BIG Food is widely regarded as the polar opposite of good food. Big food companies, we are told by campaigners and celebrity chefs, produce poor quality, waistline-busting, environment-wrecking, small-farmer-bankrupting products. The supermarkets allegedly destroy communities to sell rubbish to zombified shoppers. Industrial agriculture gives us nutrient-lite, flavourless, chemical-soaked food produced in a shockingly wasteful manner. Fast-food restaurants produce bland, homogenised, artery-clogging, street-littering meals.
These ideas get repeated so often that even among people who are generally in favour of the free market and big business they have a certain purchase. But I think this litany of misery bears little relationship to reality.
If we rolled back 100 years, we would see a very different picture. Around 11 per cent of the UK workforce was in agriculture. Machinery was limited, artificial fertilisers were non-existent, pesticides were primitive. Everything was organic back then. It was also a lot more expensive and a lot less efficient in its use of both land and labour. Food was locally produced for the most part, too. Such developments as modern refrigeration, rapid transport and sophisticated logistics were still a long way off.
When the food arrived in town, it had to be bought by housewives going into one shop at a time – the butcher, the baker and the greengrocer – an almost daily chore. Food couldn’t be stored all that well at home, so it needed to be cooked pretty much immediately, although poorer households’ cooking facilities often amounted to an overworked frying pan on a feeble stove. Many people lived on a dull diet of bread and potatoes which wiped out a sizeable chunk of their incomes.
If a committee had sat down back then to work out some kind of idealised food system for the future, what would they have envisaged? First and foremost, they would have wanted a plentiful supply of food that wasn’t constantly at the mercy of the next bad harvest. They would have wanted that food to be nutritious and substantially cheaper, so that families could spend their money on more interesting things instead. That said, wouldn’t it be great if new foods could be brought in from around the world, to get away from the same old meat-and-three-veg?
The women would surely have demanded an end to the hassle of their daily shop and the grind of dragging heavy bags of shopping home. And how about getting rid of the need to cook every day or at least make the process of cooking more convenient?
Without central planning, we got the lot. Food shortages in the UK are unheard of. Where food took up around 30 per cent of household incomes even in the mid-1930s, in recent years it has fallen to around 10 per cent. Food-related deficiency disease is also a thing of the past. Government surveys find that the average family gets plenty of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. In fact, if there is any cause for concern, it is about people eating too much, not too little.
The daily shop is gone, replaced by a once-weekly drive to the supermarket or, better still, a van rolling up outside your home to deliver your selections made from the comfort of a computer keyboard. Bored of cooking? The microwave oven makes the process almost instant, or you can pick up a phone and get a piping-hot dinner delivered to your door. Now when we cook, it is as much a hobby or a form of entertainment as a necessity.
Yet foodies, health campaigners and eco-warriors have found a whole new bunch of things to complain about. They would have us return to a past where what you ate was determined by the time of year, the area you happened to live in or the pennies in your pocket; a time when the next meal could never be guaranteed and where millions of people worked in back-breaking jobs to keep us all fed. All of that would be better, they would argue, than our fossil-fuelled cornucopia. I know which one I prefer.
This doesn’t mean that the big supermarkets, food manufacturers and agricultural chemical makers are all driven by a vocation to make the world a better place. They’re not, by and large; their over-riding concern is profit, which is why they’ve given us, their customers, everything we would have asked for.
All you need is a bit of historical perspective to realise that, for all its faults, our current food system still provides us with better food, of higher quality, in wider range, with greater convenience and at lower prices than we could have dared to hope for a century ago. We should count our blessings.
Rob Lyons is the author of Panic on a Plate, published by Imprint Academic. He is speaking in the debate Is Big Business Ruining Food? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art on Saturday 29 October, which is sponsored by City A.M. www.battleofideas.org.uk
Food took up around 30% of household budgets in the 1930s; it is only 10% today.
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