Staple diet of inequity and hypocrisy

The Atlas of Food

October 31, 2003

Jules Pretty finds so-called advances in food production hard to stomach.

We live in extraordinary times. Despite enormous progress in agricultural productivity in the past half century, both in industrialised and developing countries, there still remain some 800 million people hungry in this world. Not only is this a disgraceful reminder of deep failings to prioritise the importance of access to decent amounts and qualities of food, it has recently been joined by another food problem, this time created by people who eat too much. Obesity now costs countries in Europe and North America more than the side-effects of smoking, and within this decade will come to affect more people worldwide than those who are starving.

How did we come to this? For some 300,000 generations, humans were hunter-gatherers, living out our daily lives close to the land. About 600 generations ago, agriculture was invented in five or six locations, since when the production and consumption of food has mostly been intimately connected to cultural and social systems. Yet over just the past two or three generations, we have developed hugely successful agricultural systems based on industrial principles.

They certainly produce more food per hectare and per worker than ever before, but look so efficient only if we ignore the harmful side-effects - the loss of soils, the damage to biodiversity, the pollution of water and the harm to human health.

Modern food systems have clearly brought many benefits. Most of us appreciate the ease of shopping in supermarkets, which typically contain several thousand lines of foodstuffs. In our homes, we have more time, too, as today the average family spends six-and-a-half minutes on preparing the evening meal - down considerably from the two-and-a-half hours of 50 years ago. This convenience brings many benefits, especially to women, who do most of the food shopping and meal preparation.

At the same time, though, most of us know something is not quite right with the world's food systems, even if we cannot quite put a finger on the specific problems and potential solutions. This is why Erik Millstone and Tim Lang do a great service with their imaginative The Atlas of Food . They rightly point out that "the world of food is a mixture of sobering and energizing insights into humanity's relationship with the natural world".

They also indicate the fundamental reasons for persistent problems - failings in national and international policies and institutions. We do have the means to produce food in ecologically sound ways. We can choose foods that keep us well rather than sending us to an early grave. We know that poverty can be solved with sufficient political will. And yet we seem to pretend that these problems are part of an unchanging fabric, meaning that "some eat, some starve; some toil, others consume; some profit, others pay; some live, some die". Appreciating that it does not have to be thus is halfway to a solution.

The Atlas of Food , part of a series of similar atlases produced by Earthscan, provides a unique and easily accessible insight into the way our world food system works. The authors divide the book into four sections with compelling graphics, and a fifth with tables covering recent data on land use and food consumption.

The first section addresses the contemporary challenges - feeding the world, population changes, water pressure, undernutrition, overnutrition and food aid. The second contains 13 topics from mechanisation to animal-feed flows, and fishing to agricultural biodiversity. The third points to the key trade issues that define so much for developing countries, and their lack of access to markets in industrialised countries, combined with the persistent undermining of their domestic farms with subsidised exports from North America and Europe. Fair trade is still in a tiny minority, despite many good efforts to increase market share and returns to small farmers.

The final section deals with processing, retailing and consumption - the staples we eat, the processing giants and the rapidly centralising food chain, changing diets, and how these link to retail power and advertising, and the emergence of organic and fast foods.

The Atlas of Food is a welcome contribution to many vitally important concerns. It should be necessary reading for many undergraduates and postgraduates, as well as for the interested general public. Maybe, too, a politician or international opinionformer or two will take up the challenge to encourage reform - though many of us will not be holding our breaths.

Nonetheless, this splendid presentation of deeply worrying data and trends should be a wake-up call. We do, after all, eat every day, and our choices of food mean choices of farm systems at the other end of the food chain.

Eating is the most political act we engage in on a daily basis. This book shows that it is time to take individual and collective responsibility for eating - this commonly perceived, most routine of acts.

Jules Pretty is professor of environment and society, University of Essex.

The Atlas of Food: Who Eats What, Where and Why

Author - Erik Millstone and Tim Lang
Publisher - Earthscan
Pages - 101
Price - £11.99
ISBN - 1 85383 965 5

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