Perhaps change should start with our eating habits; and by habits I don’t mean diet.
Some years ago I consulted a dietary specialist on my own dietary habits. He told me to think of myself as a unique cocktail of chemicals, as individual as my iris or fingerprints. And when I ate or drank, I was adding more chemicals to my individual cocktail. So, naturally, different bodies react very differently to the foods and drinks they consume. To propose a diet that suits everyone, or even large numbers of people, is delusory. He went on to add, the mass of data we had about how what we eat affects us is too small to formulate any but the most general of generalisations. That was some years ago, and now we know a great deal more. But the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. The relationship between our food, how it is produced, us and how our bodies respond to it, is incomprehensibly complex. We don’t even understand yet how we actually register flavour.
The good doctor went on to praise the wide variety of foods that I ate , but suggested that I might eat less of them. ‘Eat better. Eat less,’ he said. Since then I’ve managed the first part of his formula admirably, although I still struggle with the second. However, it made me realise that the single most important act most of us could do to improve our own health and benefit the nation (and perhaps the world) as a whole is to eat roughly half the amount we do.
The trouble is that we’ve got into the habit of wildly overeating and the rest of the world expects to do likewise. One of the natural responses to escaping from poverty, as much of the world still is, is to gorge on foods that were formerly unobtainable for one reason or another. In our case, we eat in the long shadow of wartime deprivation and post-war rationing, that persisted until the mid-1950s.
During the war the government took control of food production and distribution, and, consequently, of the nation’s diet. Ironically, we were never healthier as a nation (we ate very little meat because there was very little meat to eat), even if the food was mind-bogglingly boring. We didn’t need to decide what to eat. The government decided for us. So we lost the habit of forging our own diet.
As soon as rationing was over, we started gorging ourselves on all the stuff we’d been deprived of – sugar, fats, meats. Since the war we have continued on our merry way, happy to cede responsibility for our food choices to agencies that have taken over from the government in moulding the nation’s diet, leaving us vulnerable to dietary fads and a wide spectrum of powerful commercial interests, charlatans, propagandists, and creatures of the shadows.
The solution suggested by some is to grow ‘meat’ in laboratories, or in factories, presumably, if we are to cater for the world’s needs. But just because we can produce ‘meat’ or protein in a laboratory, isn’t a reason why we should. No doubt that ‘meat’ is highly nutritious, possibly even more nutritious than food grown outside. But food has social, cultural, historical and, dare I say, spiritual value. As do the processes, agricultural and other, that produces it. To do away with these is to do away with history, culture and identity .
Take the Uber-fashionable Mangalitza pig. The Mangalitza is a native of Hungary, notable for its fleecy coat (like sheep) that protected the beasts from the intense cold, its skills as a forager, its capacity to put of fat and the ‘grammel’ stored in its fat. But in the early years of the 20th century it looked as if it was going to disappear there were so few left. Enter the Lincolnshire Curly Coat, a pig with very similar characteristics, including the distinctive fleece. Breeding sows and boars were sent off to Hungary to cross-breed with the surviving Mangalistas, the antecedents of the porkers we know today.
Roll on a few more years, and the Lincolnshire Curly Coat is no more. The last one died in 1972. The breed fell victim to the contemporary taste for low-fat pork. But in a sense this magnificent pig lives on the the genes of the Mangalitza, the breed it helped to save. Anyone who isn’t moved by this story of Anglo-Hungarian co-operation, communal gallantry, genetic history-making and metaphysical resurrection must have the heart of stone.
It’s all very well for a cohort of well-fed zealots at the top of the communication chain to tell us that we have to give up meat because they have a choice to do so. But for those parts of society that have emerged recently from economic circumstances that prevented them from eating meat as and when they chose, the possibility to do so is a mark of progress and social enfranchisement.
The narrower our diets become, the faddier our eating habits grow, the more we depend on others to make our food decisions for us. Laboratory or factory food production opens the way to global commercial interests to control even more of the food supply of than they do today. As the admirable, clear-eyed and persistent guardian of the public food chain, Joanna Blythman, has pointed out over and over again, the principle beneficiaries of the current fad for vegan food are the major industrial food companies who have spotted a marketing opportunity and launched an ever-growing range of vegan ready meals. Almost 25% of all foods launched in 2019 were labelled as vegan. Supermarkets have leapt aboard the band wagon with their usual canny alacrity. Gregg’s have made a killing with their vegan sausage roll (remarkably unpleasant in my view).Why, Colgate have even launched a toothpaste that’s certified as vegan. (It makes you wonder what’s in non-vegan toothpaste).
‘Vegan’ has joined ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’ at ‘Fairtrade’ as a marketing marker.
(To be concluded)