Fast Food: Saver of the Planet or Humanity’s Destruction?
On 17 June, I spoke at the first of a series of events hosted by the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane, London, and Yelp. Here are my opening remarks.
In the spirit of the topic, rather than give a long, three-course speech, I’m gonna try to make nine bite-sized points.
Count your blessings, we’re the luckiest generation ever
The single most pressing task for human beings throughout history has been to obtain food. Society was completely organised around this task for millennia. Now we’ve reached the point where just a tiny proportion of society works in agriculture, liberating the rest of us to do something more interesting instead. Moreover, the growth of world trade means we have a greater variety of food available to us than ever before. Being able to buy good cheese, wine, spices, and other ingredients has been possible for the well-off in London for a long time. What’s relatively new is that ordinary working-class people in, say, a small provincial town can now buy those things - and we can thank the much maligned supermarkets for that. All those celebrity chefs who bang on about eating fresh, seasonal, local produce can only, in reality, write those recipes and flog all those books because we are not restricted to seasonal or local anymore.
Convenience matters - it has liberated women
When I was growing up in the Seventies, shopping for my mother was a daily chore of going from one shop to another and queuing up each time to buy what she needed. There was little alternative to cooking from scratch every single day. Now, all that food can be bought in one go every week. We can choose to cook from scratch, or we can eat convenience food, or order a takeaway or eat out. We have much more flexibility. No one forces us to eat fast food, but it’s very nice to have the option. And all that means that there is no need to organise family life around a breadwinner and a housewife.
The food system is not killing the planet - it’s efficiency is our saviour
Feeding seven billion people is a real challenge, but a smaller and smaller proportion of the world’s people are chronically underfed. That’s a long way from the hundreds of millions who, some said, would be starving to death by now. Being able to produce food on an enormous scale, with huge amounts of mechanisation, and growing food in countries and climates that most suit that particular type of food and then trading, reduces the impact on the environment. It makes more sense to grow tomatoes in Spain and ship them here than to grow them in polytunnels in Britain, even when you take into account transport. NZ lamb is cheaper than Welsh lamb, even though it is shipped halfway round the world, and has a lower environmental cost, too because grass-fed sheep in good weather need very little additional feed. Using artificial fertilisers save us from having to scavenge natural fertilisers like the Victorians did by importing guano. Modern pesticides can be more specific and used in smaller quantities than those used in the past and mean that less food is wasted. The biggest areas of food waste globally are in places where storage and transport are poor, so huge quantities are lost before the food ever makes it to market.
Organic farming makes absolutely no sense
Organic farming is simply a backward way of looking at food production, as if we had somehow got it all right 80 years ago and all the benefits of modern chemicals should be ignored. It is also wasteful of land. You either need to leave a field fallow while you grow a fertilising crop like clover or you need to shift fertility in the form of manure from fields of animals eating grass. Either way, space must be set aside for the production of fertiliser. Modern farming means we don’t have to tear up every available hectare to produce enough food - we can allow more land to be used for something else, including allowing it ‘re-wild’ if we choose. If organic worked, there would never have been any demand for artificial fertliser and chemicals.
Eating locally produced food doesn’t make sense, either.
Buying local means limiting yourself to whatever can be produced in your own area. It’s weird hearing foodies - who are supposedly interested in the aesthetic experience of eating - demanding more local production when what can be grown is often so limited. And, as I’ve noted, producing locally can often be worse for the environment than buying on the world market. Why should I be tied to what can be produced at a specific time of year in the place I happen to live? And what does local even mean? One could say that local means British - but Scotland is quite a lot further from London than the Netherlands. If you want a banana, how the hell do you buy local? The issue becomes even starker when we think about a huge city like London. To feed the population of London would require defining ‘local’ as not very local at all - and actually, as many environmentalists have pointed out, living in a city is lot more environmentally friendly than living in the countryside.
There’s no such thing as junk food
There’s a common assumption that anything that comes out of a fast-food chain is devoid of nutrition - but that’s nonsense. Take the symbol of fast-food, the Big Mac meal. It’s a hot beef sandwich with cheese and a side order of fried potatoes. That’s plenty of calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. Even a regular portion of fries will give you a quarter to a third of your vitamin C for the day. An apple, on the other hand, is just sugary water wrapped up in a fibrous skin with surprisingly little in the way of vitamins. So which is the junk food?
Your food is not killing you
One of the reasons I wrote my book is that there just seems to be an endless stream of panics about food. From mad cow disease in the Nineties through to the War on Sugar being waged by some today, there is an assumption that food could kill us - and that industrially produced food is the biggest culprit. Ironically, the worst food-poisoning outbreak in recent years, an outbreak of E.Coli O157 which killed 50 people mostly in Germany, was eventually traced to organically produced beansprouts. Whatever we eat today, we are very likely to live longer and healthier lives than people in earlier generations.
However, worrying about health or the environment is ruining food
If your food choices end up being driven by fear of what a particular kind of food could do to you, rather than what you actually want to eat, you could end up living a miserable life munching rabbit food instead of tapping into your inner bon viveur. Even if you decide you will eat what you want, it’s harder to enjoy a full English breakfast with its alternative name - heart attack on a plate - in the back of your mind. You could end feeling dreadful about wanting nice food and beat yourself up for being weak by indulging your pleasures. Again, this is particularly true for women who feel under great pressure to conform to some stereotyped body shape.
Fears about food are driven by prejudices about mass production
There has always been a snooty view in some quarters that anything that is mass produced must be inferior. To eat the right food is therefore a way of revealing your good taste, that you are thinking and caring individual, not a member of hoi polloi. When explicitly attacking someone for their class background is very out of fashion today, criticising their consumption - particularly of food - becomes a coded way of asserting class differences. One way this is deployed is in the term ‘real food’. Mass-produced food is not ‘real’, not authentic; it is fake and toxic. In fact, the real ‘fake food’ is to be seen in farmers’ markets and posh stores; it is not there to provide sustenance, but oral entertainment or conspicuous consumption. Food is found in supermarkets and fast-food joints, by and large. Everything else is just entertainment.Fast Food: Saver of the Planet or Humanity's Destruction?, Yelp