Monday, April 12, 2010

If we are what we eat, we are in trouble

The Financial Times (London)
April 10, 2010

By Simon Kuper

Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Hamish Hamilton £20, 341 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of our Insatiable Appetite
By David A Kessler
Penguin £9.99, 320 pages
FT Bookshop price: £7.99

An Edible History of Humanity
By Tom Standage
Atlantic Books £8.99, 269 pages
FT Bookshop price: £7.19

Suppose that you and your partner go out for dinner tonight. You order steak and salad while your partner has chicken with rice. Now inspect your plates. Your cow spent almost all its life in a shed, burping methane that heats the planet. It was then slaughtered, often incompetently: it may have been still alive when its head was skinned and its legs cut off. Your "salad", doused in dressing, is really "fat with a little lettuce".

Your partner's chicken lived for six weeks, diseased and crammed so closely with other birds that it cracked several bones. After torture, came slaughter: the bird was shoved into a truck, taken to the slaughterhouse, and shackled upside down. It died screaming and excreting on itself in terror. The rice comes from plants bred by scientists in the 1960s. Both your meals are lathered in the extra fat, sugar, salt and chemicals to which you have become addicted. Enjoy your meal.

Three sterling books by Jonathan Safran Foer, David Kessler and Tom Standage examine a new era in food. Until about 20 years ago, people mostly thought about how to obtain food. Then, in rich countries, they began thinking about how to enjoy it more. Cookery and diet books invaded the bestseller lists. Now people are increasingly wondering whether they should enjoy today's food. Jamie Oliver's passage from British cook through global TV chef to scourge of the food industry captures the trend. Foer and Kessler have written manifestos that support Oliver's assault; Standage provides the historical context.

Almost everything we eat in rich countries nowadays has been invented or reinvented in recent decades, largely without us noticing. Our great-grandparents would not have recognised most of our food. Even today's chickens have been genetically engineered into virtually new species. And we have far more choices than any previous generation did. What we eat is now who we are: we have the unprecedented luxury of choosing our diets. These authors guide us through our new virtual supermarket, steering us towards decisions that require a radical breach in our eating habits.

Standage, business editor of The Economist, romps entertainingly through the role of food in history. An Edible History of Humanity shows fantastic erudition, especially for a journalist, is written in pleasing Economist prose, and feels only a little rushed. Food turns out to explain everything, from the creation of society (how hunter-gatherers became farmers) to the exploration of the world (everyone including Columbus was looking for spices) to the soaring of the world's population (the "green revolution" gave most of us enough to eat). However, a book this good deserves a proper conclusion. "Food is certain to be a vital ingredient of humanity's future" just won't do.

What emerges most clearly from Standage's account is that humans gave up eating naturally occurring foods long ago. Only hunter-gatherers lived off wild foods. When they settled on farms millennia ago - a blunder, as it meant they had to work harder for less food - they took up genetic engineering. By about 2000BC, farmers had bred maize, and indeed cows and chickens, into high-yielding foods that could no longer survive in the wild without us. Standage writes: "A cultivated field of maize, or any other crop, is as man-made as a microchip."

The "green revolution", with its chemical fertilisers and high-yield seeds, is only an unusually drastic attempt to engineer food. The revolution was born in a German laboratory in 1909, when the chemist Fritz Haber produced significant amounts of ammonia, a new source of fertiliser. In the 1960s, the revolution reached developing countries. By 2000, its new high-yielding "dwarf" varieties of wheat and rice accounted for most of the cereals most humans ate. All the rice in China, for instance, now comes from "new" varieties.

We can now feed the world with ever fewer farmers. Eighty per cent of Rwandans still farm, the same proportion as in Uruk, Mesopotamia, 5,500 years ago, but only about 1 per cent of today's Americans and Britons do. Yet as farms become increasingly mechanised, nostalgia for traditional farming grows. (The recent BBC TV series Victorian Farm, and the eternal radio soap opera The Archers, play on this nostalgia.) "A common feature of wealthy societies," says Standage, "is a feeling that an ancient connection with the land has been lost." From Roman nobles to George W Bush, elites often like to hang on to their farms "to demonstrate that they had not forgotten their people's purported origins as humble farmers".

Yet few of today's city-dwellers have much of an idea of where their food comes from. We care more than ever about food, but know less than ever about it. In his manifesto, Eating Animals, Foer argues convincingly that if we could see today's meat industry, we would stop eating meat.

Before Foer began writing this book, he himself knew nothing about farming. "In my 30 years of life, the only pigs, cows, and chickens I had touched were dead and cut up." Like most of us, he had a vague sense of farms as rural idylls straight out of the "Old MacDonald" song. When his wife became pregnant, he began thinking about what to feed his son.

Foer is an acclaimed novelist but Eating Animals opens like bad fiction: twee treacle about his son, his grandmother, and her famous chicken and carrots. It is only when the book turns into a painstaking study of factory farming, complete with 60 pages of notes, that it really takes off. Foer turns a technical topic into elegant prose.

Factory farming started in 1923, apparently by accident, we learn. The reputed inventor was Celia Steele, a Delaware housewife who kept chickens. As the story goes, she ordered 50 new birds, but 500 were delivered. Foer writes: "Rather than get rid of them, she decided to experiment with keeping the birds indoors through the winter. With the help of newly discovered feed supplements, the birds survived." By 1935, Steele had 250,000 birds.

Foer defines factory farming as "a system of industrialised and intensive agriculture in which animals - often housed by the tens or even hundreds of thousands - are genetically engineered, restricted in mobility, and fed unnatural diets (which almost always include various drugs, like antimicrobials)."

Factory farming produces cheap meat in unprecedented quantities. Before Steele's experiment, chicken was a rare luxury. A "chicken in every pot" was an American dream. Today, says Foer, the average American eats "the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime", while spending an unprecedentedly small share of his income on food. The consequences are dreadful. Billions of animals experience horrible deaths after worse lives. Constantly sick, they give us our flu pandemics. They occupy and degrade nearly a third of the world's land, use up and pollute water, and warm the planet. According to the United Nations, animal agriculture is the single biggest cause of climate change. It contributes 40 per cent more to global warming than all forms of transport combined. As Foer says: "Someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning."

But what bothers him most is the cruelty to mammals, poultry and fish. This happens in secret, because factory farmers don't allow visitors. Nobody needs to know how the sausage is made. Foer breaks into a turkey farm at night to see the misery for himself. As he points out, it's all unnecessary. We could live at least as healthily without meat. Certainly, in rich countries, logic should impel us to close factory farms and turn meat back into a luxury food such as caviar and truffles, to be eaten on special occasions only. That would accord with our stated ethics. According to one poll Foer cites, 76 per cent of Americans say they care more about animal welfare than low meat prices. Yet we have made a collective decision to torture animals and the planet simply because meat tastes good. We can't blame the factory farmers: they supply cheap meat because we demand it.

Foer's argument may not apply in poor countries. They may need more factory farms. After all, free-range chickens won't feed 7bn people. It's hard to tell hungry people to eat ethical meat. Moreover, eating meat per se is very defensible. As Samuel Johnson pointed out about 250 years ago, if we didn't eat farm animals, we would cease to keep them and they would cease to exist. However, existing for six weeks in an excrement-drenched battery cage probably isn't worth it. I began reading this book over a delicious meat lunch. By the time I finished reading, I had reluctantly stopped eating most animals. I don't like my new diet. Foer has diminished my pleasure in life. Unfortunately, his argument convinces.

Kessler's The End of Overeating can be read as a companion manifesto to Foer's. As commissioner of the US's Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s, Kessler took on Big Tobacco. Here, he takes on Big Food. In clear and simple prose, he shows how the modern food industry has invented "hyperpalatable" foods. Once people ate tortilla chips. Then they ate tortilla chips with cheese. Now they eat them with a factory-made topping that "can look like cheese but contains mostly oil and flavouring".

The new ingredients contain ever greater helpings of what we crave most: fat, sugar and salt. Today's fibreless "adult baby food" melts in the mouth. According to one industry insider: "In the past Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food as many as 25 times ... now the average American chews only 10 times." The industry has mastered what it calls "hedonics": how to make food feel and taste delicious. The new food is also addictive, like drugs. According to Kessler, many Americans now suffer from "conditioned hypereating", wolfing down fat, sugar and salt as a habit. We have learnt to reward ourselves with these foods. Diets don't work, because they just make the dieter appreciate the reward of food even more.

Admittedly the US is an extreme case. At times, The End of Overeating feels like a Gulliverian journey through a strange land, where people eat multiple helpings of things such as "chocolate frozen yogurt with sprinkles and cookie dough" at any time of day or night they like. Yet the worldwide rise in obesity rates shows that hypereating, like factory farming, is going global. The book closes with Kessler's meeting with "top executives" of a big food company in London. "I described the stimulating qualities of sugar, fat and salt, especially in combination, and told them that the brain is wired to focus on the most salient stimuli." The room falls silent. Then one executive says: "Everything that has made us successful as a company is the problem."

Like most manifestos, including Foer's, Kessler's is repetitious. At times it reads like a guide to humanity written for aliens, full of banalities such as: "We seek out things framed in a positive light and avoid those with a negative cast." At the end it tries to morph into a bestselling diet book. Nonetheless, it's hyperpalatable. Perhaps because of Kessler's status, many insiders in the food industry tell him their secrets. We discover that breakfast cereals often contain four or five different kinds of sugar: "Some combination of sugar, brown sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and molasses." If sugar is the biggest single ingredient in an American food, an industry consultant explains, sugar has to be listed first on the label. Using different sugars helps skirt that rule.

Kessler and Foer express a disquiet that is already widespread. As the richest westerners enter the post-material age they have begun to leave "hyperpalatable" foods and factory-farmed animals to their poorer compatriots, and to the Chinese and Indian middle classes. Elites want elite foods. What they eat, like the car they drive and the neighbourhood they live in, is now who they are. Healthy ethical food is the new BMW.

- Simon Kuper is an FT writer based in Paris

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