Sunday 5 May 2013

Felicity Lawrence, Not On The Label

Felicity Lawrence, Not On The Label

'Tell me what's on your plate and I'll tell you who you are'.

Judging from our collective plate these days, we are a bunch of bland, gullible, self-destructive individuals with a sadistic streak. 

Bland, because the quest for endless shelf life has rid our food of any taste.  Gullible, because we allow advertisers to persuade us to buy the junk they're selling.  Why self-destructive?  Just check out health statistics when it comes to diet-related ailments.  And 'sadistic' refers to our treatment of people working at the far end of the food chain.  Those who actually produce the stuff that ends up on our plates... 

Felicity Lawrence's Not On The Label is a superb piece of investigative journalism.  Her muckraking exposes numerous shortcomings of our food supply system.  The victims are introduced, the villains named, the solutions suggested. 

Many books have been written about modern food industry.  As I see it, you can go around such an investigation in two ways.  You can speak to the big business, or to its victims.  The first approach may be more impressive, with big names gracing the pages of the book (and probably better dinners served to the investigator).  The resulting account will probably be very coherent and smooth.  After all, the PR people are paid to tell you nice stories.  'We are trying very hard to find solutions and please customers'.  'It's all about efficiency in bringing you the best'.  'Any incidents in our noble quest are unfortunate, but unavoidable'.  That sort of stuff...

Or you can talk to the victims and get a completely different picture, as Lawrence proves.  She interviews a whole range of people on the less lucky end of food supply chain.  Suppliers terrorised by supermarket buyers.  Farmers forced to sell their produce below cost or go out of business.  Migrant workers living in inhuman conditions.  People from environmentally devastated areas, sacrificed on the altar of unsustainable efficiency.  The picture emerging is not funny. 

Did I forget something?  Oh yes, pesticide residues.  Funky additives to processed foods.  Air miles and carbon emissions.  Food deserts.  Plant and animal diseases spread by industrial cultivation.  Excessive (and polluting!) packaging.  Inequality between developed and developing countries.  Food adulteration (you thought horse in your beef steak is so unusual?  Think again).  Good food going to waste for business reasons. 

To summarise, Not On The Label is one angry book.  So it should be. 

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