on 15 March 2015
While I can’t say I found reading this book a pleasurable experience, I am grateful to Jay Rayner for helping to redefine an important aspect of my life. That is my life-long dedication to local (when possible) organic produce. I have in the past harboured beliefs that by choosing to shop this way I might be doing something positive for my planet and my community. I’ve never really questioned this attitude, or even examined it in all that much detail – until now.
It’s not that this book disproves these beliefs exactly. Most of the arguments presented here contain logical holes bigger than the one in the ozone layer. I say ‘most’ because this isn’t true of all - the air miles argument, to give one example, seems indisputable. But elsewhere we’re asked to accept that industrial farming is OK because ‘I’ve met the farmer and he’s actually a really nice guy’; that because Human Beings are ‘of nature’ it follows anything we do must be natural (LOL); and, my favourite, the you-might-as-well argument e.g. if you buy a phone made in China you-might-as-well buy Strawberries from Peru, and if you cultivate plants to your advantage over millennia of farming you-might-as-well go directly to their genes and do it in the lab. I guess then if you use moisturiser you-might-as-well get a face-lift, and if you’re attracted to your spouse because they are tall it gives you the green light to genetically design your offspring.
But while Rayner isn’t going to win any converts to his cause with such flimflam, he’s right about one thing – and this is something I didn’t fully realise before reading his book. The real reason I shop at the farmer’s market and love the words organic, local, and seasonal, has little to do with hard scientific evidence. If such evidence exists, I admit I don’t know all that much about it and I’m not going to pretend I do. What it has to do with, I now realise, is faith. There I am, every Saturday morning, worshiping at the alter of mud-caked carrots and bowing my head before… wait for it… £18 chickens! I go religiously. I have faith. Faith in what? Well, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I guess if you must have a word then ‘nature’ is as good as any other.
Rayner doesn’t believe in ‘nature’, and, Woody Allen like, openly admits to feeling uncomfortable outside of the built-up urban environment. More than that, the whole idea of a thing called nature that people should be somehow beholden to makes his blood boil, just as the religious notion of ‘God’ bothers the atheist. And like the atheist, Rayner seems to think that his stance makes him somehow more plausible – a more rational thinker. Maybe. But what Rayner fails to notice, as he blithely jets around the globe referring to massive industrial storage facilities as ‘cathedrals’ and getting all sentimental while staring out over huge fields of monstrously regimented apple trees, is that he’s banished one kind of irrational faith only to replace it with another – his faith in technology.
Now – I don’t share his faith just as he doesn’t share mine. I hold an innate suspicion toward the wonders of our technological age, and, believe me, my mobile phone is as dumb as they come. But my question is this – who’s to say which faith is the more valid? Nobody ever can, and our differences, like all differences of faith, are therefore irreconcilable. But I would say this – have faith, sure. Write books about it, sure. But own it for goodness sake. Recognise it for what it is – a gut reaction, a feeling. Don’t dress it up with a bunch of largely risible arguments and present it to the world as objective fact. And, more importantly, don’t allow yourself in your self-righteous, blinkered state, to sneer and look down your nose at the faith of others – a faith you simply do not understand. It’s immature, and has no place in a genuinely constructive debate.
on 7 June 2013
This book is probably the hardest I've ever read. I read it twice, not because it's full of big, complicated words or anything, no, it's actually very funny and incredibly entertaining. Jay Rayner is self-deprecating (almost cringingly so on occasion) and honest and it's very interesting. It's just hard because there are facts in it that made me question everything I currently believe about food, how I buy my food and where it comes from.
The book will take you on a journey from 1960s Kenton (where people like his mother spent half a day a week and probably a third of the family's weekly income food shopping), through heart-breaking Rwanda, where children are starving in a fertile, but overpopulated land, to today's supermarkets where 1 or 2p added to the price (and less BOGOFF deals) could make a massive difference to this country's farmers. It will introduce you to terms such as `sustainable intensification', `virtual hectares' and `gastronomics', and make you really scratch your head over GM foods and food miles.
This book is basically about feeding a burgeoning population. It's about why sometimes, buying local isn't, environmentally and economically, always the best option, and about why farming on a huge scale can be a good thing. This, of course, has upset everyone who believes that small-scale and local is best and I understand that, I really do. But (to totally oversimplify things) take Jay's example of potatoes. In Norfolk, with its peat-rich, loose soil, farmers can yield about 20 tonnes of potatoes per acre. But in London, with its hard, clay soil, they'd get more like 16 tonnes an acre. So in order to match Norfolk, London farmers would need much more fertiliser, or more land, or something. And all of this would impact on the carbon footprint of those potatoes. This, I understand.
I learned so much too. I know that China is buying up vast tranches of agricultural land in Africa to safeguard their future, and that biofuels are really, really bad. I know that in Britain we slaughter between 150,000 and 160,000 pigs a week (oh, the slaughterhouse bit, just... bloody hell) and why farmers' markets, whilst I love them, will only ever be a luxury.
The trouble is, there are several quite complicated elements of the story to understand here, and I'm just not sure I have the mental capacity to understand them all (and no, I'm not participating in any foolish Silly Me Syndrome `gosh I'm blonde I am' thing here, I just honestly believe that some of it went over my head).
I've made decisions after reading this book. I've resolved to buy only what I need, avoid BOGOFFs like the plague, to cut down on my meat purchases and to pay proper prices for things like milk. After I'd finished the book, I tried to explain it to my husband. But like all immensely clever writers, Rayner is practically un précis-able (yes it's a real word because I said so). Which is a good thing, because if you care about food, and about how we're going to carry on feeding ourselves, our children, and their children, the one thing you absolutely must do is read this book for yourself.
Rayner's approach to the subject of food sustainability is challenging for many foodies (and I would count myself among this group) and he eschews the easy answers and trendy utopianism that epitomise many books produced on the subject of our food, its provenance, sustainability, seasonality, localism. As he says early on: '... too many of us have mistaken a whole bunch of lifestyle choices for the affluent with a wider debate on how we feed ourselves, when they are nothing of the sort.' As someone who uses farm shops and farmers' markets I might have felt uncomfortable about some of his comments, but he is absolutely right that my choices are a lifestyle decision, aided by the fact that I live in a rural area close to a small market town with a thriving independent retail offering - and quite some distance from the nearest supermarket. Nor does he decry buying from farmers' markets which he does himself - he just acknowledges that this isn't the solution for the majority of people and certainly not those on restricted incomes.
It is hard to fault his line of reasoning, and on the whole he shows a balanced approach e.g. he sees the failings of the large supermarkets yet acknowledges the benefits they have brought too, something which many books ignore. I thought his comments about the old way of shopping from his childhood where his mother trekked from shop to shop in pursuit of the week's requirements was apposite. Few women these days would have the time for that. He can see the value of buying locally produced food, although not for the food miles reasons often espoused, and not as a solution to the need for greater productivity to feed a growing planet.
Rayner makes an important point about supermarkets paying our farmers properly for their produce, highlighting the fact that some farmers have already given up the ghost. I know this from family experience: my uncle continues to operate a farm that has been in the family for nearly a hundred years but has recently sold his dairy herd as he can no longer justify producing milk which is sold for less than the cost of production. More interestingly, because it is less well-known, it appears some overseas producers have given up supplying British supermarkets owing to the hassle, poor prices and the twisted contractual relationship the supermarkets require of their suppliers. This clearly has serious implications for a country that is not self-sufficient in food.
This is certainly an important contribution to the food debate which so often involves unrealistic pleas for small, local producers which, as Rayner shows, cannot meet world or even local demand. I recently read 'Stuffed and Starved', a much more polemical work, which, whilst explaining in great detail the damage that Big Agriculture has done in the developing world and highlighting the impact of huge food retailers, was light on solutions and extolled the small producer campesino movement, Slow Food, etc as the right route even though that clearly cannot solve the problem of world food poverty or the issues around food security. Rayner offers up a few suggestions which might have some hope, including reducing the consumption of meat, especially red meat - he is a confirmed carnivore and he makes clear this is a sacrifice for him, but he sees the virtue in the 'Meat free Monday' campaign.
Jay Rayner likes his grub. He makes no bones about it. But with ever
more mouths in the World to feed and little enough food to go around
he is also a creature of conscience who would have us think about how
the choices we make now about what we eat and how it is delivered might
make the difference between sustaining human life on Earth or of sooner
or later facing the prospect of starvation on an apocalyptic scale.
'A Greedy Man In A Hungry World : How (Almost) Everything You Thought
You Knew About Food Is Wrong' is a bit of a mouthful but Mr Rayner
approaches his narrative in bite-sized pieces which are as digestible
as they are lucid. We find many of our present-day assumptions about
food and food production challenged : small isn't always beautiful (the
luxury of farmer's markets and artisan producers exist only for those who
can afford them); intensive agronomy and meat production may, despite ethical
considerations, be the only way to sustain our burgeoning populations;
bio-fuels are a catastrophically wasteful mistake and locally sourced food may
in fact have a far bigger carbon footprint than we might ever have imagined.
Mr Rayner is both knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. He has
done his homework and his treatise is highly persuasive but the book is
also shot through with ribald humour, tender memories (passages about his
childhood and his Mother Claire are especially affecting) and a fierce sense
of justice and charmingly old-fashioned honour. He is a man of substance.
Whilst not offering tidy solutions this splendid book opens up the possibility of
dialogue about a crucially important subject. It deserves a place in every home.
on 1 June 2013
First off, Jay Rayner's writing style is witty and engaging, and burnished by the subject being one he is undoubtedly knowledgeable and passionate about. Whatever you end up thinking about his arguments and conclusions you should at least enjoy the read.
So to the subject matter. No single food production system, big or small, is either totally bad or completely good. Seems like common sense, and maybe it is but this is no middle-ground hugging on the one hand approach.
We have to acknowledge that the perceived 'better' and 'worse' options in food production are outputs of our lifestyle choices and how we want to be seen by others. Farmers markets can be great if you can afford them, but they won't feed the nation (let alone the world), and big agriculture can be repressive but it may also be the way to get necessary foodstuffs to the people who need them most.
It's our decisions, individually and collectively, about taking responsibility for the food we want to eat, how much of it is available, and how much we have to pay for the luxury of having it. Cue supermarket debate...
There are gaps here, but as is acknowledged, this is a massively complicated subject with no easy answers. If you want an open-minded approach then this will get you thinking, and hopefully acting.
Mr Rayner is a journalist (and, as such, highly unused to the title). This is good to know, because he writes like a journalist: presenting sequences of quotes and facts researched about a subject, with few personal opinions, and no conclusions. It is one way of presenting an argument that has become exceedingly popular, but other ways may be better.
Now for the spoiler: this book is about sustainability. This isn't explained until the last couple of chapters, along with the death of his mother (the famous Claire), and the consumption of a very expensive chicken (it tasted like chicken).
Rayner makes a number of excellent points, ones that are contrary to popular opinion - such as the high environmental cost of biofuels, how 'food miles' are misleading (and therefore seasonality also), and the unsutainability of farmers markets and organic farming. He also reinforces some popular opinions: how the relationship between supermarkets and farmers is destroying the industry, nose-to-tail eating, and the general problems of feeding the world. He has no solutions to offer, however.
If you enjoy watching Mr Rayner on the television, or reading his newspaper columns, then this is more of the same, and you will no doubt enjoy it. If have never heard of him, but are curious about the food industry, then you too should read this.
on 12 June 2013
It's relatively brief - a large font and 1.5 spaces; don't be mislead by the number of pages.
But it's concise and well-written, in an engaging and anecdotal manner, that means you retain what's been said. The longer, more academic tome that this could've been wouldn't have left the same impression.
And it's been well-thought through and much agonised-over.
Supermarkets turn out to be rather like the banks. What they do is economically rational to them as individual players, but in the big picture they create a mess. It maximises profits to be part of an oligopoly and screw your suppliers to the ground, buying wherever it's cheapest. But farmers can't turn on food like a tap - as Jay Rayner points out, they need investment and lead time. And putting them out of business is easier than bringing them back into it.
Some things I was aware of. Deep-sea transport is cheap and has (by modern standards) a modest carbon footprint. New Zealand produces some things that we can't for a lower carbon footprint, including transport. And it makes sense to lorry tomatoes and peppers etc from Italy and Spain rather than grow them here in heated polytunnels - assuming we do demand to eat them throughout the year. And as the author asks, 'Why not?'. What use civilisation if you can't eat a tomato in winter.
Not mentioned in the book is a good example of where we go wrong on meat. The Observer ran a butchers' competition: they gave an English and an Italian butcher each a pig. The Italian took more meat from a smaller pig. When told of this, the English butcher commented that he simply couldn't afford to spend the extra time to get more meat from the carcass. We didn't pay enough for his pork.
I think more could've been made of the beneficial effect of trade on low-income countries. Paul Collier points out how economically at risk land-locked African countries are, so trading with the likes of Uganda is a good thing - even if it involves air-freight. You can get an awful lot of vanilla pods onto a Boeing 747.
But we need food security, and ultimately that's what this book is about. We spend much less on food as a proportion of income than we used to. And yet we insist on 2 chickens for £5. And then provide that great non-taxpaying behemoth in the sky with a 65% profit margin on its product. Yes, you know who.
Which brings me to a point that I think more could've been made of. Rayner rightly focusses on the effect of more expensive food on the poor without pointing out how increasing inequality is partly responsible for this outcome. Even poor families could spend more on food if they were less poor. As a commentator was pointing out on the news only this evening (12 June), over the last 10 years normal people's incomes have barely risen after inflation. But corporate profits now take a greater share of the national pot than wages. It's already been happening in the US since the 1980s. Now it's over here.
A fine and welcome book. Read it, and become more aware of what you eat.
I originally thought I wouldn't like this book. Having seen Rayner on TV as one of the judges on Masterchef, I assumed he was either the Jeremy Clarkson of food or a posher Jamie Oliver.
As it is, I needn't have worried.
The writing is very good, with no mockney nor brainless rants from someone who prefers to drive cars with about as many pistons as he has brain cells. Rayner himself states he is not a 'bloke' (he actually spends some time on the subject, stating that he is probably a 'feminized male' or 'lesbian in a mans body'), and his arguments and world view are both considered, well presented, and slightly to the left.
Although Rayner is a restaurant critic for one of the big broadsheets, his writing is very accessible and certainly not just for posh foodies: he goes into the politics and business behind food at some length for example. So if (like me) you don't frequent the top London restaurants, and never will, there's still plenty for you here, especially if you want to know what goes on behind the shopping counter, and what happens to your food on its journey to your belly.
For example, Rayner talks about the proliferation of cheap food post 2007, and the fact that the poorest in society are the ones eating it. Raynor took part in a test to see how much more it would cost to make the food more nutitious (by, for example, upping the meat content in a cheap meat ready meal from 5% to something appraching something with real amounts of meat in it. It came to about 0.7p extra. So next time you see that Tescos have made millions in profit again, consider the fact that they could have put the health of the nation a bit further on the agenda by making only 2 or 3 million less in profit, thus saving the National Health millions more in treating obesity. Food for thought.
Most importantly, he manages to stay entertaining and funny even when talking about otherwise dry subjects such as the British food chain and biofuels.
Take equal parts Mark Kermode (ranting), Nigel Slater (foodie passion), Anthony Bourdain (aggressively carnivorous ) and Jeremy Clarkson (arrogant self justification) and you will have a pretty good idea of this book. Raynor is a polemicist, and like all good polemicists he is entertaining, even if one doesn't agree with everything he says.
His basic manifesto is that the world's population is growing (9 billion by 2050) and if they are all going to be fed, then that won't be done by small local producers, selling organic products in farmers markets and delicatessens. He argues, frequently, but not always persuasively, that intensive farming (what he calls "sustainable intensification") is necessary (while stopping short of condoning the worst battery farms), that food should be grown where it is most efficient to grow it, and even with the need to transport, this can have a lower carbon footprint, that vegetarians (but not vegans) are steeped in the blood of the male calves not needed to provide milk, and that supermarkets are a necessity when both partners are forced to work (while railing against some of their purchasing stupidities).
While his arguments are often simplistically polarised (just because A isn't the answer, that doesn't mean that B is, Jay, it might just be worth trying to find out if there is a C), or so clearly a result of arguing back from his desired position (recognising that growing meat isn't the most efficient use of land, but then justifying it on the basis of anti-elitism), he does genuinely challenge some fondly held beliefs and forces his reader to think about things rather than accept received wisdom.
While playing the part of the iconoclast, and seeming to confront some key liberal beliefs about food, in the end, Raynor isn't Clarkson, and often ends up steering an intelligent middle course.
So, prepare to be ranted at, prepare to be challenged, and you will probably enjoy this.
on 16 June 2013
Eye opening look into the way the food we eat gets to our plates. An easy read that made me laugh and made me think again about my hatred for big business and the supermarket.
Not sure it answers any questions but it creates them.