New books by Paul McMahon and Jay Rayner. Published in The Observer, 3 June 2013
Food got bigger than DIY about a decade back, but publishing took a while to hoist its tired old frame on to the bandwagon. Now the food books tumble out, unstoppable, in a startling range of sub-genres. There’s the cookbook with jokes. The memoir with recipes. The polemic about food system apocalypse. The cookbook (with gardening tips) for that apocalypse. The part-time vegan diet book with anti-capitalist polemic, recipes and jokes (just reviewed that one, actually). And all of the above, with celebrity attached.
Paul McMahon’s is a straight food apocalypse book, no jokes, one recipe: a four-ingredient plan to feed the planet. McMahon admits that there are an awful lot of books in his genre. Since the food price spikes of 2008, he’s seen many titles “all warning of an impending food collapse”, including The Coming Famine, The End of Food, World on the Edge and Climate in Peril. (My shelf is even bleaker: So Shall We Reap, Eat Your Heart Out and Food Wars– and, full disclosure, I’m writing a little one myself.) But gloomy though his own title is, McMahon wants to put distance between him and the “professional doom-mongers”. He wants to offer some hope and so, with 100% more jokes, does this paper’s restaurant critic, Jay Rayner.
Both agree that feeding the 9 billion people of 2050 will be tough. Climate change and scary demographics – basically, richer people eat more – will challenge a food distribution system that patently doesn’t work for much of humanity. We throw away 30-40% of the food we produce and yet nearly 1 billion people live in near starvation. We can’t control the system, as shown by the abject failure to stop the panic in the commodities markets in 2008 and 2010/11. That crisis forced food prices up 30%.
McMahon says that, given the surplus of food, resources and land, it need never have happened. Russia led other producer countries into panicky export bans. The result was civil unrest in 30 countries, the fall of half-a-dozen governments and the sparking of the Arab spring. No doubt the G8 leaders will give Putin a good telling off at next month’s London summit on food security. Then they will sort the system out by restarting the World Trade Organisation talks. (That’s food policy wonk sarcasm, by the way.)
Drawing on his time at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, McMahon takes us efficiently through the history that brought us to this pass. But that isn’t the hard bit: everyone agrees there’s a problem. Where the consensus falls apart, spectacularly, is on what the answer is. As Rayner writes: “Food politics has long been hidebound by clumsy polarised arguments… a shouting match between the hardcore knit-your-own yoghurt foodinistas and the worst kind of grubby-handed climate-change-denying big business.”
Greens say all will be fine if the world goes organic and stops eating meat – and they have science to prove it. The technophiles have more science and want to tweak the genes of plants and animals to do the job. The charity/financial justice lobby, as gathered in the current If campaign on ending hunger, want the rich to stop nicking the land and resources of the poor.
Some economists, and McMahon, want to reform the commodities market; others to free all the markets even further; still more to lavish aid on educating the small farmers who make up most of the hungry. Few of these positions tolerate much overlap.
McMahon does a convincing job of ruling on which arguments to take seriously. He’s dismissive of one current bone of the food security campaigners, that repurposing food for biofuels was a major cause of the price rises. He does think the land grab boom – Gulf states acquiring bits of poor Africa to use as giant allotments – is a serious problem. He is very interesting on how the food and energy markets are now intertwined and, bloated with excess capital since the financial crisis, unmanageable.
High-speed robot trading systems make it easy for speculators to manipulate agricultural commodity prices, no matter the cost in human misery. McMahon insists the market must be made to work. Or more of us will starve, though “us” does not mean anyone at this end of the planet.
This is revealing stuff, but it’s more fun to spend time with Jay Rayner, whose own Feed the World polemic comes with investigation, memoir and personal celebrity (Rayner and his famous hair are the biggest thing on the cover). You may think he spends all his time researching and recovering from restaurant outings, but Rayner has a TV life as a principled investigator of the insanities and inanities of modern food retail. Like the great food essayist Jeffrey Steingarten, Rayner travels stomach-first and uncovers truths beyond what’s on the table. It’s a pleasure to be his tablemate on adventures from the Chinese restaurants of central Africa to the abattoirs of Yorkshire; with lesser writers in this genre, the journey can be annoying.
But the most fun here is the making of “greedy bastard” Rayner, in north London butchers’ shops and 1970s McDonald’s. Key to that story was his wonderful mother, the journalist Claire, who died in 2010. I’d urge this book on anyone, if only for the tale of Rayner’s sexual education through his helping sort the letters sent to his mother’s sex advice column – and for the lobster and chips by her hospital bed.
“Muddled thinking” and numpty moralising about food are major annoyances of the foodie age. Rayner skewers them deftly, as a man who knows his cutlery can. He’s right: eating local won’t save the planet. Nor will a boycott of industrial farming or of rapacious supermarkets. But these are issues that have got a class of shoppers thinking about how this historically cheap food got to their kitchens. That, surely, is a door opened.
By the end, Rayner and McMahon – and the reader – are pretty much in agreement on sorting out world food security. It can be done. It is “ear-bleedingly, eye-gougingly complicated” as one of the authors (guess which) puts it. And the answer is brain-foggingly ordinary: compromise and a combination of approaches – some low-tech, some hi-tech. Some adjustments to capitalism, some to diet. Less meat-eating and less waste, no doubt. There are no silver bullets; though putting up the money (and taking down the trade barriers) to enable African farmers to be as productive as American ones would be – both authors agree – a damn good start.
Alex Renton’s ebook on meat and the happiest way to feed the world is published by Guardian Shorts later this year