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Closing the Stable Door

About a month ago, the ever-amazing Bill Nighy argued in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Independent that hunger – whatever we may mean by that – could be eradicated by forcing big multinationals to pay their taxes. Nighy, who is a spokesman for the anti-hunger If Campaign, has a point. As a Guardian investigation demonstrates, these global businesses and their subsidiaries go out of their way not to pay their taxes – something which hits developing nations particularly hard:

The Zambian sugar-producing subsidiary of Associated British Foods, a FTSE100 company, contributed virtually no corporation tax to the state’s exchequer between 2007 and 2012, and none at all for two of those years.

The firm, Zambia Sugar, has recently posted record pre-tax profits and its huge plantation is increasing its capacity to produce more sugar for markets in Europe and Africa. Yet it paid less than 0.5% of its $123m pre-tax profits in corporation tax between 2007 and 2012.

The company benefits from generous capital allowance and tax-relief schemes in Zambia, but the investigation also found that it funnels around a third of its pre-tax profits to sister companies in tax havens, including Ireland, Mauritius and the Netherlands. Tax treaties between Zambia and some of those countries mean the state’s revenue authorities are unable to charge their normal tax on money leaving their shores.

If businesses like Associated British Food paid their taxes in countries like Zambia, then, the logic goes, these governments would have enough money to ensure that everyone would have access to enough food.

But tax evasion has implications for everyone’s food supply, and not only those who live in low- to middle-income countries. As the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe shows, the presence of horsemeat in ready meals and fast food products was partly the work of a network of businesses which managed to evade both (admittedly shambolic) regulators and tax by operating through scrutiny-free offshore companies.

Romanian horsemeat entered the European food chain when meat from two abattoirs was sold to Draap Trading Limited, which sold the meat to European food companies, like the meat processor Spanghero – whose licence was suspended earlier this month after being accused of knowingly mislabelling horsemeat as beef in some of its products.

Draap Trading Limited operates in the Netherlands, but is registered in tax-flexible Cyprus. Its sole shareholder is a firm based in the British Virgin Islands, another tax haven. Not only does this arrangement allow Draap to avoid paying tax, but it becomes almost impossible to identify Draap’s shareholder. Investigators suggest that the shareholder may be linked to a collection of Russia-linked offshore companies which have, in the past, been involved in high-profile transactions in Russian industry. Importantly, there are allegations that these businesses are connected to gang activity.

Exciting as these revelations may be, this is certainly not the first time that food adulteration has been linked to organised crime. In Italy, write Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna:

The Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ’Ndrangheta have long sought to gain a foothold in the fruit and vegetable market, which is one of the most profitable markets in southern Italy. Police investigations over the past two years indicate that mafia families are beginning to have a presence in every stage of the agricultural market – from production to transport. The illegal activities are numerous and market distortion is fundamentally based on the monopoly to transport and distribution in the south, but the phenomenon is widespread across Italy.

The clans have been entering every stage of production – from cultivating products to transporting goods to local markets. It is a business that involves approximately 150 different crimes every day, according to SOS Impresa (an association of Italian business owners created to combat organised crime) and an estimated one third of farmers are affected by this.

Crimes include ‘theft of machinery and tools; extortion; the theft of livestock and cattle; unregulated butchery practices; fraudulent claims for EU funds; and the exploitation of labour.’ These have appalling consequences for the environment, employment practices, and, indeed, food safety – particularly because the clans not only ignore regulations around hygiene and animal welfare, but are also involved in the illegal butchering and trafficking of potentially contaminated meat.

In the US, the Mafia and pizzerias have a long and complicated relationship. Between 1985 and 1987, the Pizza Connection Trial revealed that mobsters had used a collection of pizza parlours as fronts for the sale and collection of heroin and cocaine. Throughout the twentieth century, though, the mob controlled supplies of ingredients to pizzerias. For instance,

Al Capone – who owned a string of dairy farms near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin – forced New York pizzerias to use his rubbery mob cheese, so different from the real mozzarella produced … in New York City since the first immigrants from Naples arrived in Brooklyn around 1900.

As the story goes, the only places permitted to use good mozzarella made locally were the old-fashioned pizza parlours like Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, and John’s, which could continue doing so only if they promised to never serve slices. … Apparently, neighbourhood pizzerias that served slices and refused to use Capone’s cheese would be firebombed.

As the connection between organised crime and food is nothing new, so is the link between food and tax evasion. Nicholas Shaxson begins his excellent Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011) with an account of the incredible wealth and power of the Vestey brothers. These two men controlled the meat industry during the early twentieth century. Ian Phimister explains:

Prior to 1914, Vesteys had interests in South America, China and Russia, and extensive land holdings in South Africa; it gradually extended its operations to embrace Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar. The company also owned ‘five steamers refrigerated and fitted for the carriage of frozen meat which they use largely for their own trade. Major expansion occurred, however, primarily after the war when in 1922 they absorbed the British and Argentine Meat Company. Vesteys had previously owned over 3,000 butcher shops in England, and the take-over added between 800 and 900 shops to that total. Overall, it was thought that the ‘deal gave Vesteys control over one-quarter of the Argentine export trade.’ On the other side of the world, Vesteys leased 20 million acres in northern Australia where they ran 300,000 cattle. Generally speaking, these were low-grade animals, but their low cost of production gave Vesteys a competitive selling edge, especially during the Great Depression when beef prices collapsed. There were no rail charges because cattle were ‘walked’ to the freezing works, and labour costs were the envy of even South Rhodesia: ‘they employ about 200 aborigines who do not seem to have advanced as far as our natives – at any rate they are only starting to ask for money wages.’

Essentially, Vesteys owned every link in the food chain: from the land on which cattle were farmed, to abattoirs and newly-invented cold storage warehouses, to refrigerated ships and the butchers who sold the meat to shoppers in Britain. But they didn’t limit themselves to beef: they shipped eggs, chicken, ducks, pork, and dairy products from China and Russia, as well as mutton from Australia and New Zealand.

What the example of Vesteys demonstrates – above all – is that big food multinationals have existed since the early twentieth century and have used the same tactics for more than a hundred years. Monsanto and Cargill have the same monopolistic instincts and low regard for labour rights and animal welfare as Vesteys. Moreover, our food supply has been globalised for as long – if not longer – and the myth that once upon a time all butchers were independent and totally ethical is, well, just that – a myth.

But Vesteys also illustrates how food companies dodge taxes. William and Edmund Vestey went out of their way never to pay tax if they could help it. When the British government began to tax British companies on profits earned abroad, to raise funds for the war effort in 1914, the Vestey brothers first lobbied against the measure, and then upped sticks to Chicago and then Buenos Aires, to take advantage of America and Argentina’s less onerous systems of taxation.

They used a range of strategies now commonplace among multinationals to channel their profits away from countries with high tax rates – the countries, in other words, where they did business. Also, in 1921 the Vesteys established a trust based in Paris which the British authorities could not tax (they didn’t even discover it until 1929). Giving evidence to a Royal Commission established to investigate how to tax multinational businesses, William Vestey summed up his attitude towards taxation:

If I kill a beast in the Argentine and sell the product of that beast in Spain, this country can get no tax on that business. You may do what you like, but you cannot have it.

In 1934, Argentinian authorities which had long been uneasy about the brothers’ cutthroat business practices came across a cache of secret documents hidden under a pile of guano on their ship, the Norman Star. The investigation launched after finding this deeply incriminating evidence was blocked and manipulated at every turn by the Vesteys – who were particularly concerned by British authorities’ interest in it. In the end, the man in charge of the committee and with the greatest knowledge of the Vesteys’ tax evasion systems, Senator de la Torre, shot himself in 1939, leaving a suicide note ‘which expressed his disappointment at the general behaviour of mankind.’

The British government never succeeded in making Vesteys pay its full tax bill. In 1980 it was revealed that two years previously, the Vesteys’ Dewhurst chain of butchers had paid only £10 tax on a profit of more than £2.3 million. As one official commented: ‘Trying to come to grips with the Vesteys over tax is like trying to squeeze a rice pudding.’

A poster in Williamsburgh's Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

A poster in Williamsburgh’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

The only way to prevent tax evasion and organised crime is through better policing and enforcement of the law. But when food is involved, it is absolutely crucial for efficient regulatory bodies to be put in place. The publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906, which exposed the appalling conditions under which people worked and cattle were slaughtered in Chicago’s meat packing industry, so appalled readers that momentum behind legislation to enforce standards of animal welfare and hygiene and prevent food adulteration, gathered. The same year, Teddy Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drugs Act into law. Even though sustained lobbying from big food had weakened America’s regulatory bodies – and has allowed for an increase in instances of contaminated food being recalled – American food is considerably safer now than it was at the end of the nineteenth century.

Without regulation, disasters like the recent milk scandal in China, can occur. Indeed, in 2011 a study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become sick – and 8,500 die – each year from food poisoning. Other than the discovery of melamine in milk and infant formula, there have also been scandals around ‘meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters.’

Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores.

These discoveries – of deadly infant formula, endemic tax evasion among big food companies, food cartels, forged hygiene certificates, forced labour, and deliberately mislabeled meat – are made only at the end of a series of criminal acts. Trying to fix food systems at the point at which food scandals are discovered – by blaming shoppers for buying cheap meat or for supporting multinational companies – avoids tackling the major, systemic problems which allow for businesses not to pay tax, or for criminals to take over the food chain. It’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Sources

Jennifer Ning Chang, ‘Vertical Integration, Business Diversification, and Firm Architecture: The Case of the China Egg Produce Company in Shanghai, 1923-1950,’ Enterprise and Society, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2005), pp. 419-451.

Arlene Finger Kantor, ‘Upton Sinclair and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906: “I Aimed at the Public’s Heart and by Accident I Hit It in the Stomach,”’ AJPH, vol. 66, no. 12 (December 1976), pp. 1202-1205.

I. R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.

Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna, ‘Trade Secrets: Italian Mafia Expands its Illicit Business,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2012, pp. 44-47.

Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (London: Vintage, [2011] 2012).

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

The Politics of the Plate

Last week, Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times that this year’s American presidential election may be the first time that the food movement enters mainstream politics. Pollan suggests that the debate around California’s Proposition 37, which would require all products containing genetically modified food to be labelled, is indicative of wider disenchantment with the American food industry:

What is at stake this time around is not just the fate of genetically modified crops but the public’s confidence in the industrial food chain. That system is being challenged on a great many fronts – indeed, seemingly everywhere but in Washington. Around the country, dozens of proposals to tax and regulate soda have put the beverage industry on the defensive, forcing it to play a very expensive (and thus far successful) game of Whac-A-Mole. The meat industry is getting it from all sides: animal rights advocates seeking to expose its brutality; public-health advocates campaigning against antibiotics in animal feed; environmentalists highlighting factory farming’s contribution to climate change.

This disillusionment with Big Food has produced an attempt at transparency by businesses like Monsanto and Nestle, whose recent advertising campaigns have gone out of their way to paint these organisations as purveyors of honest good food.

Pollan wonders, though, if this public scepticism of the industrialised food chain, coupled with the relatively recent interest in ‘whole’ and ‘real’ food sold at farmers’ markets, in vegetable box schemes, and at independent shops, will translate into anti-Big Food votes. In other words, will – largely – middle-class willingness to support small and local producers translate into a political movement?

But this certainly won’t be the first time that food has become a vehicle for political engagement. In fact, it was through food and drink that women all over the world first entered politics at the end of the nineteenth century.

When I went through the photographs I took on a recent trip to Australia, I realised that I’d taken pictures of coffee palaces in nearly every town and city I had visited – these are a couple of them:

Fremantle, Perth

Melbourne

These coffee palaces were established in Australia – and elsewhere – by the temperance movement which swept the globe during the nineteenth century. Coffee palaces, coffee shops, and other, similar, cafes and meeting places were meant to entice men away from pubs, saloons, and ‘canteens’, as they were called in South Africa.

Temperance was one of several causes – from single, working women to abused and neglected animals and children – associated with middle-class philanthropic organisations during the Victorian period. From the 1870s, though, temperance became increasingly associated with women.

The founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the US in 1874 was a pivotal moment – not only in the history of opposition to public drinking, but in the development of feminism. Jed Dannenbaum describes its origins:

On Sunday, December 23, 1873, Boston-based itinerant lecturer Dio Lewis visited the community of Hillsboro, Ohio. His topic for the evening was temperance reform. Lewis urged the women of the community to band together and pray in the local saloons in an attempt to close them. The next day, Christmas Eve, a group of Hillsboro women enacted Lewis’s plan. The Women’s Crusade had begun.

In the next four months over 32,000 women in more 300 Ohio communities participated in the Crusade. The movement spread throughout the country to several hundred other communities, and in many the crusades succeeded in closing, at least temporarily, all the local retail liquor outlets. The Women’s Crusade severely disrupted the liquor trade and forced out of business manufacturers and wholesalers as well as retailers. Within the year the Crusade had evolved into the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an organisation that was to help shape American history for many decades to come.

Although predated by local temperance organisations, a branch of the WCTU was established in the Cape Colony in 1889 after the visit of an American woman activist to the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington, a small town in the wheat- and wine-producing south-western Cape. Huguenot was modelled on Mount Holyoke Seminary in Connecticut and was staffed by American teachers, who invited representatives of the WCTU to tour the colony.

As in other parts of the world, the Cape WCTU campaigned against the sale of alcohol, promoted temperance by persuading teetotalers to sign pledges never to drink, and organised clubs and societies for children. The Myrtle Branch – run by the Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Wellington – taught children about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, as the secretary noted of a meeting in 1896:

Mrs Fehr spoke to us, she told us that strong drink leads to anger, debt, despair, destruction, and death and showed us how it leads on from one to the other.

Why, then, the appeal of temperance work to so many middle-class women? All over the world, it was a movement to protect the family – specifically women and children – against the violence and erratic behaviour of alcoholic men. Pubs, saloons, and canteens were seen as places where family budgets were squandered on cheap drink, while wives and children waited at home, anxiously, for the return of drunken, and potentially violent, heads of households.

The Cape’s WCTU – like sister unions in Britain and elsewhere – broadened its activities to campaign to protect women and children from ‘vice’, disease, and abuse. It ran a strong campaign against the re-introduction of the Contagious Diseases Act in the Cape in 1891 on the grounds that it was an ‘indignity to women’. In 1893, allied with organisations like the Citizen’s Law and Order League and the Women’s Purity Society, the WCTU campaigned for the raising of the age of consent for girls from twelve to fourteen years, and also for the better control, or eradication, of brothels and prostitution.

It made sense, then, that the WCTU in the Cape established a franchise department in 1895, on the grounds that women’s demands would only be taken more seriously if they could wield power via the ballot box. The collection of Women’s Enfranchisement Leagues established around South Africa between 1902 and 1910 – which were united as the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union in 1911 – owed their origins to the WCTU.

What the campaign against alcohol did was to allow women to enter the male-dominated public sphere. Women and children, they argued, bore the brunt of men’s alcoholism. Theirs was a campaign to maintain the sanctity of family life.

In the United States, a similar movement grew up around concerns about the safety of food processed in factories. A series of scandals drew attention to the ways in which manufacturers added a range of substances – from chalk to arsenic – either to make products go further, or to improve their colour and texture. The women-led campaign for pure food – which culminated in the passing of the Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Act in 1906 under Teddy Roosevelt – was also described as a movement to protect the family.

For all the controversy over the campaign for women’s suffrage around the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it’s worth noting that the food- and drink-based campaigns that gave rise to the franchise movement were often deeply conservative. Writing about the pure food campaigners in the 1880s and 1890s, Lorine Swainston Goodwin explains:

They had formed independent literary clubs, village improvement societies, women’s granges, mother’s circles, and a wide assortment of other groups dedicated to self-improvement and to the well-being of their families and neighbours. The altruistic nature, conservative facade, and vitality of the new organisations appealed to a wide cross-section of discreet women who saw the need to improve and protect their society by employing prudent means, such as circulating petitions, and using personal influence, expose, and court action to achieve effective methods of controlling food, drink, and drugs.

Temperance, too, was often a deeply conservative movement – and this extended to the franchise campaign. The WEAU in South Africa campaigned only for white women’s right to vote; Emmeline Pankhurst was a lifelong Tory; and it’s striking how many British suffragettes went on to be enthusiastic supporters of fascism. Early feminism was not necessarily on the political left.

Pollan’s appeal for the food movement to enter politics is part of a fairly long history of food-based political campaigning. And although it’s clear that he imagines that supporters of the anti-Big Food lobby will vote for Obama (and please do, lovely American readers – and you can donate to his campaign here), there are some lessons to be learned from the temperance and pure food movements of the late nineteenth century: people – women, in particular – became involved in them because they perceived drunkenness and adulterated food to be threats to everyday life. They also meshed with women’s dissatisfaction with being left out of the political process.

Unfortunately, many of the markers of Pollan’s food movement of the early twenty-first century – like farmers’ markets – are perceived as being out-of-reach of the average American. For the food movement to enter politics, it needs to make itself relevant to the lived experiences of ordinary people – and to connect to concerns, like unemployment or welfare, which they feel to be more important. It needs to shed its aura of elitism.

Further Reading

Jack S. Blocker, Jr., ‘Separate Paths: Suffragists and the Women’s Temperance Crusade,’ Signs, vol. 10, no. 3 (Spring, 1985), pp. 460-476.

Jed Dannenbaum, ‘The Origins of Temperance Activism and Militancy among American Women,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter, 1981), pp. 235-252.

SE Duff, ‘onschuldig vermaak’: The Dutch Reformed Church and Children’s Leisure Time in the Cape Colony, 1860-1890,’ South African Historical Journal, vol. 63, no. 4 (2011), pp. 495-513.

SE Duff, ‘Saving the Child to Save the Nation: Poverty, Whiteness, and Childhood in the Cape Colony, c.1870-1895,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 37, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 229-245.

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914 (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1999).

Elizabeth van Heyningen, ‘The Social Evil in the Cape Colony 1868-1902: Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 10, no. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 170-197.

Cherryl Walker, ‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement: The Politics of Gender, Race and Class,’ in Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945, ed. Cherryl Walker (Cape Town: David Philip, 1990), pp. 313-345.

Cherryl Walker, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in South Africa (Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, 1979).

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

Food Links, 10.10.2012

How rubber tappers in Indonesia are experiencing the food crisis.

Taking another look at African agriculture.

Tristram Stuart on food waste.

The implications of high food prices in the Middle East.

How Mitt Romney helped Monsanto to take over the world.

Hooters is trying to attract…female customers.

Jay Rayner on the incredible value of school breakfast clubs.

Justice Malala looks forward to the food at Manguang. (Thanks, Dad!)

Australia‘s food revolution.

New York’s earliest hamburgers.

An introduction to the tomatillo.

Chef’s Mask II. (Thanks, Mum!)

The rise of haute macho.

Prize-winning giant vegetables.

Microbiology and food.

How to make a baking tin out of foil.

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins opens a…tea shop.

Durian ice cream.

Is hundred-year-old sourdough be a myth?

Simon Hopkinson on how to boil an egg.

Zelda Fitzgerald, in cake. (Thanks, Jane-Anne!)

Gatsby gumballs.

A short interview with Yotam Ottolenghi.

The black-and-white McDonald’s burgers in China.

How to boil water without bubbles.

Nigel Slater’s favourite recipe books.

An A to Z of food trends.

The world’s most expensive meals.

Quinoa.

Why French Masterchef is better than English Masterchef.

An extract from the second volume of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries.

The perfectly fried egg.

Fifty Shades of Chicken.

Preserving quinces.

Jerusalem street food.

What to eat and drink in Mauritius.

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).

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

Food Links, 11.04.2012

Abolish the food industry.

Eight ways Monsanto fails at sustainable agriculture.

The rise and rise of KFC in Africa.

What does sweetness sound like?

Inside the matzo industry.

Jezebel is characteristically sensible about the new Caveman Diet fad.

The banana industry in 1935.

An interview with Colin Tudge.

What is mindful eating?

An interview with Judith Jones, Julia Child’s editor.

Yogurt as a tool for social critique and political action in Greece. (No, really.)

Where the staff at Noma like to eat.

How sound influences how we taste food.

A new fashion for iguana meat?

The hidden messages in menus.

Pizza in a jar.

Werner Herzog on chickens.

How to cook like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Five dinner party menus from the Obama administration.

The war against plastic straws.

How to be a jamon carver.

A Russian food primer.

Statistics on pizza consumption.

The dos and don’ts of doughnuts.

President Obama fires a marshmallow cannon.

A black market for designer ice cubes?

A urine-powered restaurant in Melbourne.

How to make your own doner kebab.

Vegetable fat carving.

These are courtesy of my eagle-eyed Mum:

The Great American Cereal Book.

The vegetable man.

Baking the white sandwich loaf of 1950s America. (Really, if you’re going to read any of these links, make it this one.)

Asian ingredients in Senegalese dishes.

The historic cakes of Spitalfields.

Jeffrey Steingarten visits Japan.

A gallery of chickens.

The amazing Coromoto ice cream shop.

Baked hard-boiled eggs.

The Conflict Kitchen.

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, 31.08.2011

On Spanish pigs.

What to drink with your meal if you’re teetotal.

Where are the undernourished?

This infographic demonstrates beautifully that healthy food tends to be more expensive than sugary, salty snack food.

Chocolate is good for your heart.

Tom Philpott reviews Nick Cullather‘s The Hungry World, a new history of the Green Revolution.

The dangers of ‘detox’.

On the famine in Somali: It’s the Politics…Stupid.

Transforming fridges into cinemas.

The rise of street food in Britain.

Are vegetables losing their nutrients?

Mark Bittman discusses US legislation around salmonella.

A Swedish man splits atoms in his kitchen. I think this is glorious. And this is his blog which is named, of course, Richard’s Reactor.

On the rise of the ‘super insects’ which are resistant to the pesticides which the evil empire Monsanto markets alongside its seeds.

The tricks of food photography (thanks Isabel!).

How far would you travel for amazing food?

Is eating well and healthily always expensive?

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.

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

Public service announcement: if you’re in Cape Town and would like to know more about the Protection of Information Bill and what YOU can do about it, come to Right2Know‘s public meeting on Tuesday, 7 June, at 18:00 at Idasa, 6 Spin Street. Judith February will be joined by Pregs Govender, Zapiro, Pierre de Vos, and others.

This week Oxfam published a report on the state of the world’s food systems. Titled ‘Growing a Better Future,’ the study argues that by 2030 the world will be in a state of permanent food crisis. Staples will cost twice as much in twenty years time, with the price of maize increasing by as much as 180%. The world’s poorest will be the worst affected by the crisis. As demand for food outstrips supply and places pressure on existing food distribution systems, more than a billion people will go hungry every day.

Already, the average growth rate in agricultural yields has halved since 1990, and this is set to decline even further. A combination of factors have converged to produce this crisis. Climate change, increasingly limited natural resources, commodity speculation, the demand for biofuels, population growth, and changing, more meat- and dairy-heavy diets are working to destabilise our food system.

The result of the food crisis is not only hunger, but poverty and increasing political upheaval:

we have entered an age of growing crisis, of shock piled upon shock: vertiginous food price spikes and oil price hikes, devastating weather events, financial meltdowns, and global contagion. Behind each of these, slow-burn crises continue to smoulder: creeping and insidious climate change, growing inequality, chronic hunger and vulnerability, the erosion of our natural resources. The broken food system is at once a driver of this fragility and highly vulnerable to it.

Alongside this report, Oxfam has launched a campaign, ‘Grow’, to publicise its set of solutions to the food crisis. It’s attempting to mobilise opposition to land grabs and commodity speculation, to promote small-scale agriculture, and also to highlight awareness of the links between climate change and food prices.

In his analysis of the report, Mark Lynas makes the point that one of its most interesting features is its pragmaticism. The report notes (rightly):

The romanticisation of ‘the peasant’ and rejection of new technologies and trade have the potential to lock farmers into poverty. International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods.

It even adds:

Large-scale agriculture also has a role to play in meeting the sustainable production challenge. It is better able to meet the exacting standards that have come to characterize the food supply chains that feed burgeoning cities. Moreover, as economic development takes place, and labour costs rise relative to capital costs, larger, more mechanized modes of production become more viable, in turn providing an exit from agriculture for poor rural people as long as sufficient jobs are created in industry.

Has Oxfam lost its marbles? Of course not. This report is a tacit rejection of the idea that industrialisation is itself the cause of the instability of the food system. It makes the point that while technology may have caused incredible damage to ecosystems and even reduced yields, it has the potential to get us out of this crisis as well. The issue isn’t the technology itself, but, rather, the way in which it is used.

I am concerned that Oxfam will have an uphill battle over this point. So many organisations seem to have swallowed whole the concept that we need to return to the farming, cooking, and eating of the past in order to eat better in the present, and future. The Oxfam report demonstrates that our food crisis is so complex that this simplistic way of thinking about food simply won’t do.

As I wrote last week, the Slow Food Movement has long described itself as offering an alternative way of thinking about food. I think that despite the good that Slow Food has done in the world, its views on food and the past are not only deeply troubling, but actively harmful. Its Manifesto on the Future of Food argues for a wholesale rejection of all forms of technology and a ‘transition to a more decentralized, democratic and cooperative, non-corporate, small-scale organic farming as practiced by traditional farming communities, agroecologists, and indigenous peoples for millennia.’

The Slow Food Manifesto (and Slow Food seems to like nothing more than a manifesto) states:

Our defence should begin at the table with Slow Food.  Let us rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food. In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer. … Slow Food guarantees a better future.

It is partly this enthusiasm for the regional, the local, the ‘indigenous’, and the ‘traditional’ which makes me question that Slow Food does guarantee a ‘better future’. To which ‘tradition’ do we return?

It’s particularly interesting that Slow Food originated in Italy. This is a country with a heavily invented notion of its own food traditions, and a suitably bad memory of what Italians really did eat in the recent past.

Up until the end of the First World War, Italian diets were very poor – which, given Italy’s climate, terrain, and precarious political situation throughout the nineteenth century, isn’t terribly surprising. Most main meals consisted either of bread or polenta with onions, oil, and whatever cheap fish and vegetables were available. The components of what we now believe to be the age-old Italian or Mediterranean diet – pasta, tomatoes, wine, dairy products, and other fresh produce – were eaten only during festivals. Carol Helstosky writes in Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy:

Although few people starved or fell seriously ill from malnutrition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the majority of the Italian population did not consume a nutritionally adequate diet because of economic and political constraints on their behaviour as consumers and eaters. Subsistence farming and local markets characterized Italian agriculture while a weak national economy limited consumer options, even for urban workers and members of the middle class. … Italian consumers remained trapped in a post-subsistence economy for multiple reasons, unable to make the transition to a more varied and nutritious diet.

The change came in 1919. During the Great War, state control over food distribution systems meant that the diets of ordinary Italians actually improved. (Something similar happened in Britain during the Second World War.) Diets were increasingly more homogenous, and wheat flour began to replace maize and other carbohydrates.

In addition to this, Italian immigrants in the United States began to shape a new kind of national cuisine. Even relatively poor, newly-arrived Italians could afford a greater variety of food in America than they could at home. They were able to buy the tomatoes, pasta, and olive oil which they couldn’t afford in Italy. Helstosky adds:

as Italians began to leave the peninsula for greater economic opportunities in the Americas and elsewhere, they sought to recreate familiar dishes. This led to a growing body of consumers for Italian products (dried pasta, canned tomatoes, and olive oil), which in turn greatly aided the development of certain food industries within Italy. Only after substantial numbers of Italians abroad began consuming these foods did domestic production furnish more products for Italians at home. Ironically, it was because of the ‘imagined communities’ outside Italy that the food industry inside Italy produced the goods that became the foundations of Italian cuisine.

In America, this invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

In a sense, ‘Italian cuisine’ was created in a dialogue between poor, badly nourished Italians in Italy and their wealthier, better-fed cousins in the United States. During the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, Italians began to eat the same food as Italian immigrants, supplementing their diets to a greater extent with meat and dairy products. They also began to link this invented notion of Italian food with being Italian.

The Italian cuisine promoted by the Slow Food Movement was created in the United States and in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century. The ‘traditional’ food to which Slow Food harks back is not the chestnut flour and woody vegetables of inadequate nineteenth-century peasant diets, but, rather, the invented ‘traditional’ Italian food of artisanal olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red peppers, prosciutto, and ricotta.

This is only one example of how a rose-tinted, faulty understanding of history hides the fact that peasant diets – both in the past and those in the present – are produced by backbreaking labour and are usually nutritionally inadequate. We are taller, healthier, and live longer today because our diets are more varied and contain more protein than those of our ancestors.  To suggest to peasants that their diets are somehow better than those in the West is patronising and ignorant.

But the technologies of the twentieth century which revolutionised our food systems are not sustainable. The Green Revolution’s enthusiasm for pesticides and large-scale irrigation, the neglect of small farmers, industrial agriculture, and the increasing concentration of the world’s food supply in the hands of a small collection of supermarkets, agricultural businesses, and food companies, have helped to land us in the situation we’re in now. Clearly, things need to change. Tim Lang writes:

An entire 20th-century approach to food modernity is under threat. Consumer expectations, not least that we can eat whatever we like whenever we like, are at stake. The 20th century squandered scientific possibilities. It created the fiction that ever more food can be produced by tapping oil, throwing fertiliser at seeds, spraying endless water and treating the soil as blotting paper, a neutral medium. We now know how fragile that mix is, and how fragile the Earth’s crust and biology are too.

The future of food is not in the past. Even the Slow Food Movement celebrates a peasant diet which was invented partly in twentieth-century North America. I believe very strongly that we can learn from history to improve our eating and attitudes towards food today, but an unthinking return to ‘tradition’ is both impossible and undesirable.

Update: for more on the general dodginess of Slow Food, see Luca Simonetti’s excellent analysis of the moment’s political and ideological leanings.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Robert Bailey, Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World (Oxfam, 2011).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy (Oxford and New York: Berg, [2004] 2006).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Jerry Mander (ed.), Manifesto on the Future of Food (The International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, 2006).

Other sources:

Julia Csergo, ‘The Emergence of Regional Cuisines,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 500-515.

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).

Donna R. Gabaccia, ‘As American as Budweiser and Pickles? Nation Building in American Food Industries,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 175-193.

Kolleen M. Guy, ‘Rituals of Pleasure in the Land of Treasures: Wine Consumption and the Making of French Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 34-47.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others,’ in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 99-113.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘The Tortilla Discourse: Nutrition and Nation Building,’ in iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), pp. 77-97.

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

Revolution, Revival, and Food

Over the past fortnight another corporate conglomerate has bid to replace the evil empire Monsanto as the most problematic business within the global food industry. It has emerged that the Swiss-based Glencore,  a commodity trader specialising in energy and food which was listed publicly for the first time this week, was partly responsible for causing the hike in food prices at the end of last year when it became clear that Russia’s grain crop would be badly damaged by catastrophic fires. Raj Patel explains:

Glencore has now revealed its traders placed bets that the price of wheat would go up. On 2 August Glencore’s head of Russian grain trading called on Russia’s government to ban wheat exports. Three days later, that’s what it did. The price of wheat went up by 15% in two days. Of course, just because a senior executive at one of the world’s most powerful companies suggested a course of action that a country chose to follow doesn’t mean Glencore made it happen. But happen it did, and the consequences rippled round the world.

At the time, Mozambique experienced a massive uprising in response to increased food and fuel prices. Protests were organised via text messages and, in actions that foreshadowed those of governments in the Arab spring, the Mozambican state responded by shutting down text capability for pre-paid phones and sweeping up hundreds of protesters. Over a dozen people died, many were injured, and millions of dollars of damage was caused. It’s safe to say that tens of thousands were pushed further towards hunger as a result of the higher wheat prices.

Six months later, the Arab world exploded. The riots which began the insurrection in Tunisia were partly in response to high food prices. In Egypt, the government increased spending on wheat to compensate for a fifty percent hike in the cost of imported grain and cereals – even so, the price of bread rose by a quarter in Cairo’s private markets. In Libya, expensive and scarce food has fuelled the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. Even the World Bank has woken up to the connection between food prices and political unrest, and warned that unstable regimes in North Africa and the Middle East were seriously undermined by discontent over the price of staples, like bread and pulses.

This association of high food prices and revolution isn’t anything new, as this graph posted by Paul Mason on his blog, shows:

Bread Prices, 1848 and 2011

What this graphic demonstrates is the extent to which political instability and the cost of food, and bread especially, are connected. This is particularly interesting because the graph links the Springtime of the Peoples, the ‘failed’ revolutions of 1848, with this year’s Arab Spring. In 1848, only four countries were immune to the revolution which swept Europe: Russia and Poland, and Britain and Belgium. The first two had small middle classes – the group largely responsible for the upheaval in the rest of Europe – and very efficient means of controlling and monitoring dissent. The second two had strong, flexible constitutional governments which could implement change and respond effectively to demands for reform.

High food prices are not, then, the main cause of revolutions, but it is telling that Britain could feed her population for less than did other nations in Europe in 1848. With the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 and improvements in technology which allowed commodities to be shipped around the world more quickly, grain prices remained low in Britain throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

I think that it’s best to think about food protests as catalysts for revolutions: they cause people who would not normally take to the streets – women in particular – to become involved in anti-government demonstrations. Protesting about food prices or shortages is not an especially politically partisan activity. Food protests demand simply that the state successfully distribute food and regulate prices – that it, in other words, fulfil one of its most basic obligations to its citizens.

As the Nobel prize-winning economist and all-round good egg Amartya Sen argued in his classic Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), food shortages and famines tend to occur not when there isn’t enough food to go around, but, rather, when it isn’t distributed effectively. This happens when systems of exchange – a labourer works in exchange for money which she can exchange for food – break down or change radically. Writing in 1976, Sen explained:

A recent example was the 1974 famine in Bangladesh. The flood that destroyed the crop did reduce the availability of food, but the sharp decline in employment and the failure of exchange entitlement of labour was immediate, and the famine was made severe by that.

The European potato crop failed in the mid-1840s because of an infection of Phytophthora infestans, but it was only in Ireland that this caused widespread and devastating famine. In 1845, at least a third of the Irish population ate only potatoes. When the blight destroyed the year’s supply of potatoes there seemed to be nothing else to eat. Why? After all, not all Irish people were dependent on potatoes in the mid-nineteenth century: about half ate grains as well. A century and a half previously, all the Irish ate a considerably more varied diet. The difference was that the system of assizes – rules originating during the medieval period which governed the weight, quality, and distribution of bread – were repealed in 1838, allowing the price of bread the rise according to market forces. This meant that the Irish who were starving in 1845, and these were, overwhelmingly, the poorest proportion of the population, weren’t able to buy bread – of which there was enough to feed everyone.

Famines are caused by bad harvests, but they are also the product of dysfunctional systems of trade and distribution. It’s little wonder that they should cause revolutions: they demonstrate very clearly when governments are no longer able to respond to the needs of populations. In France, the Flour War erupted in 1775 after the introduction of laissez-faire economic policies caused the ancient guild system to go into a terminal decline: the groups of merchants who had once controlled the pricing and trade of grain and flour in France were no longer responsible for doing so, and bread prices rocketed. The widespread violence – caused frequently by women – forced Louis XVI to fire Jacques Turgot, his controller general.

This was a prime example of the state’s inability to feed and care for its subjects. The War was also partly responsible for politicising poor French women, who on 5 October 1789 marched to Versailles to demand that Louis sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and that he lower the price of bread. This very, very angry mob of women forced the royal family not only to accede to the new revolutionary Assembly, but to move to Paris.

The Women's March to Versailles, 5 October 1789

It isn’t necessarily the case the famine and food shortages will cause revolution: there was a catastrophic famine in North Korea in the mid-nineties and the country still has periodic food shortages, but dissent has not been allowed to grow into any significant anti-government activity. This is due to the effectiveness of North Korea’s security forces and to the fact that North Koreans are simply too hungry, too tired, and too broken to overthrow their leadership. They have been starved into submission.

But food shortages are responsible for other mass movements too. The Cape Colony experienced a series of bad droughts during the second half of the nineteenth century, the worst of which occurred in the late 1850s and early 1860s, at the same time as outbreaks of rust on the wheat and the appearance of the oidium mildew on vineyards. The Cape’s newspapers described the increasingly desperate situation in rural areas: all the water dried up in Swellendam, farmers lost their sheep and horses, and the land was too dry to plough; there were allegations that farmers were stealing water from neighbouring farms’ rivers in Ladysmith; in Victoria West and Calvinia the cost of meat, groceries and other household goods rose sharply, and transporting produce to Port Elizabeth was almost impossible as draught animals were in short supply. Finding freshly-slaughtered mutton – the meat of choice in the Cape – was difficult. On top of this, the population, many of whom had already been weakened physically by food shortages, was also subjected to ‘unusually virulent’ epidemics of measles, typhus, and ‘white sore throat’ (diphtheria).

It is no coincidence that the 1860 Great Revival began in the worst affected rural areas. From the 1850s onwards, the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church – numerically the biggest church in the Colony and the most politically powerful – had encouraged its members to pray for revival and religious ‘awakening’. Religious revivals are group manifestations of intense emotion, ranging from weeping and fainting to trances and speaking in tongues during which supplicants pray for conversion and salvation. Clergymen ascribed these outbursts of extreme religious enthusiasm to the presence of the Holy Spirit, but they were as much the product of social and economic change as anything else. There were at least three major revivals which swept most of the congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church in the nineteenth century (in 1860, 1874-1875, and 1884-1885), as well as several smaller, more localised ones.

The Great Revival in 1860 began in the colony’s impoverished, hungry, and desperate rural interior. It was brought to the attention of the church’s leadership when a fifteen year-old coloured servant girl went into an ecstatic trance during a service in Worcester – then the parish of Andrew Murray jnr, one of the church’s most prominent ministers. The girl lived in the rural village of Montagu and was visiting friends in Worcester. Her behaviour, which whipped the other congregants into a religious frenzy, mimicked that which had taken root at her church in Montagu. The revival subsequently from Worcester throughout the Cape.

The colonial state – rightly – blamed farmers’ unwillingness to conserve water during times of plenty for the devastating effects of the drought. But others – including members of the Dutch Reformed Church – accused the Cape’s government of not doing enough to help them, and believed that the scarcity of rain and food were a punishment from God. People’s willingness to turn to the church and to religion – away, in other words, from the state – showed that the authority of the state was being undermined by the crisis.

Similar circumstances contributed to the uprisings in the Arab world: instead of turning to charismatic religion, people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere demanded the removal of unpopular, corrupt, and dysfunctional regimes. In a time of increasing food scarcity and volatility, governments will have to work harder to prove their necessity to their citizenry.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Cynthia A. Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993).

L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (London: Granta, 2010).

S.E. Duff, ‘What will this child be? Children, Childhood, and the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony, 1860-1895’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 2010).

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Barbara Clark Smith, ‘Food Rioters and the American Revolution,’ The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 3-38.

Other sources:

Wayne Dooling, Slavery, Emancipation, and Colonial Rule in South Africa (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

André du Toit, ‘The Cape Afrikaners’ Failed Liberal Moment, 1850-1870,’ in Democratic Liberalism in South Africa: Its History and Prospect, eds. Jeffrey Butler, Richard Elphick, and David Welsh (Middletown and Cape Town: Wesleyan University Press and David Philip, 1987), pp. 35-64.

Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, trans. R.A. Wilson (London: SCM, 1976).

Steven Laurence Kaplan, Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade during the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Rhoads Murphey, ‘Provisioning Istanbul: The State and Subsistence in the Early Modern Middle East,’ Food and Foodways 2 (1988), pp. 217-263.

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