Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Herald column June 6 2011

A slight technical meltdown means The Herald website didn't get this up. Here's the raw copy for the multitudes that have requested it:

By Andrew McKie

Last Monday I took my life in my hands and ate a Greek salad. The cucumber was from Hertfordshire, which probably meant that it was free of deadly levels of E. coli, but also meant that it didn’t taste of very much, as tomatoes and cucumbers pumped full of water and grown in British or Dutch polytunnels usually don’t.
The food in Italy, a couple of days later, was better. On Wednesday, I had a small glass of white wine with my lunch (spaghetti con vongole) and a Campari-soda before a dinner – prosciutto, then pasta Bolognese, fegato alla Veneziana, and a big slice of parmigiano reggiano and an espresso instead of pudding – which I accompanied with half a litre of red wine.
Nice for you, readers may be thinking, but why tell us, unless the aim is to foster jealousy and undermine the appeal of our breakfast toast, instant coffee and the box of Coco Pops against which we’ve propped the newspaper?
Because, to echo a title by the food historian Margaret Visser, much depends on dinner. Eating those meals, I became embroiled in three major news stories: the row over food safety prompted by the E. coli outbreak centred on Germany, which by yesterday had killed 19 people and made more than 1,800 seriously ill; the declaration that one in three Scottish children is being brought up in a “binge-drinking” household; and the assertion by Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, that within decades there will “absolutely not be enough food” to feed the world’s population.
All three are significant stories which raise important issues. Naturally, the knee-jerk response of many lobbying groups is to demand government action. Specifically, in the words of Oxfam’s report, “to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest”. For Alcohol Focus Scotland, that means minimum pricing and stricter licensing; others have called for stricter rules on food production in Europe. It’s a depressingly familiar reaction to matters which are, at root, to do with individual choices by consumers.
Spanish cucumbers, it seems, did not cause this outbreak, but that has not stopped a catastrophic slump in sales of vegetables, and probably an expensive round of bureaucratic compensation payments. Yet such threats to public health have been well identified and controlled – particularly in Britain – for more than a century; which accounts for their rarity.
Of course, it is important to identify the cause of this outbreak and, if there are lessons to be learned, see that they are. But since E. coli can be avoided by very simple precautions (washing and cooking vegetables properly) by consumers themselves, racing to introduce sterner regulation would be a clumsy and damaging response.
Similarly, Scotland, and the rest of the United Kingdom, has an unenviable record when it comes to its drinking habits. But narrowly defining the real dangers of alcohol in terms of units or their cost in order to maximise the scare potential of the story, rather than looking at the behaviour and responsibilities of individuals, is to distort the picture. As this newspaper wisely pointed out, government measures are a peripheral distraction; the central issue is changing attitudes.
I dispute the claim in Friday’s editorial that no one wants to see a return to the 1950s, when self-control was seen in part as a moral issue. Older rituals of food and drink, tied to religious observances and balancing periods of abstinence with prescribed days for feasting, encouraged responsible behaviour more effectively than any blunt instrument Holyrood may devise.
Sensible drinking can add immensely to the store of human happiness, just as excessive drinking can generate terrible misery. The same is true of food. The “obesity epidemic” is caused by ignorance, reliance on unhealthy, disgusting, packaged and junk food, and by families failing to sit down to eat together. In this country, we do not just eat and drink badly, we buy and cook badly. We spend much less of our household income on food than most Continental Europeans, and throw out a third of what we buy untasted. The solution is not to manipulate the consumer price, nor to regulate manufacturers and producers of food and drink, but to make people care about their behaviour.
Oxfam is quite right to point out that it is an outrage that nearly a billion people go hungry while so many in the developed world are obese. It is right, too, to attack the dumping of crops by the EU and the USA – the equivalent of households throwing out the “buy one get one free” food they never get round to eating – and the mad subsidies which encourage the use of agricultural land to produce biofuels, in order to meet climate change targets.
But Oxfam seems unable to see that these absurdities have been created by governments doing exactly what they are asking for more of: prevention, intervention, correction, protection and investment. The single greatest thing oppressing farmers in the developing world is the existence of tariffs set by the EU and the USA to protect domestic producers.
The reason for the growth in yields in the West is precisely the large-scale farming and technology, including genetic modification and chemical fertilizers, which Oxfam opposes for the developing world on environmental grounds. Despite the price rises of the past few years, two of three world’s three staple crops (maize and wheat) are, in real terms, half the price they were in the 1940s, and a quarter cheaper than they were in the 1960s. India (which used to import rice) improved yields spectacularly by introducing such techniques, and by abolishing their equivalent of the Corn Laws. Regulation, the fashion for “sustainability” and the command economy solutions of the “Fair Trade” movement impoverish many more than they help.
Prosperous countries need to take food more seriously and consume it more responsibly. Poor countries need to be given the advantages the rich countries have already had from the introduction of modern agricultural practice and access to free markets. Doing that would prove the truth of the third aphorism with which Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin introduced La physiologie du goût: “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves.”