

It is absolutely hypocritical to eat pork – an adult pig is as ‘intelligent‘ as a dog – but to refuse to eat donkey. Rather, I wish we’d distinguish between humanely reared and factory-farmed animals. I don’t want to eat any animal that endured a painful existence to allow me to eat it. Moreover, it’s clear that the conditions in which cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised en masse are not only cruel, but ecologically unsustainable.

A range of thinkers – Gandhi, Peter Singer, and JM Coetzee – have described the slaughter of animals for human consumption as mass murder. I agree with Michael Pollan and others who argue that we do need to rear and eat meat for the benefit of our and the planet’s health. We should consume fewer dairy products and eat less meat, and all of these products should be free range. Most importantly, we must rethink our sense of disgust around eating animals: I think it is far more disgusting to eat factory-farmed chicken breasts than humanely reared and –kept donkeys.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. I, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1952).

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen (London: Atlantic, 2003).

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All: Dispatches from the Gastronomic Front Line (London: Bloomsbury, [2006] 2007).

Other sources:

Kathleen Kete, The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, [1994] 1995).

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).

Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

Peter Singer, ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 71-80.

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1996).

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London: Harper Press, 2006).

Sandra Swart, Riding High: Horses, Humans, and History in South Africa (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2010).

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

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