A Greedy Man In A hungry World (Book Review)

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Promo image Jay Rayner

My 95 year old mom thinks that Peruvian asparagus airfreighted to her grocery is the apex of human civilization and technology; she's still amazed that she can eat fresh spears all year and does, day in and day out. When I tell her she shouldn't, she says I'm crazy and reminds me of my grandmother's cooking.

My wife writes about cooking, and for a number of years we have been eating a 19th century Ontario diet that my grandmother would recognize: local fresh food when it is in season, and when not: turnips, parsnips, potatoes, or fruits and vegetables Kelly pickled and canned the previous summer. Then more parsnips. She's serious about local and seasonal food.

So when I read British restaurant critic Jay Rayner's article in the Guardian, Why worrying about food miles is missing the point, I felt I had to respond, a matter of defending Our Way of Life™. Rayner left a long and thoughtful comment on the post which included:

This is just a small extract from a book. I do not argue in that book that people in Britain should get all their food from New Zealand. At all. I argue for regionalism - in my country we need to be buying British for lots of reasons - but mostly for an acute approach to the metrics…. For obvious reasons I would urge anybody interested in this stuff to read the whole book which is, so you have it, called A Greedy Man In A hungry World.

Which I promptly did. And I ate it up.

The frustrating thing about reading this book when you are a doctrinaire farmers-market shopping seasonally adjusted locavore is that he's mostly right. He will start off about, say, the idea of eating seasonally:

It's an idea. A really stupid idea. Arguing for a food policy based on the kind of principles that would make the Amish look like a bunch of happy-go-lucky sybarites may make a certain gimlet-eyed, self-regarding food warrior feel smug and self-righteous. But it will not provide a solution.

But then he goes on to note that it is more complex than just yes or no, that flying out-of-season asparagus makes no sense,"a stupid waste of fuel for something that frankly we may like but do not need." But that shipping apples from New Zealand does. My mom will think he's crazy, too.

Then there are Farmers' Markets, another TreeHugger Favourite Thing™. Rayner acknowledges that "small farmers have found a new and lucrative route to market… and that's a good thing. But that can only be promoted as a true social good if the consumers benefiting are the ones who can't afford the prices being offered by the supermarkets." That is not the case.

When you look at farmers' markets generally, you find expensive, bespoke produce aimed at the affluent who have the wherewithal to afford to indulge themselves in this way. They convince themselves that shopping there they are doing something to revolutionize the food supply chain. They aren't. It is a lifestyle statement.

The fact is, he's right. The prices in our local farmers markets are way higher than the supermarkets. We can't afford them anymore. Five years ago when we started going to them, you couldn't get decent vegetables in the supermarket, but they're not stupid, and now they all have much bigger vegetable sections and big signs over the local stuff. Smart stores specialize in it. Organizations like Local Food Plus make supporting your local farmer a whole lot easier than it used to be.

I have always made the case that It's a temporary distribution and infrastructure problem, and have written that "as we transition away from shipping food around the globe and into producing and eating more local, in-season foods, that infrastructure will have to expand and evolve to serve a larger population."

Rayner puts paid to that. "Think about pork for a moment (as I often do)." He compares the numbers of happy pigs that might be sold in farmers markets to the number of them slaughtered by a single major supermarket. "a farmers' market sector ten times its current size is still just a piglet's lame squeak."

Then it's back to food miles. "look, I never said this was simple. It's anything but. Just as food miles made everything too simple, the end of food miles makes everything very complicated."

Rayner acknowledges that depending on New Zealand for our meat could be trouble when the Chinese and the Indians suck up all the surplus food that the Kiwis can grow. He understands that local food is good for rural economies, that connecting with where are food comes from has to be a good thing. Then he reverts to form:

If you get caught in the corner of the supermarket by some goggle-eyed food warrior examining the contents of your basket for signs of food-mile transgression you can tell them that I said they should sod off.

Certainly quotable. But in the end, he really isn't that far off from Kelly or Sami (who gave his take on the issue in Food miles are a distraction. Local food is not.

He actually does support buying food grown in your own country. "It's not about patriotism, it's about cash: buying what the farmers produce helps them to invest. The more they can invest, the more sustainable a model they can reach for." In the end, between the very funny writing, the best use of parentheses ever (they are books within a book), there is, um, real meat. Rayner isn't a professional contrarian like Pierre Desrochers, but a thoughtful, sometimes conflicted food writer trying to make sense of a complicated situation, and convey both sides of the story. It is a fast, funny, informative read that hasn't changed the way I think about food, but is certainly making me think twice.

Jay Rayner concludes:

It's time we had a close look at all of the assumptions we have been fed about the world of food. We need to stop reacting emotionally, and start thinking realistically. We need to read the numbers, understand the maths, focus on the science.

I am not sure Rayner really believes that; he's a restaurant reviewer and food critic, and knows that food is emotional, sensual and personal. We really are what we eat. Bucky Fuller focused on the science, the maths and the numbers, and ate steak three meals a day.

In the meantime, I will enjoy the first fresh Ontario peas of the season with dinner, a taste I haven't known in eight months. They will be glorious.

A Greedy Man in a Hungry World is not available in print in the USA yet, but was just released in Canada and I bought the downloadable version from iBooks. Kindle and Kobo also sell it.

Tags: Food Miles | Food Security | Local Food | London