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Industrialized Food

March 16, 2009

10 Things We Didn’t Know About Food

How the authors of the new Rough Guide to Food lost their appetites for the food industry.

by George Miller and Katharine Reeve

A surprise consequence of writing a book about food was that we lost our appetite. A month in, we realized we had underestimated just how devastating the effects of our industrial food systems are on our health, animal welfare, climate change and the earth’s resources.

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Thankfully, a few trips to some farmers markets with their good news story of artisan baking, handmade cheeses and fresh-from-the-ground veg offered the escapism we needed and helped provide a sense of perspective. 

Food, lies and red tape

Overwhelmingly we found that most of us simply don’t know much about food, having grown up knowing only supermarkets. In our confusion we are at the mercy of food manufacturers’ aggressive marketing campaigns, especially for highly profitable “healthy” foods.

The Food Standards Agency and the EU are now challenging manufacturers’ health claims. Yakult, we discovered, is essentially overpriced sweetened water with added bacteria marketed as a probiotic health drink (check the label: we naively assumed it was diluted live yogurt!). Why spend your money on foods that are not all they’re cracked up to be? Become a label checker and edit your shopping list: a good rule of thumb is the fewer and simpler the ingredients the better.

Ducks

We knew animals had a pretty bad time in order to provide us with ever cheaper meat; but we were shocked that their lives were literally not worth living. Despite our national attachment to Jemima Puddleduck, 98 per cent of the duck we eat comes from mass-produced, often mutilated animals which are packed into vast sheds and only see the light of day on their way to the slaughterhouse. Ducks have nowhere to swim.

Beware of misleading labels implying “freedom”; only the Soil Association accreditation offers any real guarantee of a decent standard of animal care. Top supermarkets for animal welfare are Waitrose and M&S – see Compassion in World Farming’s annual welfare league tables.

Food giants

We set out believing supermarkets were where power was concentrated in the food system, so it was a surprise to learn about the handful of mega-powerful transnational corporations which control most of the links in the food chain. Giant among giants is Cargill, whose $120bn turnover in 2008 was bigger than the GDP of two-thirds of the world’s nations. Cargill controls almost half of all the world’s grain trade and has, in the words of one commentator, “its tentacles in every aspect of the global food system” from meat and sugar to animal feed and fertilizer. This is worrying because it gives them incredible power over what we eat and our future food supplies.

Bitter chocolate

The extent of child labor in the cocoa industry came as a shock. It’s especially prevalent in the world’s leading producers in West Africa. Côte d’Ivoire, the biggest grower, has more than 100,000 child workers often enduring slave labor conditions involving the use of dangerous pesticides and machetes. There’s also cross-border child trafficking. The multi-billion-pound “Big Chocolate” industry hasn’t shown much interest in cleaning up its supply chain. Another good reason to choose Fairtrade.

Industry insiders

Reading The Grocer magazine regularly has been a bit like eavesdropping on the food industry’s private conversation. It was eye-opening to witness its determination to flog us syrupy drinks and salty snacks backed by seven-figure marketing campaigns. A cynic might quickly form the view that the industry’s ideal consumer never cooks, never reads the back of a packet and instead relies on it big processors’ corn, soya and sugar alchemy to cater for all their “meal and snack occasion” needs.

Our daily bread

As a nation we munch our way through 11 billion sandwiches a year (that’s 200 each). But popularity is no guarantee of quality. Glance at most bread wrappers and you’ll find a gruesome list of emulsifiers, preservatives, sweeteners and fats. These ingredients make for depressing spongy loaves with long shelf lives, even if they’ve got fancy French or Italian labels. One of the greatest pleasures of writing the book was discovering artisanal bakers who achieve miracles with nothing more mysterious than good flour, water and yeast – plus skill.

Fairtrade

Before writing this book our engagement with Fairtrade food was pretty half-hearted: a tendency to Divine chocolate and easily available bananas. Harriet Lamb, Director of the Fairtrade Foundation changed all that. She encouraged us to avoid out-of-season, air freighted green beans arguing that in comparison with the Kenyan bean farmer, who creates about 0.9 tons CO2 emissions per annum, our carbon footprint (at an average of 9.8 tons p.a.) was through the roof and that the free healthcare and education we take for granted has to be paid for in Kenya. Soberingly, it is the developed world’s predilection for meat and dairy products which accounts for half the carbon emissions associated with food.

Plenty more fish in the sea?

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that half of the world’s fish stocks are already being exploited to the hilt and a further quarter are now fished beyond maximum sustainable levels. But fish are tricky to monitor. Sustainability can depend on where and how a fish was caught as well as its species. Enough to induce paralysis at the fish counter. Fortunately, the Marine Stewardship Council’s certification scheme takes into account the full environmental impact of fishing. Look for their “tick-mark” logo on the fish, or even better, ask your fishmonger if you are lucky enough to still have one.

Fat futures

The UK has the highest obesity levels in Europe with more than 60 per cent of us now officially overweight or obese. But obesity is rather euphemistic, isn’t it? What we’re really talking about is people consuming far too much overprocessed foods and soft drinks: we can’t find the “off” switch. Thirty years of artificial sweeteners have not helped; in fact they’re part of the problem, creating ever-sweeter foods and encouraging cravings. It’s not just airline seats and hospital beds that are feeling the strain; health service budgets are threatened by the costs of a heavier and sicker nation as a result of obesity.

The upside of the credit crunch

The food landscape changed dramatically while writing this book: organic purchasing levelled out after high year-on-year increases; many are finding Farmers’ Markets and vegetable box schemes such as Riverford’s are cheaper ways of shopping and less stressful too; growing your own and cooking from scratch increasingly look like good ways to save money and rediscover the pleasures of food.

Click here to buy The Rough Guide to Food

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