Book Review – A Greedy Man in a Hungry World

I love being on holiday. By the middle of July, after  a hectic few months, I was loving being in Greece, on the beach, reading, reading, reading.

Hence – another book review post! (And I know I said I would do these every second Tuesday but I’ve decided to go for every second Friday instead…..)

Jay Rayner’s “A Greedy Man in a Hungry World” is a fascinating look at the global food industry that may turn any preconceived notions about the food you should be eating on its head. Supermarkets are evil, and small, locally grown produce is the best, right? Perhaps not…. If you shop at farmer’s markets and butchers, I’d recommend reading this if only to get a better idea of what is going on. Or, if you are as skeptical as I am about the “diet” / “healthy food” industry, read this to back up your skepticism!

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Jay portrays both sides of the debate and shows the food industry in its full complexity, for example, following a chapter entitled “Why Supermarkets are Not Evil” with one entitled “Supermarkets are Evil“. He travels to Rwanda to see food production and malnutrition there, and then to the U.S., where malnutrition comes in the form of obesity and everything is HUGE, from the size of the portions to the size of the farms. His main argument concerns the need for nuanced debate. We are a growing world population with a climate problem and we need to produce enough food to feed everyone in the world, cheaply enough so that people can afford it without becoming malnourished. Especially when rising food prices, throughout history, have led to revolts and civil unrest, from the French Revolution, to the European 1989 Revolutions, to the so-called Arab Spring in 2011.

As a result, the issue is so important that it should not be allowed to polarise and become a

“shouting match between the hardcore knit-your-own-yoghurt foodinistas on the one side and the worst kind of grubby-handed climate-change-denying big business on the other”.

Jay, a food critic and journalist with a degree in Philosophy, visits huge food producers and makes a convincing argument for the efficiency of large scale production. For example, a farm of 10 fields only needs one tractor, but a farm of 20 fields would also be fine with just one tractor. By increasing the scale, you can increase efficiency and therefore decrease the amount of resources and energy used to produce food. So, if your aim is to be “environmentally friendly“, buying from that small, local producer at your local farmer’s market may be nice, but it is unlikely to be the most environmentally friendly way of getting your food.

Speaking of small, local producers … why do we care so much about having local food. He makes the point that our mobile phones are almost certainly not made in Britain and yet we don’t seem to care about that – there is no mass movement for only using technology created in the UK. Again, being local might not necessarily be the best thing for the environment. Jay gives an example from a study in New Zealand (Food Miles – Comparative Energy / Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry by Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber and Greg Taylor) which showed that lamb, apples and dairy products produced in NEW ZEALAND and shipped to the UK (i.e. the other side of the world) have a smaller carbon footprint than the equivalent products made in the UK – due to the environmental factors that make New Zealand just really good at producing those things.

The concept of food miles is therefore too simple. If you only look at the costs (financial and environmental) for transporting food, you are missing out a huge chunk of important information. You have to think about every aspect in the creation of the food, including, for example, the energy needed to build tractors, measured against the yield.

Take apples. New Zealand and Britain, in the study mentioned above, used roughly the same amount of nitrogen fertiliser per hectare. But New Zealand’s yield from that fertiliser was over three times as much. Land in some places is just better for growing some food than others. If, to grow that food locally, you need 3 times the amount of land to get the same amount of food – that’s not sustainable.

But Jay isn’t against growing your own food, per se, saying that “only an idiot would be anti the idea of growing your own fruit and vegetables” and highlighting the positives: exercise, community spirit, educating people in the link between the things they eat and how they are made, generating enthusiasm for fresh food rather than processed…. BUT small, local, independent producers growing tomatoes in their back garden does not make hard economic sense and cannot be a means of supplying the masses with cheap food.

The next issue that Jay talks about is organic food.  He says that there is no scientific evidence that eating organic has anything to do with improved health, and the love of organic food is based on a false premise which says “man-made really bad, non-man-made really good“. What about antibiotics, which has saved hundreds of millions of lives? What about medical advances around childbirth that have led to huge decreases in maternal mortality? Or what about copper sulphate, which is naturally occurring but extremely toxic to wildlife. Or E Coli O157 – a naturally occurring bacteria that kills.

Studies have shown organic farming produces yields up to 20% less than non-organic – which leads to another issue, that of space. There is not enough land in the world to rear all of the animals that we want to eat, free range. In 2011, 850 million chickens were slaughtered in Britain – imagine how much space that would take up, and how expensive it would be. We have rising global food prices anyway, a growing population, the likelihood that the amount of land available for farming will be getting smaller due to the effects of global warming …. So arguing for all animals to be reared free range, and for all food to be organic, is just not sustainable.

So maybe we should all be vegetarian? Nope – even that is not all hope and light. Apparently there are many diseases we used to suffer from at the turn of the century that we just don’t see anymore – and one of the reasons why is the fact that protein is now widely available and is more affordable. Plus:

“there is such clumsy, muddled thinking amongst so many vegetarians that they deserve to be goaded…the dairy and egg-eating vegetarians – the majority – fail to recognise that they are as complicit in animal slaughter as I am. Only female produce milk and lay eggs. What do these cheese soufflé eaters think happens to all the males at birth?”

Hard hitting, interesting facts are told through the medium of personal recollections and childhood memories which makes the whole book much more relateable, and had me laughing out loud with recognition in sections – constantly saying “James! Listen to this!” and then reading bits out, forgetting he’d already read the book (yes, I am annoying).

“The fact is, despite all the endless talk of gender equality, the way many men approach cooking is entirely different to the way many women do. We treat it like its a contact sport….. A man can make a salad, as long as it requires a lot – and I mean an afternoon full – of chopping and slicing… A man’s salad will usually also involve a certain amount of heat, if only to make the croutons or the completely unnecessary shards of crispy bacon… So what don’t men do? We don’t make soups… We also rarely make bread. You know how people say cooking is an inexact science? Well, they are right, apart from when it comes to making bread…”

It is a really very funny and personal book that gave me the evidence needed to back up my skepticism around a lot of the “healthy eating” claims and that had me laughing out loud. It is well worth a read.

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