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Food Links, 09.01.2013

How Walmart is eating up the food system.

The implications of fracking for America’s food supply.

A guide to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Eating won’t give you cancer.

Food maps.

A guide to the hot chocolate of Belgium.

On the wildly popular Mission Chinese Food in New York.

Chocolate and coffee. Yum.

Eating offal in Japan.

The story of nutmeg.

How to eat a mielie in ten seconds.

A guide to eating in Seoul.

The rise of the supper club.

Mark Bittman on dal.

Real, working toy stoves for children.

Eating raw food.

How to cook a 14 inch-wide mushroom.

Edible design.

Mark Bittman on mushrooms.

What to eat in Kuala Lumpur.

How to make burrata.

Food in fiction.

Felicity Cloake on biryani.

How to make your own literary cocktails.

In praise of Meyer lemons.

The most amazing bars around the world.

How to make your own tofu.

These are courtesy of my mum:

Photographs of bread in Kashmir.

The Rahmens.

Reflecting on THAT New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s new restaurant in Times Square.

Green Revolutions

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate generated by a study done by a research team at the University of Caen in France. Last month, they published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, in which they alleged that rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified maize and exposed to the herbicide Roundup – also produced by Monsanto – over the course of a lifetime, developed tumours and suffered multiple organ damage.

Terrible photographs of some alarmingly lumpy rats circulated around the internet, and it seemed that the green movement’s vociferous opposition to GM crops was vindicated. But almost as soon as the study’s findings were announced, doubts – around the validity of the research itself and the way it had been communicated – began to emerge.

Not only have similar, more rigorous tests, demonstrated that GM crops had no impact on health, but, as the New Scientist reported:

the strain of rat the French team used gets breast tumours easily, especially when given unlimited food, or maize contaminated by a common fungus that causes hormone imbalance, or just allowed to age.

Moreover:

Five of the 20 control rats – 25 per cent – got tumours and died, while 60 per cent in ‘some test groups’ that ate GM maize died. Some other test groups, however, were healthier than the controls.

…the team claims to see the same toxic effects both with actual Roundup, and with the GM maize – whether or not the maize contained any actual herbicide. It is hard to imagine any way in which a herbicide could have identical toxic effects to a gene tweak that gives the maize a gene for an enzyme that actually destroys the herbicide.

This research isn’t entirely without value: it could suggest that even the smallest dose of weed killer or GM maize has the potential to cause physiological harm.

But even this conclusion is undermined by the circumstances in which the study was produced. The research team at Caen is open about its opposition to GM crops; and the anti-GM organisation which orchestrated the publicity around the release of the report, refused to allow journalists to consult other scientists about the paper.

As we’re right to be suspicious of studies undertaken by scientists affiliated to industry – the implications of which Ben Goldacre explores in his latest book on Big Pharma – so we must question the motives, however noble they may be, of this research team funded by anti-GM groups.

What I found so interesting about the response to the study was the vehemence of the anti-GM crop lobby. Like the debates around nuclear energy and, even, animal testing, it seems to me that the strength of feeling – on both sides – has a tendency to shut down all reasonable discussion. I was appalled when, earlier this year, a group of anti-GM activists threatened to destroy a field of GM wheat planted by scientists at the publicly-funded Rothamsted Research. Their work aimed partly to reduce pesticides sprayed on crops.

On the other hand, though, pro-GM scientists, economists, and others seem to be too quick to label those with – legitimate – concerns about the genetic modification of plants and animals as ‘anti-science.’ In an article from 2000, Norman Borlaug argued:

Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad that some scientists, many of whom should or do know better, have also jumped on the extremist environmental bandwagon in search of research funds. …

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement that has taken place over the past 40 years. This movement has led to legislation to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity. It is ironic, therefore, that the platform of the antibiotechnology extremists, if it were to be adopted, would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity.

His point is that GM crops have the potential to end world hunger. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner credited with originating the Green Revolution during the 1950s and 1960s, Borlaug was in a position to argue– with some validity – that selective plant breeding had helped to feed a world of, now, seven billion people.

In 1943, concerned about the link between food shortages and political upheaval – particularly as the Cold War loomed – the Rockefeller Foundation began sponsoring research into the development of new drought-resistant and higher yielding plant species in Mexico.

Focussing on wheat, maize, and rice, Borlaug and other scientists affiliated with the programme cross-bred higher-yielding species. These new seeds were distributed at first in Mexico, India, and the Philippines. It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of this research, as Gordon Conway explains:

Cereal yields, total cereal production and total food production in the developing countries all more than doubled between 1960 and 1985. Over the same period their population grew by about 75 per cent. As a result, the average daily calorie supply in the developing countries increased by a quarter, from under 2,000 calories per person in the early 1960s to about 2,500 in the mid-80s, of which 1,500 was provided by cereals.

The Green Revolution has made it possible to feed a population of seven billion people. But it had substantial drawbacks. Conway writes that the ‘potential’ of the Green Revolution crops

could only be realised if they were supplied with high quantities of fertiliser and provided with optimal supplies of water. As was soon apparent, the new varieties yielded better than the traditional at any level of fertiliser application, although without fertiliser they sometimes did worse on poor soils. Not surprisingly, average rates of application of nitrogen fertilisers, mostly ammonium sulphate and urea, doubled and redoubled over a very short period.

We know now that we need a new Green Revolution – one which is not as heavily reliant on water, and which does not poison and destroy ecosystems. There’s a certain logic, then, to many activists’ arguments that it’s ‘science’ which is to blame for present food insecurity: that a return to small-scale peasant farming offers the best means of supplying food to an ever-growing population.

This suspicion of ‘science’ – whatever we may mean by this – is nothing new. During the 1970s, for instance, the green movement emerged partly in response to concerns about the implications of the Green Revolution for human health, biodiversity, and water supplies. Much of this early environmentalism advocated a return to nature, and a rejection of technology.

I haven’t made up my mind about the usefulness or otherwise of GM crops, but I hesitate over the whole-hearted embrace of ‘traditional’ methods of farming. It’s worth remembering that pre-industrial agriculture required the majority of the world’s population to be involved in food production in order to stave off hunger. Now, in developed nations, this number has plummeted to only a couple of per cent. In sub-Saharan Africa, seventy per cent of the population remains in engaged in agriculture, although this is also likely to decline.

Better technology and higher-yielding plant varieties have freed up the majority of the world’s population to do other forms of work. The world has changed a great deal since the eighteenth century.

What concerns me more, though, are the businesses which push GM crops – those which are at the receiving end of European and African bans on the planting of genetically modified wheat, maize, and other plants. Monsanto and Cargill are currently the target of a campaign to end the patenting of seeds – making them cheaper and more freely available to small farmers in the developing world.

These two companies, in particular, have a growing control over the world’s food supply. Not only do they own seed patents, but they provide pesticides and fertilisers. Cargill produces meat and grows grain – in fact, no one knows how much grain it has stored in its silos. Given that Cargill and the commodities trader Glencore have both admitted that their profits have increased as a result of the drought in the US and the resultant rise in food prices around the world, it’s exceptionally worrying that these organisations have so much control over our food chain.

What the GM debate reveals is a set of complex and shifting attitudes around the relationship between food, farming, and science – and around how we define what is ‘natural’. Instead of rejecting the potential benefits of GM crops out of hand, I think it would be wise to encourage more research into their implications both for human health, and for the environment. Moreover, I think we need to scrutinise and hold to account big businesses like Monsanto, Glencore, and Cargill. They represent a far greater threat to our ability to feed ourselves.

Further Reading

Norman Borlaug, ‘Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry,’ Plant Physiology, vol. 124 (Oct. 2000), pp. 487-490.

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (London: Penguin, 1997).

Joseph Cotter, Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002 (New York: Praeger, 2003).

John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Himmat Singh, Green Revolutions Reconsidered: The Rural World of Contemporary Punjab (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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

Temptations of the Flesh

I’ve had an explosively sneezy cold this week, but with bed rest and pain killers to help me to sleep, I’m almost well again. (Unfortunately, my Head of Department remains unconvinced by my theory that I’ve been suffering from a bad allergy to undergraduate lecturing.) I really don’t see the point of taking anti-cold medication. It certainly won’t get rid of the bug, and the only time I’ve ever taken tablets for a cold – just before a long flight home from Paris – I hallucinated so badly that I thought it best never to repeat the experience. Taking it easy, avoiding dehydration, and being generally sensible seem to work every time. I’ve also had a range of advice about what I should eat: vitamin C supplements, garlic, zinc, lemon, and ginger. I’ve managed to consume nearly all of these over the past few days (although not at the same time), and – who knows? – maybe they made a difference.

We know that our diet influences our health. We know that the better we eat, the stronger our immune systems are and the longer we’ll live. It’s for this reason that many seem to believe that it’s possible to eat ourselves well: that we can both prevent and cure illnesses by eating some things, and avoiding others. I was struck forcibly by the strength of this thinking when I saw that Gwyneth Paltrow wrote a recipe book partly because she believed that her father’s eating habits caused the cancer which killed him. No, I am not completely mad, and, yes, I do realise that, at best, Paltrow can be described as a ray of ‘demented sunshine’, but this is an enormously popular and influential woman who really does think that had her father eaten more brown rice, he wouldn’t have had cancer – or, at least, wouldn’t have died from it.

There’s a logic to this thinking: if we eat pure, wholesome food, then, surely, we should be healthy and strong. The problem is that it’s difficult to define what is ‘pure’, ‘wholesome’, and ‘good’ food. However much nutritionists may dress up their work as ‘science’, we don’t know precisely what diet is best for our health. In the past few weeks new studies have demonstrated that drinking eight glasses of water and eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day…will have very little effect on us at all. Oh, and vitamin supplements and probiotics are of dubious value too. It’s certain that we should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and lessen our intake of red meat and saturated fat, but everything else remains guesswork. That study about Omega 3 supplements and children’s brains? It was nonsense. As is the advice sprouted by Patrick Holford. So, no, drinking green tea and eating mung beans and quinoa will not stave off cancer. (Sorry.) The amazing people at Information is Beautiful have provided a helpful visualisation of the relative benefits of dietary supplements (see here for a bigger and pleasingly animated version):


Our ideas around healthy diets have changed over time, and are inflected by a range of factors, including current debates in science and medicine, the interests of industry and food lobbies, and religious belief. In his magnificent study Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (2003), Roy Porter traces a shift in thinking about health and eating during the mid-eighteenth century. He argues that during the early modern period, stoutness and eating heartily – if not in excess – were seen as signs of good health. In Britain, a taste for roast beef was also connected to support for an incipient national ‘English’ consciousness.

But from the 1750s onwards, physical beauty was associated more frequently with slimness. (Compare, for example, portraits by Rubens and Constable.) Enlightenment bodies needed also to be fed in restrained, rational ways. One of the most popular prophets of the new eating orthodoxy was the physician George Cheyne (1673-1743) who based his views on plain, wholesome eating on his own experience of being morbidly obese. In The English Malady (1733) he argued that ‘corpulence produced derangements of the digestive and nervous systems which impaired not only health but mental stability. … Excess of the flesh bred infirmities of the mind.’ Porter explains:

Cheyne’s call to medical moderation was, however, also an expression of a mystical Christian Platonism trained at the emancipation of the spirit – he can thus be thought of as recasting traditional Christian bodily anxieties into physiological and medical idioms. For Cheyne, the flesh was indeed the spirit’s prison house. Excessive flesh encumbered the spirit; burning it off emancipated it.

Following the teachings of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, he imagined prelapsarian bodies innocently feeding on ‘Paradisiacal Fruits’. After the Fall, the flesh of the newly carnivorous humans had been subjected to the laws of the corruption of matter. …his works aimed at recovering the purity of the prelapsarian body.

Cheyne recommended a vegetarian diet on the grounds that it most closely resembled that eaten in the Garden of Eden. It was, in other words, the diet of spiritual perfection. Much of the success of his writing was due also to rise of a vegetarian movement in Europe during the eighteenth century. These Enlightenment vegetarians argued that it was cruel to slaughter animals merely for food, and also believed that ‘greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.’

There has long been an association between corpulence and moral or spiritual laxity, and thinness with (self-) discipline. But what Cheyne advocated went further than this: he argued that rational individuals were partly responsible for their own ill-health because they could choose what they ate. Moreover, because he connected eating meat with sinfulness, deciding what to eat was also a moral choice.

Cheyne’s thinking proved to be remarkably durable. In the late nineteenth century, left-leaning social reformers promoted vegetarianism as the best example of ethical consumerism. Vegetarianism was healthy and it did not – they believed – cause the needless sacrifice of animals (although they didn’t address what happened to the bull calves and billy goats produced by lactating cows and nanny goats). In Sheila Rowbotham’s magnificent biography of the immensely influential socialist writer Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), she describes how Carpenter’s dictum of simple living took hold among the members of the Fellowship of the New Life, the forerunner of the Fabian Society. Carpenter agued for simple clothing, simple houses, and simple food:

Carpenter combined his evangelical call for a new lifestyle with an alternative moral economy. This recycled, self-sufficient praxis involved growing your own vegetables, keeping hens and using local not imported grain – American produce was forcing down British farmers’ prices.

But this met with some resistance. The physician and social reformer Havelock Ellis

protested against Carpenter’s advocacy of vegetarianism on the grounds that meat was a  ‘stimulant’. Ellis wanted to know why meat? Why not potatoes? Was not all food a stimulant?

I’m with Ellis on this one.

The food counterculture of the 1960s embraced vegetarianism and an enthusiasm for ‘whole foods’ as a manifestation of a way of living ethically and sustainably. Last week I discussed Melissa Coleman’s memoir of her childhood on her parents’ homestead in rural Maine during the early seventies. Her father, Eliot Coleman, is dubbed the father of the American organic movement, and he fed his growing family mainly from the garden he soon established. They supplemented their diet with bought-in grains, seeds, honey, nut butters, and oils, but were strictly vegetarian. Their role models, Helen and Scott Nearing, were highly critical of immoral ‘flesh eaters’. Their book, Living the Good Life (1954), which became the homesteading Bible, argued that it was possible to feed a family on produce grown organically. Again, the choice of what to eat was a moral one. Eliot and Sue Coleman believed that their diet guaranteed their good health:

Papa often quoted Scott’s sayings, ‘Health insurance is served with every meal.’ As Papa saw it, good food was the secret to longevity and well-being that would save him from the early death of his father. The healthily aging Nearings were living proof that a simple diet was the key.

But, as Melissa Coleman notes, this was not a diet that suited everyone. The family suffered from a lack of Vitamin B, and at times they simply didn’t eat enough. It also didn’t prevent Eliot from developing hyperthyroidism.

His heart seemed to beat too quickly in his chest, and he had a cold he couldn’t kick, despite gallons of rose-hip and raspberry juice. … He tried to make sense of things in his mind. Health insurance, he believed, was on the table at every meal. In other words, the best way to deal with illness was to invest in prevention – eating a good diet that kept the body healthy. … He’d read up on vitamins and minerals, learning which foods were highest in A, B, C, D, and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc. He drank rose-hip juice for vitamin C, ate garlic and Echinacea to build immunity, used peppermint and lemon balm tea to soothe the stomach, and used chamomile to calm the nerves, but perhaps all this wasn’t enough.

She concludes: ‘He never thought to question the vegetarian diet espoused by the Nearings.’

I don’t – obviously – want to suggest that vegetarianism is deadly. Rather, my point is that the choices we make about our diets are influenced as much – or even more – by a set of assumptions about morality, our responsibility for our health, and other beliefs as they are by information about the nutritional benefits of food. I am concerned by two aspects of this belief that we are somehow able to eat ourselves better. We need to acknowledge that what we eat will not prevent us from falling ill. Sickness is caused by many things, and although important, diet is not an overriding factor.

Secondly, it mystifies what is actually very simple. Michael Pollan writes:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

This won’t make terribly much money for nutritionists or the food industry, hence their interest in promoting things which, they suggest, will do miraculous things for our health. They almost certainly won’t. Unless you suffer from an ailment which needs to be treated with a special diet, deciding what to eat is not a complicated, mysterious process. No amount of goji berries will make you a healthier, happier, or better person.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Melissa Coleman, This Life is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone (New York: Harper, 2011).

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin [2003] 2004).

Other sources:

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

Philip Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2001).

Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

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).

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

Food Links, 20.07.2011

How will fracking impact on our food supply?

Partly because of its emphasis on increasing yields, the Gates Foundation, in partnership with the evil empire Monsanto, is pushing genetically engineered crops in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Malawi.

Seven food and drinks trends in the US for 2011.

Famine looms in the Horn of Africa. This is why.

Sarah Lohman cooks ‘temporal fusion cuisine’ and keeps an amazing website called Four Pounds of Flour. Here she plots changing tastes in America.

Chefs go wild about Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

Tom Philpott discusses the link between catastrophic flooding and industrial agriculture.

Consider corn.

There’s recently been a gloriously self-important spat between (some) South African food bloggers and food writers. This is Mandy de Waal’s excellent article for the Mail and Guardian which started it, and this is the hilariously bonkers response from one blog.

Jay Rayner considers the latest research into the relationship between meat consumption and cancer.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that the world wastes or loses 1.3 billion tons of food per year – that’s a third of the total supply.

Donald Paul for the Daily Maverick discusses South Africa’s food security.

How to make Cornish pasties. (And flapjacks – crunchies to South Africans.) And in praise of sandwiches.