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Monday, July 22, 2013

A greedy man in a hungry world

“A greedy man in a hungry world” is the title of a new book by Jay Rayner, an award winning author, journalist and most notably, restaurant critic. Anybody seriously interested in the food chain should read this book. It is highly informative, funny and embraces a fair degree of autobiography. There are a number of key points made by the author.

The first is the folly of the polarization of views in any discussion on food. Thus if you think supermarkets are a good idea, then you are seen to be opposed to local, slow food. If you are not convinced by the environmental or economic arguments for local farmers markets, then you are a supporter of global food trade. And if you eat food out of season, you are betraying the natural order of things. Rayner makes the point that you can see the great value of supermarkets while at the same time seeing the shortcomings of this sector. You can support local food suppliers but not accept the case of “food miles”. Thus food warriors who can only see slow, natural and local food are slated in his book and in my view, rightly so. In describing the case for only eating what is in season, he writes thus: ”Arguing for a food policy based on the kind of principles that would make the Amish look like a bunch of happy-go-lucky, profligate Sybarites may make a certain type of gimlet-eyed, self-regarding food warrior feel smug and self- righteous. It may make them glow with an inner purity. ‘Feel my deep well of virtue. Stroke my inner goodness”. And so on. But it will not provide a solution.”

Rayner, rightly, does not believe that the business-as-usual model will work and he recognises the need for reform of the present structure of the food chain. The UK’s capacity to feed itself, for example, fell from 70% efficiency in the mid-1990s to just 58% in 2011. In 2001, there were 2.25 million cows in Britain. By 2012, the dairy herd population had fallen to 1.85 million, all of 400,000 cows less. And the reason? Supermarket power was driving down prices paid to its suppliers such that farmers were being paid 25p per liter while the cost of production was 27p per liter. As a colleague of mine quips: “What is the difference between a supermarket buyer and a terrorist? Well, you can negotiate with a terrorist”!

Economics lies at the heart of many of the points made by the author and he has called for the establishment of a new branch of study, “gastronomics” combining gastronomy and economics. Take two examples.  In 1962 the average salary in the UK was £799 per annum. That increased 30 fold by 2012 to £26,000. In contrast, house prices in that period rose from an average of £2,670 to £245,000, an increase of 90 fold. Two incomes now became a necessity and the tedium of high street shopping in the green grocers, the grocers, the butchers, the egg man, the cheese man and so on became impossible. Welcome to the one stop shop the supermarket where you could buy everything at one visit at any time of the day. Supermarkets and women’s liberation are linked. On the other side of the coin, the global food chain has shown great vulnerability to natural and man-made events – a bad harvest in Australia, a cyclone in the Bay of Biscay, the US drive to supply the bio-ethanol industry with corn, a rise in the cost of oil which inflated farming input prices and the ever growing demand for meat and dairy products in China. In the space of 2 years between 2006 and 2008, the price of rice rose 217%, wheat by 136%, corn by 125% and soya by 107%. These massive fluctuations in food commodity prices will continue unless there is a move to ensure a stable and sustainable food chain. For supermarkets, the real problem will be supply. Local food production has fallen because supermarkets can buy the same products cheaper from elsewhere in the world where the natural advantage favours that particular food. Thus in New Zealand, the yield of apples is 50 tonnes per hectare while in the UK it is 14. However, the present monopoly of Western supermarkets might be challenged by the growing demand in economics such as China. The New Zealanders will sell apples to the buyer with the biggest purchase price, who are likely to be residents of the great Asian cities. Looking into the future, we can expect food prices to rise and we can expect some return to self-sustainability in food in individual EU states.

Prices are also a feature of his criticism of farmers’ markets: “Farmers’ markets are brilliant places. As are Ferrari showrooms, and glossy shops selling Chanel handbags. If you’ve got the cash, go right ahead. Knock yourself out”. Organic food is also slated for its feeble arguments and Rayner welcomes GM food but he states that “Biofuels are total bollocks”.

In addition to an excellent and amusing narrative about the food chain covering hunger, big agriculture and sustainable agriculture, Rayner also writes about his childhood growing up in London in a “culturally” Jewish family, his children and the hospitalization of his son with complicated appendicitis and of course his Mum, Clare Rayner the author and famous agony aunt, her life and death. This is a lovely book. Enjoy its facts, its humour and its pathos.

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