Steven Poole declares that ‘Western culture is eating itself stupid’. His book You Aren’t What You Eat (2012) pokes fun at the snobbery, fads and celebrity culture that attend ‘foodie’ culture.
The term ‘foodie’ emerged in the 1980s, but the idea of discussing the enjoyment of food is much older. In France it goes back to the start of the nineteenth century when it became socially acceptable to do so.
We dispense with that ‘gastronomy’: ‘the art and science of delicate eating’, at our peril. Gastronomy enjoins restraint and reflection and is ‘the common bond which unites the nations of the world’, according to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin one of its prime movers.
A gastronomic sensibility is valuable to our health, motivating us to consume a wide range of nutrients. But there is a challenge to reconcile our enjoyment with considerations of environmental impact and our health. Exploring our pleasure should make us sensitive to those who live with insufficiency.
Stuffed and Starved
In the West we eat too much, and in the South they eat too little. Despite increasing globalization we have not addressed that contradiction. A billion are now overweight or obese in the developed world where, shamefully, 50% of food is wasted. Alas almost that number are undernourished or starving in the developing world.
It should be a straightforward matter of handing over our excess. But with the best will in the world this approach will not work: transport networks, functioning bureaucracies and peaceful conditions are all required, and dumping our surpluses removes income from Third World farmers and an incentive to innovate and improve.
Moreover, much of what gives rise to obesity in the West is connected to over-consumption of junk foods. A world cannot be fed on soft drinks. Our working class neighborhoods are often ‘food deserts’ without access to fresh, healthy and competitively-priced food. There gastronomy cannot take root.
Meanwhile in the Third World, real deserts are expanding as droughts become more prolonged and land resources mismanaged. Exponential population growth and failing states leaves much of sub-Saharan Africa in food insecurity.
The Green Revolution
The seemingly limitless supply of food we have in the West can be explained by the so-called Green Revolution which occurred in agriculture after World War II. It involved the deployment of high-yielding strains of common cereals in combination with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels. A hectare of wheat which previously yielded two tons can now yield eight. Similar feats were achieved with other common grains.
Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is regarded as its instigator. He and his collaborators corrected a structural deficiency in the stalk of wheat which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields. Today, almost every kernel of wheat consumed by man and beast is derived from Borlaug’s selective breeding.
But the resulting monocultures have increased vulnerability to disease; according to the authors Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food: ‘Today our landscape is a lot like that of Ireland and Sri Lanka immediately before the famines. We devote much of our earth to a very small number of crops’. Borlaug strains depend on polluting and finite fossil fuel to survive.
Much of our increased yields are fed to livestock; only 20% of US corn is eaten directly by humans. The Green Revolution has made animal products affordable but the cost of maintaining this in terms of global warming and energy use is becoming apparent.
Last year’s disastrous corn harvest in America is bringing the issue into sharp focus. A choice is unfolding between maintaining the affordability of two icons of American life: the hamburger and the motor car. The livestock industry are petitioning to weaken or abolish the ‘ethanol mandate’, requirements Congress set on the use of corn as automotive fuel, on grounds that it could bring about a collapse in meat production.
Research conducted by Unilever may have revealed the nutrition of the future. Many pre-domesticated varieties of plants reveal significantly higher levels of nutrients than varieties currently grown. An older variety of apple, the Egremont Russet, has up to 10 times more of a phytonutrient than some modern varieties. The researchers hypothesise that this finding will be just one example of older plant varieties being richer in nutrients and fibre.
Dr Mark Berry, who led the research said: ‘The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce.’ He adds: ‘Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content.’
This view reflects research into pre-domesticated cereal grains which have strikingly more protein content compared to modern cultivars.
A gastronomic sensibility prizes this variety. Instead of artificially manipulating conditions with synthetic inputs, we can isolate a wide variety of strains deemed suitable to particular locations. Different regions can express distinctive terroir from carefully selected crops.
This diversity will make our crops more resilient. Biodiversity can even be harnessed to increase productivity through permacultures and forest-gardening.
These varieties can even play a role in addressing the obesity epidemic. The decreased nutritional-value of many foodstuffs is affecting satiety levels. We can consume hundreds of calories of sugar in a soft drink without the hormone ghrelin being released which lets our brain know we’ve had enough. Foods richer in nutrients and fibre confer greater satisfaction.
By shifting away from the production of animal product which requires far greater use of land, energy and water resources we can easily find room for lower-yielding, nutrient-dense varieties. With a raised gastronomic awareness we might waste less.
But how can the cultivation of lower-yielding strains have any relevance for developing countries which confront the challenge of scarcity?
Many scientists argue that GMO technology offers solutions and are attempting to develop biological nitrogen fixation in crops such as wheat which would allow them to survive without synthetic fertilizers. They dangle the prospect of decreased energy dependency and pollution, but admit successful adaptation is many decades away, and may never be achieved. But the advance of GMO also decreases diversity and could have unforeseen effects.
A more sensible approach is for farmers to develop a wide variety of strains suited to different conditions. Lower-yielding varieties might prove more bountiful as the ensuing diversity would be less susceptible to disease and less dependent on polluting inputs derived from fossil fuels. Decrying a prevailing ‘industrial’ model of development in the Third World, Concern Worldwide argue: ‘smart site-specific agroecological approaches that increase production, conserve natural resources and are tailored to specific human and environmental conditions should be favoured’.
It may be that in the Third World raising education levels, gender equality and increasing access to the internet will bring great rewards to farmers there. Indigenous development can occur rather than the familiar story of Europeans bringing progress.
Complete self-sufficiency for most countries based on a wide variety of pre-domesticated and native crop varieties would be difficult to achieve, but increasing diversity could benefit our agriculture and improve nutrition.
A global community must retain surpluses to confront shortages. By shifting away from livestock production in the developed world we can produce more food and improve its nutritional quality. A reduction in the consumption of animal products should bring health benefits.
A shift in global diets is required to confront the challenges of obesity, global warming, peak oil and growing populations. A gastronomic sensibility can help inform our choices.