24 March 2022
Secure, sustainable sustenance.
By Lynda Goetz
According to Gus Carter in The Spectator edition of 11th March, offal is making a comeback, as macho men are influenced by a social media trend promoting its benefits for alpha males… and females. This does seem rather surprising at a time when animal products of all kinds are being decried; when we are being asked to sign online petitions to end factory farming and the benefits of not only vegetarian but vegan diets are being advocated endlessly. It is not always clear whether those pushing these ideas really understand the science or the advantages, but many are true believers and are more than happy to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. That is apparently the case even with those like Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, a proponent of the all-beef diet who claimed in a podcast that ‘I eat beef and salt and water. That’s it. And I never cheat. Ever’. He maintains that this extreme diet healed him of anxiety and depression as well as several physical ailments. This seems an extraordinary claim and far less likely than the well-being claims of those who live on pulses and vegetables. Do we, though, faced with an increasing world population, need to consider the question of how we feed that population in the future?
Rather strangely, in the West at least, it does appear to be the case that, although people watch a fair number of cookery programmes, fewer and fewer are cooking from scratch: those who do usually find it interesting, pleasurable and rewarding. Equally they enjoy the rituals of sitting down to a meal with family or friends. However, as we are mostly spoilt for choice in the matter of activities these days and as the quality and price of instant foods and ‘ready meals’ has improved, there are many who would rather be out doing other things or who, if they are staying in, are quite happy to sit in front of the wide-screen TV throwing down whatever the local takeaway, Deliveroo or the supermarket has been able to offer. It is hard to know the proportion of the population eating a healthy diet, but, according to Statista, research from 2019 showed that 40.42% of the UK population claimed to eat a healthy diet ‘very often’ with 10.28% saying they did so rarely and 3.14% ‘never’. These figures don’t look too bad until you translate them into actual numbers, when you realise that means that there are over 2 million people who never eat a healthy diet and approaching 7 million who rarely do. That’s a lot of potential diabetic or bowel cancer cases for the NHS to contend with.
Of course, as we all know, obesity associated with unhealthy processed food is not, as yet at least, a worldwide problem. Although, according to a paper published in 2018 entitled Global Provisioning of Red Meat for Flexitarian Diets, enough food is being produced in principle to satisfy ‘global caloric demand’, in practice ‘malnourishment is widespread and more than 800 million go hungry each day’. Thus, it would appear that ‘the hurdle is not growing sufficient food, but rather getting it to those in need’. Humans are naturally omnivorous and our dental and bowel morphology is designed to cope with consumption of nutritionally rich animal-derived products as well as seeds, fruits, nuts and plants. However, as is being extensively pointed out by climatologists and environmentalists, the production of meat is resource-intensive and it is important that we re-evaluate how meat can be sustainably produced to satisfy increased global demand – even perhaps as Western developed countries reduce their consumption.
Already, last autumn, it was being pointed out that wheat prices were at their highest in a decade and that the price of bread in the UK had risen over 26%. The war in Ukraine is going to make further increases in food prices around the world inevitable, not only because Ukraine is a huge grower of wheat (and none is being planted), but because fuel prices are going to rise even further, which will in turn push up production and transport costs. Mathew Lynn in an article in The Telegraph suggests that in the EU and here in the UK much of the problem lies with government interference in the farming industry.
Long before the Corn Laws were introduced in the nineteenth century, governments in this country had regulated the growing and the import and export of corn (which term includes wheat, barley and oats) to favour the domestic market and the landowners. The repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws by Sir Robert Peel in 1846 benefitted lower earners; there was prolonged debate in parliament and of course opposition from landowners. For the next 70 odd years, 60% of food in this country was imported. The First World War changed this as it became imperative that we were in control of our food supplies. The government intervened, but then left farmers to their own devices until intervention again became necessary with World War II. With our entry into the Common Market, intervention continued and we became increasingly subject to the interference of the highly regulated EU systems – largely designed to benefit the French. Now, following Brexit, there should be a chance for the government to step back. So far, not a great deal has changed. The agricultural industry has become hooked on subsidies and effectively prevented from maximising output. Instead, we see the introduction of a system designed, not to encourage farmers to grow more food, but to encourage them to ‘rewild’ and plant more trees (see my article from 13th January, Diddly Squat).
Many farmers and the NFU, led by their first female president Minette Batters, were already keen to put food security much higher up the agenda. The war in Ukraine has highlighted our weaknesses in this regard and, as Mathew Lynn suggests in his article, we need to allow farmers to use new technologies, including GM, to enhance crop yields – particularly now that the cost of fertiliser, much of which was imported from Russia, is also set to rise. Food security, like energy security, has been ignored for too long in a complacent world where both government and governed have been more than happy to enjoy unseasonal produce flown in from far flung corners of our globalised world. Environmental concerns, climate change and now a changed international order may put paid to at least some of that luxury. We and many other countries need to take a much closer look at what can be produced locally, minimising transport costs and dependence on unfriendly states, and reducing our carbon footprint. That should not mean we all need to become vegan, or even vegetarian, but that as far as possible we can keep ourselves fed. We may be a small densely-populated island, but we do, at least for now and the foreseeable future, have a good climate, fertile soil and a benign geography (no high mountains or barren deserts).
For some of us the variety of tastes and textures associated with food and the rituals and gatherings associated with eating it are important. There are those, however, for whom food is just fuel. A company which is well known to those in the gym world, founded in 2015 by Julian Hearn, derives its name from an amalgamation of the words ‘human fuel’ – hence Huel. Unlike a lot of the products used by gym ‘bros’, it is not simply a protein shake designed to refuel you after hours in the gym. This is a powder designed to be a ‘meal replacement’. In 2017, Tom Ough, a young journalist with The Telegraph wrote about My Week on Huel, living on nothing but the powdered product mixed with water (well, apart from a couple of minor tumbles from the wagon). At that time the vegan Huel had only been around for about a year, was concocted somewhere in Devon and was basically unflavoured (it is made up of oats, coconut, peas, rice, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds, plus a total of 26 essential minerals and vitamins), although you could add additional flavourings sold separately by the company. This did not sound like a particularly pleasant experience; even the head of innovation described the original powder as ‘absolutely vile’, according to an article written by Harry de Quetteville. Nowadays, Huel is based in Hertfordshire and although taste still comes second to function, the importance of it has apparently been given a little more recognition by the company. Nevertheless, Mr Hearn is insistent that functionality is the priority and he sees this, not simply as a part of the gym brotherhood’s lifestyle, but also as a part of the solution to feeding the world’s growing population.
Could he be right? From a personal point of view, I am too interested, as I said earlier, in the different textures as well as flavours of food, too interested also in the social importance of meals; but for those who do regard food as fuel for life rather than as an event to be enjoyed and shared with others, then perhaps now that it also comes in a variety of flavours (ranging from peanut butter through strawberries and cream to cinnamon swirl), it could be a lifestyle choice, ideal for those who derive no pleasure from cooking – or textures. It might also help solve several of the world’s food problems in one fell swoop.